Monday, March 27, 2017

Dewey on mind and nature

I remember in graduate school speaking with another student who was perplexed but also frustrated as to what "experience" might mean for philosophers such as William James and John Dewey.  These two philosophers in particular seem to use the term quite abit, nearly so much so that one might be suspicious that it is a sort of "duct tape" within their philosophy.  "What is experience, afterall?" - one might ask.  Trying to figure that out has been a cottage industry for those who read James and Dewey and then publish something informative about it.

In our Dewey reading group we've been looking at (tangentially at least) the book John Dewey and Environmental Philosophy.  There it is explained how, while the term "experience" is indeed vague, it is left vague by Dewey almost intentionally.  What function is the term supposed to serve?

For starters, in naturalistic register Dewey is concerned with softening anthropocentric conceptions of what "experience" might mean.  For as phenomenological as the notion might be (i.e. "qualitative"), it is not necessarily human for it exceeds what is human.  Like James, mind and nature, or better, the appropriation of nature as experience, occurs "as an activity."  In this, perception, habit-taking, and the activity of the organism are at the forefront.  Thus it is an embodied but also enacted theory of perception.  Whatever experience is it is what an organism does.  Like in Merleau-Ponty, there is no strict division then between subject and object, creature and environment, or even "inner as well as outer."  From a metaphysical point of view experience consists not of just what or how something is experienced (phenomenologically), but also consists of a non-phenomenological, liminal "total experience" which is either before or at the fringes of consciousness.  (Think of Dewey's "Reflex Arc" essay for example.)  And so it is not to impugn consciousnesses or mind upon nature but to see mind and nature as mixed, continuous, or even as inseparable - the two being part of an indivisive nature that separates either term only "after the fact."  Again, this is nothing new: James, Dewey, Merleau-Ponty all have maintained such a notion of "body-mind," that is, they have maintained the inseparability of experience and nature.  But what I think is novel in Dewey is how this sort of thinking is used (or can be used) to empower environmental ethics.  He writes, for example, "Experience is of as well as in nature. It is not experience which is experienced but nature - stones, plants, animals, diseases, health, temperature, electricity, and so on."

What we find is that while the term "experience" is vague, it does much to break down barriers supposed between body and mind or qualitative consciousness and the natural world.  As Dewey employs the term, nature itself becomes "panexperiential" in the sense that whatever "experience" is, it is not limited to humans.  In terms of environmental ethics, or more specifically animal ethics, the term, despite its ambiguity, has a one-up on something like "sentience" as found in Peter Singer as "experience" does not bring to mind the sort of pitfalls associated with conceptual or rational consciousness that "sentience" might.  And so it is one thing to think of plants as capable of experiencing something and another to think of them as "sentient."

In the end the term "experience" as it functions in Dewey's writing reminds us of the interconnection between organism and environment, and indeed that the qualitative dimension of the natural world is not something unique or specific to human beings.  In fact, if anything, Dewey's "experience" reminds us that perhaps we have the duty to speculate upon non-human forms of experience that may or may not be like human consciousness.