Our Pragmatic Present

There is no prescribed meaning or purpose to our lives—and that’s okay

Mykyta Nikiforov (Flickr/nikiforovpizza)
Mykyta Nikiforov (Flickr/nikiforovpizza)

Mind in Nature: John Dewey, Cognitive Science, and a Naturalistic Philosophy for Living by Mark Johnson and Jay Schulkin; The MIT Press, 288 pp., $60.00

 There is a passage in Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Nature—published in 1836—that has, until recently, always puzzled me. Emerson writes that his age would witness a strange philosophical transition, namely that, the “ancient precept, ‘Know thyself,’ and the modern precept, ‘Study nature,’ become at last one maxim.” But after I read Mark Johnson and Jay Shulkin’s Mind in Nature, a new volume on philosophy and cognitive science, Emerson began to make a bit more sense.

In 1858, Darwin published On the Origin of Species, suggesting that who we are—as human beings—connects directly to our biological origins. Coming to terms with this biology, Darwin thought, was crucial to our ability to understand ourselves. Then in 1925, the American pragmatist John Dewey completed Experience and Nature, a work that Johnson and Schulkin see as “one of the greatest philosophical works ever written.” Why? Because Dewey explained, perhaps for the first time, with scientific rigor and philosophical sophistication, how humans like us make meaning and develop our minds by interacting with the natural world.

Dewey suggests that we look as closely as we can at the structure of experience. When we do that, we will notice that meaning, far from being merely abstract, linguistic, and conceptual, is, from top to bottom, emotional, aesthetic, and embodied. We are, to use the Deweyan expression, “live creatures” who feel, grow, act, laugh, thrive, cry, die, make love, dance, and create. Although not necessarily in that order. If all of that sounds anti-philosophical or conceptually boring, that is only because the history of Western philosophy has been built on the philosopher’s fallacy of confusing our living, breathing realities with concepts that try, and fail, to explain these realities. Life and embodied meaning are richer and more complex and confusing than any mind-as-machine model that might threaten to overtake our present day. This is at least one of the primary lessons of Mind in Nature.

Johnson, the Knight Professor of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Oregon, and Schulkin, a research professor at the University of Washington’s College of Medicine, have made two very long, very distinguished careers of defending this position. In Metaphors We Live By (1980), written with John Lakoff, Johnson points out that our conventional conceptual metaphors, which underpin everyday language, involve sensory, motor, and affective aspects of our experience. For example, there is a dominant conceptual metaphor ‘Understanding Is Seeing,’ in which we conceptualize abstract thinking as a process of seeing. From an evolutionary perspective, it makes sense that we might recruit our basic bodily (sensory-motor-affective-social) experience to think and reason about some abstract domain, such as mind, thought, will, knowledge, and reasoning. Today, Metaphors We Live By is a classic that has sold more than a million copies. And during his more than 40-year career, Schulkin has produced some 700 articles and presentations, and his work is so respected that is has been cited by other researchers 24,000 times.

Why do these biographies matter? Because these two scholars, both in the twilight of their careers, still seem to believe that Dewey and a naturalized way of seeing the world needs a viable defense. In Mind and Nature, they set out Deweyan naturalism in simple, yet powerful terms:

By a naturalistic philosophy, we mean the view that everything that exists is part of nature, which thereby encompasses all of the natural processes by which things and events come into, persist for a time through, and pass out of existence. A naturalistic philosophy employs empirical methods of inquiry and explanation that have no need to postulate supernatural or transcendent agents, entities, causes, or forces.

This is a fairly accurate thumbnail of the metaphysical and epistemological commitments expressed in Experience and Nature, but also a thumbnail that explains, in large part, why Dewey’s philosophy has had trouble gaining traction in a polarized and ideologically fraught world. Many people believe in science and eschew dogma, but these selfsame people have a nagging desire to believe in transcendent agents, entities, causes, and forces. And then, of course, there are those who dismiss science and embrace dogma.

But our present moment may be the right time to bring Dewey fully back to life. As Johnson and Schulkin observe, the demand for a clear-eyed assessment of our deeply human (and, I will add, tragic) condition, seems well fitted to a time besieged by the plague and compounded by political and social strife. Transcendental pixy dust might sound appealing at first, a quick fix for a broken world, but it doesn’t seem to be working particularly well. Our culture remains painfully broken, in no small part because we remain committed to different and mutually exclusive forms of pixy dust.

The Deweyan account, by contrast, seems honest to the facts of the natural world and to the facts of human nature: we are all living creatures struggling, not necessarily for survival, but for a survival that matters, for knowledge that will guide our choices and actions, for selves that cohere and thrive, for lives of deep feeling and sensitivity, and for a realistic sense of expectation and hope. And for a natural life that doesn’t seem like a complete waste of time when it unceremoniously ends. The Deweyan account of human flourishing gives us something like this, but it also teeters on the brink of nihilism (which is why the two brave authors gird us against it)—a philosophy that threatens our sense of meaning by insisting that any existential significance is of our own all-too-human making.

