Human Nature and Conduct

by John Dewey

Start Free Trial


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated September 5, 2023.

In Human Nature and Conduct, Dewey extends the principles of the his pragmatic philosophy into the realm of developmental and social psychology. The work was a notable departure from the deterministic theories of contemporaries, such as the physiological psychology of Wilhelm Wundt, the behaviorism of Ivan Pavlov, and Freud's emphasis on the unconscious. Refuting in particular the dualistic implications of the Pavlovian stimulus-response model of human behavior and the arbitrariness by which those terms are assigned, he posits instead a holistic and humanistic paradigm in which a creative response to one's environment becomes the mark of a healthy individual.

He separates behavior into three categories: impulse, habit, and intelligent conduct, as the modes by which humans negotiate their response to their environment.

At birth and in our early years, we are mostly creatures of instinct, driven by appetite and the affective-motor responses we share with other mammals. Emotions are close to the surface, soon forgotten regardless of how intensely they're expressed. Toddlers' bodies are in constant motion as they explore every inch of their worlds. This notion of spontaneous activity and play becomes an important feature of human development for Dewey, illustrating for him that such activity, directed toward no particular goal but general exploration is a key to the way the human creativity functions.

The second category, that of habit, is also shaped to some degree by physical demands, but also by the customs and mores of society. Children learn valuable skills for adapting to these customs, which through repetition eventually become as automatic as breathing. As Dewey points out, the young may begin to question customs that may be irrational and even destructive, and he wishes to encourage such doubt, since it's so much easier to change ingrained beliefs and habits in youth than in later years.

Intelligent conduct is the last of Dewey's categories. The need for intelligence arises, he says, when our habitual responses or impulses have been blocked, and the demand for a creative response to a novel situation is required. Dewey was prescient in his warning that with the rapid improvement of technology more social groups with differing backgrounds would be thrown into contact than has ever been the case, making the ability to arrive at intelligent resolution of possible conflicts through a process of deliberation increasingly urgent.

To conclude, Dewey divides human psychology in three basic categories, impulse, habit, and intelligent conduct, which at best function harmoniously within a healthy individual.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access