Instrumentalism is the name of a modern school of thought developed by scientists and philosophers in the 20th century. It sought to make traditional logic more useful for developing scientific and technological knowledge—a goal it shared with other schools such as Positivism, Pragmatism, Operationalism, Behaviorism, Experimentalism.:4–5, 11, 62:3–5, 20–1 All these schools denied that rules of logic express intrinsic deductive truths. They treated logical forms such as deduction and induction as verbal "tools-of-the-trade" of thinking and problem solving.
According to Webster's Dictionary, advocates of instrumentalism held "a conception that the significant factor of a thing is its value as an instrument, ... the doctrine that ideas [theories] are instruments of action and that their usefulness determines their truth." Tools developed by advocates sought to eliminate the traditional divorce between theory and practice, ends and means, appraisal and description.
This article explains how two renowned philosophers, Karl Popper (1902-1994) and John Dewey (1859-1952), came to be identified with Instrumentalism, while unfortunately endowing it with a legacy of confusion and ambiguity. Their definitions were similar but their judgments of it were irreconcilable. Popper judged it to be hopelessly flawed because of its insistence on induction and abandonment of deductive truth. Dewey, while fearing that the name was easily misunderstood, modernized its tool of induction and justified abandoning deductive truth.
The article then traces the theory and practice of four men (including a Nobelist in economics and a billionaire financier) trying to follow this incoherent legacy. It shows that their practice in four fields—economics, finance, technology, and value theory—fails to resolve these theoretical disputes, leaving the meaning and theoretical validity of Instrumentalism indeterminate.
- 1 Background
- 2 Present meanings and practice of Instrumentalism
- 3 Current status of Instrumentalism and its premises
- 4 References
In the 1950s, Karl Popper attacked Instrumentalism as a popular but flawed school of thought. He collected his observations in a book entitled Conjectures and Refutations. The title indicates the broad meaning he gave the word "theory" as a tool for solving problems and advancing knowledge.
Popper argued that theory starts as conjecture—a guess at how a problem might be solved or a question answered.. It is then tested by deducing consequences from it. If expected consequences don't occur, the theory is refuted and discarded. If not refuted, it becomes a tentative law or "truth", acceptable until falsified.
Popper claimed that Instrumentalism endorses "the interpretation of scientific theories as practical instruments or tools for such purposes as the prediction of impending events.":62–3 He sometimes called its methods "trial and error", and identified it with pragmatism which, he argued, mistakes usefulness for truth.:51, 224 He labelled it a form of inductivism which usually means inferring universal theoretical statements by reasoning from empirical observations—a practice he rejected.:247 His claims continue to define the school. They may be stated as premises:
- Theories are hypotheses about how things "work". They are tools suggesting how facts and ideas are related, permitting prediction of consequences.
- Like all tools, theories are tested and judged by the instrumental criterion of judgment instrumental value: how well they predict relations between means and ends, facts and values.
- Theories use inductive reasoning to establish facts-of-the-case, and deductive reasoning to predict consequences.
- There are no deductive truths or values. True theories derive from accurate assumptions and observable consequences, established in the continuity of successful problem-solving, rather than by conformity to pre-existing logical forms.
In 1935, two decades before defining Instrumentalism explicitly, Popper published The Logic of Scientific Discovery, in which he used traditional logical forms to criticize modern schools of thought, including Instrumentalism.
In 1938, John Dewey published Logic: the Theory of Inquiry, in which he reconstructed traditional logical forms to make them usable by modern schools of thought. Without naming Popper, he rebutted some of his judgments. Neither of these volumes used the name Instrumentalism, but both discussed and judged the premises above. Their irreconcilable judgments continue to obscure Instrumentalism's meaning and relevance to modern theoretical analysis.
