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Updating Dewey’s Transactional Theory of Action in Connection with Evolutionary Theory

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John Dewey and the Notion of Trans-action

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Abstract

John Dewey’s ‘habit’-centred, transactional theory of action gets rid of the Cartesian mind–world dualism by replacing ‘mind-first’ explanations of action with ‘action-first’ explanations of the mind. Dewey embraced Darwinian thinking, and built his theory of action in an evolutionary framework. Of course, he could not have foreseen all the developments in theory and research on human evolution that have unfolded since his time; evolutionary theory and understanding have been elaborated, for example, with the idea of co-evolutionary niche construction. This chapter outlines an update of Dewey’s transactional theory of action, drawing on, among others, Daniel Dennett’s, Andy Clark’s, and Kim Sterelny’s works, and some recent developments in theories and research on the brain, mind, and the evolution of human culture. A sort of ‘four E’—extensive, enactive, embodied, and embedded—notion of the mind is considered, as well as other recent ideas and conceptual tools, such as (socio-cultural) niche construction, the Sterelnian apprentice learning setup, the Clarkian conception of predictive processing as a central function of the brain, affordances of action, and the Dennettian understanding that in evolution, competence comes before comprehension, and the latter could arise only with culture.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    In this chapter, consistently with a long line of our previous works going back for decades, we write the term ‘transaction’ and its derivatives without the hyphen.

  2. 2.

    The switch from the ‘mind-first’ to the ‘action-first’ explanation, to put it briefly, is the idea that we should not seek to explain action with anything in the mind—beliefs and desires, or volition—but instead, conceive action, channelled by habits, as the baseline of all life that also explains whatever content we might want to say there is to someone’s mind (see, e.g., Joas and Kilpinen 2006).

  3. 3.

    In fact, pragmatism was unpopular in those days, in Europe in particular. An important change started in America in the 1970s, with Putnam’s (1975) and Rorty’s (1979) neo-pragmatism overcoming the subject–object dualism by emphasizing the importance of language for the human mind and the Wittgensteinian and Deweyan insight that there is no private language, that linguistic ‘“meanings” just ain’t in the head’ (Putnam 1975, p. 144).

  4. 4.

    It is akin to certain much older ideas, though, for instance, those that go under the name of ‘Baldwin effect’ (after James Mark Baldwin), which somewhat similarly emphasized the role of behavioural plasticity and learning in evolution, and took into account ‘the social aspect of evolution’—‘social relations and traditions’ in the evolving population—as an important part of the environment of selection (Richards 1987, p. 484; see Weber and Depew 2003).

  5. 5.

    ‘The organism acts in accordance with its own structure, simple or complex, upon its surroundings,’ Dewey (1988a [1922]) said, and stressed that ‘[a]s a consequence the changes produced in the environment react upon the organism and its activities. The living creature undergoes, suffers, the consequences of its own behavior’ (129). ‘The higher’ (that is to say, the more neurologically complex and phenotypically flexible) ‘the form of life,’ he also knew, ‘the more important is the active reconstruction of the medium’ (128). ‘Of human organisms it is especially true that activities carried on for satisfying needs so change the environment that new needs arise which demand still further change in the activities of the organism by which they are satisfied; and so on in potentially endless chain’ (Dewey 1991, p. 35).

  6. 6.

    This may be said of any life form. The most well-worn example of animal niche construction is probably beaver dams, but even relatively simple animals (spiders are a good example) utilize tools, such as traps to catch prey, and many more build nests, or store food; even plants and bacteria may be said to be engaged in some niche construction, because in their transactions with the environment, they tend to change the composition of their surroundings in many ways (see Odling-Smee et al. 2003; Sterelny 2005).

  7. 7.

    Ecological inheritance intertwined with (the evolution of) genetic and cultural inheritance is also referred to as ‘triple-inheritance’ (Laland and O’Brien 2010, p. 312; Odling-Smee and Laland 2011, p. 223).

  8. 8.

    As Hutto (2018; Hutto and Myin 2017, pp. 82–85, see 2013, Ch. 7) argues, Clark still clings to an unfortunate cognitivist framework where (the majority of) cognitive processing is thought to take place inside the body (only sometimes ‘extending’ partially out of it). Most cognitive scientists have been talking in terms of representations, and thus, arguably unnecessarily keeping the door open for ‘creeping Cartesianism’ which pragmatists like Dewey expelled (Solymosi 2013, p. 594).

  9. 9.

    Dennett is indifferent to the terminological novelty of niche construction because he is well aware of Baldwinian and related ideas having been around for more than a century under different names, and thinks that they were incorporated even in mainstream evolutionary synthesis in the 1980s (see Dennett 2004, pp. 725–726).

  10. 10.

    Of course, this is well in keeping with the Dewey’s action-first vein of explanation.

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Kivinen, O., Piiroinen, T. (2020). Updating Dewey’s Transactional Theory of Action in Connection with Evolutionary Theory. In: Morgner, C. (eds) John Dewey and the Notion of Trans-action. Palgrave Studies in Relational Sociology. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-26380-5_7

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