publisher colophon
  • (Un)Healthy Systems:Merleau-Ponty, Dewey, and the Dynamic Equilibrium Between Self and Environment

Against empiricist and rationalist prejudices concerning the nature of issues related to "mental health," this article offers a phenomenological account of identity as developed in a meaningful system with the environment (Umwelt) or world (Welt). Drawing on the work of Merleau-Ponty and Dewey, I argue that behavioral and emotional health and illness must be understood in terms of the plasticity or rigidity, respectively, of the individual's responses in the face of new and threatening environmental demands. However, individual plasticity and rigidity are not given qualities of the individual but are themselves developed in healthy or unhealthy interpersonal environments. I discuss three cases of emotional and behavioral trouble in order to explore the manner in which unhealthy self-environment systems can undermine individuals' powers of adaptability and growth.


Maurice Merleau-Ponty, John Dewey, being-in-the-world, health, plasticity

There are widespread tendencies to think of emotional and behavioral troubles—such as difficulties paying attention, difficulties regulating one's emotions, and difficulties with substance abuse and addiction—in two manners that stand in tension with one another.1 On the one hand, [End Page 607] there is a view that holds individuals solely or predominately responsible for their emotions and behaviors, citing the power of rational, free choice in the regulating of one's behavior and the conducting of one's life.2 On the other hand, there is a view that reduces emotional and behavioral problems to physiological conditions.3 These views are popular examples of what Maurice Merleau-Ponty identifies in Phenomenology of Perception (1945) as the classical prejudices of rationalism (or what Merleau-Ponty calls "intellectualism") and empiricism, and each operates on a certain ontological presumption concerning what it is to be a self.4 Presumed in the popular rationalist view is an ontology of the self as a detached, rational chooser who ought to have full control over her desires and emotions and who, thus, can be held morally (and perhaps criminally) accountable for her problematic behaviors. Presumed in the popular empiricist view is an ontology of the self that places the individual squarely back into the physical domain, seeing him as merely one object among others in the world of (mechanically conceived) nature. Presumed in both rationalist and empiricist views is a dualism between mind and free will, on the one hand, and body and the world of nature, on the other, with the former view identifying selfhood with the mind and free will and the latter view dissolving selfhood into the anonymous mechanisms of bodily nature.

Against these dichotomous prejudices, this article seeks to articulate a better ontological understanding of what it is to be a self and, on the basis of this, to articulate a better understanding of the nature of emotional and behavioral disturbances. To accomplish this goal, I draw on the work of both Merleau-Ponty and John Dewey, two philosophers who are infrequently put into direct conversation with one another but whose work is mutually resonant and complementary and who together have much to offer our understanding of emotional and behavioral health and illness.5 Early works from both Dewey and Merleau-Ponty—Dewey's early essay "The Reflex Arc Concept in Psychology" (1896) and Merleau-Ponty's The Structure of Behavior (1942)—share a common purpose of refuting reductive empiricist accounts of the behavior of animal and human organisms, demonstrating the manners in which even the most elementary behaviors—the organism's reflexive responses to environmental stimuli—are not simply fixed and automatic but are capacities called forth by the environment that in turn serve to creatively constitute the environment in which the organism dwells.6 Reading these works together gives us powerful tools for articulating the intelligent and creative nature of the [End Page 608] embodied interactions between self and environment and, from the other side, of criticizing rationalist accounts of selfhood and agency as located in a disembodied, nonsituated mind or will. Dewey's Democracy and Education (1916) and Merleau-Ponty's Phenomenology of Perception, which both explore the inherent plasticity of animal and especially human life, offer rich resources for articulating conceptions of behavioral health and illness.7 From Democracy and Education we can derive from the human capacity for growth a normative criterion for conceiving of the health of both individuals and the environments that support or hinder their natural tendencies—a normative criterion that can help bring out the ethical significance at play in Merleau-Ponty's rich case studies of healthy and unhealthy behavior in Phenomenology of Perception.

Part 1 of this article draws on Dewey's "The Reflex Arc Concept in Psychology" and part I of Merleau-Ponty's The Structure of Behavior in order to develop a phenomenological ontology of selfhood as cultivated in a meaningful, dynamic system with the environment, as Dewey calls it, or with the world, as phenomenologists say. This phenomenological understanding of selfhood challenges both sides of the mind-body dualism implicit in the two prevalent views of emotional and behavioral problems identified above, in that the self's experiences and intelligent responses to its environment cannot be understood as the work of a disembodied mind or will and in that bodily life cannot be understood as merely passive, inert, or mechanistic. Part 2 draws on Dewey's Democracy and Education and Merleau-Ponty's Phenomenology of Perception in order to argue that, building on the phenomenological ontology of selfhood established in part 1, behavioral and emotional health and illness can be understood neither as a mere disturbance in the physiological brain nor as a mere problem of willpower in the thinking mind. Rather, behavioral and emotional health and illness must be understood in terms of the plasticity or rigidity of the individual's responses to new, and potentially threatening, situations. In part 3, we see that on the understanding of health and illness developed in part 2, health and illness should not be understood as qualities of individuals but, rather, as developed manners of responding in interpersonal environments that can themselves be understood to be healthy or unhealthy in light of the manner of responses they elicit.8 I discuss three cases of behavioral and emotional "disability" or "illness"—a case of a problem paying attention, a case of a problem managing anger, and a case of a problem with the consumption of alcohol—in order to explore some distinct ways in which [End Page 609] self-environment systems can undermine individuals' powers of plasticity, growth, and change.

