Dewey’s evolutionary non-cumulative, retrospective meliorism

Photo by Daniele Levis Pelusi on Unsplash

This is a slightly ordered collection of passages from The Good of Activity, Part Four, Section One, of John Dewey’s book Human Nature and Conduct. It was a revelation for me. I’d never seen such a sustained and evocative description of the kind of non-cumulative, retrospective meliorism that I am developing as part of my philosophy of Fruitionism. My comments are in square brackets ([]).

Dewey is one of the few philosophers to deeply understand, and clearly convey the ethical implications of biological evolution: The ethical import of the doctrine of evolution is enormous. But its import has been misconstrued because the doctrine has been appropriated by the very traditional notions which in truth it subverts.

My reason for posting this is simply to have a place to point people to get the gist of Dewey’s views on perpetually tragic, yet nonetheless inspiring, meliorism.

Conflict and problems are perpetual

«All action is an invasion of the future, of the unknown. Conflict and uncertainty are ultimate traits.

Such a morals would not automatically solve moral problems, nor resolve perplexities. But it would enable us to state problems in such forms that action could be courageously and intelligently directed to their solution. It would not assure us against failure, but it would render failure a source of instruction. It would not protect us against the future emergence of equally serious moral difficulties, but it would enable us to approach the always recurring troubles with a fund of growing knowledge which would add significant values to our conduct even when we overtly failed — as we should continue to do.»

[Moral problems will never get easier (“equally serious”). We shall continue to fail in equally tragic ways, but they will be novel failures (more complex failures).]

«In this period of redistribution impulse determines the direction of movement. It furnishes the focus about which reorganization swirls. Our attention in short is always directed forward to bring to notice something which is imminent but which as yet escapes us. Impulse defines the peering, the search, the inquiry. It is, in logical language, the movement into the unknown, not into the immense inane of the unknown at large, but into that special unknown which when it is hit upon restores an ordered, unified action. During this search, old habit supplies content, filling, definite, recognizable, subject-matter. It begins as vague presentiment of what we are going towards. As organized habits are definitely deployed and focused, the confused situation takes on form, it is “cleared up” — the essential function of intelligence. Processes become objects. Without habit there is only irritation and confused hesitation. With habit alone there is a machine-like repetition, a duplicating recurrence of old acts. With conflict of habits and release of impulse there is conscious search.»

[There is no single rational, logical direction of progress. Impulse changes the direction.]

Increase of meaning, etc.

«It is of grace not of ourselves that we lead civilized lives. There is sound sense in the old pagan notion that gratitude is the root of ah virtue. Loyalty to whatever in the established environment makes a life of excellence possible is the beginning of all progress. The best we can accomplish for posterity is to transmit unimpaired and with some increment of meaning the environment that makes it possible to maintain the habits of decent and refined life. Our individual habits are links in forming the endless chain of humanity. Their significance depends upon the environment inherited from our forerunners, and it is enhanced as we foresee the fruits of our labors in the world in which our successors live.

For however much has been done, there always remains more to do. We can retain and transmit our own heritage only by constant remaking of our own environment

[Progress as incremental improvement of what each of us values in our current environment. It is significant that Dewey says “remake”, not improve.]

Addressing current needs vs opening new possibilities

«The criticism rests upon a false separation. It argues in effect that either ideal standards antecede customs and confer their moral quality upon them, or that in being subsequent to custom and evolved from them, they are mere accidental by-products. But how does the case stand with language? Men did not intend language; they did not have social objects consciously in view when they began to talk, nor did they have grammatical and phonetic principles before them by which to regulate their efforts at communication. These things come after the fact and because of it. Language grew out of unintelligent babblings, instinctive motions called gestures, and the pressure of circumstance. But nevertheless language once called into existence is language and operates as language. It operates not to perpetuate the forces which produced it but to modify and redirect them. It has such transcendent importance that pains are taken with its use. Literatures are produced, and then a vast apparatus of grammar, rhetoric, dictionaries, literary criticism, reviews, essays, a derived literature ad lib. Education, schooling, becomes a necessity; literacy an end. In short language when it is produced meets old needs and opens new possibilities. It creates demands which take effect, and the effect is not confined to speech and literature, but extends to the common life in communication, counsel and instruction.»

