War and Human Nature

Applying John Dewey’s Theories of Habit Formation to Issues of War and Peace


Submission Type: Paper

Word Count: 3359





            Sociologists, psychologists and philosophers alike have long debated the possible existence of destructive, “war-like” impulses as something inherently a part of the human condition.  Is there something innate, inherent, and festering within man’s genetic code waiting for the proper forum to be unleashed in destructive and devastating ways? Are we “hard-wired” with the drive to destroy our fellow man prior to any sort of provocation?

            John Dewey brought his unique brand of social psychology into the forum of pedagogy and the philosophy of education.  In Human Nature and Conduct, Dewey applies the classic themes of pragmatism, inherited as an intriguing naturalization of the contributions of his pragmatic predecessor C.S. Peirce, in an in-depth analysis of the ways in which impulses coalesce into habits early on in our lives to solidify into what we commonly refer to as our human “character.”

            In this essay I will analyze, briefly, the themes of pragmatism that Dewey inherited from his predecessors and illuminate how he brought them bear on individual character development.  Once we’ve established the parallels between what I call “the pragmatic circuit” and the relationship between impulse, habit and character, I will look more closely at Dewey’s thoughts on the so-called “war impulse” and present a type of “methodology of peace” that can be gleaned from his contributions.



The Pragmatic Circuit


With a none-too-subtle nod to the revolutionary contributions of Hegel, classic pragmatism is mapped upon a clearly triadic movement, what I call a “pragmatic circuit.”  Famously expressed in Peirce’s semiotics, this triadic cycle has been adapted by Peirce, himself, on several occasions for different ends, by James in his “Stream of Consciousness” and, as we shall see in a moment, by Dewey in his analysis of human conduct and the transaction between organism and environment.  I say “circuit” because of the critically important concept that the triadic movement loops back in upon itself; that is, there is a first movement, a secondness, a thirdness, but it does not end there, rather, that thirdness feeds into another firstness, but not the same firstness as before, but a new firstness, made more dynamic but the cycle that has just transpired feeding into this new cycle.  

            In Peirce’s 1877 essay, “The Fixation of Belief,” the precursors to several major themes in Dewey’s later work were manifest and the semiotic, pragmatic circuit was naturalized.  For Peirce, both on a social and individual level, human beings strive to be in a state of belief, that is, the cessation of strife, of doubt, not merely “cognitive achievement.”  On occasion, inevitably, problems arise that shatter the equilibrium, the peace of mind, the contentment of being in said “state of belief.”  When these problems arise, “inquiry,” that is, investigations into the nature of the problem unsettling the equilibrium are instigated in order to ascertain ways in which to overcome the problem, incorporate the findings of this investigation in conjunction with knowledge of the nature of the problem, into a new, better, state of belief.  This, in short, is Peirce’s definition of social and individual progress and we can see clearly this definition of “progress” mapped upon the pragmatic triune circuit.  Firstness is the equilibrium, the rest, the state of belief prior to secondness, the instigation of a problem, disrupting an equilibrium, leading to resolution and understanding, a cognitive thirdness, which establishes a new and more dynamic firstness, a new “state of belief.”  This new state of belief, we observe, is strengthened by the incorporation of both the latest problem and the solution to that problem.  The new state of belief will have incorporated it into its gestalt of experience, creating a more robust, dynamic organism in equilibrium with its environment.

We note, however, that the cycle-map is localized.  An individual’s concatenation of specific habits, woven together to form the gestalt of his experience, “gelling” together, are born of his specific community and the problems that arose within that specific community.  That is to say, one man’s problem is another man’s normal routine.

Impulse, Habit and Character Development

“Habits,” Dewey says, “as organized activities are secondary and acquired, not native and original.  They are outgrowths of unlearned activities which are part of man’s endowment at birth.”[1] We begin with something more primitive at birth, something “instinctive,” and those “instincts”[2] are only thereafter put to the test, many tests, in fact, and as a result of their being tested, coalesce into the habits that we then bring to bear upon new problems as they arise. 

In the life of the individual, instinctive activity comes first.  But an individual begins life as a baby, and babies are dependent beings.  Their activities could continue at most for only a few hours were it not for the presence and aid of adults with their formed habits.[3]


Our parents, family and community members are each individual “strings” of habit-experiment continuity constituting their “characters.”  From breath one, we, as babies, are at the mercy of these habit continuities, characters, we call “family” and “community.” More often than not, pre-linguistic infants are benefited by their families and their communities, nurtured, supported, and rightly so.  Not always, of course, in unfortunate circumstances and even in those circumstances where there is overt support and nurturing, the infant remains “at the mercy” of the influential habitual continuities of family and community (racism towards outsiders, for example, could be cultivated within a community though the individual babies within that community are supported and nurtured and loved ceaselessly).  From breath one, we are influenced by the acquired habits of others as they begin to teach us how to make our way in the world.

