Bad Habits Of Thinking Make It Hard To Form Community

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Chapter 5 of John Dewey’s The Public And Its Problems addresses the role of community in moving from the theory of democracy (the subject of the first 3 chapters) to a working form of democracy. Dewey says that democracy only exists in communities. Just as there has never been and will never be an ideal democracy, there has never been and will never be a perfect community.

Human beings have always worked together on joint projects as a matter of course. Dewey says community arises when people begin to share signs and symbols that enable communication. They talk about their conjoint efforts, to remember and record them, to discuss them, to take pleasure in the accomplishment, to work out how to share in the accomplishment, to talk about ways to do the project better, and to talk about other possible conjoint activity. [1]

1. He starts with this simple proposition, which we’ve seen before in other discussions of his work:

Everything which is distinctively human is learned, not native, even though it could not be learned without native structures which mark man off from other animals. To learn in a human way and to human effect is not just to acquire added skill through refinement of original capacities.

To learn to be human is to develop through the give-and-take of communication an effective sense of being an individually distinctive member of a community; one who understands and appreciates its beliefs, desires and methods, and who contributes to a further conversion of organic powers into human resources and values. P. 180.

The communication Dewey describes lies in sharing the meanings attached to our words and symbols. It only works if there is shared understanding of those meanings and accurate recounting and recording of beliefs, desires, and methods. This enables the group to come to a reasonably clear view of the situation facing the community, to resolve problems, and to make decisions about the future course of conjoint activity.

2. Knowledge can be kept private, or held close by a few. In the latter case, it can be used to further the interests of the few instead of the community at large. That is the usual case in societies controlled by economic interests. When knowledge is widely and freely held, the community can give careful consideration to the potential outcomes of different uses and results, and it is more likely that those usages will be broader in scope and that the outcomes will benefit the community as a whole.

3. The formation of habits of behavior and thinking makes it possible for us to cope with a complex and changing environment by freeing us to focus on significant changes in the environment. When we experience something that calls our habits into question, we move out of the realm of habit into the realm of actual thinking, which Dewey calls inquiry. Rational directed linear thought is itself a specialized habit, learned with great effort by a few, scientists, philosophers, writers, and only infrequently practiced by them. This is Dewey’s flat dismissal of neoliberalism’s rational man perspective.

4. Dewey says that people expected that with new democratic forms of government the industrial revolution would change things and lead to greater community control. But the habit of kowtowing to the social hierarchy intervened, and nothing really changed. Most of the same people stayed in power, with some new people added from the industrialist class and some of the aristos dropped.


Dewey’s thoughts on habit are close to those of Pierre Bourdieu on habitus, discussed in this series. Bourdieu made it his life’s work to study how the dominant class reproduces itself in ways that hide the continuity of domination from itself as well as from the submissive class, so that it seems natural and just and the submissive class doesn’t revolt. That’s what Dewey is talking about when he says that habits of thought were so strong that even the tumultuous changes of the Industrial Revolution and the rise of democracy were unable to shake up long-standing power structures,

Bourdieu offers a modified explanation: he says habitus comes from experience and from class structures. See this post for a discussion of habitus.

ONe obvious bad habit is trusting authorities blindly. We think “Tucker Carlson said it” or “I saw it in the New York Times”; and then we just accept it as true, even if a bit of thought would cause us to question it.

Our habits of thought can also be obstacles to learning new things, especially things that seem radically new. Think about what it would be like to be a farmer in Copernicus’ time, and to be told that the earth revolves around the sun. Or think about what it would be like to be a devout Christian when Darwin explained the origins of the species homo sapiens. If you didn’t understand the methods used by Copernicus and Darwin, and didn’t understand the chains of thought that led to their theories, it would be very hard to accept them. Then add to that the threat to your religious beliefs, and the possibility that accepting these new views would lead to eternal damnation.

Your original ideas were engrained from infancy. One you learned from direct experience. The other was taught by your whole society and was reinforced regularly throughout your life. Changing one’s mind about these things requires a tremendous commitment, intellectual daring, and at least some community support.

