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Naturalism and Meaning (after John Dewey) 13 July 2006

Posted by Todd in American Pragmatism, Cognitive Science, Cultural Sociology & Anthropology, Philosophy & Social Theory.

[Apologies to all who tried to read this the other day. I’m having problems working out how to password things, but still have an initial paragraph opener. It’s not as important for this post, so I’m going to go ahead and put it up. I suppose I’ll need to take off my training wheels and move to the grown-up version of WordPress.]

Among my personal hobby horses is a reconception of social theory — especially the social theory that deals with the production and circulation of culture — by taking account of cognition and evolution. My forthcoming book examines the way a particular community actually begot a culture in a particular time and place — gay men in 1960s San Francisco; the methodology implied by a naturalistic theory of the origins of culture have driven my study and now the writing of my results. Reading John Dewey’s Experience and Nature led me to naturalism in the first place, and I’m now revisiting Dewey’s ideas after spending a couple years reading in evolutionary theory and cognitive sciences to update his theory of culture. To the old man’s credit, Dewey’s theories have held up surprisingly well, given that more than 80 years have passed since the first edition of Experience and Nature came out. Dewey (and George Herbert Mead) were both working to understand the relationship of scientific studies of cognition (what today we would call cognitive psychology) and to blend together the role of the body with the role of the social context of the individual body’s development of mind (that is, consciousness or awareness and the ability to think).

For my own benefit as much as anyone’s, in what follows, I try to break down Dewey’s primary arguments about meaning:

Dewey argues that what human beings do with their language-communication is to move the merely phenomenological (what he calls the “immediate qualities of an event or object”) into the meaningful. “Where communication exists, things in acquiring meaning, thereby acuire representatives, surrogates, signs and implicates, which are infinitely more amenable to management…” (133). For Dewey, what cognition gives us (and by extension, cultural meaning systems) is the ability to take the merely immediate qualities of things, abstract them into our minds, manipulate them in communication (including “talking to ourselves”) and then enacting those meanings in reshaping the environment to create a new set of immediate qualities. This is, in a nutshell, Dewey’s instrumentalism. An object merely experienced in its immediate qualities remains purely phenomenological, and is not yet meaningful. Meaning is gained when immediate qualities are given representation, signs, and interactions; objects then gain “the dignity of an office,” that is, they become instrumental in that they are part of our meaningful world.

Dewey argues that classical philosophy misapprehended language by conflating the tool with which we create meanings with the meanings themselves. From Dewey’s observation, I would argue that this mistake is highly problematic social-scientifically, because it forecloses examination of the actual interactive processes of meaning-production; that is ideas become things-in-themselves with agency to act upon us. But in reality, ideas are tools generated by language which is itself a tool.
Dewey argued that mind emerges in a social process, where not even internal soliloquys are individual and purely created: they are by definition imbricated in the set of attitudes and engagements engaged in socially. For Dewey, meaning is the outcome of a complex and deep history, a “work of social art.” It is the consequence or effect of social interaction.

Modern philosophy (i.e., the Enlightenment) made other mistakes. Whereas one of the innovations of modern thinking is the realization that individuals can think creatively and critically, paving the way for modern science and democracy; it also made the mistake of missing the social and grounded source of meaning, that is, that meaning arises out of associated communication.

What makes human meaning production so powerful is that we possess what current cognitive scientists refer to as “theory of mind,” which is that we assume that other people also think and feel, and we impute intentions and desires onto their minds. This allows a level of communication and interaction far beyond what it is assumed animals are capable of. In human communication, we anticipate the consummation of consequences. So if Person A asks Person B to bring him the ball, Person A assumes that Person B understands, and Person B anticipates the consummation of the consequence of actually picking up the ball and retrieving it for person B. Meaning of “Bring” and “Ball” are then produced in partnership between Person A and B as they anticipate together the consummation of specific actions. [In this description, Dewey is echoing the theories of George H. Mead’s Mind, Self, Society.]

There are two levels of meaning. The first is a primary level, where there is a cooperative intent among communicants. Secondary meaning is the significance gained by the object of intent in the interaction of the communicants. Secondary meaning is intent and not actual consequence, because for example Person B may or may not actually retrieve the ball, so the ball gains meaning in the possible consequences, not the actual; that is, its meaning is in the possible consequences that can be effected by the individual communicants’ cooperative intent.

For Dewey, the philosophical category “Essence” has been misunderstood from the Greeks to the present, where it is misconstrued as “Existence” or Being. In reality, existence/being is the immediate qualities of events (objects), their phenomenological presence to human experience. But “essence” is its potential relationship to human intentions. The classic mistake in Western philosophy is to misapprehend essense (i.e., meaning) with existence (i.e., being, immediacy).

Thus, through human communication and association

Immediate Qualities [Existence] ==> Meaning [Essence] when an object becomes a means to an end [the object, then, is both its immediacy and its meaning, simultaneously]

Meaning <==> Potential Consequences (intentions) <==> Essence of Object where meaning, potentiality, and essence are all part of the same thing; but where they are incommensurable with existence, the objective being of a thing or event

From this Naturalistic understanding of meaning production, it seems to me that much of contemporary cultural theory–especially poststructural, linguistic, lit-crit, and queer theories–have mistaken meaning for existence. This is evident in its conclusions where there is no ‘outside’ [no immediate qualities] of meaning/language; where language determines experience; and where feelings and thoughts are all there is. These contemporary theories rightly point to the changing, uncertain, ever-moving meanings of language, but miss completely their embodied and experiential production, that communication takes place not between ideal language signs completely arbitrary, but among human beings who use a fluid and immanently adaptable tool, language, to render their environments intelligible and manageable.