[Language meets current needs/goals/ends and creates new needs/goals/ends. Resonates with Fruitionism.]

«What is said of the institution of language holds good of every institution. Family life, property, legal forms, churches and schools, academies of art and science did not originate to serve conscious ends nor was their generation regulated by consciousness of principles of reason and right. Yet each institution has brought with its development demands, expectations, rules, standards. These are not mere embellishments of the forces which produced them, idle decorations of the scene. They are additional forces. They reconstruct. They open new avenues of endeavor and impose new labors. In short they are civilization, culture, morality.»

[All institutions reconstruct. All create new needs/goals/ends and corresponding responsibilities and labors. Resonates with Fruitionism.]

«It can hardly be denied that as compared with the dogmas against which it reacted there is an element of truth in Epicureanism. It strove to center attention upon what is actually within control and to find the good in the present instead of in a contingent uncertain future. The trouble with it lies in its account of present good. It failed to connect this good with the full reach of activities. It contemplated good of withdrawal rather than of active participation. That is to say, the objection to Epicureanism lies in its conception of what constitutes present good, not in its emphasis upon satisfaction as at present. The same remark may be made about every theory which recognizes the individual self. If any such theory is objectionable, the objection is against the character or quality assigned to the self. Of course an individual is the bearer or carrier of experience. What of that? Everything depends upon the kind of experience that centers in him. Not the residence of experience counts, but its contents, what’s in the house. The center is not in the abstract amenable to our control, but what gathers about it is our affair. We can’t help being individual selves, each one of us. If selfhood as such is a bad thing, the blame lies not with the self but with the universe, with providence. But in fact the distinction between a selfishness with which we find fault and an unselfishness which we esteem is found in the quality of the activities which proceed from and enter into the self, according as they are contractive, exclusive, or expansive, outreaching. Meaning exists for some self, but this truistic fact doesn’t fix the quality of any particular meaning. It may be such as to make the self small, or such as to exalt and dignify the self. It is as impertinent to decry the worth of experience because it is connected with a self as it is fantastic to idealize personality just as personality aside from the question what sort of a person one is.»

[Good is relative to the present situation and the given self or culture. There is no abstract, overarching, timeless, pan-cultural concept of good. The only “universal” measure of good is the distinction between “contractive, exclusive, or expansive, outreaching”; “such as to make the self small, or such as to exalt and dignify the self”. Resonates with Fruitionism.]

«Other persons are selves too. If one’s own present experience is to be depreciated in its meaning because it centers in a self, why act for the welfare of others? Selfishness for selfishness, one is as good as another; our own is worth as much as another’s. But the recognition that good is always found in a present growth of significance in activity protects us from thinking that welfare can consist in a soup-kitchen happiness, in pleasures we can confer upon others from without. It shows that good is the same in quality wherever it is found, whether in some other self or in one’s own. An activity has meaning in the degree in which it establishes and acknowledges variety and intimacy of connections. As long as any social impulse endures, so long an activity that shuts itself off will bring inward dissatisfaction and entail a struggle for compensatory goods, no matter what pleasures or external successes acclaim its course.»

[“Good is always found in a present growth of significance in activity”. “An activity has meaning in the degree in which it establishes and acknowledges variety and intimacy of connections”. Growth of variety and intimacy of relations. Resonates with Fruitionism.]

