Product of Their Environment

Posted: July 11, 2013 in Anthony Womble

Dewey states that “we change character from worse to better only by changing conditions”. Is this statement true? First we must define conditions and John Dewey’s use of it. Conditions is a particular mode of being of a person or thing; it is also the existing state; it’s a situation with respect to circumstances. All in all, its environment. So the question is, can character be influenced or changed by one’s environment? I think that social conditions definitely can shape one’s character and can have a direct and profound effect on an individual and or a particular group consciousness.

In the reading, Dewey states” a genuine appreciation of the beauty of flowers is not generated within a self-enclosed consciousness. It reflects a world in which beautiful flowers have already grown and been enjoyed”. I interpret this to mean, you can only appreciate flowers if there are beautiful flowers around. Our taste and also our habits are influenced by the environment that we are exposed to and can only come about by that “flourishing” environment. And knowing that John Dewey was a pragmatist, we know that he dealt with life matters realistically and not on abstract terms. So if you wanted to change someone’s character, this doesn’t happen magically. You must change the environment in order to change one’s habits.

In inner city environments of poverty, high school dropout rates are abysmal; teen pregnancies is high; drug addiction and violent crime runs side by side. This is not a coincidence, this is a result of cause and an affect; it is a result of the social conditions that they live in. Now on the flip side of this coin, in areas that are inhabited by the wealthy, their environments cultivate the people to progress; their schools produce great students, crime is low, and they are able to enjoy the fruits of their labor.

Now, there are people who believe that social conditions do not shape one’s character. They will argue that they are in total control of their consciousness and not the byproduct of their environment. In other words, a person can transcend passed their conditions. And my answer to that will be, there is always an exception to the rule, but that doesn’t change the majority. I believe to change a person’s character from negative to positive, you must change the conditions that will cultivate a positive demeanor and outcome.

  1. Anthony, Dewey is somewhere smiling cause his pragmatism philosophy lives on. A really solid piece. If we were to accept Dewey on this stance and engage him in a dialogue, we might push back a little on how he incorporates another theorist idea in his work. One theorist we might detect he uses to argue the way he does is the biologist Charles Darwin who is famous for coining the idea that out of a population of species only the strongest survive when their environment changes. Those species suited for change would thrive while others wouldn’t. Dewey as you noted was interested in what ways are individuals suited for change?,can humans act on their environment in such a way that their environment doesnt have the final word on who they are?. In that vein humans unlike Darwins animal species are never passively accepting their environment, whether from urban or suburban areas we at all times act on our environment. The access and benefits of our actions however, are also measured by the weight of our ability to participate in an economy of workers, employees, products, customers that impact our character that Darwin never saw out in the wildlife. Which is to say I agree with you and as philosophers in training we must engage in dialogue with figures like Dr Dewey by asking them to move us a little closer to the realities of our lifes given that we live in a world were ideas of race, gender, sexuality, class define who is the strongest to survive . Yet we know for example in American history a group of people who have been classified as the weakest have survived some of the harshest environments and profoundly added to the human community. I really really enjoyed your pieces. Thanks for sharing.

    • anthony womble says:

      your perspective on Charles Darwin was informative, especially in regards to Dewey. I must juxtapose the two individuals

  2. Liam says:

    Thanks for your response, Anthony. Let me just say that I particularly liked the way you used Dewey’s perspective to think about the difference between the sort of environment the rich inhabit vs the sort of environment the poor inhabit. It’s worth thinking about how, specifically, the environment affects our character. We can all agree that, in general, it makes it easier to succeed in life if everything about your environment is pleasant and geared towards fostering happiness compared to an environment where everything is tough and it’s a struggle just to get by. But, for instance, what in particular about the confidence that you will get to “enjoy the fruits of [your] labour” makes it easier to succeed? Is it because it makes it easier to plan for the future? Is it because it makes you happier, and happy people are more likely to be successful? Or is it something else? Once we know the answer to this sort of specific question it is easier to make plans about what changes we need to make in people’s environments in order to produce the sort of characters we’d like to see more of. And making plans like this is the spirit of pragmatism: we do not merely want to understand the world, we want to change it!

  3. Robin says:

    Really great post, Anthony! I really like your interpretation of Dewey, especially in the flower example. I wonder if you’ve thought in any more detail about the “cause and effect” between a person and their environment? What kind of causal chain is it? For example, is it like…a billiard ball hitting another one and making it move? Or a dog that slobbers whenever it hears a bell because that means it’s dinnertime? I would love to hear what you think about how it is that humans get their characters shaped by the environment, and whether it’s different from other kinds of cause and effect.

  4. F. Zapata says:


    First off, I appreciate your serious engagement with Dewey’s moral philosophy, in class and on this Blog. Thank you for this thoughtful post.

    Dewey would understand patterns of drug addiction and violent crime as “habits” that reflect how a group (or an individual) responds to an environment for the satisfaction of needs, be they material or psychological. In light of Dewey’s understanding of social and developmental psychology, habits are “active means, means that project themselves, energetic and dominating ways of acting,” for a purpose. The prevalence of drug addiction within the “inner city,” to consider your example, would indicate that the social groups (and individuals) who live in these environments are responding to “environing forces,” such as vulnerability to violent crime, with the “escape” that drug abuse might afford. In this case, one’s character (which is the expression of several habits, but for our purposes, is an addiction to drugs) and one’s environment (a neighborhood where violence is a norm) shape and inform each other.

    This “loop,” which links the habits of drug addiction and violent crime with impoverished social environments, and the general problem of how one’s character is influenced, and so influences, one’s environs, presents a moral question, for Dewey, that concerns “acts still within our control, acts still to be performed;” the work of creating “the environment that makes it possible to maintain the habits of decent and refined life” is constantly in front of us.

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