Deweyan Inquiry and Economic Practice

By Webb, James L. | Journal of Economic Issues, June 2005 | Go to article overview

Deweyan Inquiry and Economic Practice


Webb, James L., Journal of Economic Issues


Insights from John Dewey's analysis of inquiry provide constructive guidance to inquiry in political economy. However, these insights have been lost or neglected as generations of institutional economists pass down second-hand, sloganized versions of "instrumental" inquiry or substitute the interpretations of contemporary philosophers. (1) It is useful for the sake of more effective practice in political economy to examine classical pragmatism, in particular Dewey's thoughts on the nature of inquiry, in some detail.

Overview of Dewey's Philosophy

First of all, classical pragmatism generally and Dewey's philosophy in particular embrace the implications of evolutionary biology as no philosophy before it had. In "The Influence of Darwin on Philosophy" Dewey said, "[T]he conviction persists--though history shows it to be a hallucination--that all the questions that the human mind has asked are questions that can be answered in terms that the questions themselves present. But in fact intellectual progress usually occurs through sheer abandonment of questions together with both of the alternatives they assume--an abandonment that results from their decreasing vitality and a change of urgent interest. We do not solve them: we get over them" ([1910] 1997, 19).

Evolutionary theory suggests a thoroughgoing naturalism in which the behavior and characteristics of the human species are not treated in a metaphysically or epistemologically separate realm, some realm accessible only through extra- or supranatural means. Humans are merely one among hundreds of millions of organisms, evolved from earlier organisms.

In the naturalistic analysis of logic, as in the naturalistic analysis of anything, we start in the middle of things; we start from where we are. Experience, in Dewey's rich, nuanced, and deeply textured sense, includes inference. Historically and existentially, inference precedes logic; inference precedes even the existence of the human species. We infer before we are logical in any self-conscious and systematic sense. Dewey thus observed that "logic accrues to experience" (1938). That is, formalized, systematic logic is a schematized and generic description of the process of drawing valid inferences from true premises.

The alternative to naturalistic logic is a metaphysical separation of logic from experience and into a distinct ontological region, only accessible via a priori means. Treating logic (including syntax) as having an a priori existence creates the artificial problem of needing to attach logic to inference (or to attach language to the world). Of course, logicians, analytic philosophers, and neoclassical economists whose work is limited to manipulating symbolic systems have a vested interest in logical a priorism, which invests their activity with significance and insulates it from criticism.

Besides naturalism, classical pragmatism is characterized by antiskepticism, fallibilism, and (lower case r) realism. As with scientific inquiry, pragmatism incorporates fallibilism, which makes all beliefs to some extent provisional. As C. S. Peirce pointed out, pragmatism is antiskeptical (in the philosophical sense of skepticism): belief and doubt cannot be willed to exist when they do not in fact exist (1955b). Thus Rend Descartes' program of starting from radical doubt is unrealizable. As a consequence of its naturalism, realism, fallibilism, and antiskepticism, classical pragmatism "gets over" foundationalism.

Reflex Arc

In "The Reflex Arc Concept in Psychology" (1896), Dewey rejected the folk psychology underlying John Locke's epistemology and metaphysics. For Dewey "data" are never "given" but rather "taken." What are taken as data depend in part on the purpose of the inquiry. Thus, there is no one-to-one correspondence between a given sense datum and a mental image or construct. In modern terminology Dewey's critique of the reflex arc means that scientific (or everyday) observation is mediated by limited sense organs, habits, intellectual constructs, perspectives, and purposes of observation. …

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