John Dewey On The ‘Wonder’ Of Communication

In Experience and Nature (Chapter Five, ‘Nature, Communication and Meaning’) John Dewey writes:

Of all affairs, communication is the most wonderful….[its] fruit…participation, sharing, is a wonder by the side of which transubstantiation pales. When communication occurs, all natural events are subject to reconsideration and revision; they are re-adapted to meet the requirements of conversation, whether it be public discourse or that preliminary discourse termed thinking. Events turn into objects, things with a meaning. They may be referred to when they do not exist, and thus be operative among things distant in space and time….Events when once they are named lead an independent and double life. In addition to their original existence, they are subject to ideal experimentation: their meanings may be infinitely combined and re-arranged in imagination, and the outcome of this inner experimentation which is thought may issue forth in interaction with crude or raw events….Where communication exists,  things in acquiring meaning, thereby acquire representatives, surrogates, signs and implicates, which are infinitely more amenable to management, more permanent and more accommodating, than events in their first estate.

This morning, as I worked through this passage with my students, I tried my best to convey what Dewey was getting at in his quite-accurate judgment of communication being a ‘wonder,’ a secular miracle. And that is because communication is something quite fundamental, an almost constitutive part of ourselves. Transubstantiation merely transforms one substance into another; communication makes us who we are. If it is through civilization and society and politics we become ourselves, it is because all of those ‘joint activities’ rest on, and are made possible by, communication. (Language is not mentioned in the passage above, and yet it is present.)

For theorizing about the world is communication with others; thinking is communication with ourselves. (Recall that Dewey said elsewhere that ‘thought is intrinsic to experience,’ which suggests that communicating might be intrinsic to experience too.)  Through it–and its linguistic medium–we make a subjective world objective and receive confirmation we are not mired in a solipsistic maze. (As one of my students noted, the distinction between the ‘inside’ and the ‘outside’ is one established by dint of communication.)  The world acquires meaning through our theorizing; through communication with ourselves and others, we are able to make ourselves into creatures of temporality, possessing both a remembered past–memory is a kind of communication with an older self, where we receive sensations and images as signals and messages of times gone by–and an anticipated future. We are no longer mired only in the present even as it is all we have at any given instant. The matters we communicate about, by virtue of being public and shared, acquire new meanings and shadings; they can be subject to different uses and experimentations to solve this world’s challenges as and when they arise to pose barriers for our intended projects.

The theorized world is really the world tout court, and it is so because we have communicated about it with ourselves and others.

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