«To say that the welfare of others, like our own, consists in a widening and deepening of the perceptions that give activity its meaning, in an educative growth, is to set forth a proposition of political import. To “make others happy” except through liberating their powers and engaging them in activities that enlarge the meaning of life is to harm them and to indulge ourselves under cover of exercising a special virtue. Our moral measure for estimating any existing arrangement or any proposed reform is its effect upon impulse and habits. Does it liberate or suppress, ossify or render flexible, divide or unify interest? Is perception quickened or dulled? Is memory made apt and extensive or narrow and diffusely irrelevant? Is imagination diverted to fantasy and compensatory dreams, or does it add fertility to life? Is thought creative or pushed one side into pedantic specialisms? There is a sense in which to set up social welfare as an end of action only promotes an offensive condescension, a harsh interference, or an oleaginous display of complacent kindliness. It always tends in this direction when it is aimed at giving happiness to others directly, that is, as we can hand a physical thing to another. To foster conditions that widen the horizon of others and give them command of their own powers, so that they can find their own happiness in their own fashion, is the way of “ social ” action. Otherwise the prayer of a freeman would be to be left alone, and to be delivered, above all, from “reformers” and “kind” people.»

[“Welfare…consists in a widening and deepening of the perceptions that give activity its meaning”. We “make others happy” only “through liberating their powers and engaging them in activities that enlarge the meaning of life”. “Does it liberate or suppress, ossify or render flexible, divide or unify interest? Is perception quickened or dulled? Is memory made apt and extensive or narrow and diffusely irrelevant? Is imagination diverted to fantasy and compensatory dreams, or does it add fertility to life? Is thought creative or pushed one side into pedantic specialisms?” All of the strongly resonates with Fruitionism.]

Arguments against ultimate goals:

«In Aristotle this conception of an end which exhausts all realization and excludes all potentiality appears as a definition of the highest excellence. It of necessity excludes all want and struggle and all dependencies. It is neither practical nor social. Nothing is left but a self-revolving, self-sufficing thought engaged in contemplating its own sufficiency. Some forms of Oriental morals have united this logic with a profounder psychology, and have seen that the final terminus on this road is Nirvana, an obliteration of all thought and desire. In medieval science, the ideal reappeared as a definition of heavenly bliss — accessible only to a redeemed immortal soul. Herbert Spencer is far enough away from Aristotle, medieval Christianity and Buddhism; but the idea re-emerges in his conception of a goal of evolution in which adaptation of organism to environment is complete and final. In popular thought, the conception lives in the vague thought of a remote state of attainment in which we shall be beyond “temptation,” and in which virtue by its own inertia will persist as a triumphant consummation. Even Kant who begins with a complete scorn for happiness ends with an “ideal” of the eternal and undisturbed union of virtue and joy, though in his case nothing but a symbolic approximation is admitted to be feasible.

The fallacy in these versions of the same idea is perhaps the most pervasive of all fallacies in philosophy. So common is it that one questions whether it might not be called the philosophical fallacy.»

[The fallacy of positing ultimate goals is the philosophical fallacy.]

«When we observe that morals is at home wherever considerations of the worse and better are involved, we are committed to noting that morality is a continuing process not a fixed achievement. Morals means growth of conduct in meaning; at least it means that kind of expansion in meaning which is consequent upon observations of the conditions and outcome of conduct. It is all one with growing. Growing and growth are the same fact expanded in actuality or telescoped in thought. In the largest sense of the word, morals is education. It is learning the meaning of what we are about and employing that meaning in action. The good, satisfaction, “end,” of growth of present action in shades and scope of meaning is the only good within our control, and the only one, accordingly, for which responsibility exists. The rest is luck, fortune. And the tragedy of the moral notions most insisted upon by the morally self-conscious is the relegation of the only good which can fully engage thought, namely present meaning of action, to the rank of an incident of a remote good, whether that future good be defined as pleasure, or perfection, or salvation, or attainment of virtuous character.

[“Morals means growth of conduct in meaning; at least it means that kind of expansion in meaning which is consequent upon observations of the conditions and outcome of conduct”. “Growth of conduct in meaning” is a pretty ambiguous term without context. ‘The good, satisfaction, “end,” of growth of present action in shades and scope of meaning is the only good within our control’. “Growth in shades and scope of meaning” helps clarify a bit. Clearly growth of meaning means both increasing diversity of what is considered meaningful as well as more of the world being viewed as meaningful.]

