THE SIGNIFICANCE OF THE EMOTIONS IN DEWEY'S ACCOUNT OF MORAL INQUIRY
There is an important underlying question which frames John Dewey's psychological inquiries throughout his articles and lectures during the 1890s: How do individuals respond to the vicissitudes encountered in our dealings with others in the course of daily life? Specifically, are responses inclined to be pathological and ineffective, inadequate and counter-productive? Or are these responses capable of being more productive, effective, satisfactory? If so, is it possible to give a generic account of human experience which leads to a meliorist view of human capacities, one in which humans are capable of doing better than they have in the past?
If the latter is to be plausible, how does Dewey respond to phases of the Christian tradition which regard humans as sinners? Here, Kant is a significant figure because of his tendency to regard our inclinations as natural and invariable barriers to acting morally. While inclinations can be countermanded by a good will, they cannot be eliminated. In the prefatory note to his 1894 book, The Study of Ethics: A Syllabus, Dewey announces his goal of escaping "pathological and moralistic ethics," presumably including Kant, so there "there is room for a theory which conceives of conduct as the normal and free living of life as it is." Later he observes that Kant is forced to develop a "philosophical statement" of the doctrine of original sin.
Hume's alternative position is to regard morality as a function of emotion or feeling as an active trait, and reason is limited to "enlightening the feelings". Both Kant and Hume take for granted significant psychological dualisms or separations of capacities. Kant separates reason and inclination. Hume separates reason as a non-active faculty from emotion as active. Each position has been influential in the subsequent history of ethics. Both ignore the alternative that reason can integrated with emotion in a single process of active experience.
By contrast, the Darwinian account of evolution leads to the possibility of a meliorist and integrated account of human functions by raising the prospect of the individual as an active agent in his or her own self-reconstruction. If evolution in the biological sense involves the introduction of new characteristics through natural selection, then a door is opened for Dewey to propose that human experience evolves via the creative working of intelligence in reconstructing problematic situations in which we find ourselves? Traditional psychological categories can now be regarded as instruments within a dynamic process of reconstruction.
Before we show how Dewey develops this view with regard to the role of emotion in dealing with a problematic situation calling for moral judgment, we must first give his account of the difference between psychological inquiry and moral inquiry. In a 1903 paper, "Psychological Method in Ethics," he asserts that although the field of psychology as one of sciences can be distinguished from that of ethics, "psychology furnishes an indispensable phase of method in ethics." To be sure psychology studies "mere presentation in the stream of conscious states" and that an "end or ideal of behavior is not such a "mere psychological presentation." Nevertheless, there is a sense in which the conscious state "carries" the end or ideal. The psychologist studies these presentations -- emotions, images, habits, etc. -- abstractly. These presentations are "not the moral reality", yet they remind us "there are certain conditions of origin and career to which the candidate for ideal value must submit itself [and these] give . . . a definite intellectual base line from which to measure the claims of such a candidate." So, for example, if perfection is a proposed ideal, the question whether it is an acceptable ideal hinges upon "the discovery of the adequate stimulus and the adequate use of functioning of such an image [of perfection] in experience."
Dewey makes a similar remark in his account of psychological analysis as providing the basis for controlling moral judgments in his essay "Logical Conditions of a Scientific Treatment of Morality." Here the question is not the examination of perfection as a particular ideal, but the role of psychological analysis in developing any account of an end or ideal.
. . . the logical category, say, of end or ideal becomes concrete only as some individual has actually experience of and with ends -- and this involves the act or attitude of forming and entertaining them. So the category of standard becomes more than a possible intellectual tool only as some individual actually engages in an experience concerned with right and wrong, and which, when viewed objectively, is regarded as a judgment.
Since an ethical judgment involves conscious deliberation and choice leading to conduct, it requires psychological machinery. Proposed ideals must become psychologically workable.
One element in this psychological machinery is the emotions. Unfortunately, we have seen that for Kant emotions are a phase of inclinations which can stand in the way of reason. Hume regards reason as passive and so is forced to explain morality as an active emotion. Dewey's account of emotions challenges both views. In the remainder of Part I of this paper we will show how Dewey provides for reason and emotion to be integrated in experience and how both are active functions within experience. Part II will deal with the significance of this account for a successful theory of moral inquiry. Our account will focus upon Dewey's important article, "The Theory of Emotion," originally published in two parts in November, 1894 and January, 1895.
