Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy, Vol 5, No 2 (2009)

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A semiotic view of Dewey's times and Habermas's lifeworlds

Steve Mackey


John Dewey (1859-1952) explained how life was ‘corporatised’ at the time of rampant, laissez faire capitalism in early 20th century America. This paper refers Dewey’s observations to Habermas’s notions of the colonisation of the lifeworld. The semiotic and pragmatist approaches of Charles Saunders Peirce are then enlisted to look further into these lifeworld changes. The paper suggests modifications to Habermas’s schema to bring it more in line with Dewey’s empirical account. It puts together a theoretically and empirically informed picture of the contemporary disruption to ways of living and the accompanying social and political instability. The paper then goes on to suggest how that instability appears to have been quelled by communicative means. These stages of: (1) stability; (2) disruption/instability; and (3) the regaining of stability are compared to Habermas’s notions of: (1) an original lifeworld; (2) colonisation of that lifeworld by the consequences of purposive rational activity; then (3) communicative action which ‘rebuilds’ – that is which replaces or modifies or reforms or repairs – the disrupted lifeworld in order to create a new lifeworld. ‘Colonisation’ could be said to have provoked social instability. Notions of building a new ‘lifeworld’ – a new cultural and psychic reference – could be said to correspond with attempts to resume social and political stability. The implication is that whatever the degree of purposive rationalism there is always a need for a return to some level of shared values and understandings which imply communicative rationality. This ‘return’ or ‘counter-colonisation’ can be thought of as operating via a ‘lifeworld negotiation’ which might best be understood with reference to a Peircean based pragmatism-semiotic theory of human subjectivity. This paper has been criticised for discussing “arguments” which: “would justify those who accommodated themselves to Nazism.” What this paper in fact tries to do is to use the concepts of the above three philosophers to try to account for the ways people think. This paper is not about justifying what philosophies people should hold. It is presumed that most readers are sensible and ethical and can make their own minds up in that respect. Rather it attempts to draw from Dewey, Habermas and Peirce to offer a characterisation of what philosophies might be argued to be held and to offer an explanation about how these modes of thinking might be said to have come into existence. This paper rejects the notion that ones ‘will’ and thus the way one is able to think, is totally free and beyond the formative influences of the social-cultural context – including the influences of public relations and other persuasive discourse industries.

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