In the case of the young it is patent that impulses are highly flexible starting points for activities which are diversified according to the ways in which they are used.  Any impulse may become organized into almost any disposition according to the way it interacts with surroundings.  Fear may become abject cowardice, prudent caution, reference for superiors or respect for equals.[4]


We enter into this world as unqualified potential, a mass of instincts and impulses unlearned and ingrained in us from birth.  These impulses could be directed in any number of ways.  Our community, specifically, our parents and family members most present and influential in our early stages of development, condition the ways in which they are ultimately directed. 

Habits, as we’ve seen, are acquired through engaging a problematic situation, testing previously acquired habits, and seeing if they succeed in reestablishing our equilibrium with our environments.  But how we are taught to experiment, the manner by which we inquire into the nature of our world, is conditioned by how our parents taught us to.  This, in turn, is conditioned by how they themselves inquired into their world, and so on.  We all begin with impulses, in short, but how those impulses are conditioned into habits which inform our dealings with our world is a highly subjective, individualized engagement with very specific problems and very specific methods by which to solve these problems, methods passed down to us by our parents and conditioned by our communities.

A man may be chiefly afraid of the spirits of his ancestors, of officials, of arousing the disapproval of his associates, of being deceived, of fresh air, or of Bolshevism.  The actual outcome depends upon how the impulse of fear is interwoven with other impulses.  This depends in turn upon the outlets and inhibitions supplied by the social environment.[5]


            As we recall from almost any facet of Dewey’s work in philosophy, aspects of experience should be accounted for organistically rather than atomistically, that is to say, taken as a whole rather that divided into unnatural, artificial contained parts.  As such, any impulse when seen in the proper organic light is never alone in isolation but naturally interwoven with other impulses.  It is this web of impulses that stimulate the processes by which habits are acquired, a web or matrix of habits no less expansive than the impulses they are born from.  Any individual impulse existing within any specific individual is conditioned into a habit by not only the influence of his parents and community but by the available outlets and inhibitions supplied by his “social environment,” both in terms of his natural environment and in terms of his fellow community members.  There is no greater individualized procedure than this.  Every step is conditioned by the influence of others and the influence of environment and yet every step is one’s own private investigation leading to one’s own experiment and resolution resulting in one’s own, unique habitual matrix, one’s own “character.” 

Education and the Road to Peace

            The conditioning of these myriad impulses into any number of habits is a product of their own investigations into the world, their own experiments, and those experiments in turn are conditioned by both their communities’ influence on their development as well as the social environment that they find themselves in.  Perhaps the most vivid example that Dewey gives us is an analysis of James’ study of the reasons why mankind goes to war.[6]  As Dewey says, the issue:

...calls attention to the medley of impulses which are casually bunched together under the caption of belligerent impulse; and it calls attention to the fact that the elements of this medley may be woven together into many different types of activity.[7]


            Dewey wants to argue that, contrary to many moral theorists, human nature is susceptible to change over time.  If the more general impulses, say, for example here, “belligerence,” are viewed as a medley of other impulses, a different portrait of human nature is painted.  Whereas a more general impulse like “belligerence” could be seen as timeless and unchanging, a part of the very “essence” of humanity, a coordination of a dozen or more interwoven impulses forming what is casually referred to as “belligerence” offers us a more dynamic view of the human condition. 

The statement “humans are, by nature, timelessly belligerent creatures and it is because of this belligerence that they go to war” we see is clearly an under-simplification of an immensely complex and dynamic concept.  Innumerable impulses,[8] for Dewey, all interweave to form this war-like impulse, this belligerent impulse.  We can clearly see that not all of them are applicable at all times for all people, but only a coordination of some can account for the motivating factors involved in any conflict.  Consequently, just as social environments inform impulses and the habits acquired from those impulses, it is clear here that the converse is likewise true: impulses inform social environments.  The impulses at play when the decision is made to go to war are clearly different today than they were two thousand years ago.  It can only follow that the impulses that create the habits that forge human character imply that human nature itself is alterable over time.  For what was once important is no longer, and what was once unforeseeable has now come to pass.  Consider here, James’s assessment of the changing character of any given individual in his “Stream of Consciousness.”