Dewey's account of the emotions is set forth as an instrument to be utilized in inquiries involving moral subject matter. In the course of experience all us of encounter situations where our own future course of action is called into question. These are situations which we might call "morally problematic". They occupy a range from the relatively trivial to the monumental. "The Theory of the Emotion" is one of Dewey's earliest attempts within what is soon to become a more general project of developing a comprehensive account of the psychological side of experience along operational or functional lines. The full account and the place of emotions within it is found in his 1898 and 1901 lectures on the Psychology of Ethics. These lectures are his most comprehensive attempt to develop a theory of the psychological aspect of experience. In them, emotions and other psychological functions are placed within the organic circuit of human experience. This circuit includes the individual and the scene of action which gives specific content to experience.
"The Theory of Emotion" is an attempt to bring together Darwin's account of emotional expressions such as grimacing, baring of teeth, and other facial expressions, and James' account of the nature of emotion. In Part I of the essay Dewey follows Darwin in regarding such expressions as "a survival, in the form of attitudes, of acts originally useful not qua expressing emotion, [but] qua acts, as serving life." He emphasizes that "The reference to emotion in explaining the attitude is wholly irrelevant; the attitude of emotion is explained positively by reference to useful movements." Accordingly, it is not surprising that he asks "whether in every case the idea of expression of emotion does not enter in [to language] only to confuse.
In the Part II of "The Theory of Emotion" Dewey reconsiders the James-Lange or "discharge theory of the "nature of emotion . . . considered as seizures, Affects, or `feel'". He assumes that the same principle that explains the emotional attitude or expression of emotion discussed in Part I must also explain the discharge. Accordingly, the difficulty with James' account is "the absence of all attempts . . . to connect the emotional seizure with the other phases of the concrete emotion experience."
To remedy this difficulty consider a person who suddenly encounters a bear,
. . . we have but one organic pulse, the frightful bear, the frightened man, whose reality is the whole concrete coordination of eye-leg-heart, etc., activity, and that the distinction of cold intellectuality and warm emotionality is simply a functional distinction within this one whole of action.
Since in this and other cases which call out emotion, there is need for adjustment, for deciding what to do, these situations are morally problematic. The "attitude" aspect of the experience, say the facial grimace, "stands for a recapitulation of thousands of acts formerly done, ends formerly reached," but
the immediate and present need is to get this attitude of anger which reflects the former act of seizing into some connection with the act of getting-even or of moral control, or whatever the idea may be. The conflict and competition, with incidental inhibition and deflection, is the disturbance of the emotional habit.
The individual encountering the bear is caught up in a situation in which he is required to work out what to do. His emotional attitude, say a "getting tough" expression, or perhaps standing still and hoping not to be regarded as a danger to the bear. But the automatic response comes into conflict with the demand for intelligence to work out a solution, to propose a new ideal -- say to run away.
The emotion is, psychologically, the adjustment or tension of habit and ideal, and the organic changes in the body are the literal working out, in concrete terms, of the struggle of adjustment.
We cannot emphasize too much that the single process of experience is the reality. This reality has its intellectual aspect, its affective aspect, and (to mention it for the first time) its effort aspect. These represent distinctions within a single ongoing experience.
Here we must interject that for Dewey the "psychological fallacy" (or psychologist's fallacy) is the error of taking "differences [in experience] which result from reflection [which] are [then] carried over into the experience itself." As characterized in his 1898 Lectures on Psychological Ethics, the psychologist's fallacy involves
reading into the early stages of a [psychological] development [that] which can only be true of the later stages. . . . We take the function of the process and read it into the whole process in its course of development; i.e., we see the function somehow as if it were there at first and the process grew up about it while it remained unchanged.
For example, the mainstream or traditional approach to moral inquiry commits this fallacy. If for purposes of discussion we admit that ideals are worked out, evolve, and in this sense are the issue or outcome of an inquiry, it is a fallacy to say they are already there at the beginning of an inquiry and thus guide it. Similarly, if emotions (or reason, or effort) have a significant temporal place in the development and subsequent evolution of a specific experience, it is a mistake to regard them as present throughout this process of evolution. To do so is to falsely assign to emotion (or thought, or effort) an independent characteristic, which can then be discussed apart from the very process in which it emerges, functions, and goes away. The psychologist (and the philosopher as well) asks "What is an emotion? What is reason? What is effort?"