Now think about the Covid-19 vaccines from Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech. The mechanism is new for most of us. The technology seems exotic, and even scary. There are links to fetal stem cells. Management of the pandemic was politicized by Republican politicians. Some Democrats publicly worried about the possible politicization of the FDA, which was sadly realistic, but added to the idea that politics was involved.

Black and Brown people had reason to worry that the testing was inadequate, and that they were being made test subjects as their forebears were, repeatedly. Anti-vaxxers made all sorts of maddening claims about the dangers. The new technology scared people who had previously driven themselves into conniptions over earlier vaccines. Very few of us understand the science behind the creation, manufacture and testing of mRNA vaccines.

The government did nothing to teach the facts. People wallowed in ignorance. And now we may never achieve herd immunity, meaning we are condemned to a future of regular and unpleasant vaccinations.

Far too many of us have lost the ability to reconsider our habits of thought even when they produce absurd or dangerous outcomes. Prominent Democrats drink the blood of children? Bill Gates puts microchips in vaccines? But I’m not sure how open our society is to new ideas at any level, particularly ideas around status, dominance and power.

As Dewey says,

Thinking itself becomes habitual along certain lines; a specialized occupation. Scientific men, philosophers, literary persons, are not men and women who have so broken the bonds of habits that pure reason and emotion undefiled by use and wont speak through them. They are persons of a specialized infrequent habit. P 185.

This is an ugly picture of almost all politicians, and almost all of the pundits and media personalities who cover them, and far too many of us. It’s hard to see how the nascent US Public can identify itself when so many of us have such bad habits of thought. It makes you wonder if the dominant class uses this failure to cement itself in power.
[1] Here’s the text summarizing several pages from which I gathered this idea:

A community thus presents an order of energies transmuted into one of meanings which are appreciated and mutually referred by each to every other on the part of those engaged in combined action. “Force” is not eliminated but is transformed in use and direction by ideas and sentiments made possible by means of symbols. P. 179-80.

15 replies
  1. gnokgnoh says:

    But, but, rational directed linear thought as a specialized habit does not necessarily lead to change, whatsoever. Sometimes, the thinkers start the process, but the dissemination of ideas and shared knowledge has never been greater, far beyond just the scientists and philosophers. Unfortunately, the disaggregation and explosion of the means of distribution of ideas also leads to pernicious aims and purposes and cult-like groups. These are often exploitive; many are underwritten by the same institutional, moneyed interests that historically defined our social narratives.

    • Ed Walker says:

      I’m not saying rational directed thought leads to change. In fact, it only works when conclusions are tested in the real world.

      I think our disgusting discourse can take any idea developed by our original thinkers, no matter how theoretical, and distort it either to discredit it or to twist it to the ends of the dominant class. As examples, look at Critical Race Theory or Social Construction. I’m willing to bet not a single right-wing shrieker could explain either.

  2. Godfree Roberts says:

    Martin Jacques’ “When China Rules the World,” insightful discusses China’s Confucian community. It’s a (not so) secret of their success and not easily copied.

  3. d4v1d says:

    Bourdieu could be framed as…. habitus corpus?

    I don’t think it’s the mRNA vaccines that have a connection to embryonic stem cells. Fact check, please.

    • Silly but True says:

      It is only Johnson & Johnson’s Janssen vaccine that used fetal cells within vaccine production: PER.C6 — developed from retinal cells of an 18-week-old fetus aborted in 1985.

      • bmaz says:

        Am hard pressed to understand why anybody, who is minimally sentient, cares about said distinction.

    • Ed Walker says:

      Thanks for the clarification. I should have checked instead of relying on memory. I think this is still one of the lies told by anti-vaxxers.

    • graham firchlis says:

      Fact, manufacture of mRNA vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna does NOT involve stem cells of any type, not fetal or “synthetic.” After conventional bacterial bioreactor fermentation to obtain DNA segments – plasmids – as precursors, the rest of the process is a marriage of state of the art organic chemistry, advanced genetic engineering, cutting edge fluid dynamics and the limits of material science. No cells involved.

