chapter  4
12 Pages

The self in action

ByMartin Hollis

Students of human nature used to scour the wide world for their data. In these more advanced days, however, they may prefer to consult the International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. If so, they will be disappointed. There is no entry for Human Nature. But then the unity of the International Encyclopedia is that of a shopping centre which just offers a roof to cognate specialists. In some ways it is a poor replacement for the general store, supplying articles which everyone needed whatever his special concerns. Those who take the hint and try the older Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences will indeed find an entry for Human Nature. It is by John Dewey and is as clear, concise and wide-ranging as one could wish. Yet it contains a remark at odds with much of Dewey’s own work. ‘It cannot be doubted’, he writes, ‘that there are some limits to the modifiability of human nature and to institutional change, but these have to be arrived at by experimental observation.’ His point seems almost banal. It is that men are not wholly plastic and that social processes neither shape nor explain them in toto. Yet it springs a twofold surprise, for, in the first place, Dewey must have devoted a million words in a long life to casting doubt on the fixity of human nature and, in the second, was always too much of a philosopher to leave the truth to experimental observation. I shall invoke his aid in seeing both what the truth about human mutability may be and what sort of truth it is. The question concerns the role of the self in the philosophy of human action and Dewey’s answer will show us the strength and the snags of a powerful pragmatism.