Encyclopedia of Educational Philosophy and Theory

2017 Edition
| Editors: Michael A. Peters

Dewey and the Self

  • Jane Blanken-Webb
Reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-287-588-4_51


The self, for Dewey, is an entity that emerges out of a biological and social milieu, growing and changing over time in transaction with the world. Thus, the self is “not something given once and for all at the beginning which then proceeds to unroll as a ball of yarn may be unwound” (Dewey 1940/1991, 103). Each individual self has a unique past, “a background of experiences long ago funded into capacities and likes” (Dewey 1934/2008c, 93) a present, which at its best becomes an art that manifests “what actual existence actually becomes when its possibilities are fully expressed” (Dewey 1934/2008c, 285), and an ever-unfolding future to be shaped through choices made in conjunction with environing conditions.

This discussion is organized into three main concepts that are essential for understanding Dewey’s account of the self. The first is “impulse,” which helps to clarify how the realms of the individual and social interrelate in constituting the self. The second is “habit,” which is arguably the concept most central to Dewey’s account of self. Finally, the concept of “art” is essential for understating the full richness Dewey’s account of self, as for Dewey the creation of art is integrally linked to the creation of self.


Impulse is essentially a release of energy that arises within an individual when his or her habits are not in tune with surrounding conditions. Impulse is chaotic, tumultuous, and “of itself [does not] engage in reflection or contemplation. It just lets go” (Dewey 1922/2008a, p. 124). Examples of impulse could be as basic as a biological need for food or something much more complex such as a gripping sensation experienced in the chest when a loved one lets us down. Crucially, neither the initial pangs of hunger nor the feeling of despair experienced with a broken heart are meaningful until they meet the social realm. Indeed, as impulses, they are merely blind discharges of energy that are yet to have a name. As such, “Gestures and cries [of this sort] are not primarily expressive and communicative. They are modes of organic behavior” (Dewey 1925/2008b, pp. 138–139).

Perhaps the most transparent example of impulse can be found in considering an infant’s initial gestures and cries. Dewey offers that rather than being communicative, such release in energy is essentially “over-flow” and “by-product.” However, in meeting the social environment impulse becomes transformed into something meaningful, as “the story of language is the story of use made of these occurrences” (Dewey 1925/2008b, p. 139). In other words, the initial pangs from an empty stomach become something more than merely raw sensation when they are interpreted and responded to as hunger. Thus, in this initial “establishment of cooperation in an activity in which there are partners” – what Dewey names as the sufficient condition for language – impulse becomes meaningful (Dewey 1925/2008b, p. 143). “In short, the meaning of native activities is not native; it is acquired. It depends on interaction with a matured social medium” (Dewey 1922/2008a, p. 65). And it is for this reason that babies “owe to adults the opportunity to express their native activities in ways which have meaning” (Dewey 1922/2008a, p. 65).

So, while impulse is native and arises within the individual, in meeting the social environment impulse becomes transformed. In this, impulse gains a meaningful, social end. Accordingly, impulse provides the initial spark that can eventually lead to the creation (and continual recreation) of a self in the meeting of the social realm. “[I]mpulsive action becomes an adventure in discovery of a self which is possible but as yet unrealized, an experiment in creating a self which shall be more inclusive than the one which exists” (Dewey 1922/2008a, p. 97). Thus, “Personality, selfhood, subjectivity are eventual functions that emerge with complexly organized interactions, organic and social” (Dewey 1925/2008b, p. 162). Understanding the role of impulse in this complex organization is key for reconciling the interrelationship between the individual and social aspects of Dewey’s account of the self.


While Dewey’s account of habit is most fully elaborated in Human Nature and Conduct (1922), habit plays a significant role throughout Dewey’s philosophy and is particularly significant in his educational philosophy. Dewey’s discussion of habit describes both the stable aspects of self as well as the possibility for reorganizing the self through forming new habits that in some degree allow for the creation of a new self. Dewey’s conception of habit is much more encompassing than we typically afford the notion, as we often only become aware of habits when they are perceived negatively – as in the case of a bad habit we wish to break. But “When we are honest with ourselves we acknowledge that a habit has this [negative] power because it is so intimately a part of ourselves. It has a hold upon us because we are the habit” (Dewey 1925/2008b, p. 21). In this way, so-called bad habits allow us to recognize how central habits are to the self.