1. The Self-Environment System

To begin our phenomenological account of the nature of the lived experience of the self and of healthy and unhealthy existence, let us think about the manner in which we are affected by things in our environments, using an example of Dewey's from "The Reflex Arc Concept in Psychology." A man is startled by a loud noise and flees. What has happened?

An empiricist account would attempt to reduce the situation to its component parts of stimulus (the noise), registration (the man's attention is involuntarily drawn), and muscular reaction (the man flees the fancied danger).9 There are two problems with such an empiricist account. First, the component parts of the total situation are treated as mechanically and externally, rather than intrinsically, related to one another, much as one billiard ball acts upon and causes a reaction in another. Second, the empiricist account treats a meaningful and experiential behavior on the part of a living being as the mere effect of normal physical processes, losing access to the goal-oriented and normative sense of this behavior on the part of the one living it.10

In a rationalist account, by contrast, the living being is not merely moved as one body among others in the material world of nature. Rather, in this account it is the mind that organizes a "scattering of sensations" into recognizable things. The man is not merely involuntarily impressed by a loud sound indicating danger; rather, he judges the sensory data to be the sound of, say, a window breaking and judges that the window breaking suggests danger.11 In this account, the man's fleeing is not an automatic muscular reaction but a quick rational choice in light of the interpretation of sensory data. While the rationalist account improves on the empiricist account by putting first-personal, subjective experience back into the picture, what it misses is the essential contingency and passivity of how stimuli come to meaningfully figure as stimuli in the embodied, exposed experience of the individual to begin with—before they can become the objects of rational judgment.

A phenomenological description of this situation reveals to us neither that the man is blindly triggered to run nor that he intellectually [End Page 610] contemplates—however rapidly—the signification of brute sonorous data. Rather, he hears the sound as that of a shattering window or as that of a dangerous animal charging through the woods.12 The "stimulus" will be a different sound with a different value if one is reading a book in the comfort of one's own home or if one is keeping watch for danger on a dark night.13 The stimulus does not act upon the passive living being in a constant manner;14 rather, the stimulus serves as a directive force within the context of the individual's goal-oriented, contextually meaningful activities, suggesting itself as a kind of question to which the organism's behavior will be an answer (MW9 29).

The individual self inhabiting a meaningful context, therefore, plays an active role in constituting and selecting what will count for it as a stimulus to begin with.15 It does so, however, not at the level of intellectual judgment but at the level of pre-reflective perception, in that its developed and developing interests and involvements—its total being-in-the-world—serve to articulate what will appear and in what ways in the surrounding world.16 We can find a first sketch of how this happens in the life of the animal.17 Merleau-Ponty writes in Phenomenology of Perception: "Already the mere presence of a living being transforms the physical world, makes 'food' appear over here and a 'hiding place' over there, and gives to 'stimuli' a sense that they did not have."18 Crucially, the living being must in each case develop the capacity to perceive stimuli as stimuli that will call it to action: the young bird must develop its skills of flying and hunting—skills that will in turn grant stimuli the sense that they have in the life of the bird. Thus, in a relationship of "circular causality," the organism's activities will allow to appear what will in turn be moving for the organism, mutually constituting the identity of the animal and of the environment.19

As with the bird, a human being's identity resides not "in" her head but "in" her characteristic activities on the horizon of a meaningful environment. In Democracy and Education, Dewey writes that "the environment consists of those conditions that promote or hinder, stimulate or inhibit, the characteristic activities of a living being" (MW9 15). To a much greater extent than in the case of animals, the characteristic activities of human beings are hugely diverse and vary remarkably across geography and throughout history. Indeed, we might say that what is definitive of human life is precisely its capacity to see things "under a plurality of aspects."20 For example, food can be engaged with not merely for its nutritional value but as an aspect of a religious ritual, as the site in which one breaks bread [End Page 611] with companions, as a way to show off one's wealth or education, and so on. Who we will be, and how we will engage with our environments in mutually constitutive manners, is in principle indeterminate and open-ended, as the objectively same "stimuli" can signify in remarkably different manners within human life. Correlatively, human environments will be remarkably diverse and variable. Dewey writes:

The things with which a man varies are his genuine environment. Thus the activities of the astronomer vary with the stars at which he gazes or about which he calculates. Of his immediate surroundings, his telescope is most intimately his environment. The environment of an antiquarian, as an antiquarian, consists of the remote epoch of human life with which he is concerned, and the relics, inscriptions, etc., by which he establishes connections with that period.

(MW9 15)

The human environment—such as the "world" of the astronomer or the antiquarian—is not limited to one's physical surroundings; rather, human activity brings into its orbit diverse objects of interest and concern. As the presence of the bird makes food of worms, and as worms thus serve to promote the characteristic activities of the bird, the antiquarian enables grooves on a stone tablet to reveal Latin meanings, and these Latin inscriptions "stimulate" the characteristic activities of the antiquarian.