Says Dewey, “Thus the essence, one, immutable and constitutive, which makes the thing what it is, emerges from the various meanings which vary with varying conditions and transitory intents.” That is, the meanings produced in interaction and communication are pliable and transitory and changing. Check. But “When essense [meaning] is then thought to contain existence [immediate qualities] as the perfect contains the imperfect, it is because a legitimate, practical measure of reality in terms of importance [language and meaning] is illegitimately altered [conflated with existence] into a theoretical measure” (144). Contemporary cultural theories are like traditional nominalism, which implied that “meaning and essence are adventitious and arbitrary” (145). But as Dewey insists, meaning is actually anchored in association, humans with humans, and humans with environment. Nominalism (and extreme cultural theories) regard the world as an “expression of a ready made, eexclusively individual, mental state.” For Dewey, it is absurd to conflate meaning [essence] with existence [immediate qualities], and you can understand the continually transforming meanings of things without making the leap that language is all there is.

Finally, for Dewey, meaning arises in community, where the Primary Meaning is the interaction of individuals in a group who share common intents based in their experience as a group, and where Secondary Meanings arise in the interaction of objects. Because existence is transitory, always in flux, organisms (i.e., humans) must fix it in a way so as to make it manageable and intelligible. Language is the tool whereby humans fix meanings into transitory objects so that they can manipulate and control their environment. These meanings (both first and second orders) are always “generic” or “universal,” not objectively, but practically. That is, meanings are understood to be generalizable which allows the flexibility to interpret things and events and to impute upon them potential consequences. Unfortunately, human communities tend to extend these generalized meangings beyond their applicability; once a meaning “works,” it is extended as far as it can possibly go. Dewey calls this irrational tendency to expand meanings as a fact; rationality can test the expansion of meanings through observation and experiment; informally, lived experience can “trip” us into checking out over-extended meanings.

Communal meanings have a proximate and an ultimate phase, where the proximate meaning is the the near-by consequences of interaction, and ultimate meaning is the way a meaning becomes instantiated in the society’s organization and movement. Scientists seek to ignore or put aside the ultimate meanings of things and see proximate meanings in natural interactions. For Dewey, it takes concerted and focused effort, through disciplined ordering and observation, to see that some meanings are those developed communally, and that they don’t correspond to the immediate qualities of things, but are the products of communal interaction. Another way to say this is that scientific thinking tries to absract away from the particular consequences (or potentialities) of a given event or object, to see more possible instrumentalities as they may exist in the immediate qualities of things. Thus, science and logic are, for Dewey, the systematization of the natural process of thinking, by employing the natural process of meaning-production in directed and systematic ways.

Meanings, then, are neither states of mind (psychic) nor physical (existence). But meanings do have both psychic and physical consequences. In other words, meanings are objective, even though they aren’t existence.

From Dewey’s proposition, I notice something important. Problematically, in social interaction, and in manipulating the social environment, human beings are themselves objects/events that must be made meaningful. Thus, humans themselves become instruments, or means, for other humans. These natural processes of meaning-production also occur in social organizations of inequality, so that some groups have the ability to assert and maintain their meanings over others. Dewey answers that systems of meaning (e.g., a corporation or the law) are essences that can be coercive and objective. As such, they can be empirically described and understood as the consequences of social interaction. These vast systems of meanings then cross-reference and combine and interact with each other, both in indivdiual thought and in associated communication. New and vast systems of knowledge are always emerging and changing. Meanings change or emerge as the observation of consequences (the experience of immediacy) pushes essences in new direcctions, and in turn, pushes the manipulation and management of the environment.

Dewey implies that communication as the source of meaning is itself a consummatory act. That is, the production of meaning is experientially an end-in-itself, an experience to be had. This consummation in communication is the core of community, where communicants share consummation. But the consummatory aspect of communication also means that it is a means of cooperation AND domination. Majority meanings dominate minority meanings and attempt to maintain their own consummatory experiences. (157)

Ultimately, for Dewey, communication is Instrumental and Final at the same time, in that it produces these consummations, which liberate us to manage our environment and allow us to share objects in community with other people. This ongoing, constant process is a continual transformation of the individual as he or she shares in the process of meaning-making.

Dewey concludes: “Here, as in so many other things, the great evil lies in separating instrumental an dfinal functions Intelligence is partial and specializzed, because communication an dparticipation are limited, sectarian, provincial, confined to class, party, professional group. By the same token, our enjoyment of ends is luxurious and corrupting for some; brutal, trivial, harsh for others; exclusion from the life of free and full communication excluding both alike from full possession of meanings of the things that enter experience” (159-60).

John Dewey, Experience and Nature [1929 (1925)] in John Dewey: The Later Works, 1925-1953, Vol. 1: 1925, ed. Jo Ann Boydston (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1988).



1. matt - 9 January 2009

i would like to cite this article. do you have a formal educational background?

2. Todd - 9 January 2009

Yes, I’m a professor at San Jose State University. I’m a sociologist specializing in social theory, sexuality, religion, and mass culture; I teach in the American Studies program. Please see the links at the top of the page to the “about me” page and to my Curriculum Vitae.

Depending on the citation style you’re using, you should follow this general pattern:

Writer’s Name. “Article Title” in _Blog Title_ (date of post), URL.

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