The Pragmatic Instrumentalist Perspective on the Theory of Institutional Change

By Bush, Paul D. | Journal of Economic Issues, June 1994 | Go to article overview

The Pragmatic Instrumentalist Perspective on the Theory of Institutional Change


Bush, Paul D., Journal of Economic Issues


The purpose of this paper is to explore certain implications of John Dewey's pragmatic instrumentalist philosophy for an understanding of the meaning and significance of institutional change.(1) It will be argued that the theory of institutional change that has emerged in the works of Clarence E. Ayres, J. Fagg Foster, and Marc R. Tool (as interpreted and extended by the present writer) manifests both methodological and substantive features uniquely grounded in Dewey's philosophy. While this thesis is generally accepted in the institutionalist literature, there remains a certain vagueness, if not disagreement, with respect to the powerful normative implications such a theory entails both in its methodology and in its substantive analysis. Recent criticisms by prominent institutionalists of Tool's social value principle are indicative of the confusion that continues to plague a straightforward application of pragmatic instrumentalist philosophy to the theory of institutional change.(2) Although the debate over Tool's social value principle is only one manifestation of this confusion, the following discussion will attempt to demonstrate how his social value principle emerges from a pragmatic instrumentalist approach to institutional change.

A diagnostic characteristic of pragmatic instrumentalism is its rejection of the Cartesian knowing-doing dualism. This dualism poses an invidious distinction between the lofty affairs of the mind and the lowly affairs of human action. It is the foundation upon which traditional philosophy, and even contemporary versions of positivism, draws the crucial distinction between theory and practice. Dewey rejected this dualism and all of its corollaries. With respect to inquiry in the social sciences, Dewey once observed that

if man in knowing is a participator in the natural scene, a factor in generating things known, the fact that man participates as a factor in social affairs is no barrier to knowledge of them. On the contrary, a certain method of directed participation is a precondition of his having any genuine understanding. Human intervention for the sake of effecting ends is no interference, and it is a means of knowledge [1960, 212].

Thus, rather than being confined to the realm of the intellect, inquiry must be located squarely within the problem-solving processes of living communities.

One of the most important manifestations of the knowing-doing dualism is the foundationalist tenet that there is, to use Lord Robbins's memorable term, a "gulf-fixed" between normative and positive realms of discourse. Dewey viewed this normative-positive dualism as a major obstacle to the pursuit of inquiry. His rejection of it sets Dewey's philosophy apart from the philosophies of science articulated by both logical positivism and Popperian faslificationism. It also distinguishes his philosophy from those versions of hermeneutical philosophy that adhere to Wilhelm Dilthey's view that the method of verstehen, which is presumably the value-laden mode of knowing in the social sciences and humanities, is fundamentally different from the wertfrei mode of knowing in science. For Dewey, normative considerations are endemic to scientific inquiry, and he draws no epistemological distinction between the social and natural sciences with respect to their normative content.

J. Fagg Foster and his students have attempted to clarify the discussion of the "value problem" in economics by adopting terminology that adds precision to the discussion of normative propositions. Following the Fosterian usage, when the term "normative proposition" is used in this discussion, it will refer to one of two kinds of interrelated activities: value judgments or valuations. The term "value judgment" refers to the selection of a standard of judgment, which is called a "value." The term "valuation" refers to the use of a previously chosen value as a criterion of judgment in the act of making a choice. …

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