Self and Society

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about John Dewey’s argument that humans are intrinsically associated beings; that we form and are formed by others; that, as he wrote in 1927, we must each learn to be human:

To learn to be human is to develop through the give-and-take of communication an effective sense of being an individually distinctive member of a community; one who understands and appreciates its beliefs, desires and methods, and who contributes to a further conversion of organic powers into human resources and values. 

Dewey believed that the marvels of the 20th century created a Great Society, but in order to transform that society into a Great Community we must all recognize ourselves as inherently interconnected and interdependent beings.

So I was struck when I ran across this passage from Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s 1945 work Phenomenology of Perception:

I am a psychological and historical structure. Along with existence, I received a way of existing, or a style. All of my actions and thoughts are related to this structure, and even a philosopher’s thought is merely a way of making explicit his hold upon the world, which is all he is. And yet, I am free, not in spite of or beneath these motivations, but rather by their means. For that meaningful life, that particular signification of nature and history that I am, does not restrict my access to the world; it is rather my means of communication with it.

As Sarah Bakewell summarizes in her recent book At the Existentialist Café, Merleau-Ponty believed, “…we cannot thrive without others, or not for long, and we need this especially in early life. This makes solipsistic speculation about the reality of others ridiculous; we could never engage in such speculation if we hadn’t already been formed by them. As Descartes could have said (but didn’t), ‘I think, therefore other people exist.’”

The philosophies of Dewey and Merleau-Ponty stands in notable contrast to much of Western thought, which has more commonly taken “man”, as it were, as an isolated, whole being who by some miracle awoke in this place we call the world.

I can think, therefore I know I exist. I can move my hands, therefore I can prove they exist. But such theories take as a starting point that there is an ‘I’ whose perception and experience can be used for judgement and interpretation of the world. Dewey and Merleau-Ponty seem to argue the opposite – if there is an ‘I’ it is only because the external world does exist. If it were not for the existence of others, ‘I’ would never have come to be.

Perhaps what’s most interesting about these divergent theories are their parallels to child development. A child first becomes aware of themselves, then becomes aware of their influence on the world, and then becomes aware of others as conscious beings. This seems to be a natural course of development. Interestingly, our understanding of dependency seems to run in the opposite direction: a child is very depending on others, an adult proudly independent.

So perhaps it is natural that we first try to understand the world through a centering of the self. That we each imagine ourselves as whole and independent beings, that it is our interpretation of the world which forms reality. And then, gradually we develop as a species to a more interconnected understanding of existence: the world cannot be described by my perception alone, but is formed from the very fabric of our social interactions – from our collective, unique but intertwined, selves.


3 thoughts on “Self and Society

  1. Kevin Dye

    Check out the work of 18th Century sociologist Gabriel Tarde concerning the orientation to “association” as the core of his theories and the recent work of Bruno Latour to rejuvenate interest in Tarde’s work vs that of Durkheim.


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