Human Nature and Conduct

ISBN: 0486420973
ISBN 13: 9780486420974
By: John Dewey Jennifer Dewey

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About this book

Influential work by the great educator/philosopher maintains that the key to social psychology lies in an understanding of the many varieties of habit; individual mental activity is guided by subordinate factors of impulse and intelligence. His investigation focuses on three main areas of conduct: habit, impulse, and intelligence, with each factor receiving an incisive treatment.

Reader's Thoughts


this book is life changing... for me at least. if i were the tattooing kind, i would tattoo passages from Dewey on my body. the problem would be choosing which ones. there are too many beautiful and important passages. i would run out of skin.

Mark Haag

So in progress....Dewey Rocks! This book is taken from a series of lectures given in 1918. I had to remind myself of that as I read because Dewey seems to anticipate and clarify some of the cul-de-sacs that philosophers and psychologists were still wandering around lost in (until functional MRI's). More to follow. Still, more of a review to follow. Bumped the book up to a five after finding it once again and reading another chapter.

Spicy T AKA Mr. Tea

Dewey's logical and accessible inquiry into the realm of human nature is superb reading. I remember thoroughly enjoying this book. Dewey looks at human nature from an environmental as well as habitual/custom standpoint and doesn't fall into an essentialist position regarding human nature from a biological deterministic perspective. He is wildly liberatory and that energy is contagious. To me, it means that we, humans, are not essentially evil creatures bent on chaos and destruction, but rather have the tools to have rational and compassionate understandings. Read this book.

Nick Allen

If you don't mind wading through Dewey's dense vocabulary and sentence construction, Human Nature and Conduct provides an interesting critique of and alternative to the Platonic, Utilitarian, and religious conceptions of morality and progress.


Brilliant, brilliant, brilliant. I'm so glad I finally decided to read this book in its entirety. It proves every bit as inspirational as I remember and more. Perhaps I just haven't read enough philosophy, but I'm surprised that this book isn't heralded as a key moment in American philosophy, if not Western philosophy altogether. Too many great moments and arguments to relate, all in lucid, evocative prose. Dewey's interpretation of Kant's Categorical Imperative is wonderful, and for the first time I think I'm starting to get a grip on why that idea is such a significant part of philosophical history. I will use this book as a constant reference in years to come.My one criticism is that, at times, Dewey borders on making blank slate arguments. I see this flaw, however, as a problem with the limited science of his time rather than his reasoning. His insistence that morality and conduct are, in the most basic sense, inescapably social activities focuses attention on the importance of the present in considering the past in order to shape the future. Control what you can control, learn about and accept the rest. This outlook is entirely pragmatic, eminently useful, and profoundly inspiring.


This book changed my life.

Bob Nichols

Coming out of the age of Darwin, Dewey acknowledges biological nature by noting the obvious (e.g., where "body organs" like hunger and sex are involved), but then moves to his real point, which is that culture forms our human nature in the way that it really counts. "A plastic human nature" he says, "takes form "because of its social environment". Nature provides the raw material for human nature (impulses) but impulses and character are formed by culture and habit, which are the "ways of using and incorporating the environment." As biological beings, we all have impulses, but the specific form these take is determined from the outside. For example, fear becomes cowardice or courageous, or anger leads to aggression or constructive action, depending on how we are raised. "Social institutions and expectations," he says, in short, "shape and crystallize impulses into dominant habits." As to what we aim for in our behavior, Dewey goes on to say there are no fixed ends to conduct. Rather, consequences structure our action. In reference to overarching ends like the Good or survival, Dewey believes there is no such thing "as a single, all-important end". All actions involve a chain of means and ends and are endlessly formed by practical situations posed by the environment. On the broader question of morality, there's no absolute standard of Right. Morals are, rather, connected with and determined by "activities of existence". Dewey's emphasis on the role of habit in behavior and character development was likely a healthy counterbalance to some of the strictly deterministic views of instinct that came out of the early post-Darwin era. But in pushing back, Dewey pushes too far. He turns us into passive beings with no particular direction about what we want. He presumes that we all have a single human nature (the same life "impulse") and explains our obvious behavioral differences through environmental influences. But, just as a dog is not a dog but a particular dog, so we as individuals have particular predispositions towards certain ways of interaction (e.g., extrovert, introvert) and to the level of energy we apply toward our actions (ambitious, not so ambitious). This is not to say that environment doesn't have a significant role in forming character. But there is a good amount of evidence that a nurture-formed formed character rests upon and is influenced by an even more fundamental biological nature that differs, often significantly, among individuals. Dewey dismisses the overarching "end" of survival as a determinant of behavior, as if all of the day-to-day "ends" of eating, working, socializing and sex are void of survival value. Not only does a good chunk of our daily life involve a series of ends-means relationships that enable us to survive and do well, but we each have our own specific ways to accomplish these ends that fit who we are biologically. Some are more fear driven, or socially driven, or sex driven, or ambition driven than others. These in Dewey's theory are not operative in a proactive sense. These are, rather, "consequences" to our actions and these determine whether we will modify our habitual responses to the environment. Left unarticulated in his theory in this book is why consequences matter? In the absence of some internal value that reflects who we are and who we want to be, on what basis does one decide that a particular consequence matters. Something more than a generic impulse is involved. In the same vein, how are social notions such as justice to be evaluated in the absence of a standard that defines why a beneficial consequence for one is not an adverse consequence for another? Practically, Dewey is likely right in asserting that "activities of existence" determines most of our behavior, but this doesn't mean that we should not examine the value-laden assumptions that are implicit in any assessment of consequences. These concerns about Dewey's theory matter as any "social engineering" approach that does not recognize individuality can have a significant, adverse impact on an individual's psychological health. Also, making societal assessments on what is right and wrong and why it is right and wrong is problematic in Dewey's theory.