But habits are not always (or even mostly) bad. A habit is a form of intellectual efficiency that we retain from past interactions. Habits are helpful to thought in that they restrict its reach, fixing certain boundaries, preventing thought from straying too far off course (Dewey 1922/2008a, p. 121). By successfully narrowing thought’s focus and keeping it on a productive, or at the very least, a proven, trajectory, habits are vital to our everyday functioning. Although it can be difficult to fully appreciate the extent to which we rely on habits, in reflection we can recognize that even seemingly straightforward acts of perception, such as seeing or hearing, are laden with habits of observation, recollection, foresight, and judgment. In this way, habits are constantly mediating all of our interactions with the world. “Outside the scope of habits, thought works gropingly, fumbling in confused uncertainty” (Dewey 1922/2008a, p. 121).

Habits are primarily objective in the sense that they are formed in conjunction with the world. In this, habits “incorporate an environment within themselves” and become “an ability, an art, formed through past experience” (Dewey 1922/2008a, pp. 38, 48). Once a habit is established, it has a projective, dynamic quality – always functioning on some level, even if only in a subdued and subordinate form, waiting for the right conditions to arise in order to emerge and guide thought and conduct.

For Dewey, what distinguishes a good habit from a bad habit is not whether it is somehow annoying or distressing, but rather how it functions in helping us to respond to a present environment. “[W]hat makes a habit bad is enslavement to old ruts” (Dewey 1922/2008a, p. 48). Thus, whether a habit “is limited to repetition of past acts adopted to past conditions or is available for new emergencies” is key for ultimately determining if a habit is good or bad, as the “goodness of conduct” “lies in effective mastery of the conditions which now enter into action” (Dewey 1922/2008a, p. 48).

The importance of recognizing habit’s connection to present conditions is pivotal for Dewey’s discussion of habit because it is upon this axis that habit’s function turns. Thus, as much as habit accounts for the stable aspects of self, Dewey’s discussion of habit at the same time posits the self as an ever-changing, regenerative entity. What distinguishes habit as stable or changing is its relation to a present environment. When habit is not in harmony with present conditions, impulse emerges, creating an opportunity for habit to become reorganized. In this, Dewey’s discussion of the formation and reorganization of habit names a fundamental process that allows for life to grow and thus to qualify as a life at all (Dewey 1916/1980, p. 56).

Dewey’s commitment to fostering a life of growth is the reason he advocates that we cultivate impulse, the stirring of which is the initial first step in the reorganization of habit. Dewey asserts, “More ‘passions,’ not fewer,” as “the man who would intelligently cultivate intelligence will widen, not narrow, his life of strong impulses while aiming at their happy coincidence in operation” (Dewey 1922/2008a, pp. 136–137). But while impulse is vital and necessary for reorganizing habit, it is not nearly sufficient. “Impulse does not know what it is after….It rushes blindly into any opening it chances to find” (Dewey 1922/2008a, p. 175). While “impulse is needed to arouse thought [and] incite reflection,” “only thought notes obstructions, invents tools, conceives aims, directs technique, and thus converts impulse into an art which lives in objects” (Dewey 1922/2008a, p. 118). And in converting impulse into an art, we form a new habit – we grow – and we become in some sense a new self.

The work of intelligence is critical in allowing for impulse to be converted in this way, forming a new habit. Intelligence clarifies and liberates restless impulse through a process of deliberation, “a dramatic rehearsal (in imagination) of various competing possible lines of action” (Dewey 1922/2008a, p. 132). In this rehearsal, potential action is tried out based on what is known from the past via habits in conjunction with impulse and the present environment. The rehearsal continues until a course of action is hit upon. Notably, this is not a progression of moving from indifference to preference, but rather a move from multiple competing preferences to the emergence of a unified preference that satisfies the situation. “We want things that are incompatible with one another; therefore we have to make a choice of what we really want, of the course of action, that is, which most fully releases activities” (Dewey 1922/2008a, p. 134). In making a choice, the existing self is revealed and simultaneously the future self is being formed. “Every choice is at the forking of the roads, and the path chosen shuts off certain opportunities and opens others. In committing oneself to a particular course, a person gives a lasting set to his own being.” Dewey continues, describing this as “a process of discovering what sort of being a person most wants to become” (Dewey 1922/2008a, p. 287).

