requiem for certainty

Dewey on Method in Political Theory (1927)

with 3 comments

In his Public and Its Problems (1927) John Dewey adopts a four-component methodological strategy that is more or less implicit in his earlier broadly philosophical contributions, such as Reconstruction In Philosophy (1920) and Experience and Nature (1925).  Dewey often referred to this method as “instrumentalism” and as “historical-empiricism” but it’s probably best known these days as “pragmatism”.  The method, in short, involves four methodological distinctions, which Dewey lays out in Chapter One.  A proper understanding of his methodological apparatus prepares us to understand the way in which Dewey addresses himself to the pressing problem of pluralism that was his lifelong obsession with respect to liberal democratic theory (as argued in posts from the last two weeks here and here).  Herein a brief review of these four methodological decisions, followed by commentary.

First, Dewey is clear that he favors philosophical empiricism over against philosophical rationalism.  He writes of a “gap between facts and doctrines” (1927, 3) where the latter clearly show up short.  Throughout the book, Dewey will criticize the concept of “The State” for being an abstraction, just as he did in RIP.

Second, Dewey favors an approach that he identifies as empirical social science in contrast from empirical natural science (1927, 7).  This, of course, makes sense given that his object of study is political society.  That said, it is worth noting that Dewey explicitly contrasts the methods of social science with those of natural science, a distinction that not all philosophers have been careful to make.  Of course, among those who do make the distinction, various terms have been proposed.  Dewey’s argument in part is that the objects of empirical social science exhibit what Ian Hacking would later call “looping effects” in a way that the objects of the latter do not.  This is to say that when we study social objects (e.g., people) the objects of our study interact with the results of our study (e.g., concepts for people) in a way that is not the case with the objects of empirical natural science.  For instance, you can call a horse or a computer cable “male” but that is not going to matter to the horse, even if it’s a female horse.  But if you call a person “male”, this is probably going to matter to them, especially if they do not identify as male, and even if they do, before long they are going to come back at you and tell you just what they think it means to be a “male”.  Or, to shift the example, when the psychiatrist tells their patient that they have “ADHD” this influences the way in which the patient comes to perceive themselves—they take up the label and transform themselves in its light, thus feeding back into the application of the label, in a process that soon gets “loopy”.

Third, Dewey is clear that his approach to empirical social science is at once descriptive and normative (1927, 9).  The methodological decision here, in short, is a refusal of the fact/value dichotomy that pervades too much of philosophy, and which pragmatism finds inimical to productive inquiry (cf. Hilary Putnam’s “The Fact/Value Dichotomy”).

Fourth, and finally, Dewey claims that his approach to a descriptive-plus-normative empirical social science will involve a methodological focus on consequences rather than causes as its primary objects of concern (1927, 12ff.).  Dewey makes a big deal of this methodological decision and is eager to show how it involves a criticism of a whole raft of standard assumptions in political theory, most notably the basic assumptions of contractarianism, which Dewey decidedly rejects.

Having stated briefly Dewey’s four methodological decisions, it is worth being explicit that there is a great deal at stake in taking the foregoing elements as methodological decisions rather than metaphysical commitments.  This, of course, is a matter of debate.  My own view is that we need not see Dewey as insisting upon a metaphysical privilege of consequences over causes, for instances, if instead we can see Dewey as more humbly making a methodological decision to focus on results rather than origins.  This is in keeping, I think, with the way that James saw pragmatism, namely as a methodological approach to resolving practical and philosophical disputes, rather than a philosophical metaphysics which would irrevocably settle such disputes by submitting them to the tribunal of an intellect grasping the way things really are.

With this four-part methodology informing his discussion, there is one further central methodological claim that remains more or less implicit in Dewey’s text.  This is Dewey’s methodological focus on problems and responses as the key elements of his inquiry.  While this is only implicit in PIP, an account of inquiry in terms of “problematizations” and “reconstructions” is of course an explicit component of Dewey’s conception of the work of inquiry itself (cf. Logic [1938], Chapter 6).

The structure of Dewey’s text clearly reveals this implicit methodological commitment to what McKeon, under Dewey’s influence, would later come to call “problematic method”.  After laying out his methodological in Chapter One and explicating his core conceptual apparatus in Chapter Two, Dewey spends Chapters Three and Four developing an historical account of the “problem” of the public in his day, and then in Chapters Five and Six offers a future-oriented outline of how we might reconstruct the problematic situation just specified.

Dewey’s approach here, it is worth pointing out, resembles in many ways that of Michel Foucault.  Like Foucault, Dewey thought of inquiry as structured not around a quest for eternal truth, but rather as the melioration of a fraught situation — in other words, both Dewey and Foucault were ‘problem-and-response’ thinkers (cf. Rabinow [2011]).  Also like Foucault, Dewey agreed that part of melioration is a specification of the problem (or ‘fraught-ness’) we find ourselves within.  Also like Foucault, Dewey thought that the best way of specifying a problem was to give its history.  Also like Foucault, Dewey is clear that the best way to give a history of a problem is to detail its emergence in terms of its contingency and its complexity.  That Dewey’s histories are like Foucault’s genealogies in being stories about the contingent and complex emergence of present problems is as manifest in his texts as it is in Foucault’s: “The development of political democracy represents the convergence of a great number [complexity] of social movements, no one of which owed either its origin or its impetus to inspiration of democratic ideals or to planning for the eventual outcome [contingency]” (1927, 85; cf. also resonances to Hayek’s method in political theory as I argue in Koopman [2009]).  There are, of course, differences.  Dewey’s histories remain sweeping histories of ideas whereas Foucault’s were exquisitely detailed histories of practices.  But at a broader level, there is much methodological overlap, and that’s worth taking note of.

Next week: the problematization of the public according to Dewey (namely, severe pluralism) and what to do about it (namely, find a way to embrace pluralism).

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Written by Colin Koopman

April 26, 2011 at 3:27 am

3 Responses

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  1. When Dewey rejects causes in PAIP, I think he’s rejecting a certain kind of virtus dormitiva that causes human beings to socialize and set up governance relations with one another. Clearly, tracing consequences to their causes is useful for solving problems, but he’s rejecting a certain kind of metaphysical solution to why humans are social animals.

    Jim McCollum

    April 26, 2011 at 3:17 pm

  2. You can have my synthetic a priori when you pry it from my cold dead hands!

    Seriously though, to retread some ground we’ve covered long ago, I wonder to what extent Dewey’s opposition to rationalism is motivated by an implicitly metaphysical agenda on his part. Is it his view that we should be methodological empiricists lest we wake up tomorrow as metaphysical Platonists? Or does he think rationalism simply CAN’T, in principle, be disentangled from metaphysics, and in this respect it is different from empiricism, which can? Or is the empiricism vs rationalism choice completely independent of the methodological vs metaphysical choice? Surely the long and short of his argument against rationalism cannot be based on a glib equation of it with dogmatism or infallibilism…? Or perhaps he just has SUCH a broad definition of “empiricism” that it encompasses some synthetic a priori ground, and merely stipulates that “rationalism” only means the remainder…?

    You know I tend to favor methodological pluralists, who have some principled ways to distinguish when, whether, and how to follow rationalist or empiricist methods of investigation.

    Jeremy Livingston

    April 26, 2011 at 4:47 pm


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