John Dewey “Experience and Nature”: The Analysis
The objective of this paper is to analyze John Dewey’s fundamental philosophical study “Experience and Nature” for the purpose of assessing the author’s claim that modern views of the relationship between individual personhood and society prioritize the significance of the individuality in shaping society in a way that ancient views did not. The first part of the paper will deal with Dewey’s characterization of ancient notions of society, particularly his assertion that in the ancient world the social order was authoritative over the lived of individuals. The following part will focus on the author’s claim that the modern period reoriented the relative priority of individual persons and involved an alteration in valuing the distinctiveness of individual members of society. The third portion of the paper will center around the role that Dewey gives to experience in the picture of a preconceived relationship between individual and society. In the last portion I will attempt to determine the accuracy of Dewey’s understanding of the shift from ancient to modern conceptions of the relationship between individuals and their societies.
According to Dewey, classic and modern philosophies have pursued opposite paths with regard to the nature of the individual and their place within society as its integral part, as well as an independent element of the reality. He postulates that, for example, in Greek understanding love of perfection, or self-completion, was attributed to Being (Dewey 208) as an entity larger than any individual person, which encompassed a significant quantity of individuals and unified them into a uniform organism. The philosophers of antiquity believed that mankind as species was more truly an individual than any particular man. The society, in accordance with Dewey’s comprehension of ancient notions, was regarded as more lasting, important, and real than any of its individual members; it bestowed the appropriate standing and character upon human beings as its constituents, therefore making those outside of the society pariahs and outcasts (Dewey 209). Life, knowledge, experience, wisdom were believed to belong not to individuals, but to the society and family, whereas particular creatures were only elements of a consolidated and integrated whole.
What modern thinkers elevate as individual, for ancient philosophers was a mere defect, which is the source of ignorance, opinion, and error (Dewey 210). The individual’s part was to be solely a member of a group-whole, and as such his possibilities and chances for any progress or fulfillment were all but exhausted. His personal value was measured by the degree to which he became an instrument in the functioning of the society as a group-whole, for he was a subject for internalization and adoption of societal traditions and customs from the moment of his birth. Therefore, any personal beliefs and ingenuity were considered a deflection, signs of the attitude of disloyalty and an oddity, which posed danger to the group-whole (Dewey 211).
On the other hand, modern perception of individual’s place within the society offers a drastically different interpretation. Dewey maintains that an individual is no longer just a particular, an insignificant detail of the communal being, a small part without meaning save in an inclusive whole. On the contrary, in conformity with modern notions he is a subject self, a distinctive center of desire, thinking, analyzing, perceiving and aspiration (Dewey 216). Now individualism is believed to be a means of emancipation, of liberation, of gaining maturity; a way of asserting that every human being is an end in himself, whether he belongs to the society or not. Modern outlook, as stated by Dewey, claims that an individual is an object of transfer of honorific predicates previously belonging exclusively for the society as a whole. Therefore, an individual is granted a position of influence and power within the society and given an opportunity to impact its development and evolution for his own benefit.
Simultaneously, Dewey argues that modern views reflect on the need of individual to be a part of society, for sociability and communication are just as outright characteristics of any specific individual as is the privacy of his own consciousness and the comprehension of self (Dewey 244). Thus we are presented with the ultimate duality and mutual complementation of the universal and individual. Modern notion is unambiguous on this: there is no possibility for an individual to establish his private and subjective self without the acknowledgment and appreciation from the society (Dewey 244). Hence the logical outcome of this being the fact that while a modern individual has remarkably more power to influence the society than previously, he is still dependent on the society to afford him the appraisal he craves.
Dewey offers his own unique evaluation of the role that experience plays in the evolution of the perception of an individual in relation to the society. The author believes that an implication that experience by its very nature is owned by someone is preposterous. He also ridicules the view that the ownership is such in nature that everything about experience is affected by a private and exclusive quality granted to it by the individual (Dewey 231).
Afterwards Dewey draws an apt comparison between experience and someone’s house: he believes that it would be absurd to conclude from the fact that someone owns said house that possessive reference pervades the properties of being an actual house that nothing coherent can be said about the house itself, apart from it belonging to someone. He believes the same to be relevant when it comes to the question of a person’s experience. Experience when it occurs has the same dependence upon objective natural events, both physical and social, according to Dewey. It has its own unbiased and indisputable attributes, which can be described without any connection to a self, like a house, regardless of whom it might belong to (Dewey 232). The author is firm in his notion that experience is a sequence of events with their own distinctive characteristics and traits, therefore cannot be attributed to an individual, but rather to the society as a whole, considering that individual is not able to transform these specific properties.
On the other hand, he also differentiates two separate facets of experience, which are created by virtue of the development of the conception of experiencing as a distinctive operation. One side of this concept exists within the sense of things that are experienced: they are what they are, therefore unchangeable irrespective of an individual’s perception. The other side pertains to their occurrence as experienced things, which is determined to be dependent upon individual attitudes and dispositions. The manner of their happening is found to be influenced by the practices and perception of a particular individual (Dewey 236). In his study Dewey manages to cover both sides of experience as concept, pertinent both to an individual person as a peculiar occurrence, and to the society as an objective truth.
Based on John Dewey’s “Experience and Nature”, I have been able to draw several conclusions, which are applicable to his views concerning the perception of an individual within the framework of ancient scientific discourse, as well as the modern one, and the place of experience as the concept related to both the society and individual.
Firstly, my own understanding of relationship between an individual and the society as argued by ancient philosophers correlates with Dewey’s. Based on ancient views, an individual, his wishes, ambitions, passions and creativity were considered secondary to those of the society as a Being. Therefore anything of the individual nature was believed to be a dangerous deviation and a threat to the societal organism. The changes in such perception came about gradually, facilitated by the historical progress and the evolution of philosophical thought. Presently, an individual is believed to be the driving force behind the social advancement, and personal creativity is valued and cherished.
Secondly, I am inclined to conclude that experience is in fact much more of a personal attribute, than a societal one. Each person experiences events and happenings differently, therefore depriving the concept of experience of its objective value and granting it a subjective one. Hence, I would prefer to humbly disagree with John Dewey’s notion of experience as something impersonal and unchangeable.
Dewey, John. Experience and Nature. London: George Allen & Unwin, LTD, 1929. Print.