The choices we make can be reasonable or unreasonable. The distinction between the two, however, rests not on a guaranteed outcome of perfect success, but rather whether “justice” has been done to “every shade of imagined circumstances” (Dewey 1922/2008a, p. 135). In the case of an unreasonable choice, a particular object of thought becomes irresistible and overrides the others, but in so doing does not satisfy all facets of the present situation. By contrast, a reasonable decision requires the working (and wrestling) with competing impulses and habits in relation to a present situation in order to hit upon a projected resolution that will satisfy all aspects of a present circumstance. In this, deliberation is as much an operation of intellect as it is the working of art.


The title alone of Dewey’s major aesthetic text, Art as Experience, says a great deal about Dewey’s approach to art. Contrary to conceptions of art as objects, Dewey maintains, “there is a difference between the art product (statue, painting or whatever), and the work of art. The first is physical and potential; the latter is active and experienced. It is what the product does, its working” (Dewey 1934/2008c, p. 167). Thus, Dewey conceives of art as an experience of “active alert commerce with the world; at its height [art] signifies complete interpenetration of self and the world of objects and events” (Dewey 1934/2008c, p. 64). Such commerce with the world is critical for this discussion of self because within the experiences Dewey puts forth as art, the self grows through “an adjustment of our whole being with the conditions of existence” (Dewey 1934/2008c, p. 23). In this, the process of reorganizing habit becomes synonymous with Dewey’s conception of art.

Although Dewey’s discussion of habit is presented most fully in Human Nature and Conduct (1922), it is in 1934 with the publication of Art as Experience that the notion of habit comes to fruition. Both of these texts consider the “turmoil” marking “the place where inner impulse [makes] contact with [the] environment” and in Art as Experience deliberation is further developed, revealing it to be a fundamentally aesthetic process (Dewey 1934/2008c, p. 72).

Although by 1934 Dewey preferred the term “impulsion” to “impulse” in order to designate “a movement outward and forward of the whole organism to which special impulses are auxiliary” (Dewey 1934/2008c, p. 64), Dewey’s 1922 description is clearly at work in a recast version in Dewey’s 1934 discussion of the act of expression. In this, Dewey suggests that every complete experience begins with impulsion – an instance of need, a lack of harmony between organism and environment. Initially, the experience does not know where it is going, as it must contend with resistance from the environment in what Dewey now refers to as reflection. This process of reflection is the same as deliberation in that it relates the impulsion stirred by a present “hindering of conditions to what the self possesses as working capital in virtue of prior experiences” – that is, to habit. Thus, Dewey continues, expression involves a “transformation of energy into thoughtful action, through assimilation of meanings from the background of past experiences.” The act of expression is thus “a re-creation in which the present impulsion gets form and solidity while the old, the ‘stored,’ material is literally revived, given new life and soul through having to meet a new situation” (Dewey 1934/2008c, p. 66).

A reorganization of habit is thus inherent in Dewey’s conception of art. With this, art becomes key for understanding the full richness of Dewey’s account of self. Indeed, the creation of art involves self-creation as well. “From the first manifestation by a child of an impulse to draw up to the creations of a Rembrandt, the self is created in the creation of objects” (Dewey 1934/2008c, 286, emphasis added). And whether this self be a Rembrandt or someone else, the process of self becoming is in itself inherently a working of art. Thus, in overcoming resistances encountered through interaction with the environment, we transform objects external to us just as we transform internal objects as well – our habits and, by extension, our selves.


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© Springer Science+Business Media Singapore 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of Eastern FinlandJoensuuFinland