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  • Agency, Systems, and "Civilization":Dewey and the Anthropocene
  • Phillip McReynolds

The materialistic philosophy which sees 'man' as pitted against his environment is rapidly breaking down as technological man becomes more and more able to oppose the largest systems. Every battle that he wins brings a threat of disaster. The unit of survival—either in ethics or in evolution—is not the organism or the species but the largest system or 'power' within which the creature lives. If the creature destroys its environment, it destroys itself.

—Bateson 332

Man needs the earth in order to walk, the sea to swim or sail, the air to fly. Of necessity he acts within the world and in order to be, he must in some measure adapt himself as one part of nature to other parts.

—Dewey, Experience and Nature, LW 1:310

1. Introduction

In this paper, I argue that global climate change and the advent of the Anthropocene—the name that Crutzen and Stoermer propose for our current geological epoch that signals the pervasive effects that human activities are having on the natural environment on a planetary scale—present both opportunities and challenges for Deweyan pragmatism. Pragmatism urges that thought and action be grounded in human experience and, as such, approaches problems on a human scale. Yet climate change presents us with a global problem that vastly exceeds the purview of ordinary human experience. One type of response to the problem of climate change might be to attempt superhuman solutions and to bend superhuman energies beneath the yoke of human control. Another response is quietism and despair. Pragmatists, wisely, I believe, tend to resist both of these responses. The false dilemma presented by these alternatives derives, I will argue, from a modernist conception of agency, residua of which can be found in Deweyan pragmatism. These residually Cartesian and Baconian approaches to agency are implicit [End Page 72] in Dewey's writings in his progressive and positive account of the expansion of "civilization."

Given this situation, and in order to respond adequately to the challenges presented by the Anthropocene, I argue that pragmatism should be reconstructed in ways that avoid such problematic versions of agency and control and resist the urge toward the colonization of nature. Abandonment of residually modernist conceptions of agency and control will facilitate avoidance of both the false hope implicit in the notion that we can "solve" these problems and the learned helplessness that can lead to despair in individuals who feel as though they are set against an environment upon which they depend but over which they exercise very little control. Relinquishing a modernist notion of control is the first step in understanding how to cope with and leverage the energies and forces that circulate through our human and mostly non-human world. In the end, I argue that the Anthropocene necessitates that we move beyond the dilemma between the modes of accommodation and adaptation and into that of adjustment, which Dewey characterized as "natural piety." Moreover, this important idea, I argue, can be better understood with the aid of some insights from systems theory, many of which are already nascent in Dewey's work.

2. Problems of Human Agency in the Anthropocene

Pragmatism is a self-consciously melioristic philosophy. Recent scientific developments threaten to undermine the hopeful, humanistic core of pragmatism, however, by challenging traditional conceptions of human agency and troubling a human-centered orientation toward history and time. These developments are the discovery of anthropogenic climate change and the recognition of the emergence of the Anthropocene as our current geological epoch. Coined in the year 2000 by Crutzen and Stoermer, the term "Anthropocene" highlights the fact that recently, for the first time, human beings have become a geophysical force of nature on par with other non-human forces that have likewise transformed the biosphere to such an extent that they have left planetary-scale imprints in the geological record (Crutzen and Stoermer).1

The Anthropocene renders problematic the traditional and pragmatic view that humans are able "to exercise control over their own habit-formation" (Hickman, "Nature as Culture" 51). This is, in part, because traditional conceptions of human action locate the source of agency in the...


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