“Present” activity is not a sharp narrow knife-blade in time. The present is complex, containing within itself a multitude of habits and impulses. It is enduring, a course of action, a process including memory, observation and foresight, a pressure forward, a glance backward and a look outward. It is of moral moment because it marks a transition in the direction of breadth and clarity of action or in that of triviality and confusion. Progress is present reconstruction adding fullness and distinctness of meaning, and retrogression is a present slipping away of significance, determinations, grasp. Those who hold that progress can be perceived and measured only by reference to a remote goal, first confuse meaning with space, and then treat spatial position as absolute, as limiting movement instead of being bounded in and by movement. There are plenty of negative elements, due to conflict, entanglement and obscurity, in most of the situations of life, and we do not require a revelation of some supreme perfection to inform us whether or no we are making headway in present rectification. We move on from the worse and into, not just towards, the better, which is authenticated not by comparison with the foreign but in what is indigenous. Unless progress is a present reconstructing, it is nothing; if it cannot be told by qualities belonging to the movement of transition it can never be judged.»

[“It is of moral moment because it marks a transition in the direction of breadth and clarity of action or in that of triviality and confusion. Progress is present reconstruction adding fullness and distinctness of meaning”. A growth in the kinds of actions we can take, and again, growth in scope and shade of meaning. Resonates with Fruitionism.]

«Men have constructed a strange dream-world when they have supposed that without a fixed ideal of a remote good to inspire them, they have no inducement to get relief from present troubles, no desires for liberation from what oppresses and for clearing-up what confuses present action. The world in which we could get enlightenment and instruction about the direction in which we are moving only from a vague conception of an unattainable perfection would be totally unlike our present world. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof. Sufficient it is to stimulate us to remedial action, to endeavor in order to convert strife into harmony, monotony into a variegated scene, and limitation into expansion. The converting is progress, the only progress conceivable or attainable by man. Hence every situation has its own measure and quality of progress, and the need for progress is recurrent, constant. If it is better to travel than to arrive, it is because traveling is a constant arriving, while arrival that precludes further traveling is most easily attained by going to sleep or dying. We find our clews to direction in the projected recollections of definite experienced goods not in vague anticipations, even when we label the vagueness perfection, the Ideal, and proceed to manipulate its definition with dry dialectic logic. Progress means increase of present meaning, which involves multiplication of sensed distinctions as well as harmony, unification. This statement may, perhaps, be made generally, in application to the experience of humanity. If history shows progress it can hardly be found elsewhere than in this complication and extension of the significance found within experience. It is clear that such progress brings no surcease, no immunity from perplexity and trouble. If we wished to transmute this generalization into a categorical imperative we should say: So act as to increase the meaning of present experience.” But even then in order to get instruction about the concrete quality of such increased meaning we should have to run away from the law and study the needs and alternative possibilities lying within a unique and localized situation. The imperative, like everything absolute, is sterile. Till men give up the search for a general formula of progress they will not know where to look to find it.»

[“The converting is progress, the only progress conceivable or attainable by man”. This is of central importance. It is Dewey’s description of progess. “The converting” refers to “to endeavor in order to convert strife into harmony, monotony into a variegated scene, and limitation into expansion”. Note that converting strife into harmony is a kind of limitation. So progress both limits and expands. This is the essence of Fruitionism’s hourglass: harmonize/limit at the waist in order to open up a more expansive and diverse “scene”. Of course, this expansion entails the generation of novel forms of strife. All of this deeply resonates with Fruitionism.]