Popper's analysis and judgment of Instrumentalism
The opening paragraph of Popper's The Logic of Scientific Discovery observed that all modern empirical schools accept premises 1 and 2, which he later identified with Instrumentalism:
- A scientist, whether theorist or experimenter, puts forward statements, or systems of statements, and tests them step by step. In the field of the empirical sciences, ... he constructs hypotheses, or systems of theories, and tests them against experience by observation and experiment.:3
Several paragraphs later, he admitted the popularity of induction—premise 3—but denied its capacity to generate logically true theories which, contrary to premise 4, he still pursed. He hoped to discourage the practice of induction by demonstrating its lack of theoretical foundation and the effectiveness of deduction:
- According to a widely accepted view—to be opposed in this book—the empirical sciences can be characterized by the fact that they use "inductive methods", as they are called. ...
- It is usual to call an inference "inductive" if it passes from singular statements (sometimes also called "particular" statements), such as the results of observations or experiments, to universal statements, such as hypotheses or theories...
- Now, it is far from obvious, from a logical point of view, that we are justified in inferring universal statements from singular ones, no matter how numerous; for any conclusion drawn in this way may always turn out to be false: no matter how many instances of white swans we may have observed, this does not justify the conclusion that all swans are white.:3–4
Popper's reference to swans recalls a famous historic error: the inductively-derived belief that all swans are white. He labelled the practice illogical: "Now in my view there is no such thing as induction. Thus, inference to theories, from singular statements which are 'verified by experience' (whatever that may mean), is logically inadmissible.":18
Popper rejected induction in favor of deduction because he maintained it could not achieve logical form. Deduction can move from a self-evident universal statement, such as "All men are mortal", to true singular statements that every individual human is mortal, because the universal statement already embraces all singulars. But there can be no principle by which a singular statement can justify a universal, because no singular statement can report observing "all" of any kind.
- For the principle of induction must be a [logically necessary] universal statement in its turn. ... To justify it, we should have to employ inductive inferences; and to justify these we should have to assume an inductive principle of a higher order; and so on. Thus the attempt to base the principle of induction on experience breaks down, since it must lead to an infinite regress.:5
Popper rejected induction—premise 3–-but not premise 2—the criterion of instrumental efficiency. He argued that deduction could serve modern science, not by assuming general statements to be true, but by providing general statements testable by their consequences. Falsification "works" when experience contradicts a theory's predictions: "it must be possible for an empirical scientific system to be refuted by experience.":9, 18
- I can therefore gladly admit that falsificationists like myself much prefer an attempt to solve an interesting problem by a bold conjecture, "even ( and especially) if it soon turns out to be false," to any recital of a sequence of irrelevant truisms.:231
Popper rejected premise 4 because it denies the distinction between pure and applied science. He granted that science might be viewed from an empirical or instrumental point of view, but asserted that an epistemological or reality point-of-view was equally valid, meaning logical truths can be found independently of experience.:81–2 His evidence was that pure sciences such as mathematics and logic can make true statements without observing facts-of-the-case.
Logically true theories don't require establishing facts-of-the-case; they can be conjectural myths, derived from inspiration or chance, which are "... psychologically or genetically a priori, i.e., prior to all observational experience." They can also precede observation or recognition of similarities and differences.:47–8
- The question of how it happens that a new idea occurs to a man—whether it be a musical theme, a dramatic conflict, or a scientific theory—may be of great interest to empirical psychology; but it is irrelevant to the logical analysis of scientific knowledge. The latter is concerned not with questions of fact ... but only with question of justification or validity ...:7
Instrumentalism's denial of logically-certain deductive truths—premise 4—threatens "... the idea of the objectivity of knowledge and of common standards of criticism or rationality.":29 Because Instrumentalists claim that "truth" is always situational, they forfeit their capacity to explain sciences in which the instrumental criterion of judgment cannot be applied.:11 In pure sciences, the criterion is logically-established truth, not what works or is useful given temporary conditions.
