Marx, Dewey, and the Instrumentalist Approach to Political Economy

By Shuklian, Steve | Journal of Economic Issues, September 1995 | Go to article overview

Marx, Dewey, and the Instrumentalist Approach to Political Economy


Shuklian, Steve, Journal of Economic Issues


It is generally accepted by contemporary institutionalist writers that the two seminal thinkers of their tradition are Thorstein Veblen and John Dewey. In naming as their intellectual forerunners an economist and a philosopher, institutionalists clearly attempt to formulate a normative, holistic approach to socioeconomic issues and problems. As is well known, Karl Marx was both an economist and a philosopher who also developed a holistic approach to the study of society, and this is perhaps why institutionalists have always bad an intense interest in the relationship between their ideas and those of Marx. The similarities and differences between Marx and Veblen have already been extensively explored.(1) This paper examines the nature of the relationship between Marx and the other major figure of institutionalist political economy, John Dewey. I argue that Marx's philosophical views, while not identical to Dewey's, have much in common with instrumentalism and could serve to complement institutionalist thought, particularly its radical wing, and thus could provide additional artillery for the assault on orthodox economic theory. Of course, it is also hoped that this study will encourage Marxian economists to integrate Dewey's insights into their work.

Instrumentalism and Political Economy

Instrumentalism historically has been regarded as a non-idealist system of social philosophy that argues, interalia, that knowledge has its origins in human practice or experience and that contends that the veracity of knowledge can be determined only by examining the practical consequences of the application of ideas to concrete problems. Instrumentalists reject purely formal systems of logic that are applicable only to abstract, non-existential topics of inquiry and assert that knowledge has meaning only when it transcends purely academic discourse and becomes a practical guide to conscious human action. Ultimately, the usefulness and validity of knowledge is judged by how well it enhances the quality of human existence.

From the instrumentalist perspective, the growth of knowledge and social change are evolutionary processes that advance through historical time. In everyday life, human beings are continually called upon to resolve specific problems. This requires that they formulate some means to resolve the problems they confront; the successful resolution of these problems is the end-in-view of most forms of inquiry. Human values and experience mediate the selection of means for achieving various ends-in-view. In other words, human beings draw upon their values and their accumulated stock of knowledge to select means, or courses of action, that are believed to be appropriate for resolving the problem at hand. The means chosen are then evaluated on the basis of their effectiveness in attaining the desired end-in-view. If the means are successful in accomplishing the desired end, then people will have altered the world in accordance with their desires, and the means will be considered valid forms of knowledge that have enhanced the quality of human life. If the means chosen are not successful in securing the desired end-in-view, they will be considered invalid forms of knowledge and poor guides to human action. In either case, the entire experience becomes part of the accumulated stock of knowledge and will eventually be called upon again to guide human action as new problems arise or as old problems require new solutions. Since the human life process is in a perpetual state of change, no solution to a given problem is permanent. There must be a continuous reevaluation of the means employed in the resolution of specific problems to assess their effectiveness in achieving the desired end-in-view under the impact of changing historical circumstances.

The instrumentalist perspective in social philosophy also suggests that there is no reason to believe that a particular end-in-view would be achieved were it not for the conscious, purposive efforts of human beings to attain it. …

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Marx, Dewey, and the Instrumentalist Approach to Political Economy
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