If this strikes you as dismal or uninspiring—it shouldn’t. What exactly do you think you are entitled to in this life? At least Dewey’s pragmatism, offers a sense that things matter because we have a hand in our destiny, that our will and receptive capacities matter more—rather than less—precisely because there is no Divine Overseer making sure that we pay our dues and fulfill our callings. We are not in charge of the universe, or our world, or even our meagerly small communities, but we are still charged with measuring things out, both morally and empirically as best we can, day after day. This doesn’t seem fair, or particularly gentle, but it is undoubtedly true.

Much of Dewey’s pragmatic philosophy, developed in the first half of the 20th century, is descriptive—meaning that it tries to give an account of what human nature is like, where meaning comes from, how we grow and adapt in our natural settings. It dispels all the standard-yet-misguided ideas about what is most important about being human—our detached cognitive capacities, our mysterious sense of ourselves, our desire for the transcendent. Dewey explained how all of these seemingly special aspects of being human arose naturally from our evolutionary history, from our unique embodiment, from our environmental context. Much of the Mind in Nature extends and bolsters this description by incorporating cognitive neuroscience. The authors convincingly argue that the biological processes of homeostasis and allostasis (an organism’s ability to respond to stressors in order to return to homeostasis) form the basis of higher forms of human cognition, and they do a nice job of explaining the neural basis of core consciousness and pervasive unifying qualities. Simply put, over the course of human evolution, creatures like us have developed powers of abstract conceptualization, but these powers have emerged from, and are supported by, basic modes of survival and adaptation.  Our minds are embodied all the way down.

Yet there is a problem with Dewey. One can accept his naturalistic description of the human organism, accept the evidence that human experience and the natural world come hand in hand, accept that Experience and Nature cannot be torn asunder—and still be left with a sense that Dewey’s philosophy is unsatisfying. It might have to do with the lingering confusion about what to do, or how to actually live. It is as if Dewey bears witness to the death of God, the brushing away of all the divine pixy dust of being human, and then refuses to give guidance about what to do next. Of course, Dewey’s social and political philosophy as well as his extensive writings on education and democracy attempt to provide this guidance and have shaped the way that (some) educators and (a few) politicians approach things. But Dewey failed to give us something that, nearly a century later, Johnson and Schulkin finally offer at the end of Mind in Nature—namely a succinct account of how to live with a naturalized philosophy, in bite-sized sections titled “What Can I Know?”; “What Ought I To Do?”; and “What May I Hope?”

What can I know? In the words of Johnson and Schulkin:

Because all of our methods of inquiry and our conceptual systems are based on criticizable values, we have to give up any notion of absolute knowledge. Despite our pretensions to ultimate truths, we cannot be know-it-alls, but we can have confidence in the possibility of knowledge adequate to our current situation. … The replacement for allegedly fixed and completed knowledge must be constant vigilance; that is, continued criticism of our systems of valuation (including belief values), with openness to both supportive and falsifying evidence.

This requires a lot of work. A naturalistic philosophy entails a commitment to the scientific method, a process of inquiry that is ongoing and arduous, open to tentative success and inevitable error, the findings of which are practical yet provisional.

And what ought I to do? Johnson and Schulkin’s answer is closely related to Dewey’s method of inquiry:

Ethics naturalized is a “morality for humans.” It disabuses us of any pretention to ultimates or absolutes. It humbles us, but at the same time gives us a realistic means of moral problem solving. The results of such a process will never be final, though they may be the best we have for the moment. Present good is not the final endpoint of our reflections, but rather a temporary resting place from which to take on new challenges, in pursuit of what is better. That search for the better is a never-ending strenuous journey. It is hard to uncover and examine our deepest prejudices. It is hard to consider the experiences of all of those whose well-being is affected by your decisions and actions. It is hard to imagine creative and lasting resolutions of conflict. The conscientious inquirer will be prepared to reconsider prior deliberations in the face of new circumstances, which is one important indicator of moral growth.

Again, this is not easy. But our expectation that a moral life should be, is misplaced. We should remember that many of the most meaningful moments of life are, or can be, difficult, that persisting through difficulty is one of those truly special characteristics of being human that we maintain even and especially in our darkest hours.

And what may I hope for? This is different than what can I hope for. I can hope for any number of things. I can hope that a friendly blue woolly mammoth will save me from by problems, that I will be delivered to a perfect Dairy Queen after my death, that the world will work itself out without my effort or intervention. I can also be a very disappointed idiot. What may I hope for, according to a naturalized philosopher? To be modest, realistic, and existentially honest. I may hope that I am strong enough to face life as it actually is and not how I would imagine it to be. I may hope for the insight and sensitivity to face hardship with something like grace. And I may hope that the world is made just a little bit better by my life and efforts. And I may hope that this is enough.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

John Kaag is author of Hiking with Nietzsche. His new book, American Bloods: The Untamed Dynasty That Shaped a Nation, will be published in May.


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