[Note:  This was part of a SAAP panel presentation, and my task was primarily critical and textual.  For my constructive prefatory remarks proposing a pragmatist animal ethics, please contact me at sfesmire@siena.edu.]

Dewey on Animals:  Pragmatism, or Paleopragmatism?

Steven Fesmire, Siena College (March 9, 2002)

1.      Consiousness-The best ethological critique of animals as "passive reflex devices" is Donald Griffin,

Animal Minds (U. of Chicago, 2000).  Griffin helpfully distinguishes "perceptual" from "reflective consciousness."  The former includes all awareness (such as memory, anticipation, choice, means-end thinking, etc.), while the latter is a subset in which "the content is conscious experience itself" (p. 8).)  According to Dewey, both are restricted to humans.  Human "goods" are conditioned upon thought; animal "pleasures" are accidental (HNC, MW 14:146).  In other animals, responses are simply released by environing conditions.   Some evidence of this is that animals are unable to distinguish between appearance and reality (EW 5:364).  Dewey’s corpus is peppered with belittling remarks about "savages" which strike a contemporary reader as obsolete.  For example, the mediation of experimental consciousness marks the difference between humans and other animals and between "the non-scientific and the scientific animal" (1905.03.29 (01828)).  But his parallel remarks about animals escape notice.  On his ethnocentrism, see EN, LW 1:165 on the "savage" mind as mechanical/habitual.  Cf. MW 6:13.  In the Ethics, Tufts is even more explicit, sharply distinguishing "higher" and "lower" civilization along these lines (MW 5:14, 29, 42, 45, 156, 484).

2.      Social Communication, Language, Thought.  Only humans are capable of social communication.

This is possible because of language/speech, and it is a prerequisite for both thought and imagination.  As Dewey observes, "If we had not talked with others and they with us, we should never talk to and with ourselves" (EN, LW 1:135).  "Through speech a person dramatically identifies himself with potential acts and deeds..." (EN, LW 1:135). ).  "Thought," Mead adds, "is but an inner conversation."  The upshot for animals is captured in this quip:  To claim that "lower animals, animals without language" are thinking beings is analogous to claiming a forked branch is a plow (EN, LW 1:215).

3.      Culture.  "[W]ith human beings, cultural conditions replace strictly physical ones" (LW 13:78).

Dewey’s model of culture is unselfconsciously anthropocentric and ethnocentric.  In Freedom and Culture, he helpfully identifies at least six chief factors of culture (FC, LW 13:79):  (1) law and politics, (2) industry and commerce, (3) science and technology, (4) the arts of expression and communication, (5) "morals, or the values men prize and the ways in which they evaluate them," (6) social philosophy, "the system of general ideas used by men to justify and to criticize the fundamental conditions under which they live."

4.      Emotion.  Dewey contrasts emotion with blind feelings of "animal passion" (MW 10:282).  It is

emotion that enables humans to experience pain as anything more than "blind, formless pain" (EW 5:361; cf. EW 5:362-367).  Animals do not anticipate the future or remember the past.  In contemporary terms, their experience is not situated in an ongoing narrative.  The parallel of human pain on the animal plane involves "simply a shock of interrupted activity" (EW 4:179; cf. EW 4:183-85) not analogous to human pain.  The same applies to the exclusively human capacity to love (LW 10:83). 

In keeping with scientific dogma for the century to come, in the 1890s Dewey derided as "unduly anthropomorphic" any attempt to claim analogy between animal stimulus-response and human emotional experience.  Animals of course act afraid, angry, etc., but they lack the imaginative perception of past and future requisite to calling their experience emotional.  It is simply habitual (EW 5:364).  (A historical parallel is Descartes’ famous thought experiment, in the Discourse on Method, about the machine that mimics human behaviors.)  Note that this exempts animals from any sort of aesthetic experience, which for Dewey requires a unifying emotional quality from tensive beginning through consummation.  "For [human] life is no uniform uninterrupted march or flow.  It is a thing of histories, each with its own plot, its own inception and movement toward its close, each having its own particular rhythmic movement; each with its own unrepeated quality pervading it throughout" (AE, LW 10:42-43; cf. MW 10:321-24). 

For animals, the inertia of inflexible and unvaried habit overrides any need for imaginative adjustment of past and present.  Their lives are marked by recurrence, complete uniformity, mechanical routine.  On the animal plane there is no perception, meaning, "consciousness, the imaginative phase of experience," mind, risky "venture into the unkown," or reconstruction of the past (LW 10:276).  All of these are prerequisites for emotional life, so what we might anthropomorphically take to be pain, love, or grief in other animals are brute reflex responses.

Animal pleasures and pains are accidental, due to chance evolutionary hardwiring.  Natural selection has geared them for immediately satisfied instinct, "very much like a machine" (LW 17:258).  Animal pain is blind and formless and gives rise to "blind, formless movements" useful by evolutionary chance, not choice.  An animal’s sheer organizational mechanisms are perfected to deal with crises without "the additional problem of pain to wrestle with" (EW 5:361).  This recalls Descartes’ praise of the perfection of animal "clockwork."  Animal action is immediate and overt, in contrast with what is found in humans:  indirect imaginative forethought and experimental probing sparked by the tension of disrupted habits.  Thus, for instance, animals do not experience anything comparable to love; they pursue the "physiologically normal end" of sex without any sort of redirection of impulses into other channels, such as in humans results in poetry (LW 10:83).