Human identity is what it is only in dialogue with an environment, that is, only in dialogue with the things that populate its world and that promote or hinder its characteristic activities. It is in this dialogue with the environment that the individual's own projection of norms is to be found—the normative dimension of experience missing from the empiricist account of the reflex arc. As the bird must submit its movements to the intrinsic norms of flying and hunting, an antiquarian must submit herself to the norms of Latin, archaeological methods, and historical writing; in doing this, she at once engages in the ongoing process of shaping her own identity as an antiquarian and enables inherited knowledge and practices to persist in the shared human world. In making environmental norms one's own through processes of habituation and learning, the individual comes to establish a new equilibrium with the environment that allows things to figure as stimuli in new manners.21 This new equilibrium thus points beyond itself—it gives itself to be surpassed—through the dialogical articulation of ever-richer interior horizons and ever-expansive [End Page 612] exterior horizons and, with these, more subtle and more diverse possibilities for variation.22

2. Health and Illness

If the self is what it is only in a systemic relationship with its environment or world, then how should we understand the nature of healthy and unhealthy behaviors on the part of the individual? The answer to this question, I submit, should be sought in identifying self-environment equilibria that promote, rather than hinder, the norm intrinsic to life itself, namely, the intrinsic tendency toward growth and development on the part of the living being. Dewey writes that "life is development, and that developing, growing, is life" (MW9 54). To explore the meaning of this claim, let us return to the example of the bird. At first, the young bird dwells in the protected environment of the nest, but it must soon adapt itself to the demands of an expanding environment that calls for flight, precision of aim, and so on. If it fails to do this, it will not survive: in order to preserve its life, it must develop its capacities. We can observe something analogous in the human case of an antiquarian. Both the personal identity of the antiquarian and the environment constituted by her characteristic activities can be maintained only via ongoing and subtly transformative repetition. The antiquarian is only an antiquarian in a vital sense if she continues to read Latin texts, participate in archaeological digs, teach university classes, and so on. Further, to remain of living significance, the antiquarian's teaching, digging, writing, and so on will not be rote repetitions of the same but will approach the material from different angles and in manners that, as Dewey says, "vary its factors . . . according to change of circumstance" (MW9 50). The life of the individual and the "life" of Latin texts alike can be conserved only by being repeatedly varied and subtly transformed, throughout a lifetime in the case of the individual, generation after generation in the case of the Latin texts. This ongoing development and enrichment, which aims to surpass itself through the articulation of more subtle and more extensive stimuli, can be encapsulated in Dewey's concept of "plasticity": the individual "learns to learn" (MW9 50). To establish an equilibrium with the environment is to dwell in a situation that promises to reveal things in their ever-greater plurality of aspects, thus affording indefinite further possibilities for skillful and creative variation. Human living is not, therefore, "bound to the [End Page 613] actual"; rather, as Merleau-Ponty says, "the normal subject reckons with the possible."23

I want to argue that we should understand healthy human existence in terms of the manner in which this open-ended power of plasticity is promoted by the systematic interaction between self and environment. A healthy self-environment system enables the individual to be open to his or her own self-transformation through further growth. This growth enables the constitution of a rich, expansive environment, which in turn calls forth the further development of powers on the part of the individual. Healthy human existence is characterized by an increased capacity on the part of the individual to recover in the face of shocks to the environmental system, not by "bouncing back" to one's former equilibrium but by adapting to new circumstances through the accommodation of new norms and, with these, the establishment of a new equilibrium with the environment. Unlike the "objective," third-personal perspective adopted by empiricist approaches to health, this understanding does not conceive of health in terms of some external standard of "normality" but, rather, in terms of the human power to establish one's own intrinsic norms through one's ongoing, educative dialogue with the environment. Unlike the "subjective," first-personal perspective adopted by rationalist approaches to health, this understanding of health does not locate an individual's suffering or flourishing in his or her isolated powers of choice but is, rather, sensitive to the manners in which the individual's powers are inseparable from the environmental situation in which they are developed and expressed. Ability and disability, health and illness, are understood from the perspective of living individuals themselves as a power for varying with the things in their environment—for reckoning with the possible—in more or less plastic and more or less rigid manners.

An example from The Structure of Behavior illustrates this conception of health. Merleau-Ponty writes:

It has long been known that the dung beetle, after the amputation of one or several phalanges, is capable of continuing its walk immediately. But the movements of the stump which remains and those of the whole body are not the simple perseveration of those of normal walking; they represent a new mode of locomotion. . . . Moreover, this reorganization of the functioning of an organ (Umstellung) is not produced unless it is rendered necessary by the nature of the [End Page 614] surface: on a rough surface where the member, even though shortened, can find points of application, the normal process of walking is conserved; it is abandoned when the animal comes upon a smooth surface.24

In "finding its legs" again after a bodily trauma, the dung beetle does not return to a past norm of walking but establishes a new equilibrium with its environment, when, and only when, the environmental circumstance calls for it. The insect amputee manifests a remarkable ability to improvise or vary with the factors of its habitual skill for walking. Its characteristic activities are conserved, therefore, by being transformed. As life is growth and development, health is plasticity and the capacity for adaptation.

We see a similar plastic capacity for reorganization, variation, and improvisation in the experience of a blind person navigating through his environment with the help of a cane. In Phenomenology of Perception, Merleau-Ponty describes the synaesthetic manner in which a blind person's stick becomes incorporated into his capacity to navigate through the world. He writes:

The blind man's cane has ceased to be an object for him, it is no longer perceived for itself; rather, the cane's furthest point is transformed into a sensitive zone, it increases the scope and radius of the act of touching, and has become analogous to the gaze. . . . If I want to become habituated to a cane, I try it out, I touch some objects and, after some time, I have it 'in hand': I see which objects are 'within reach' or out of reach of my cane.25

