Dewey and Ayres, Webb and DeGregori: At Odds over Technical Terms

By Ranson, Baldwin | Journal of Economic Issues, December 2004 | Go to article overview
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Dewey and Ayres, Webb and DeGregori: At Odds over Technical Terms


Ranson, Baldwin, Journal of Economic Issues


Science uses its technical names efficiently. Such names serve to mark off certain portions of the scientific subjectmatter as provisionally acceptable, thereby freeing the worker's attention for closer consideration of other portions that remain problematic.

--John Dewey, Knowing and the Known

The recent exchange between James Webb and Thomas DeGregori (2002 and 2003) demonstrates the degree to which dissident economists are unable to use their technical names efficiently. They debate definitions of and relations among science, technology, and common sense. They debate continuity, discontinuity, and the nature and process of social evolution. Both are uncomfortable with the term institution. They show no movement toward a meeting of minds on names or on substance.

My comment seeks to mitigate this terminological problem. I propose to extract provisionally acceptable technical names from distinctions made by Thorstein Veblen in The Instinct of Workmanship and the State of the Industrial Arts. After presenting each definition, I consider how acceptable it might be to a hypothetical panel consisting of John Dewey, Clarence Ayres, James Webb, and Thomas DeGregori.

Distinctions generally come in pairs: black/white, open/shut, friend/enemy. The paired terms may be considered as different in kind, mutually exclusive, a matter of either/or. But when applied to actual situations, middle positions may appear that are differences of degree. Coal and snow are neither pure black nor pure white; they are more or less close to opposite end positions. The Latin term continuum (plural, continua) serves in English to identify all possible positions between a pair of terms. I signify either/or distinctions with a slash, as in mind/body, and I signify more-or-less distinctions with opposing arrowheads, as in black< >white.

Veblen was a master of differences of degree when analyzing social processes. He opened The Instinct of Workmanship by delimiting the type of behavior he intended to analyze. His first distinction was between tropismatic and instinctive behavior (1-5; numbers in parentheses refer to pages in the Norton edition of this study, first published in 1914). He posited a continuum between 100 percent tropismatic, or automatic, behavior and 100 percent instinctive, or teleological, behavior. We need not take a position on his theory of instincts to agree to focus our analysis on distinctively human, nonautomatic behavior. I call this portion of our scientific subject matter intentional behavior.

Veblen proceeded to subdivide intentional behaviors, along with systems of belief that guide them, into further continua, the endpoints of which provide our technical names. All but one of these continua deal with specific cases of intentional behavior or belief. That unique continuum asserts that any specific case is demonstrably systematized on more-or-less warranted grounds. He saw this distinction running from 100 percent matter of fact to 100 percent matter of imputation ([1914] 1941 39-40, 60). The former are developmental and serviceable "to the continuation and welfare of the race" (49) while the latter are static and simulate serviceability. It is widely recognized as the "Veblenian distinction" and used as a general-purpose analytical tool. I suggest naming its matter-of-fact endpoint fact based and its matter-of-imputation endpoint fashion based.

DEFINITION 1. Fact-based behavior or belief belongs to a system of meanings that is continuously augmented and corrected by inquiry and is transculturally warranted by evidence of viability.

DEFINITION 2. Fashion-based behavior or belief belongs to various systems of meanings that are discontinuously augmented and revised by authority, and validated by various culture-bound warrants.

In his Logic: The Theory of Inquiry, Dewey used the fact-based< >fashion-based continuum constantly, without explicitly identifying it as a tool.

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