An Archerian reading of John Dewey and its relevance for platform socialisation

These are just notes for myself to come back to later but I’m fascinated by the synergy I can see between the work of Margaret Archer and John Dewey. There are substantial disagreements but what they share is a deep appreciation of the interface of subjectivity and objectivity encountered in everyday life, as Dewey describes it on pg 42 and 43-44 of Experience and Education:

It assigns equal rights to both factors in experience—objective and internal conditions. Any normal experience is an interplay of these two sets of conditions. Taken together, or in their interaction, they form what we call a situation. (He describes this as an interaction)

The statement that individuals live in a world means, in the concrete, that they live in a series of situations. And when it is said that they live in these situations, the meaning of the word “in” is different from its meaning when it is said that pennies are “in” a pocket or paint is “in” a can. It means, once more, that interaction is going on between an individual and objects and other persons. The conceptions of situation and of interaction are inseparable from each other. An experience is always what it is because of a transaction taking place between an individual and what, at the time, constitutes his environment, whether the latter consists of persons with whom he is talking about some topic or event, the subject talked about being also a part of the situation; or the toys with which he is playing; the book he is reading (in which his environing conditions at the time may be England or ancient Greece or an imaginary region) ; or the materials of an experiment he is performing. The environment, in other words, is whatever conditions interact with personal needs, desires, purposes, and capacities to create the experience which is had. Even when a person builds a castle in the air he is interacting with the objects which he constructs in fancy.

What I find particularly valuable in Dewey is his sense of how as an individual “passes from one situation to another, his world, his environment, expands or contracts” with the “knowledge and skill in one situation becomes an instrument of understanding and dealing effectively with the situations which follow” (pg 44). The nature of this experience constitutes the conditions which facilitate or frustrate the individual’s flourishing:

Otherwise the course of experience is disorderly, since the individual factor that enters into making an experience is split. A divided world, a world whose parts and aspects do not hang together, is at once a sign and a cause of a divided personality. When the splitting-up reaches a certain point we call the person insane. A fully integrated personality, on the other hand, exists only when successive experiences are integrated with one another. It can be built up only as a world of related objects is constructed.

Pg 44, Experience and Education

What Archer doesn’t accept is the reflexive aspect to Dewey’s conception of habit, instead seeing it as a matter of routine action. From pg 35 of Experience and Education:

The basic characteristic of habit is that every experience enacted and undergone modifies the one who acts and undergoes, while this modification affects, whether we wish it or not, the quality of subsequent experiences. For it is a somewhat different person who enters into them. The principle of habit so understood obviously goes deeper than the ordinary conception of a habit as a more or less fixed way of doing things, although it includes the latter as one of its special cases. It covers the formation of attitudes, attitudes that are emotional and intellectual; it covers our basic sensitivities and ways of meeting and responding to all the conditions which we meet in living.

However what they do share, to an almost eery degree, is a concern for failures of agency. This description from pg 26 is precisely what Archer describes as expressive reflexivity and I’ve written about as distracted reflexivity:

Again, experiences may be so disconnected from one another that, while each is agreeable or even exciting in itself, they are not linked cumulatively to one another. Energy is then dissipated and a person becomes scatterbrained. Each experience may be lively, vivid, and “interesting,” and yet their disconnectedness may artificially generate dispersive, disintegrated, centrifugal habits. The consequence of formation of such habits is inability to control future experiences. They are then taken, either by way of enjoyment or of discontent and revolt, just as they come. Under such circumstances, it is idle to talk of self-control.

The latter work was an attempt to make sense of how the platform environment makes such an outcome more likely by making it difficult for individuals to ‘bound variety’ in order to develop an approach to life that would permit of integration. This raises a question for education: to what extent can it help support a process which is becoming more difficult? How can it contribute to the connection of these experiences in a way that addresses the underlying dynamics which are making that connection more difficult?

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