Bodily space is reorganized through the incorporation of a new habit, such that we can come to inhabit new environments and "dilate our being in the world."26 As with the dung beetle's establishment of new norms of walking in changed and changing circumstances, the blind person's incorporation of the cane into his bodily space is not a return to the former norm of seeing (if he is not congenitally blind but had and then lost the power of vision); rather, it is analogous to seeing in the sense that he is capable of substituting one power in order to perform the equivalent but reorganized function performed by seeing. Again, his characteristic activities are conserved, in a manner of speaking, by being transformed. [End Page 615]

By the same token, we should understand unhealthy human existence in terms of the narrowing, rigidifying tendencies of excessively routinized behavior. While our habituation can open for us richer and more expansive environments, our habitual powers can also serve to defensively narrow the scope and variability of our environments, shutting down our plasticity and rendering us less able to improvise and adapt in the face of change or assault (MW9 54).27 The case of Johann Schneider, a veteran of World War I with brain damage, illustrates this conception of unhealthy existence.28 Schneider was diagnosed with apperceptive agnosia, or trouble with object recognition. Rather than being able to unproblematically recognize the physiognomy of ordinary objects, such as a pen, Schneider had to laboriously construct the identity and meaning of things out of "parts" or isolated qualities.29 Schneider's capacity to perform familiar bodily movements and gestures suffered from the same fragmentation. When asked to perform a military salute—a gesture long familiar to him—or to sew a wallet—his profession from before the war—he had to repeat each part of the process from the beginning and in order: he could not isolate just the salute from the whole military ritual, nor could he pick up his work where he had left it off if interrupted.30 Notice the close parallels between this description of Schneider's disabled behavior and both Merleau-Ponty's and Dewey's criticisms of the vision of organic behavior put forth in the classical conception of the reflex arc. After his injury Schneider dwelled in a sort of present actuality of stimuli and response, or in something like the universe depicted by the classical conception of the reflex arc, throwing into relief the qualitative difference between this kind of existence and the ordinary capacity of the living individual to accommodate new and intelligent skills that reveal a meaningful environment and, in the process, to be oriented toward further surpassing the new present givenness. If we understand the nature of Schneider's perceptual and motor difficulties in this way, it is not surprising that his physical impairments had analogues in his intellectual and emotional life. For example, if asked to repeat a story that was told to him, Schneider would pedantically reconstruct it in the same order in which it was told, not grasping its overall essence so as to be able to repeat it in an at once faithful and novel manner.31

Schneider's illness lies in this incapacity for improvisation and in the uninspiring environments in which he is, in turn, able to dwell. Supporting the point that self-conservation requires plastic adaptability rather than rigid preservation, Merleau-Ponty writes in The Structure of Behavior: [End Page 616]

The famous preservation instinct, which probably appears in man only in illness or fatigue, has been abused. The healthy man proposes to live, to attain certain objects in the world or beyond the world and not to preserve himself. We have had occasion to see how certain persons with brain injuries create a restricted milieu for themselves in which life remains possible for them by diminishing as it were the sensible surface they offer to the world.32

We saw in part 1 that the living individual must participate in selecting what will count for her as a stimulus.33 In her plasticity, the healthy individual is able to expose herself to a wide range of stimuli and in turn to have her powers of improvisation and plasticity in diverse situations further developed. By contrast, in his rigidity, the sick individual guards himself against potential new stimuli in an attempt to secure—to unbendingly preserve—the limited sphere in which he already deploys his limited powers.

In his book The Normal and the Pathological (1943), the physician and philosopher Georges Canguilhem argues that both unhealthy and healthy responses to environmental threats possess intrinsic norms, or display an inherent rationality, of their own. Patients such as Schneider shield themselves against the catastrophic reactions that would be elicited by formerly normal environments by meticulously constructing for themselves environments that they can master: hence, as Canguilhem writes, "the mania for order and the meticulousness of these patients, their downright taste for monotony and their attachment to a situation they know they can dominate."34 In face of trauma, the disabled or sick individual establishes a "new normal," so to speak, within a rigidly limited milieu. This self-preserving reaction is not unintelligent—it makes sense—but it is ultimately life-denying, if life is to be understood, as I am arguing with Dewey, in terms of the intrinsic tendency toward growth and development. The sick person "is sick because he can only admit of one norm" and hence occludes in advance possibilities for the projection of new norms in new situations and thus for future growth.35 By contrast, healthy individuals, such as a blind person learning to "see" with a cane, establish a "new normal" in a way that does not occlude but, rather, further promotes their plastic capacities for learning and growth. Canguilhem writes: "Being healthy means being not only normal in a given situation but also normative in this and other eventual situations. What characterizes health is the possibility of transcending the norm, which defines the momentary normal, the possibility [End Page 617] of tolerating infractions of the habitual norm and instituting new norms in new situations."36 Healthy existence manifests a richer and more expansive intelligence than does unhealthy existence: it lays the ground in its present activities for further healthy responses in the future.

With these understandings of health and illness established, let us turn to a brief study of the manners in which environments—specifically, interpersonal environments—can serve to enable or disable the cultivation of healthy or unhealthy individual existence. Through this discussion, we will see that health and illness need to be sought not "in" the individual but in the self-environment system in which individual tendencies are elicited, cultivated, and maintained.

3. Healthy and Unhealthy Interpersonal Environments

How do behavioral and emotional problems arise and conserve themselves not "in" the individual but, rather, in the self-environment system and, more specifically, in the individual's interpersonal life and social milieu? In this section of the article, I shall briefly discuss the manner in which we are brought up into interpersonal environments, and then I shall consider the question of what constitutes an unhealthy human environment from three different but related angles through discussion of three distinct cases of misfits between self and environment.

