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Dewey, John (1859-1942)

communication meanings university view

A native of Burlington, Vermont, John Dewey received his B.A. from the University of Vermont in 1879 and his Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University in 1884. Except for a brief appointment at the University of Minnesota, he taught at the University of Michigan from 1884 to 1894.

In 1894, Dewey joined the faculty of the University of Chicago as head of the department of philosophy, psychology, and pedagogy. While at Chicago, he founded an experimental elementary school that came to be known as the “Dewey School.” Among the major influences on his theory of communication during this period were his colleague George Herbert Mead and Jane Addams (the founder of Hull House).

In 1904, Dewey resigned from the University of Chicago and accepted a position at Columbia University where he was appointed professor emeritus of philosophy in residence in 1930 and professor emeritus in 1939. He traveled widely, presenting lectures in Japan, China, Mexico, Turkey, and Russia, among other places. Politically active, he was an energetic promoter of the American Civil Liberties Union, The American Association of University Professors, and the women’s suffrage movement. Dewey died at his home in New York City on June 1, 1952. An urn containing his ashes is interred at the University of Vermont.

In 1896, Dewey published his watershed essay “The Reflex Arc Concept in Psychology”(EW.5.96), in which he attempted to replace the received model of a stimulus-response arc with the model of an adjustive circle or spiral. He rejected the idea that stimuli exist as already complete in a world external to a passive subject and that they impinge on the subject in ways that effect a response. In place of this view, he advanced the idea that stimuli are selected by an active subject. They are properties of the interaction between a subject and its environing conditions rather than properties of a world external to the subject. Applied to a situation involving communication between two subjects, for example, this means that when A asks B to bring him or her something and points to it, the stimulus for B is neither A’s asking nor A’s pointing, but the anticipation that B has as a result of the cooperative situation that is shared with A. In order for there to be a stimulus at all, B must have already entered into a cooperative situation by placing him-or herself in the position of A, thus viewing the situation from A’s standpoint. This cooperative situation is what Ludwig Wittgenstein would later call a “language game.”

The most succinct formulation of Dewey’s philosophy of communication is in chapter five of his book Experience and Nature (1925). In this material, Dewey criticized what he considered to be reductionist theories of communication. On one side, he rejected supernaturalist and other transcendentalist views that locate the origin or measure of communication in a logos beyond human conduct. He thought that this had been the error of the Athenian Greeks and their heirs, the medievals. They had mistaken the structure of communication for the structure of things.

On the other side, he rejected views that drive a wedge between internal states and external expression by locating language and meaning in a private, subjective world. He thought that this had been the error of philosophers of the modern period, beginning with René Descartes. They had failed to recognize that language is a social product. Further anticipating the work of Wittgenstein, Dewey argued that there can be no private language.

He thus rejected the view that communication consists of fixed messages that move through inert media, much as water through a pipe, to be delivered fully intact to passive recipients. His rejection of this absolutist notion—that communication is the transmission of fixed ideas—was balanced with his rejection of the opposite view, namely, the nominalist notion that communication is a purely arbitrary social construct. He argued that nominalism cannot account for the fact that communication is both organized and objective. Meanings are organized by language, which is the tool of tools. Further, meanings become objective as they are grounded in the natural interactions—including those that are social—of which they are by-products.

Dewey’s view of communication is perhaps best understood as a variety of social behaviorism. When an organism becomes capable of understanding an expression as meaningful from the standpoint of another organism, meanings are made common to at least two centers of behavior. Meanings then “copulate,” as he put it, breeding new and more enriched meanings. Signs and significance come into existence not intentionally but as a kind of overflow or by-product of communication. In articulating this view, Dewey drew heavily on the work of Mead.

In what is perhaps his most precise characterization of the term, Dewey wrote that communication is “the establishment of cooperation in an activity in which there are partners, and in which the activity of each is modified and regulated by partnership” (LW.1.141). Such partnerships can be formed between and among humans, between humans and other organisms, and even between humans and inorganic materials. Artists, for example, can be said to communicate with their materials when they take them into account in ways that express and enlarge the meanings of the materials. Dewey characterized intelligence as the ability to engage in such activities. A corollary of his view is that meanings are properties of behavior first, and properties of objects only derivatively.

Dewey described communication as “uniquely instrumental and uniquely final.” It is uniquely instrumental in the sense that it organizes events in ways that render them more meaningful, thus affording liberation from what is dangerous, debilitating, or boring. It is uniquely final in the sense that when meanings are shared and thereby enriched, an enhanced sense of community with the human and nonhuman environment is achieved. The separation of these two functions is infelicitous because what is only instrumental remains thin and partial and what is only final tends to be either corrupting or trivial. In true communication, instrumental and final functions cooperate. Meanings are enriched and a corresponding growth of the organism is produced. “Of all affairs,” he wrote, “communication is the most wonderful” (LW.1.132).

Dewey, Melvil (1851-1931) [next] [back] Dewar, Sir James

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