5.   Imagination, deliberation, dramatic rehearsal.  Only with humans are "means-consequences tried out in advance without the organism getting irretrievably involved in physical consequences."  Animal actions are "fully geared to extero-ceptor and muscular activities" and hence immediately translate into overt rather than indirect behavior (EN, LW 1:221).  Elsewhere, Dewey writes of "distinctively human behavior, that, namely, which is influenced by emotion and desire in the framing of means and ends; for desire, having ends-in-view, and hence involving valuations, is the characteristic that marks off human from nonhuman behavior" (LW 13:250).  Cf. LW 1:221, MW 10:282, LW 17:256-58.  Imagination, deliberation, emotion, "genuine desire," and valuation are not available "on the animal plane" (AE, LW 10:83).  On this model, other animals appear to be utterly outside the realm of moral agents or patients.  This helps to explain why Dewey was so supremely confident that "scientific men are under definite obligation to experiment upon animals" (LW 2:98-103; cf. LW 13:333

Dewey’s Three Plateaus

All three "planes" or "plateaus" below involve "interaction of a living being with an environment" (LW 10:276).  Because "the human animal is a human animal" (MW 5:335), operations of the higher include the lower, but not vice versa (cf. 1895.12.22,24 (00275).)  As with Peirce’s doctrine of synechism, for Dewey there are no ontological barriers to continuity between human and other forms of life, but there are developmental barriers the other direction.  For Dewey, these are descriptive categories for "fields of interaction"; unlike Aristotle’s parallel categories, they do not support a fundamental ontology, a hierarchy of final causes, or fixed teleology of any sort.  Thus he understands they are fallible and revisable in light of new (and now available) evidence.  He says of the categories:  "They stick to empirical facts noting and denoting characteristic qualities and consequences peculiar to various levels of interaction" (LW 1:208).  Note parallels with Aristotle, Descartes, and Kant. 

III. THE HUMAN PLANE (Aristotle:  Thinking)

(The "Third Plateau" (LW 1:208) is the "highest" field of interaction, of art, science, morality, and religious life; object of social sciences.)

MIND is "the body of organized meanings by means of which events of the present have significance for us" (LW 10:276).  This property is added to and incorporates the animal plane.

FREEDOM (and thus Dignity and Moral Personhood)

CULTURE:  "with human beings, cultural conditions replace strictly physical ones" (LW 13:78)

The primary relationship of the human plane is means-consequence, "responding to things in their meanings" (LW 1:278).  Experience does not merely end; it is consummated and fulfilled, whether superficially and hastily, or artfully and perceptively.  Only humans are "conscious of meanings" or have IDEAS.

Human goods are conditioned upon thought.  Unless we’re subsisting on an animal plane, human goods are deliberate.  Unlike animals, our instincts are directed through foresight of consequences.

The human capacity for learning, GROWTH, stems from socio-cultural interdependence and the fact that meanings enter "that are derived from prior experiences" (LW 10:276).  Growth is a social, not physical, gift (MW 9:48).


Education (vs. mere mechanical "training") (see LW 2:359, MW 5:190, LW 8:130)

Desire, Effort, Hope


Creative INTELLIGENCE (Reason), Memory, Deliberation

Reflective IMAGINATION (imagination & emotion run hand-in-hand)



"objects, or things-with-meanings" (LW 1:278)

Planning, Constructing, MEANS-END relationship, Ends-in-View, Purposes

Variation, Progress

LANGUAGE, Speech, Communication



Temporality (narrative perception of past-present-future)

II. THE ANIMAL PLANE (Aristotle:  Appetitive/Sensitive)

(The Second Plateau of brute animal nature is a "lower" physical field of interaction that may be dubbed "psycho-physical, but not ‘mental,’ that is, not aware of meanings" (LW 1:198).  It is literally the "state of nature"; object of the physical sciences (LW 13:229))



The primary relationship of the animal plane is cause-effect.  The animal is pushed appetitively to "a mere end, a last and closing term of arrest" (LW 1:278).  There is no perception of past and future, thus no control of means, no intelligence.

This is the level of sense and brute FEELING, but not of emotion.  Other animals have feelings, "but

they do not know they have them" (LW 1:198).  Consciousness is a prerequisite for emotional life, and

animals are not conscious.  Lacking mind, animal behaviors that we take to be pain or grief or loving

attachment are felt REFLEX responses, not emotions.  These reflexes are well suited to survival, but

they are blind and formless.  Unlike the deliberate effort that forges human goods, animal pleasures are

accidental, due to chance evolutionary hardwiring.  They are geared for immediately satisfied instinct,

like machines.

The Animal Plane is determined by blind habit & impulse, thus behavior is strictly a function of

 INSTINCT pushed by unthinking appetite, with no "objects, or things-with-meanings."  Driven by the inertia of HABIT and instinct, animal life is marked by recurrence, complete uniformity, mechanical routine.

Because there is no freedom on the animal plane, moral categories like rights, duties, virtues, etc. do not apply beyond implicit inclusion in the virtue of "natural piety," which rests "on a just sense of nature as the whole of which we are parts, while it also recognizes that we are parts that are marked by intelligence and purpose" (ACF, LW 9:18).

I. THE VEGETATIVE PLANE (Aristotle:  Nutritive)

The vegetative plane is a strictly physical field of interaction.  It encompasses LIFE, but no feeling.  See LW 1:198, 200.