John Dewey, the Hipster

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Perhaps it is beneficial to think in terms of the agency of Latourian “missing masses” not so much in terms of the agency things initiate upon us (thereby perpetuating a tried anthropocentrism) but in the relationships things have together outside human experience. Think of it as the Bechdel Test for non-human things. In Experience and Nature, Dewey makes it clear that we should not be so naive as to think that when we turn our back, things cease to form relationships with other things. Tools not only have relationships outside of our own, but Dewey even goes so far as to say that these relationships are primary:

A tool is a particular thing, but it is more than a particular thing, since it is a thing in which a connection, a sequential bond of nature is embodied. It possesses an objective relation as its own defining property. Its perception as well as its actual use takes the mind to other things. The spear suggests the feast not directly but through the medium of other external things, such as the game and the hunt, to which the sight of the weapon transports imagination. Man’s bias towards himself easily leads him to think of a tool solely in relation to himself, to his hand and eyes, but its primary relationship is towards other external things, as the hammer to the nail, and the plow to the soil. Only through this objective bond does it sustain relation to man himself and his activities. A tool denotes a perception and acknowledgement of sequential bonds in nature. (123)

This passage disrupts the tendency for readers of Dewey to see him as overly anthropocentric and it is actually in this passage that we can see Dewey responding to Morris Cohen’s criticism about that same topic leveled at him in Problems of Men (195-6). Dewey wants us to recognize that humans are but one bond in this long sequential series of transactions marked by continuity. Things/objects are literally “acting out” on their potentialities in the process of inquiry, and this oftentimes gets hidden behind the fact that it is happening during the act of experience. But just because a human is using a hammer and that hammer is known through experience does not mean that the hammer and the nail do not have a separate relationship when the human turns around or when they operate outside the realm of human experience.

Dewey, always a perennial champion of experience, should not be interpreted through such a delimiting lens by assuming that his philosophy focuses on the primacy of human experience.