In Democracy and Education, Dewey discusses the manner in which children learn to become part of the family and the larger society through their basic desire to join in the activities of others. Children's natural impulses are (re)directed into habitual forms of behavior adopted from the customs of those around them, guided by the children's natural desire to participate in the activities of others and by their natural tendency, through said participation, to adopt the aims of the group as their own (MW9 30). Here we see the interpersonal nature of the meaningful situations in which the living individual pre-reflectively selects the stimuli that will move her. Dewey uses the example of an adult and a child rolling a ball back and forth between them to illustrate this process.37 He writes: "Here the stimulus is not just the sight of the ball, or the sight of the other rolling it. It is the situation—the game they are playing. . . . The whole situation requires that each should adapt his action in view of what the other person has done and is to do" (MW9 40). [End Page 618]

All informal and formal (re)direction of the child's natural tendencies takes this kind of social, participatory form; indeed, it is via the interpersonal and social (re)direction of his natural tendencies that the child becomes an individual, with specific tendencies, interests, and habitual manners of responding to things, to begin with.38 Ideally, all such direction would be carried out in a manner sensitive to the norms at play in the child's own developing experience and with an eye to preparing the child to be able to act skillfully not merely in the present context but in the context of other aims, interpersonal demands, and situations. However, direction does not always take this ideal form; indeed, shortsighted efforts to control the child's behavior now, be they conscious or unconscious on the part of the adult, can achieve the desired effect in the present but with perverse effects for the child's future behavior (MW9 30).

Dewey's distinction between training and education captures the problem at play in one form this nonideal direction can take (MW9 8, 17). Training is concerned merely with the outer conformity of the individual's behavior with the desired end, without regard for whether the individual herself adopts this end as her own and without regard for what it would be and what it would take for the individual herself to adopt this end as her own. In genuine education, by contrast, the individual makes the desired end her own, and thus the child becomes an intelligent "co-partner" in a shared activity directed toward a shared end (MW9 17). To use an example from Dewey, a child can be trained to bow when greeting his elders, without himself understanding and intending this gesture as one of deference and respect (MW9 35). There are at least two perverse, interrelated consequences of merely training a child as opposed to genuinely educating him. The first is that the child becomes alienated from the meaning and the rationality of the thing that he is doing; the activity becomes a mere outward show that has nothing much to do with the child's own natural inclinations and tendencies toward social participation. The second is that these very natural inclinations and tendencies are themselves left undirected. Parents' concern with the outer appearance of the child's behavior in the present in place of a concern with the child's own participatory involvement in social customs may lead to the habitual development of the child's impulses in manners that undermine future opportunities for expansive engagement with others and for personal growth. The child is discouraged from engaging in a certain action or behavior that is obnoxious to her parents not through an education into its inherent undesirability—if it is indeed [End Page 619] inherently undesirable—but through the threat of extrinsic disagreeable consequences, or the child is encouraged to engage in a certain action or behavior that is desirable to the parents through the promise of extrinsic reward, without being educated into the reasons for its desirability. When this happens, the child's natural tendencies, rather than being (re)directed toward genuine social participation, are pushed underground, only to be discharged in disorganized and unsatisfying reactions.39 For example, in the face of prohibitions that make no inherent rational sense to him the child may develop habits of stealing and dishonesty; as Dewey says, "His instincts of cunning and slyness may be aroused, so that things henceforth appeal to him on the side of evasion and trickery more than would otherwise have been the case" (MW9 31). Rather than the child's burgeoning powers being integrated into the shared activities of the larger social world, such forms of training have the antisocial result of "throwing the subsequent action of the person out of balance" (MW9 31). Let us now turn to three distinct cases in which individuals can be trained in manners that render them "out of step" with the full demands of their interpersonal environments.

Gillian Lynne, later a successful dancer and choreographer, went to school in England in the 1930s.40 At about the age of seven, she was taken to a doctor by her mother, who was "at the end of her tether." The school had written to her mother saying that they suspected Lynne had a learning disorder, as she was perpetually moving and could not pay attention. The doctor watched the girl for awhile as he talked to her mother and then asked Lynne to wait while he and her mother left the room to speak privately. On his way out, he turned on the radio to a station playing music. The doctor and the mother watched through the window as the little girl took flight, leaping up and dancing around the room. The doctor reportedly said to the mother: "There is nothing wrong with your child. She's a born dancer. Take her to a dance school." The mother followed the doctor's advice, and her daughter flourished in her new environment. We can see through this case that one manner in which a self-environment system might be unhealthy is when, as Dewey says, the individual has trouble achieving an "equilibrium of adjustment" to the norms and demands of her social environment and suffers as a result (MW9 52). In such cases, an individual's active tendencies have not found an environment in which they can be promoted, and the environment in which the individual is compelled to dwell—in this case, the "training" environment of much of traditional education—in fact hinders these active tendencies, causing them to be discharged in a [End Page 620] troublesome way rather than expressed in a satisfying manner. This case shows us that problems we might typically diagnose as "in" the individual may in fact be the struggling of so to speak, a fish out of water: a change is needed not in the individual but in the environment.41

