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Roberta DREON

De mai à juin 2023

Sensibility, Habits, and Enlanguaged Experience :
Features of a Pragmatist Anthropology

“Existentially speaking – John Dewey says in Experience and Nature (1925) – a human individual is distinctive opacity of bias and preference conjoined with plasticity and permeability of needs and likings”. This series of seminars will focus on the qualitative, pre-personal, and habitual features of human experience constituting the background to rational decision-making, normativity, and reflection. In other words, it will be devoted to developing some contributions to a philosophical anthropology, basically seen through pragmatist lenses. While remaining faithful to the philosophical legacy of Dewey, William James, and George Herbert Mead, I will try to work out a pragmatist anthropology, something that these philosophers never put together in a comprehensive form. I will do so by linking their insights to the current debates on the mind as embodied and enacted, philosophy of emotions, social theory, and studies about the origins of human language. What are the main features of human experience, understood not as something occurring in the “internal theatre of the mind”, but as humans’ complex set of interactions with their natural and naturally social environment? By assuming a basic continuity between natural developments and human culture, I will question the view of sensibility as a primarily cognitive faculty and suggest we reconceptualize it as a function of life. Together with the Pragmatists, I will propose a view of habits as pervasive features of human behaviour, primarily acquired by attuning to the social environment. Finally, I will defend an interpretation of human experience as « enlanguaged », namely as contingently yet irreversibly embedded in a linguistic environment that has important loop effects on human sensibility and habitual conduct.

Detailed presentation

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What Human Nature? – This first seminar will be devoted to introducing a view of human nature inspired by the Pragmatists: human nature is not interpreted as an allegedly innate, fixed and pre-constituted endowment that is only exposed to cultural events, a social world, and empirical occurrences at a later stage. The Pragmatists provide a decisive contribution to the idea of our being human as the contingent product of a natural history, shaped via interactions with a natural and naturally cultural environment. According to this perspective, human nature is not found beneath the flow of events: it is constituted by a complex range of organic and environmental circumstances that are subject to relative fixation, changes, and loop effects. Cultural naturalism, loop-effects, and designless emergentism are some of the pivotal concepts for developing a pragmatist anthropology that will be explored in the seminar.

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More than Action and Perception – A second seminar focuses on sensibility: approaching this topic from an anthropological point of view means shifting from a primarily cognitive angle to the broad biological perspective of animal life in an environment. Sensibility does not primarily coincide with the passive recording of what is “out there” by sense perception. It can instead be re-defined as selective exposition to the environment and as the active perceptual capacity to discriminate between favorable and noxious aspects by an organism whose primary experience of the surrounding environment is social because of the organic conditions of emphasized interdependence from others characterizing the human form of life.

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Bundles of Habits – A third seminar will be devoted to habits, conceived of as ecological, holistic, and transactional, i.e. as requiring the cooperation of both the organism and the natural and naturally social environment. By defining habits as the more or less flexible channeling of both organic energies and environmental resources, the seminar will suggest that the acquisition of habits mainly occurs at a pre-personal level. It will emphasize that a Deweyan understanding of habit favors a more pluralistic, revisable view of human behaviors than Bourdieu’s conception of habitus.

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Enlanguaged Experience – A final seminar will introduce the conception of human experience as enlanguaged, namely as contingently yet irreversibly embedded in linguistic contexts and practices. Beyond the artificial opposition between experience and language, the Pragmatists contribute to the view of language as an integral part of each human being’s experience, and suggest that the advent of linguistic interactions produces a profound reorganization in animal sensibility, action, and cognition. Consequently, language could be seen as a featire of the human environment, configured by the broadly linguistic practices of our ancestors and continuously reshaped by our own.

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