The alternative is to look for the situational function of emotions. So Dewey regards the "feel" of emotion as a sign of the tension between old and new, habit and proposed ideal. Emotion alerts us to this tension, serves as indication that it must be resolved. We need not get bogged down in trying to explain the relationship between the separated and different elements in experience, chiefly emotion and intelligence. They were never separated in the first place!
These considerations lead us to Dewey's account of the place of emotions in a morally problematic situation. Moral inquiry involves a transition from emotion to interest. Retain again to Dewey's account of the feel of emotion as a tension that arises because of the conflict between expression of emotion as survival of an earlier successful coordination to be used in the face of difficulty and intelligence as proposing new ends. Then "interest is the feeling which arises with the completed coordination . . . [the] undisturbed action, absorbing action, unified action, and all interests, as interests, are equally absorbing." Interest reflects the resolution, through transformation, of the friction associated with previously competing tendencies.
The multiplicity of deeds which demand doing in this world is too great to be numbered; that principle which secures that if only full or organic activity go into each end, each act shall equally satisfy in its time and place, is the highest ethical principle.
In other words, we are caught up in a situation which provokes emotion as indictor of the need for its resolution. Some competing demands reflect conflicts between customary behaviors, other reflect proposed new ideals.. How does this scenario about the place of emotion conflict with the aforementioned traditional scenarios, expressed in Kant and Hume, about the place of emotions in moral inquiry?
The Role of the Emotions in the Moral Aspect of an Inquiry
Dewey's account of emotion portrays one element in the psychological phase of a comprehensive logic of inquiry. Now our purpose is primarily logical: to show that emotions do not (following Hume) constitute the subject matter for moral inquiry nor do they (following Kant) impede intelligent inquiry. If we had more time we could go on to show how regarding emotions as subject matter for inquiry leads to a "scientific treatment of morality."
The function of a comprehensive logic of inquiry is to open doors to and provide instruments for more effective inquiries in all subject matters. Dewey believes that the remote and abstract inquiries that go into the development of a logic of inquiry serve a very important practical role. Instead of regarding each problematic situation we face as calling for an immediate answer on the basis of current observation and knowledge, we can step back from the situation and give an abstract account of the factors in it. This account will supply us with better ways to deal with it and similar situations.
How so? Dewey asserts that in scientific inquiries, "the extreme remoteness of the subjectmatter of physical science from the subject matter of everyday living is precisely that which renders the former applicable to an immense variety of the occasions that present themselves in the course of everyday living." Similarly, in "matters that are distinctly human and moral," inquiry must find "a method of abstraction which, because of its degree of remoteness from established customs, will bring them into a light in which their nature will be indefinitely more clearly seen than is now the case.".
Elsewhere, Dewey asserts that "For practical purposes morals means customs, folkways, established collective habits." As we have just seen, abstract psychological analysis takes us away from specific situations which call for moral judgment and enable us to view morally problematic situations without the need to seek an immediate results. As we have seen in Part I of this paper, an account of the function of emotions is one phase of this analysis. While this account does not solve any particular problem, it at minimum performs the negative functioning of avoiding approaches to moral inquiry based upon the Kantian and Humean accounts of their place in experience. Positively, we are introduced to a view of moral inquiry as discovering a new interest, as marked by the resolution of demands in conflict. This suggestion in tern leads us -- as we discover in Dewey's 1898 and 1901 Lectures on Psychological Ethics -- to a dynamic, reconstructive, account of the agent and the scene of action.
These remarks serve to clarify the opening assertion of Part II that Dewey's account of emotions is one phase in the psychological aspect of a comprehensive theory of inquiry applicable to all subject matters. Emotions are not separated from reason or working intelligence but serve as a checking point in which past or habitual experience comes into conflict with a proposed new image of what is to be done. Emotions play an important "checking" role in an active inquiry. If then (as we have seen in Part I) the moral aspect of inquiry involves the evaluation of various demands upon us, of "deeds which demand doing", then emotions are required tools of inquiry.