A second case in which we can observe a disturbance in the self-environment system is that of a woman who finds herself flying into defensive anger at the slightest criticism or provocation, even from trusted friends. John Russon describes such a case in Human Experience: Philosophy, Neurosis, and the Elements of Everyday Life, where he presents for consideration the case of a woman who, as a child, grew up with "an arbitrary and authoritarian father and a mother of unpredictable mood and behavior."42 In this company, the child was the subject of frequent outbursts of anger on the part of her father and more subtle forms of erratic and oppressive behavior on the part of her mother. Furthermore, both parents frequently blamed the child's own aggression for causing their displeasure and their aggressive behaviors. In this consistently uncomfortable and threatening environment, the girl developed two interrelated sets of habits: First, while she could be calm and peaceful on her own, she was always ready to respond swiftly and fiercely to shows of aggression and challenge from her parents; second, she developed the tendency to proclaim her innocence in the face of her parents' unfair blame and criticism. Within this particular interpersonal environment, it makes sense that the child would develop such habits; indeed, as Russon argues, the development of such habits may have been necessary for the child's "psychological 'survival.'"43 However, they did not set the child up well for healthy ways of interacting with others in the future. Russon writes:

In her adult life . . . these habits of human interaction fit poorly with the demands of her important personal relationships. What was wise circumspection in her dealings with her parents is unjustified distrust when turned on her nonoppressive friends and companions. . . . In most regions of her life, this woman has developed a rich and rewarding interpersonal life, but the slightest suggestions of opposition can trigger in her a set of habits geared toward fighting, and she becomes, as it were, another person, now operating out of the values of suspicion and retaliation that are incompatible with the values of justice and civility that normally govern her dealings with other people. What were praiseworthy skills of self-defense are now problematic forms of unfair aggression.44 [End Page 621]

Like the young dancer discussed above, certain of this woman's active tendencies are out of keeping with the norms and values of her interpersonal environment: her tendencies to reactive anger do not fit in with the demands of justice and civility. But here, we can see the roots of the adult's trouble fitting into a healthy environment in the child's success fitting into an unhealthy one. Skills developed for establishing an equilibrium in one interpersonal environment—the girl's familial home—are out of step with the demands of the woman's adult interpersonal relationships. In learning to catch and return the balls, so to speak, rolled to her by her parents, the girl developed habits of interaction that do not make sense within the context of healthier modes of interacting and, further, that are destructive of these healthier relationships. When faced with even minor challenges in her adult interpersonal life, the woman retreats to the familiar, private milieu in which she was able to garner a modicum of comfort in her childhood. In defending herself when no defense is called for, the woman diminishes, as Merleau-Ponty says of Schneider, the "sensible surface" that she offers to the world; her defensive retreat ultimately has the effect not of protecting her but of shielding her from precisely the new stimuli that would allow her over time to develop new powers of interpersonal interaction and, with this, a richer and more expansive interpersonal environment.

A third case that indicates trouble in the self-environment system is that of substance abuse. When an individual manifests compulsive behaviors with regard to drugs such as alcohol, we might ask what troubling problems in the individual's relationships and environment are being "answered" through the escape into repeated intoxication, and we might ask what interpersonal and environmental changes might call forth different habits on the part of the addict. But there is something further about the unhealthy self-environment system that we can notice as at play in some contexts of addictive and compulsive behaviors. In his essay "The Cybernetics of 'Self': A Theory of Alcoholism," Gregory Bateson discusses the manner in which the larger Western cultural environment calls out and enables the alcoholic's behavior.45 The trouble is, precisely, with a dishonest cultural ontology of what it is to be a self—the kinds of modern ontologies of selfhood that I began this article by criticizing. Bateson's target is the popular discourse around addiction that relies on a Cartesian understanding of the self as an isolated "mind" that, through its rational choice and will, ought to be able to exercise full control over the body and its actions.46 Guided by this conception, the friends and family of the alcoholic urge him when sober to "be strong," to "resist temptation," and to be "captain of his soul."47 The [End Page 622] alcoholic criticizes himself in a similar manner, and herein, Bateson argues, lies his dilemma: he engages in a "battle with the bottle" that he is doomed to lose. The problem is the following: subscribing to this problematic ontology of the self, the alcoholic feels compelled to prove to himself that he—that is, his willing mind—is in control. However, he does not achieve this proof by staying sober but, ironically, by risking a drink so as to demonstrate that he is stronger than the bottle and the magnetic power it exercises upon him. After the first drink, however, his motivation to stop drinking disappears, and he thus finds himself again and again on a binge, the conditions for which he covertly prepares during the day—by, say, acquiring supplies—precisely as he proclaims his power to stay sober.48 The (Western) alcoholic's behavior—which compulsively restricts him to a narrow milieu, shutting down possibilities for other and potentially transforming interactions—is thus the expression not merely of an individual pathology but of an interpersonal and cultural misconception of what it is to be a self.


We see in these three cases—that of a "born dancer" trapped in a traditional classroom environment, that of a woman whose childhood environment evoked reactive and defensive responses necessary for psychological survival, and that of an alcoholic whose recovery is thwarted by cultural misconceptions of what it is to be a self—three manners in which it is not individuals but, rather, self-environment systems that are unhealthy. To be able to learn from the lessons offered by these cases, it is necessary to recognize, as we saw in part 1, that the self is neither a disembodied mind or will, as a rationalist account would have it, nor dissolved into the mechanisms of nature, as an empiricist account would have it. Rather, the individual self is who she is only in dynamic dialogue with the environment of things and others in which she grows up and in which she makes a home. As we saw in part 2, we call the individual behaviorally "healthy" or "unhealthy" depending on the extent to which his dialogical manner of engaging with his changing environment reveals a growth-oriented plasticity or a growth-inhibiting rigidity. But, as we saw in part 3, it is nowhere but in her dialogical relationship with formative environments—and in particular, formative environments with other people—that the individual develops habits of open-ended plasticity or of defensive rigidity. It thus makes sense to call the environments that call forth habits of open-ended plasticity "healthy" and the environments that [End Page 623] call forth defensive, rigid responses "unhealthy." In the cases discussed in part 3, we saw three examples of unhealthy environments. Healthy interpersonal and social environments, by contrast to the limited and limiting interpersonal environments discussed there, would afford us rich and varied interests—deepening and refining our personal identities—and would put us into contact with numerous and diverse other individuals and groups—challenging and dialogically transforming our senses of who we are.49 But a further elaboration of these points is for another essay. [End Page 624]

Laura McMahon
Eastern Michigan University


1. For a standard tabloid formulation of this kind of debate, see, for example, "Is Addiction an Illness or Weakness?" Daily Mail, March 31, 2007.