      As this scientist author explains in clear lay terms, the technology transfer challenge is formidable. Combined with vaccine physical instability, mRNA is an unwieldy approach for populations with less developed infrastructure.

      Adenovirus vector vaccines use well established distribution paths and manufacturing processes, and a whole host of companies have the capability to produce under license but no capacity because they are already fully committed to existing vaccine production requirements. Absent guranteed buyers, as has happened in India, those manufacturers can’t afford to expand.

      The vaccine supply problem is a broad lack of effective government leadership. Usurping IP won’t fix that.

  4. Peacerme says:

    As a student of Korzybski, I often wonder what would happen if we spent more time teaching and living as if “the map is not the territory”? So few people are educated to this concept and even fewer people live with alignment to this truth.

    What if this concept were in the foreground at all times instead of in the background? What if understanding this concept was instead the only requirement of high school graduation? A so called test of life.

    If we truly understand that identification errors are the scourge for humanity, could our consciousness about this change things? That is, what if we feared making identification errors more than anything else we do as humans.

    Mislabeling, misidentification has caused some of the most horrific human behavior. Genocide is exactly the result of this kind of cognitive distortion.

    Believing something to be true that is not, or vice versa, is the gravest of errors and can be attributed to be underlying the most dangerous mistakes. To treat an opinion as a fact seems to be the “cause” of the power of Donald trump. Thinking errors. Cognitive distortions. No conscious awareness of discernment.

    A non judgmental stance, teaching to discern fact from opinion and understanding that language because it is in and of itself symbolic, will always obstruct our ability to clearly see truth, might just save humanity.

    When we include this awareness the way scientific methodology at least attempts to do, we are closer to reality.

    We aren’t teaching this to students. Maybe we believe it is too abstract a concept, or fear how it might affect our religions, or our ability to wage war? We behave as if it’s not as important as ABC’s and math.

    I wonder if this concept understood and lived would have a huge impact on our conscious contact with truth?

    Very few among us live in this awareness. There is little tolerance for this reality. At least when I get called on treating an opinion as a fact, my work and education allows me to review without shame. It is a concern to me that so few people live in this awareness.

    • Ed Walker says:

      This is an important point. Dewey is perhaps best know as a leader in experiential education. He clearly thinks that a proper education would do exactly what you describe, enable as many people as possible to participate in discussions of the actual problems facing us, as opposed to the pseudo-problems manufactured by the PR manipulators who serve the dominant class.

  5. jaango says:

    One of my favorite hangouts here on the Internet, is “emptywheel” is that National Security and Civil Rights, this attention is far more interesting than other blogs. However the myriad blogs that address this “notional'” tend to get lost among the propaganda that is tantamount to a “mountain of nonsense.”

    And early in 2000, I accepted the opportunity to become a political writer after having served in the business community and where I also lived -for a period of ten years in the Latin America Region, and consequently ‘developed’ a somewhat new career as a writer, and thus lacking in a skill set and which is attributed to “writers” or even “political journalists.” Or perhaps, I would have extended my business career for becoming a ‘professor’ at local college and despite many opportunities that were reasonably available here in my wonderful Sonoran Desert. Regardless, after these well-practiced skill sets, and attributed to Yaqui, Apache, Spanish and English-oriented writers, I am firmly ensconced in the belief that today’s Republic of Mexico, exists due to the “reality” that existed when Yaquis and Apaches in our border states, took the decision to “deliver” democracy into Mexico. And when a person looks to this historical past, “pragmatism” was at the forefront of ‘decision-making’ and today, when Mexico is today’s attention-seeker, our nation’s “national security and defense” and for all the trillions of dollars over these many years, Mexico has not yet moved forward into a better and more learned Democracy. Or perhaps, we, here in the United States, writ large, are highly sophisticated in restricting the political oxygen necessary to survive with a highly comprised mindset that addresses Health, Happiness and Decency Personified.

    And yet, more to follow, given the time it requires to keep this computer fully functional. Therefore, I will return shortly and where Dewey is not compromised.

