John Dewey’s Human Nature and Conduct (1922) is one of his most widely read and most widely quoted books.
Alexander quotes from it in UCL, in a footnote, as follows:
In his Human Nature and Conduct (pp. 27-29) Professor John Dewey discusses what happens when the ordinary man, slouching along with a stoop, is told to stand up straight. He immediately pulls himself up, and imagines that, by conforming to the idea suggested by the command, he is, for the time being, improving himself, and Professor Dewey proceeds: ‘Of course, something happens when a man acts upon his idea of standing straight. For a little while he stands differently, but only a different kind of badly.’ That is to say, unless he has been taught the correct use of his primary control, his ‘standing-up’ will only be another form of the wrongness associated with his slouching.
For Dewey, understanding the workings of habit is the key to conduct. The separation of body and mind, practice and theory, actuality and idea, is a reflection of the separation of habit and thought. He asserts that rational behaviour is the intelligent balance between impulses on the one hand and habits on the other. An impulse is an immediate stimulation to activity; habit modifies impulse: the impulse is adapted and channelled through habits into activity. ‘Convention and custom are necessary to carrying forward impulse to any happy conclusion.’ Habit and impulse are equally important; either one on its own is an extreme. ‘Habit as a vital art depends upon the animation of habit by impulse; only this inspiriting stands between habit and stagnation.’
There are two kinds of habit: intelligent and routine. The opposition is not between reason and habit but between intelligent habit and routine habit. Routine habit is a machine-like repetition, a duplicating recurrence of old acts: ‘All habit-forming involves the beginning of an intellectual specialization which if unchecked ends in thoughtless action.’ Intelligent habit consists of deliberation, ‘a tentative trying-out of various courses of action. . . .’ ‘The resulting period of delay, of suspended and postponed overt action, is the period in which activities that are refused direct outlet project imaginative counterparts.’ Without this delay, without inhibition, ‘there is no instigation of imagination, no redirection into more discriminated and comprehensive activities.’ This deliberation constitutes reason. Reason, therefore, is not a force against habit and impulse, but ‘the attainment of a working harmony among diverse desires.’ Reason is not a purely intellectual exercise, but is also dependent ‘upon a sensitive and proportionate emotional sensitiveness. Only a one-sided, over-specialised emotion leads to thinking of it as separate from emotion.’ The outcome – the act and its consequences – is assessed; this involves the organism as a whole because ‘the only way of telling what an organic act is like is by the sensed or perceptible changes which it occasions.’ Much of this information relies on observing one’s environment, internal feeling being deceptive: ‘Most so-called self-deception is due to employing immediate organic states as criteria of the value of an act.’ Dewey also discusses ends and means. Ends are not really ends in the sense of being final but are ‘turning points in activity.’ They are ‘ends-in-view or aims.’ Thus they function as a means in any present activity because they provide the motivation or meaning for the carrying out of the action. Intelligence should be used to discover that end which ‘will best operate as a releasing and unifying stimulus in the existing situation. . . .’ Dewey concludes that the deliberate act is a moral act because only reflective choice allows for consideration of better and worse acts.
Human Nature and Conduct grew out of a series of lectures delivered at Leland Stanford Junior University in 1918. It was not initially a success, selling only 2,700 copies in the ﬁrst two years but it has remained in print almost constantly since its publication.
A study of Alexander’s influence on Human Nature and Conduct was made by Eric McCormack in his thesis of 1958.
See also John Dewey.