This conclusion raises an significant question for further consideration. In the brief account of inquiry set forth in How We Think (1910) Dewey tells us that the "location and definition" of a problem or "felt difficulty" is an important logical step in an inquiry. If we consider Dewey's account of the "feel" of emotion from this standpoint, then all of us who encounter an emotional outburst from another person must now ask if we can locate the problem of dealing with that person more effectively by regarding the outburst as reflecting the tension between old habit and new proposed course of action rather -- not as a barrier to progress. If so, we have located a relevant factor in our further dealings with that person.
1. For Dewey's advocacy of meliorism as an alternative to optimism or pessimism, see Reconstruction in Philosophy (1920), MW 12, pp. 181-82. His 1898 Lectures on Psychological Ethics are the most complete working out of a meliorist account of human experience, starting with the important role of individual in the reconstruction of the social order. He hen gives a meliorist interpretation of traditional psychological functions such as
interest, habit, intelligence, motive an intention, feeling and emotion, and the psychology of the moral virtues. See Dewey's Lectures on Psychological and Political Ethics: 1898, ed. Donald F. Koch (New York: Hafner Press, 1976), hereafter LPPE.
2. EW 4, pp. 221, 260-61.
3. "Moral Philosophy,"(1894) EW 4, p. 145.
4. As early as 1892 Dewey observes that "`Category' is a term used to denote any typical aspect or distinction of reality" (EW 3, p. 216). He holds that "Science and philosophy can only report the actual condition of life, or experience. Their business is to reveal experience in its truth, its reality"(Ibid, p. 211). In his 1898 Lectures on Psychological Ethics Dewey discusses, in alphabetical order, the following aspects of dynamical human experience: attention, choice, desire, effort, emotion, feeling, habit, ideas, impulse, intellectual process, intention, interests, motive, remorse (blame), sensation, stimulus, tension, and will.
5. Quotations are from MW 3, pp. 59-61.
6. MW 3, p. 30.
7. Due to considerations of time, we cannot explain how Dewey's account of emotions is a reconstruction of the work of Darwin and James, or the details of the theory, or possible criticisms. Our inquiry is preliminary: an attempt to find out on phase of what Dewey is trying to Do. Larry Hickman has attributed to John J. McDermott the metaphor of Dewey's work as "an elaborate spider's web, the junction and lineaments of which its engineer knows well, and in and on which he is able to move about with great facility." Trouble is likely to occur when the "outsider seeks to traverse or to map that territory" (John Dewey's Pragmatic Technology (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1990), p. xi). Here we attempt to map one section of the territory concerning the interaction of the theory of inquiry in its moral aspect and as one phase of Dewey's psychology. The latter is not a traditional psychology in the sense that it attempts to characterize psychological functions but a coherent series of hypotheses about the role of these functions in contributing to a successful inquiry. In this sense, his psychology is an aspect of his general theory of inquiry.
8. Dewey asserts that in moral inquiry "character is passed in review," and that "the judger is engaged in judging himself" ("Logical Conditions of a Scientific Treatment of Morality," MW 3, p. 23). Similar assertions are found throughout Dewey's early work. In the 1895 Lectures on the Logic of Ethics he characterizes an ideal as a "plan" and then asserts that "when we have a plan, it seems to mark the outline of activity . . . sets certain channels, preferred to others, along which the activity is to flow". (Principles of Instrumental Logic: John Dewey's Lectures in Ethics and Political Ethics: 1895-96, ed. Donald F. Koch (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1998) p. 80, §196). In the 1898 Lectures on Psychological Ethics he asserts that
. . . reference to conduct as individual gives us the standpoint from which to distinguish the moral from the practical. In one sense the practical is a more generic conception. The larger part of our conduct is considered as the subject of non-moral judgments -- as something to be governed by pure matter of fact or expediency. But wherever any conduct is identified with the self, it is then thrown into moral perspective. Very much of conduct we regard as non-moral. All such falls within the sphere of a taken-for-granted self. . . . Any item of conduct gets moral value insofar as it embodies the conscious self as conscious self, the agent as agent, the person as person (p. 22).
In this context, Dewey introduces the hypothetical situation of a sea captain who had planned to take his regular long fishing voyage but then his wife gets sick.