2. See, for example, Steven Slate, "Addiction Is NOT a Brain Disease, It Is a Choice," Clean Slate Addiction Site, accessed January 19, 2017, See also Jeffrey M. Schwartz and Sharon Begley, The Mind and the Brain: Neuroplasticity and the Power of Mental Force (New York: HarperCollins, 2002).

3. See, for example, WebMD's list of the known causes of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder exclusively in terms of genetic inheritance and chemical imbalance in the brain (accessed January 19, 2017,

4. For Maurice Merleau-Ponty's criticism of the prejudices of empiricism and rationalism or "intellectualism," see his Phénoménologie de la perception (Paris: Gallimard, 1945) and Phenomenology of Perception, trans. Donald Landes (New York: Routledge, 2012), chaps. 1–3.

5. A notable exception is Victor Kestenbaum, The Phenomenological Sense of John Dewey: Habit and Meaning (Atlantic Highlands: Humanities Press, 1977). Though they do not explicitly discuss the philosophies of Dewey or Merleau-Ponty or the relationship between them in any detail, in Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and Its Challenge to Western Thought (New York: Basic Books, 1999), George Lakoff and Mark Johnson pair Dewey and Merleau-Ponty as "the two greatest philosophers of the embodied mind" (xi).

6. John Dewey, "The Reflex Arc Concept in Psychology," in The Early Works of John Dewey, vol. 5: 1895–1898, ed. Jo Ann Boydston (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2008), 96–109; Maurice Merleau-Ponty, La structure du comportement (Paris: Presse Universitaires de France, 1942); Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The Structure of Behavior, trans. Alden L. Fisher (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1963).

7. John Dewey, Democracy and Education, The Middle Works of John Dewey, vol. 9: 1916, ed. Jo Ann Boydston (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2008), 29; hereafter cited as MW9.

8. My approach here is in keeping with other recent phenomenological work on personality formation, health, and illness. See especially John Russon, "Personality as Equilibrium: Fragility and Plasticity in (Inter-)personal Identity," Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences 16, no. 4 (2017): 623–35; Kirsten Jacobson, "A Developed Nature: A Phenomenological Account of the Experience of Home," Continental Philosophy Review 42 (2009): 355–73; Kirsten Jacobson, "The Interpersonal Expression of Human Spatiality A Phenomenological Interpretation of Anorexia Nervosa," Chiasmi International 8 (2006): 157–73; and Kirsten Jacobson, "Agoraphobia and Hypochondria as Disorders of Dwelling," International Studies in Philosophy 36, no. 2 (2004): 31–44. See also Robert Stolorow, World, Affectivity, Trauma: Heidegger and Post-Cartesian Psychoanalysis (New York: Routledge, 2011).

9. Dewey, "Reflex Arc Concept in Psychology," 100.

10. Merleau-Ponty, La structure du comportement, 7/Merleau-Ponty, Structure of Behavior, 9.

11. Cf. Merleau-Ponty, Phénoménologie de la perception, 58/Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, 35, on the rationalist notion that perception is the operation of the mind "explaining to itself bodily impressions. See also Descartes's argument in his Second Meditation that what we call perception is really judgment.

12. See Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, trans. John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson (New York: Harper and Row, 1962), §§ 28–32, on the "as-structure" of experience.

13. Dewey, "Reflex Arc Concept in Psychology," 100.

14. Merleau-Ponty, Phénoménologie de la perception, 30/Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, 8.

15. Merleau-Ponty, La structure du comportement, 11–12/Merleau-Ponty, Structure of Behavior, 13.

16. On the phenomenological concept of being-in-the-world, see Heidegger, Being and Time, chap. 3; and Merleau-Ponty, Phénoménologie de la perception, 110–11/ Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, 83–84. For a discussion of Dewey's philosophy as beginning with an emphasis on pre-objective versus cognitive experience, see Kestenbaum, Phenomenological Sense of John Dewey, especially the introduction and chap. 1.

17. On the animal organism as a kind of proto-self, see Scott Marratto, The Intercorporeal Self Merleau-Ponty on Subjectivity (Albany State University of New York Press, 2013), 18. See also John Dewey, Art as Experience, The Later Works of John Dewey, vol. 10: 1934, ed. Jo Ann Boydston (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2008), chap. 1: "The Live Creature."

18. Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, 195/Merleau-Ponty, Phénoménologie de la perception, 230.

19. Merleau-Ponty, La structure du comportement, 13/Merleau-Ponty, Structure of Behavior, 15.

20. Merleau-Ponty, Structure of Behavior, 175. See Merleau-Ponty, La structure du comportement, 190. On variability as the characteristic way of life for humans, see Francis Sparshott, Taking Life Seriously: A Study of the Argument of the "Nichomachean Ethics" (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1994), 45–48. See also Phenomenology of Perception, 195/Phénoménologie de la perception, 230, where Merleau-Ponty argues that a "genius for ambiguity . . . might well serve to define man."