«A business man proceeds by comparing today’s liabilities and assets with yesterday’s, and projects plans for tomorrow by a study of the movement thus indicated in conjunction with study of the conditions of the environment now existing. It is not otherwise with the business of living. The future is a projection of the subject-matter of the present, a projection which is not arbitrary in the extent in which it divines the movement of the moving present. The physician is lost who would guide his activities of healing by building up a picture of perfect health, the same for all and in its nature complete and self-enclosed once for all. He employs what he has discovered about actual cases of good health and ill health and their causes to investigate the present ailing individual, so as to further his recovering; recovering, an intrinsic and living process rather than recovery, which is comparative and static. Moral theories, which however have not remained mere theories but which have found their way into the opinions of the common man, have reversed the situation and made the present subservient to a rigid yet abstract future

[The example of the businessman measuring progress only with respect to the present market in which he is competing is Dewey’s metaphor for retrospective/negative meliorism. Although Dewey didn’t say this explicitly, this analogy aligns with the concept of economic progress as creative destruction. Creative destruction is perpetual. It is not asymptotically aiming toward a perfectly harmonious economy with no further destruction.]

«The ethical import of the doctrine of evolution is enormous. But its import has been misconstrued because the doctrine has been appropriated by the very traditional notions which in truth it subverts. It has been thought that the doctrine of evolution means the complete subordination of present change to a future goal. It has been constrained to teach a futile dogma of approximation, instead of a gospel of present growth. The usufruct of the new science has been seized upon by the old tradition of fixed and external ends. In fact evolution means continuity of change; and the fact that change may take the form of present growth of complexity and interaction. Significant stages in change are found not in access of fixity of attainment but in those crises in which a seeming fixity of habits gives way to a release of capacities that have not previously functioned: in times that is of readjustment and redirection

[All of Dewey’s philosophy of morality, ethics, progress, etc. are simply the application of the insights of biological evolution. Evolution has no overall direction, other than perhaps an increase in complexity of organisms and their environments.]

«No matter what the present success in straightening out difficulties and harmonizing conflicts, it is certain that problems will recur in the future in a new form or on a different plane. Indeed every genuine accomplishment instead of winding up an affair and enclosing it as a jewel in a casket for future contemplation, complicates the practical situation. It effects a new distribution of energies which have henceforth to be employed in ways for which past experience gives no exact instruction. Every important satisfaction of old want creates a new one; and this new one has to enter upon an experimental adventure to find its satisfaction. From the side of what has gone before achievement settles something. From the side of what comes after, it complicates, introducing new problems, unsettling factors. There is something pitifully juvenile in the idea that “evolution,” progress, means a definite sum of accomplishment which will forever stay done, and which by an exact amount lessens the amount still to be done, disposing once and for all of just so many perplexities and advancing us just so far on our road to a final stable and unperplexed goal. Yet the typical nineteenth century, mid-victorian conception of evolution was precisely a formulation of such a consummate juvenilism.»

[This is a beautiful paean to evenstevenness! Biological evolution entails evenstevenness. Trying to interpret evolution as in some way a “perfecting” process is “juvenile”. Resonates with Fruitionism.]

«If the true ideal is that of a stable condition free from conflict and disturbance, then there are a number of theories whose claims are superior to those of the popular doctrine of evolution. Logic points rather in the direction of Rousseau and Tolstoi who would recur to some primitive simplicity, who would return from complicated and troubled civilization to a state of nature. For certainly progress in civilization has not only meant increase in the scope and intricacy of problems to be dealt with, but it entails increasing instability. For in multiplying wants, instruments and possibilities, it increases the variety of forces which enter into relations with one another and which have to be intelligently directed. Or again, Stoic indifference or Buddhist calm have greater claims. For, it may be argued, since all objective achievement only complicates the situation, the victory of a final stability can be secured only by renunciation of desire. Since every satisfaction of desire increases force, and this in turn creates new desires, withdrawal into an inner passionless state, indifference to action and attainment, is the sole road to possession of the eternal, stable and final reality.»

[Progress increases “wants, instruments and possibilities”, and this in turn increases “the scope and intricacy of problems to be dealt with” and “instability”. I would change this to be more evensteven in tone, but I think that is Dewey’s intent.]