  6. mospeck says:

    >Chapter 5 of John Dewey’s The Public And Its Problems addresses the role of community in moving from the theory >of democracy (the subject of the first 3 chapters) to a working form of democracy. Dewey says that democracy only >exists in communities.
    working form of democracy is there’s a big wide world out there

  7. Valley girl says:

    If anyone needs convincing that the philanthropy of billionaires is not to be applauded, part of this article (link below) has to do with education. It’s generally about the awfulness of Bill Gates (a lot I didn’t know) but seems to fit into this discussion.

    [snip from article] ~~It’s important that the Gates Foundation be scrutinized, because it (1) is extremely powerful and (2) does do nefarious things. This is seen clearly in its approach to U.S. “education reform.” Bill and Melinda Gates, like many rich people, love charter schools. Melinda has said openly that if the Gateses had their way “you’d see a lot more charter schools. I’d love to see 20 percent charter schools in every state.”~~

    It gets worse. “The central problem with public schools is bad teachers and the unions that protect them.”and….

  8. jaango says:

    When one does a study on Pragmatism, the three versions of pragmatism, will come forth.

    The first version is the pragmatism historians will brand as “indigenous” with a concentration that existed prior to the Sombrero version of pragmatism. As such, the pragmatism of indigenous peoples and now recognized via 27 languages within the existing 24 relevant communities. And with an ease of humor, this version of the Sombrero, commenced when the Europeans and their religious brethren, being the Catholic Church, is still today’ version of Pragmatism. Consequently, what will follow is the version that will become known as the Pragmatism Coalition.

    Thusly, pragmatists of the “old and dying days” will be soon recognized as the “free riders.” Yes, free riders. Therefore, the experts at “master-speak” and of course, I am speaking of the academics that study demographics, have spoken loudly that “white people” will come to represent 50 percent of the national population and the remaining 50 percent will come be be recognized as “racial and ethnics” in the formal sense–commencing in approximately 2043. And it will, at this point in our nation’s zeitgeist that the question of “How Democracy Will Be Addressed Via the Coalition of Pragmatism” and that’s where our political joy will be found and practiced.. Further, the attention given to Health, Happiness and Decency Personified as a further mindset in support of this Coalition of Pragmatism, will be writ large, and starting with Mandatory Voting. Otherwise, the Republicans and Democrats, will be blamed and attacked as “free riders” for their unwillingness to address the public policies that will improve our daily democracy, in uncounted ways.

    Therefore, today’s the Sombreros’ “nationalism” will encapsulate into more voter suppression, and subsequently, the white population, will be facing a tangible level level of animosity and anger while leading to the inescapable penalties relative to the public policies being lead by the constant and ongoing super wealthy and even to include the super-super wealthy. And which becomes a ‘danger’ to the middle class, given in form and function that is of a National Debt Surtax, and as a new plunder vehicle detrimental to our fellow citizens.

    In my particular instance, as a well-aligned Democrat, I currently envision that the Party and it’s well-aligned five corporate intelligence-gathering entities, or perhaps, with more precision on my part, these five data-gathering business entities that define and defend today’s ‘agenda’ and both in and out of Congress, does not recognize the role of ‘racial and ethnics’ in the development in the consistent and easily dismissed coda for our Agenda of Unmet Needs.

    However, the ‘agenda’ that represents the Democratic Party, despite the widespread influence of the super wealthy, fails to recognize that ‘racial and ethnics’ will move their vision of pragmatism in the direction to the Latin America Region, and well beyond the avowed desperation encountered in the North American Trade Agreement for the Republic of Mexico, and the continuation of the migration behavior from the affected citizens of these many nations states, will require much needed or dire attention, Consequently, national security, and not necessarily national defense, will move, or in my perception of what will occur within the next twenty, which is the newly-formed Pragmatism Coalition, in this instance, shifting the Democratic Party, onto a much larger political platform, and where members of both congressional chambers, will “locked-in” to a maximum term limit of 12 years, and which will be off-putting for virtually all candidates advocating for their semblance of leadership.

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