From one year to another we see things in new lights.  What was unreal has grown real, and what was exciting is insipid.  The friends we used to care the world for are shrunken to shadows; the women, once so divine, the stars, the woods, the waters, how now so dull and common![9]     


As we saw in Dewey as well, both the environment and the organism within any transaction are in constant states of change, a perpetual battle to re-establish and maintain equilibrium.  We are not the people we once were, our priorities, wants, desire and fears change from month to month.  As Dewey says, as we change, so change the habits we bring to bear on our social conundrums.  Habits, “create out of the formless void of impulses a world made in their image.” [10]

            The key lies in the rejection of accepting any individual impulse in a social or individual vacuum, as viewed too atomistically.  No impulse acts alone but, rather, in a complex, dynamic coordination with myriad other impulses, pulling this way and that, which, after numerous occasions of experiments and inquiries into how best to maintain an equilibrium with our world, coalesce into what we call habits.  We seek not to change our “impulses” per se, for mankind will always be susceptible to any and all of the limitless void of impulses, but the way in which they are coordinated and which ones, in specific, are coordinated, into habits.  Consider Proust’s recollections again of his youth at Combray and the manner by which he learned, only as an adult, the means by which his impulses of “Love,” initially random and chaotic, would eventually coalesce into something more stable.[11]

            Love, for a child, remains “vague and free,” not yet coordinated into anything specific, a habit of “loving” directed at someone or something specific.  These wild, free, vague impulses of desiring what is other, wanting comfort, companionship, must be “equipped and adapted.”  “Filial piety,” “affection for a comrade”[12] or the love of one’s spouse, will all form from the same “vague and free” penumbra of impulses.

Now let us consider the impact that social institutions have on this early coordination of “vague and free” impulses into regularized and regularizing habits.  “Existing institutions impose their stamp, their superscription, upon impulse and instinct…how then can we get leverage for changing institutions?”[13]  Our social environments influence our habits; of that there is little doubt.  The culture in which we grow into adults will be the source of all the forces that influence how we coordinate which impulses into what, specific, habits.

            Dewey cites James’ example of the Illiad in which the “motives” and “glories”[14] of the Trojan War were vastly different from those of modern warfare.  “The forces that once caused wars have found other outsets for themselves; while new provocations, based on new economic and political conditions have come into being.  War is thus seen to be a function of social institutions, not of what is natively fixed in human constitution.”[15]

            The implications of this theory are profound.  If there is no purely “war-like” instinct residing in some static “nature” of man, war is not, necessarily, an activity that man must always find himself enmeshed in.  As we’ve seen, the forces and motivations that previously caused wars, those specific coordination of impulses, have since found “other outlets.”  Yet new provocations have arisen to which social institutions, be they religious, political, or both, have provided the outlet in the form of a war with new motivations.  In order to alter the coordination of impulses that form the habits that provoke war, the social institutions must be changed and new outlets for the same impulses in different coordinations must be discovered and utilized, an alternate piping system, redirecting these otherwise destructive forces to non-violent ends.  If war is solely a function of social institutions and not a product of some innate, static human nature, and if the motivations of wars past no longer hold the power to motivate war now, it would follow that, at least in theory, there is some coordination of impulses and a social environment that could curb human conduct away from war altogether.  It all comes back to Dewey’s question: “how then can we get leverage for changing institutions?”

            The solution lies in the education of our children.  As Dewey says,

The young are not as yet as subject to the full impact of established customs.  Their life of impulsive activity is vivid, flexible, experimenting, curious.  Adults have their habits formed, fixed, at least comparatively.[16]


Impulses in adults are firmly in place, coordinated into their associations and established in tried and tested habits.  Children have not yet put their impulses to the test (impulses no different than adults have in the sense of their “limitless void”, not yet bundled into specific coordinations and not yet formed into regularized habits).  The impulses of children remain in their state of limitless potential, not yet associated with one another in any regularized fashion. 