- Summing up we may say that instrumentalism is unable to account for the importance to pure science of testing severely even the most remote implications of its theories, since it is unable to account for the pure scientist's interest in truth and falsity. In contrast to the highly critical attitude requisite in the pure scientist,the attitude of instrumentalism (like that of applied science) is one of complacency at the success of applications.:114
Dewey's contribution to and judgment of Instrumentalism
Dewey's Logic of 1938 was very different from Popper's Logic of 1935. While Popper used traditional logical forms to criticize modern practices such as induction, Dewey revised those forms to defend induction. He addressed the problem of whether scientific inquiry "can develop in its own ongoing course the logical standards and forms to which further inquiry shall submit.":5 His affirmative answer is the substance of premise 4, which traditional logic led Popper to deny.
Dewey's Logic did not name Instrumentalism or Pragmatism, but asserted that both schools treat theories as tools for producing consequences. Consequences are "necessary tests of the validity of propositions, provided these consequences are operationally instituted and are such as to resolve the specific problem evoking the operations, ...":iv He explicitly defined instrumentalism in "The Development of American Pragmatism.":19,21 James Gouinlock summarized Dewey's practice of instrumentalism in his introduction to the same volume. This sentence affirms his acceptance of what became identified as Instrumentalism's premises 1 and 2.
Dewey greatly expanded the scope of premise 2—the instrumental criterion of judgment. In his first chapter, he showed the role that criterion plays in developing technology—clearly a continuing factor in every human society. His example was metallurgy, which developed relevant logical standards by testing hypothesized ore-refining processes—instrumentalities—to see if they worked.
- ... but the instrumentalities were not self-applying. They were used; and it was the result of their use, their failure and success in accomplishing ends and effecting consequences, that provided the final criterion of the value of scientific principles for carrying on determinate technological operations.:6
This example highlights Dewey's recognition that instruments are not just value-free means applicable to any ends. Every tool is designed as an appropriate means to some end-in-view, but only after the end itself has been judged appropriate to contribute to developmental continuity—the generic end.
Dewey treated induction—premise 3—in Chapter 21. He accepted the standard meaning of induction as processes for developing general propositions from particular cases, and of deduction as processes for applying general propositions to particular cases.:419 He explained why Aristotle's understanding of these methods was no longer acceptable.
The conventional statement that induction goes from the singular to the general and deduction from the general to the singular cannot mean today what it meant to Aristotle, for whom the general meant eternal and immutable forms or species which are real but not observable. He held that induction from sense-perceptions cannot reveal forms such as species, but superior intellects can "intuit the essence":12 of eternal forms by observing physically changing forms: each observed swan is an imperfect sample of universal-but-unobservable swan-ness.:87–8,420–1
By rejecting Aristotelian induction, Popper partially repudiated that philosopher's belief in eternal species. But he provided no rational means to carry out induction's necessary function of establishing the facts-of-the-case by relating singular observations of kinds to general statements about kinds. Dewey's instrumental analysis did provide such means by reconstructing both induction and deduction.:432, 484–5
One may think of a singular observation, i.e., "this swan is white", as an isolated fact without general reference. But Dewey insisted that such an observation necessarily involves the general meaning of "swan" as a particular kind of "bird". If one were not familiar with a kind of animal having numerous well-established characteristics, one could not name it either "bird" or "swan". Kinds, including species, do not exist apart from experience. They are created by inquiries which—contrary to Popper—use induction to distinguish stable characteristics of experience from accidental or irrelevant characteristics.
Dewey argued that modern science does not treat particular observations as knowledge of what is real: one does not assume, after a few observations, that whiteness is a defining characteristic of swans. Particular observations "are selectively discriminated so as to determine a problem whose nature is such as to indicate possible modes of solution.":424 Observations become facts-of-the-case only after being causally related to a problem. Dewey supported this theoretical generalization with an example of medical knowledge. The case of malaria shows how modern induction avoids Popper's charge of requiring endless observations.:433–7
After certain "singular" symptoms came to be recognized as constituting a disease, it was named malaria—literally "bad air"—as a common-sense conjecture about its cause—premise 1. Popper might have considered that conjecture to be testable by predicting that the disease would be absent in environments with "good air"—premise 2. But testing a prediction about air quality could not have led to new insights. It was an insignificant fact-of-the-case.