Robin Friedman

Together with Charles Peirce, William James, and Josiah Royce, John Dewey forms part of an outpouring of American thought in the early 20th Century frequently called the "golden age of American philosophy". Peirce, James and Dewey founded and taught variations of philosophical pragmatism while Royce, heavily influenced by pragmatism, was closer to philosophical idealism. I have read less of Dewey than of the three companion thinkers.Dewey (1859 -- 1952) lived a long, active life during which he wrote prolifically. I have thought it difficult to get a clear handle on his work. Dewey has been highly influential, perhaps notoriously (unfairly) so, in educational philosophy. His work has also highly influenced social science and public policy. Dewey's thought has undergone a strong revival in recent years with the growth of interest in American pragmatism and with the so-called "second wave" of pragmatism associated with Richard Rorty. While admiring Dewey greatly, Rorty took Dewey's thought in his own direction.As with any important philosopher, Dewey needs to be read and struggled with in his own writing rather than through secondary sources or through the views of others. In 1918, Dewey delivered a series of lectures at Stanford which became the basis for his important book, "Human Nature and Conduct: An Introduction to Social Psychology" (1921) which offers a point of entry into his thinking, particularly his ethics. The book is lengthy, repetitive, and difficult, with pithy, sharp writing and observations punctuating less readable stretches. In his short Preface, Dewey summarizes the aim of the book as"seriously [setting] forth a belief that an understanding of habit and of different types of habit is the key to social psychology, while the operation of impulse and intelligence gives the key to individualized mental activity. But they are secondary to habit so that mind can be understood in the concrete only as a system of beliefs, desires and purposes which are formed in the interaction of biological aptidudes with a social environment."The book consists of a lengthy and highly important Introduction which sets out the main claims of the book, a lengthy conclusion, summarizing and expanding the text, and three additional parts forming the basis of the lectures Dewey gave at Stanford. The key to the book is the Introduction, as is the case with many "introductions" to seminal philosophical works. It will bear close study, before and after the reading of the text.It is difficult to summarize this book fairly and adequately. Dewey aims to turn philosophical and ethical thinking on its head. His primary claim is that ethical thinking needs to be based upon human nature and that prior thinkers, both secularly and religiously inclined, have failed to do this. These thinkers would likely agree with the importance to be placed on human nature, but they would deny that they have ignored or flouted it. They would likely resist Dewey's understanding of human nature as well as his understanding of and emphasis on science.Dewey's account of human nature is heavily shaped by the natural sciences, particularly by the theory of evolution, by psychology, and by what Dewey saw as the potential of the social sciences to assist in human understanding. His thought is what philosophers critical of him might call "psychologistic" because it tends towards the blurring of boundaries between philosophy and scientific thinking. It is naturalistic in that Dewey sees human behavior as part of the natural, scientific world rather than in inhabiting some form of separate, perhaps supernatural or subjective realm in which the finding of the natural sciences do not apply. Dewey sees ethical or moral thinking come into play over a broad range of human activities -- whenever there is a choice of conduct to be made. He sees ethical issues in the first instance of having a form of immediacy about them -- what is sometimes called presentism. Dewey also has a conception of human personality or human nature in which the individual cannot be analyzed or considered separately from the community or culture of which he or she is a part. Dewey adopts a strongly progressive political stance which seems to me integral to the position he develops in his book.Dewey writes that "morality is largely concerned with controlling human nature" in matters of choices. As a psychologist, he emphasizes the importance of habit, as taught by a culture to its children from the day of their birth. Habit forms an ingrained way of controlling and channeling impulse. For Dewey, the powerful in a society impose their view of things on the weak (a highly postmodern position). When habit becomes ossified or unsatisfactory, individuals need to use intelligence to understand their situation and to try to do not "the good" but "the better". They need to muddle through a particular situation to improve their lot and to make a good a decision that will help them, rather than the habits and platitudes they have imbibed. Ethical thinking is tied to action rather than to claimed absolutes or to introspection. It is a help to making a choice when a bump appears in the road, and it is fallibalistic (subject to error) and changing with conditions.Dewey develops his thought in part by distinguishing it from thinking he opposes. Most broadly, he opposes Platonism (even though Dewey loved to read Plato) and essentialism in ethics and in knowledge. He opposes appeals to transcendence, sectarian religious teachings, introspective withdrawal of ethical decision from action, and philosophical idealism of all types. He also has insightful, largely critical observations to make about Kantianism and the Categorical Imperative and about philosophical utilitarianism.As the book proceeds, Dewey becomes more insistent upon the importance of the social sciences as providing a means for directing human action. He claims these sciences are new and undeveloped but that they will provide means of regulating and improving behavior as they progress. He sees and rejects claims that using the social sciences as a means of legislation and social control will invade individual autonomy and choice and constitute a form of "social engineering". Dewey's thinking of these matters had substantial influence. Many people, including myself, are uncomfortable with this and with the broad claims Dewey makes for the social sciences. Dewey's position that science constitutes the sole reliable source for understanding human behavior might also be questioned.A reader does not have to agree with a book in all or even in some respects to learn from it. Dewey's book is provocative, thoughtful, and insightful as well as difficult. It is a major work of American philosophy that may be thought about and reread. It is a book that still rewards the effort required to read and struggle with it. I look forward to increasing my understanding of Dewey.Robin Friedman


Dewy explains how humans develop through the reconstruction of habits.

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