            “Education,” as we’ve seen, cannot take place in a void of human contact for, as we’ve already mentioned, from breath one, children are at the mercy of the adults in their community to keep them alive.  In so doing, the habits that the previous generation acquired through their own experimentation “infect” the children’s own experimentation and developing habits.  Perhaps a vivid example, in terms of war, would pertain to the conflict in the Middle East.  To say there is an “anti-Semitic” impulse is absurd, what impulses are associated with anti-Semitism are coordinated into habits through practice, experience and real-world experimentation.  The association, specifically, must be made by another and transferred to a child.  The idea that there is a perpetually existing type of impulse with innate, inherent empirical associations (like the very concept of “anti-Semitism”) is a “fiction” for Dewey and the type of permanently ‘idea,’ for James, “as mythological an entity as the Jack of Spades.”  “Names did not appear…inalterable, but changed their shape to suit the context in which they lay.”[17]  Unquestionably there are impulses that become coordinated into the habit of anti-Semitism, that is, the habit of reacting to situations in an anti-Semitic fashion, but these impulses need not necessary be directed to that end.

            Impulses are present in all individuals, it is the ways in which they are expressed and the coordinations in which they find themselves placed that will influence the habits that form and types of characters that are, consequently, produced.  War cannot be attributed to any one impulse, as we’ve seen, nor any one specific institution for the myriad institutions constantly influencing and interacting with any given individual. 

It is now naïve to attribute war to specific isolable human impulses...a general social reorganization is needed which will redistribute forces, immunize, divert and nullify.  Hinton was doubtless right when he wrote that the only way to abolish war was to make peace heroic.[18]


There is no specific “war-like” impulse, but rather a coordination of impulses that have resulted in the declaration of war.  Indeed, these coordinations of impulses on a societal level have changed drastically over generations.  There is no “essence” nor substance, nor static, specific, isolable impulse associated with war. 

It now appears that the heroic emotions are not anything which may be specialized in a side-line, so that the war-impulses may find a sublimation in special practices and occupations.  They have to get an outlet in all the tasks of peace.[19]


There is no time for a more detailed account of the pragmatic methodology this line of thinking seems to be hinting at, but suffice it for now to conclude with this possibility:

            What is called for is a more dynamic conception of disposition to intelligent activity and the ways in which, in general, impulses factor into the construction of such a disposition.  The key to everything lies in Dewey’s assessment that “the remedy lies in the development of a new morale which can be attained only as released impulses are intelligently employed to form harmonious habits adapted to one another in a new situation.”[20]  This instrumental process of character development via the coordinated redirection of impulses into a dynamic matrix of habits can be, in a sense, itself directed towards the conversion of impulses into a disposition to intelligent activity that is constructive, creative, innovative in which to better engage the world.  In general, impulses can be directed to forge habits that are directed, in turn, to forge even better habits that aid in the overcoming of problematic situations.  A disposition, a “character”, directed to intelligent activity can be constructed via the redirection and coordination of the release of impulses into certain quite remarkable habits, habits that, when taken together, form this disposition to intelligent activity, this “new morale.”  


Dewey, John.  Human Nature and Conduct.  The Modern Library: New York, 1957.


Proust, Marcel.  Swann’s Way.  The Modern Library: New York, 1956.


Stuhr, John (ed.)  Pragmatism and Classical American Philosophy (2nd Ed.).  Oxford

            University Press: New York, 2000. 






[1] HNC, p. 85

[2] Dewey says that “the words ‘instinct’ and ‘impulse’” are “practical equivalents” on page 99, HNC, to help, in part, differentiate them from the genetic programs we regard as “animal instincts.”

[3] HNC, p. 85

[4] HNC, p. 91

[5] HNC, p. 91

[6] See James’ “The Moral Equivalents of War”

[7] HNC, p. 106

[8] Pugnacity, rivalry, vainglory, love of booty, fear, suspicion, anger, desire for freedom from the conventions and restrictions of peace, love of power and hatred of oppression, opportunity for novel displays, love of home and soil, attachment to one’s people and to the alter and the hearth, courage, loyalty, opportunity to make a name, money or a career, affection, piety to ancestors and ancestral gods – all of these things and many more make up the war-like force, HNC, p. 106-107

[9] Stuhr, p. 166

[10] HNC, p. 118

[11] “That anguish which lies in knowing that the creature one adores is in some place of enjoyment where oneself is not and cannot follow – to him that anguish came through Love, to which it is in a sense predestined, by which it must be equipped and adapted; but when, as had befallen me, such an anguish possess one’s soul before Love has yet entered into one’s life, then it must drift, awaiting Love’s coming, vague and free, without precise attachment,” Proust, p. 36

[12] Proust, p. 36

[13] HNC, p. 119

[14] HNC, p. 107

[15] HNC, p. 108

[16] HNC, p. 120

[17] HNC, p. 167

[18] HNC, pp. 108 - 109

[19] HNC, p. 109

[20] HNC, p. 123