When further observations—premise 3—identified the conjunction of parasites with the disease, experiments revealed the life-history of particular parasites and their relation to a particular kind of mosquito: anopheles. At each stage of inquiry, particular observations [inductions] led to general hypotheses [deductions] guiding further observations to establish logically-warranted particular and general propositions. Multiple theories generated by induction were used throughout the process of inquiry. They evolved from quite conjectural to quite confirmed generalizations, but never from "conjectural myths" to "truths" independent of observable life processes.
The result of this hypothetical-deductive sequence was to establish malaria as a specific kind of disease with a determinate etiology. Dewey affirmed the logical force of this demonstration. It provides the logical principle justifying induction, the possibility of which Popper denied.
- When it is affirmed that inductive inference proceeds from what happens in some cases to what is true of all cases, the phrase "all cases" must, of course, be limited to all cases of specified kind. But if the kind is already determined in the "some" cases from which the inference is said to proceed, the alleged inference is a matter of pure tautology, since a kind is the kind which it is:436
With this logical principle, Dewey validated induction—premise 3—as well as his rejection of realms such as pure science capable of establishing objective truths unknowable by applied science—premise 4. He argued that warranted generalizations never exist apart from experience. They arise only in the process of inquiry, making invalid any claim to truths "logically prior to observation or recognition of similarities and differences.":47–8
But the dependence of warranted theories on situational factors—induction—does not eliminate objective standards of judgment, as Popper feared. Both ends and means have consequences that can be judged more or less instrumentally efficient—premise 2.
- There is no more fatal flaw in psychology than that which takes the original vague fore-feeling of some consequence [Popper's conjecture] to be realized as the equivalent of a thought of an end, a true purpose and directive plan [Popper's tested theory]. The thought of an end is strictly correlative to perception of means and methods. Only when and as the latter becomes clear [by induction] during the serial process of execution does the project and guiding aim and plan [theory] become evident and articulated. In the full sense of the word, a person becomes aware of what he wants to do [end-in-view] and what he is about only when the work is actually complete.:60
In summary, Dewey's reconstruction of logic directly refuted Popper's argument for rejecting induction and for maintaining the distinction between pure and applied science. His instrumentalism requires hypothetical-deductive operations to establish warranted assertions to solve problems—employing all four premises to integrate theory and practice, ends and means, appraisals and descriptions.
Present meanings and practice of Instrumentalism
Since Dewey never accused Popper of faulty logic, and Popper never criticized Dewey's reconstruction of logic, their incompatible judgments of premises of Instrumentalism were never resolved. Consequently, the pattern of thought of both the critic and the advocate remain identified with the school. Current use of the name embraces this incoherent legacy.
To exemplify this continuing ambiguity, this article examines recent practice by significant people influenced by each philosopher's view of Instrumentalism. Economist Milton Friedman and financier George Soros identified themselves with the theory and practice of Popper, while philosopher Larry Hickman and economist John Fagg Foster identified themselves with Dewey. Should any of them be called adherents of Instrumentalism?
Milton Friedman's practice of Instrumentalism
Milton Friedman (1912-2006) was a Nobel laureate in economics who contributed to the two branches into which economics is often divided: a pure value-free science—positive economics—and an applied normative science—political economy.:19 He participated in the Austrian philosophical group Mount Pelerin Society to which Karl Popper belonged. In 1953 he published an essay—"The Methodology of Positive Economics"—which came to identify him with Instrumentalism despite never mentioning that school, or Popper, or Dewey.
