Experience’s Affect Upon Society

“But there is another aspect of the matter. Experience does not go on simply inside a person. It does go on there, for it influences the formation of attitudes of desire and purpose. But this is not the whole of the story. Every genuine experience has an active side which changes in some degree the objective conditions under which experiences are had. The difference between civilization and savagery, to take an example on a large scale, is found in the degree in which previous experiences have changed the objective conditions under which subsequent experiences take place. The existence of roads, of means of rapid movement and transportation, tools, implements, furniture, electric light and power, are illustrations. Destroy the external conditions of present civilized experience, and for a time our experience would relapse into that of barbaric peoples” (15).

I found this quote very interesting for its exploration of experience in relation to civilization. In the first few sentences, Dewey claims that experience takes place within the person, as it “influences the formation of attitudes and desires” (15); however, he goes on to state that experience exists beyond the person. It is a genuine experience that can be either active or passive, changing based upon the degree of objectivity under which the experiences are had. Dewey claims that the difference between civilization and savagery is founded in the transformation previous experiences have had on the “objective conditions” (15) under which such experiences have taken place. According to him, the existence of tools are all “illustrations” (15). If we were to destroy the conditions of society, what we consider to be society would fade away.

In my Anthropology 101 class right now, we are learning about the four stages of civilization: bands, tribes, chiefdoms, and states. Therefore, this comparison between civilized experience and barbaric experience can be related to what we are discussing in the Anthropology lectures. Its really fascinating to be able to relate what I learn in Philosophy to what we are discussing in Anthropology.

I agree with Dewey in that I believe that experience is the basis upon which society progresses. Previous experience allows us to make more educated decisions and serves as the foundation for the obtainment of new knowledge. The external conditions created by experience make us view society a certain way because of the social values, norms, and objects that are part of it. Take away experience, and what makes a society a certain society fades away.

However, I do not agree with Dewey in that experience defines something as barbaric versus civilized. Just because we call something barbaric does not mean it actually is. Societies function differently and are composed of different norms and tools. These differences in lifestyle, etc. do not mean that a society is less developed than ours. So in the sense of differences in culture defining the level of society, I do not agree with Dewey. I think that experience is important in forming society, and progressing society forwarded, but not in defining a society as either developed or civilized.

One response to “Experience’s Affect Upon Society

  1. I think you make an interesting point about how Dewey defines experiences and how he relates experience to society, but I disagree with your final claim that Dewey says “experiences defines something as barbaric versus civilized.” I don’t think Dewey ever made that connection, I think the connection Dewey was making was that had the experiences of those he describes as “barbaric” had been different initially, then they would progress beyond being “barbaric” and would in fact become civilized. This is the reason for his example of “barbaric” vs. “civilized.” He is indicating that if the barbaric people have more civilized experiences, then they will transition to become more civilized and vise a versa. As he indicates, “every experience lives on in further experiences,” so the only reason these people are barbaric is because they experienced being barbaric, which means they will continue to be (27). I think Dewey would in fact agree with you that just because something is barbaric in nature doesn’t mean it is in fact barbaric, it just means that those who are barbaric had different experiences than those who aren’t and given different experiences, those who are barbaric could become civilized and those who are civilized could become barbaric due to the spiraling nature of experiences.

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