. . . now the ethical situation has a new element in it -- it has become disorganized. . . . What was before a conscious unity is now a discord -- what which was taken as homogeneous is found to be heterogeneous. A new mode of unification must be discovered. Unity become for the time being an ideal to be put into the new situation (p. 22)
In other words, "the judger is engaged in judging himself."
The latter reference specifies a generic characteristic of a morally problematic situation. Specific variations of this scenario are attempt to characterize the particular variations of problematic situations which call for judging oneself. When an individual suddenly encounters a bear, does the action called for involve a problem about obligation to another such as is called for when the individual encounters a demand from another party? Or is it a question about the working out of individual good? Two of Dewey's more interesting accounts of the various specific aspects of the moral side of experience are to be found in his 1900 Lectures on the Logic of Ethics, and in the important 1930 article, "Three Independent Factors in Morals," LW 5, pp. 279-88. These can be compared with the accounts of moral language in Outlines of a Critical Theory of Ethics (1891), The Study of Ethics: A Syllabus (1894); and the two versions of Ethics (1908, 1932).
9. These lectures differ from the psychological account in Human Nature and Conduct (1922) to the extent that, for purposes of exposition, they ignore the social aspect of experience. By contrast, the sub-title of Human Nature and Conduct is An Introduction to Social Psychology. A possible problem with discussing the psychological side of experience apart from the conditions of action or social side of experience is that it can lead to tendency to think that psychology studies experience independently of the setting in which it occurs. Perhaps this is why Dewey turned to social psychology in his later work.
10. "The Theory of Emotion, EW 4, pp. 154-55.
11. Ibid., pp. 171-72.
12. Ibid., p. 177.
13. Ibid, p. 285, emphasis added.
14. Ibid, p. 185. In his 1898 Lectures on Psychological Ethics Dewey forestalls the objection that some emotions are immediate by referring to "feeling . . . in its broadest sense [as] a name for . . . purely immediate face-to-face consciousness of worth" which "is not finally trustworthy." Emotion is a feeling in the narrow sense as described here because it involves an image about what to do (pp.111-112). Emotion in the narrow sense is clearly a phase in an inquiry. "The significance of the emotion is the conflict and the need of adjustment between the formed [customary] element in inquiry and the ideal element. It represents the lack of equilibrium between active power and tendency and [proposed] aim" (114).
15. Ibid, p. 176.
16. Ibid., p. 25.
17. EW 4, p. 186. Dewey concludes the last sentence with the assertion that "it [the highest principle] is the statement of the only religious emotional experience which really seems worth while -- the sense of the validity of all necessary doing." The "necessary" aspect of the "doing" stems from the disunity or friction in the situation, not some external, ready-made, moral imperative.
18. This assertion needs a justification which we cannot give here. We assume that Dewey's favorable impression of William James 1891 article, "The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life," enable him and so come to view a morally problematic situation as a situation where an individual is caught up in (or will be caught up in) conflicting demands. But while James's approach to such conflicts is to satisfy as many demands as possible to the exclusion of others, Dewey's logic of inquiry is a logic for reconstruction of the situation. His reference to "full" or "organic activity" is an implicit reference to the postulate that initially conflicting demands can be mediated and a new harmonized situation constructed. In The Study of Ethics Dewey refers to the "ethical postulate" as the view that "moral experience continually demands of every agent that he shape his plans and interests so that they meet the demands of the situation, while it also requires that, through the agent, the situation be so modified as to enable the agent to express himself freely" (p. 234). Note that the postulate is not a moral principle in a traditional sense but a demand originating in "moral experience."
19. See Dewey's significant 1903 essay in the moral aspect of logical theory entitled "Logical Conditions of a Scientific Treatment of Morality" (MW 3, pp. 3-39). The original version of this essay is an attempt to clarify what Dewey was doing in his three course, year-long sequence of ethics courses at The University of Chicago. The courses where titled "Logic of Ethics," "Psychology of Ethics, " and "Political Ethics," and the set forth these three aspects of a comprehensive approach to the scientific investigation of moral subject matter.
20. "Dewey's Reply to Albert G. A. Balz," originally published in 1949, in LW 16, p. 292.
21. Human Nature and Conduct (1922), MW 14, p. 54.
22. MW 4, p. 236.