21. On this point, see Dewey's example at MW9 52 of getting to know a new city and moving from a situation of "excessive stimulation" to "an equilibrium of adjustment" that serves as a new background for further and different stimuli.

22. On the manner in which habituation aims at its own self-surpassing, see John Dewey, Human Nature and Conduct, The Middle Works of John Dewey, vol. 14: 1922, ed. Jo Ann Boydston (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2008), especially chaps. 4, 5, 8, 9, and 10. See also John Russon, Human Experience: Philosophy, Neurosis, and the Elements of Everyday Life (Albany State University of New York Press, 2003), 27–31.

23. Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, 112/Merleau-Ponty, Phénoménologie de la perception, 139. For essays that find productive resources in Merleau-Ponty for understanding ability and disability, see Gail Weiss, "The Normal, the Natural, and the Normative: A Merleau-Pontian Legacy to Feminist Theory, Critical Race Theory, and Disability Studies," Continental Philosophy Review 48 (2015): 77–93; and Lisa Diedrich, "Breaking Down: A Phenomenology of Disability," Literature and Medicine 20, no. 2 (Fall 2001): 209–30.

24. Merleau-Ponty, Structure of Behavior, 39–40; emphasis added/Merleau-Ponty, La structure du comportement, 39–40.

25. Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, 145/Merleau-Ponty, Phénoménologie de la perception, 179.

26. Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, 145/Merleau-Ponty, Phénoménologie de la perception, 179.

27. Dewey, Human Nature and Conduct, 48–49.

28. Schneider was a patient of neurologist Goldstein and Gestalt psychologist Adhémar Gelb. Discussions of his case can be found in, for example, Kurt Goldstein, The Organism (New York: Zone Books, 1995); and Kurt Goldstein and Martin Scheerer, "Abstract and Concrete Behavior: An Experimental Study with Special Tests," Psychological Monographs 53, no. 2 (1941): 1–10. Merleau-Ponty discusses the case of Schneider at various points in Phenomenology of Perception but most extensively in the chapter entitled "The Spatiality of One's Own Body, and Motricity." For a more recent summary of what is known about the Schneider case, see J. J. Marotta and M. Behrman, "Patient Schn: Has Goldstein and Gelb's Case Withstood the Test of Time?" Neuropsychologia 42 (2004): 633–38.

29. Merleau-Ponty, Phénoménologie de la perception, 164/Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, 132.

30. Ibidd., 106–7.

31. Ibid., 134.

32. Merleau-Ponty, Structure of Behavior, 245–46 n. 97/Merleau-Ponty, La structure du comportement, 190 n. 1.

33. Compare to Dewey's discussion at MW9 19 of the isolation of a social group: "The same spirit is found whenever one group has interests 'of its own' which shut it out from full interaction with other groups, so that its prevailing purpose is the protection of what it has got, instead of reorganization and progress through wider relationships."

34. Georges Canguilhem, The Normal and the Pathological, trans. Carolyn R. Fawcett and Robert S. Cohen (New York: Zone Books, 1991), 185–86.

35. Ibid., 186.

36. Ibid., 197.

37. For further discussion of this example, and of the interpersonal and dramatic contexts of the development of personal identity and meaning in Dewey, see Thomas M. Alexander, "The Human Eros," in Philosophy and the Reconstruction of Culture: Pragmatic Essays After Dewey, ed. John J. Stuhr (Albany State University of New York, 1993), 203–22, at 212.

38. On the interpersonal contexts for the formation of individuality in childhood, see Eva Simms, "Milk and Flesh: A Phenomenological Reflection on Infancy and Coexistence," Journal of Phenomenological Psychology 32, no. 1 (2001): 22–40; Kym Maclaren, "Embodied Perception of Others as a Condition of Selfhood? Empirical and Phenomenological Considerations," Journal of Consciousness Studies 15, no. 8 (2008): 63–93; and John Russon, "Between Two Intimacies: The Formative Contexts of Individual Experience," Emotion, Space, and Society 13 (2014): 65–70.

39. Dewey, Human Nature and Conduct, 109; Dewey, Art as Experience, 67.

40. "Dancer Needed to Move to Think," Ted Radio Hour, October 4, 2014.

41. For another case of a "fish out of water," see Victor Frankl, Man's Search for Meaning (Boston: Beacon Press, 2006), 123, on how a change of professional environment can be more salubrious than psychoanalytic treatment.

42. Russon, Human Experience, 81.

43. Ibid., 81–82.

44. Ibid., 82. See also Dewey on habits that are at odds with one another versus habits that embody one another (Human Nature and Conduct, 30).

45. Gregory Bateson, "The Cybernetics of 'Self': A Theory of Alcoholism," in Steps to an Ecology of Mind (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1972), 309–37, at 323.

46. See also MW9 49, where Dewey argues that the "illusion of being able to stand and act alone" is "an unnamed form of insanity which is responsible for a large part of the remediable suffering of the world"; and Human Experience, 90, where Russon argues that the widespread prejudice for thinking of the self as a "normal," Stoic individual is the neurotic stance par excellence.

47. Bateson, "Cybernetics of 'Self,'" 312.

48. Ibid., 318.

49. These are Dewey's two principles of democracy (MW9 92–93).

Additional Information

Print ISSN
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.