«Again, from the standpoint of definite approximation to an ultimate goal, the balance falls heavily on the side of pessimism. The more striving the more attainments, perhaps; but also assuredly the more needs and the more disappointments. The more we do and the more we accomplish, the more the end is vanity and vexation. From the standpoint of attainment of good that stays put, that constitutes a definite sum performed which lessens the amount of effort required in order to reach the ultimate goal of final good, progress is an illusion. But we are looking for it in the wrong place. The world war is a bitter commentary on the nineteenth century misconception of moral achievement — a misconception however which it only inherited from the traditional theory of fixed ends, attempting to bolster up that doctrine with aid from the “scientific ” theory of evolution. The doctrine of progress is not yet bankrupt. The bankruptcy of the notion of fixed goods to be attained and stably possessed may possibly be the means of turning the mind of man to a tenable theory of progress — to attention to present troubles and possibilities

[“The more we do and the more we accomplish, the more the end is vanity and vexation”. Wow! This is the essence of evenstevenness. Dewey is channeling Ecclesiastes(!): even though all is vanity in the long run, we should nonetheless do what we can to have a fruitful life today.]

*****

«An office of inspiration and guidance is attributed to the thought of the goal of ultimate completeness or perfection. As matter of fact, the idea sincerely held brings discouragement and despair not inspiration or hopefulness. There is something either ludicrous or tragic in the notion that inspiration to continued progress is had in telling man that no matter what he does or what he achieves, the outcome is negligible in comparison with what he set out to achieve, that every endeavor he makes is bound to turn out a failure compared with what should be done, that every attained satisfaction is only forever bound to be only a disappointment. The honest conclusion is pessimism. All is vexation, and the greater the effort the greater the vexation. But the fact is that it is not the negative aspect of an outcome, its failure to reach infinity, which renews courage and hope. Positive attainment, actual enrichment of meaning and powers opens new vistas and sets new tasks, creates new aims and stimulates new efforts. The facts are not such as to yield unthinking optimism and consolation; for they render it impossible to rest upon attained goods. New struggles and failures are inevitable. The total scene of action remains as before, only for us more complex, and more subtly unstable. But this very situation is a consequence of expansion, not of failures of power, and when grasped and admitted it is a challenge to intelligence. Instruction in what to do next can never come an infinite goal, which for us is bound to be empty. It can be derived only from study of the deficiencies, irregularities and possibilities of the actual situation.»

[“Positive attainment, actual enrichment of meaning and powers opens new vistas and sets new tasks, creates new aims and stimulates new efforts. The facts are not such as to yield unthinking optimism and consolation; for they render it impossible to rest upon attained goods. New struggles and failures are inevitable. The total scene of action remains as before, only for us more complex, and more subtly unstable. But this very situation is a consequence of expansion, not of failures of power, and when grasped and admitted it is a challenge to intelligence”. Dewey has captured the crux of the Fruitionist way of looking at life: opening new vistas, new aims. These new vistas are more complex, more diverse, but with more problems, more instability. But this makes life more challenging in an empowering way!]

«In any case, however, arguments about pessimism and optimism based upon considerations regarding fixed attainment of good and evil are mainly literary in quality. Man continues to live because he is a living creature not because reason convinces him of the certainty or probability of future satisfactions and achievements. He is instinct with activities that carry him on. Individuals here and there cave in, and most individuals sag, withdraw and seek refuge at this and that point. But man as man still has the dumb pluck of the animal. He has endurance, hope, curiosity, eagerness, love of action. These traits belong to him by structure, not by taking thought. Memory of past and foresight of future convert dumbness to some degree of articulateness. They illumine curiosity and steady courage. Then when the future arrives with its inevitable disappointments as well as fulfilments, and with new sources of trouble, failure loses something of its fatality, and suffering yields fruit of instruction not of bitterness. Humility is more demanded at our moments of triumph than at those of failure. For humility is not a caddish self-depreciation. It is the sense of our slight inability even with our best intelligence and effort to command events; a sense of our dependence upon forces that go their way without our wish and plan. Its purport is not to relax effort but to make us prize every opportunity of present growth. In morals, the infinitive and the imperative develop from the participle, present tense. Perfection means perfecting, fulfilment, fulfilling, and the good is now or never.»

[It is akin to video gameplay becoming ever richer, more complex, and more challenging to our intelligence.]

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