Notes and Communications

By DeGregori, Thomas R. | Journal of Economic Issues, December 2003 | Go to article overview

Notes and Communications


DeGregori, Thomas R., Journal of Economic Issues


Ayres and Dewey: Forward to the Future--A Critique of James L. Webb's Article.

James L. Webb provided a stimulating and insightful interpretation of the ideas of John Dewey in his provocative article, "Dewey: Back to the Future" (2002). I strongly endorse his call for the "younger generations of institutionalists who have turned away or drifted away from the pragmatic roots of institutionalism" to take a more careful look at the thoughts of Dewey (981). Unfortunately, Webb combined this with what I consider an unwarranted attack on Clarence E. Ayres, whom he accused of incorrectly interpreting Dewey.

Webb opened his narrative on Dewey with a long quote from Dewey's Logic: The Theory of Inquiry, which he claimed demonstrates Dewey's separation between science and technology--"functionally distinct" (982). Nowhere in that quote does Dewey use the word "technology," forcing Webb to construe Dewey's "common sense" as a surrogate for technology. Yet in chapter 4 of the same work, Dewey attacked the artificial "division between 'lower' and 'higher' techniques" as he often did throughout his works (72; for a further cogent example, see Dewey 1938, chapter 1). Earlier in Logic: The Theory of Inquiry, Dewey maintained that the "subject matter of logic is determined operationally" and illustrated it with examples from "industrial arts" (14-15).

In chapter 4, where Dewey spoke of the split between the "traditional logic" "common sense" and "science," he argued that "the attainment of unified method means that the fundamental unity of the structure of inquiry in common sense and science be recognized, their difference being one in the problems in which they are directly concerned, not in their respective logics" (79). This sounds very similar to Ayres' call for a unified field theory of knowledge. More important, it is in line with Webb's one-sentence quote from Ayres' seminal work, "The Theory of Economic Progress," where Ayres argued that "as regards the nature of the process," "there is no difference between 'mechanical invention' and 'scientific discovery'" (Webb 2002, 982; Ayres 1962, 213).

One wonders where Webb would establish the chasm that separates science and technology. Is an architect a scientist, an engineer/technologist, an artist, or all three simultaneously? By 1971, the discovery of restriction endonuclease (enzymes) allowed researchers to cut DNA and insert another gene and create transgenic organisms. Paul Berg used this technique to genetically engineer DNA molecules into bacterial DNA, which was followed by Stanley Cohen and Herbert Boyer transferring a single gene using plasmids to create a transgenic organism (a bacteria). All three won a Nobel Prize for their work and are clearly recognized as scientists. Could not one argue that they are also technologists and could not the same be said for a multitude of scientists/ biotechnologists?

Given the voluminous nature of Dewey's work, Webb and I could exchange selective quotes ad infinitum to prove our own interpretation of Dewey. A far more serious dispute with Webb is his charge that not only is Ayres out of sync with Dewey but that Ayres was out of sync with scientific inquiry and that his "analysis led inquiry in unproductive directions" (995). Webb faulted Ayres for believing in 1923 that an "atom is not a bit of reality, it is an abstraction" (985). At the time that Ayres wrote this, the electron microscope had not yet been invented so nobody had yet seen a molecule let alone an atom. The idea of an atom was a construct or abstraction which facilitated organizing and using an array of empirical data to carry on further inquiry. From John Dalton (1766-1844) to Ernest Rutherford (1871-1937) and Niels Bohr (1885-1962), natural philosophers and physicists had investigated the atom ("indivisible") and eventually theorized a structure similar to the solar system with a large mass in the center composed of protons and neutrons with electrons revolving around it.

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