Friedman explicitly embraced premises 1 and 2 when he identified the task of positive economics as providing "a system of generalizations or conjectures that can be used to make correct predictions about the consequences of any change in circumstances.":4 But his position on premises 3 and 4 was ambiguous. Contrary to Popper, he appeared to approve of basing theoretical conjectures on facts-of-the-case provided by inductive observations—premise 3:
- Full and comprehensive evidence on the phenomena to be generalized or "explained" by a hypothesis, besides its obvious value in suggesting new hypotheses, is needed to assure that a hypothesis explains what it sets out to explain—that its implications for such phenomena are not contradicted in advance by experience that has already been observed.:12–13
But he joined Popper in rejecting premise 4—that conjectures must derive from descriptively true assumptions. This rejection appears to make relating theories to facts by induction irrelevant.
- ... the relevant question to ask about the "assumptions" of a theory is not whether they are descriptively "realistic", for they never are, but whether they are sufficiently good approximations for the purpose in hand. And this question can be answered only seeing whether the theory works, which means whether it yields sufficiently accurate predictions.:15
In words close to Popper's praise of false conjectures, Friedman praised purely mental hypotheses derived from inaccurate assumptions:
- ... the relation between the significance of a theory and the "realism" of its "assumptions" is almost the opposite ... Truly important and significant hypotheses will be found to have "assumptions" that are wildly inaccurate descriptive representations of reality, and, in general, the more significant the theory, the more unrealistic the assumptions ...:14
Friedman's 1953 essay provoked extensive criticism from both orthodox and heterodox economists. In 1959, economist Lawrence Boland published "A Critique of Friedman's Critics", in which he asserted that all critics were wrong because they failed to understand that Friedman was an Instrumentalist.
- His methodological position is both logically sound and unambiguously based on a coherent philosophy of science—Instrumentalism.:503
- So long as a theory does its intended job there is no need to consider the truth of its assumptions. ... This view of the role of theories is called "instrumentalism". It says that theories are convenient and useful ways of (logically) generating what have turned out to be true (or successful) predictions or conclusions.:508
The "coherent philosophy" which Boland identified with approval as Instrumentalism included premises 1 and 2, acceptable to both Popper and Dewey—using theories as instruments to generate successful predictions. But Boland left out of his definition premises 3 and 4—the premises Popper rejected along with the name. Because Friedman downplayed inductive operations and praised unrealistic hypotheses, Boland felt justified in praising him as an Instrumentalist. The same logic would justify praising Popper as an Instrumentalist.
Boland's paper generated further debate over the meaning of Instrumentalism and whether the school Popper rejected could be made acceptable. In 1989, economists Abraham Hirsch and Neil de Marchi published a detailed analysis of Friedman's professional work, which found Friedman's practice inconsistent and Boland's interpretation misleading.
- Karl Popper is not only responsible for the conception of "instrumentalism" as it is currently used, he is also its most severe critic. As a result it comes as something of a surprise to find Friedman characterized ... as both an instrumentalist and a "Popperian".:91
After analyzing Friedman's theoretical and practical writings, Hirsch and de Marchi reached convoluted conclusions. They agreed that Friedman sometimes practiced what Boland called Instrumentalism, applying premises 1 and 2, in both his positive economics and his political economy. But they also found much of his work compatible with Dewey's instrumentalism but not Popper's—applying premises 3 and 4.:3,66,94
Hirsch and de Marchi recognized the irreconcilability of Popper's "notions of deductive explanations" which avoid induction and Dewey's "process-view of inquiry" which requires both induction and deduction.:223 They concluded that these represent "two types of instrumentalism.":143 While Boland placed Friedman—with approval—in the tradition of Popper, they placed Friedman—with approval but contrary to Boland—more in the tradition of Dewey.
But rather than claim that a divided Instrumentalism embraces irreconcilable premises, Hirsch and de Marchi yielded the Institutionalist title to the more widely recognized interpretation of Popper. Still disagreeing with Boland's interpretation, they considered it less ambiguous to call Friedman a Pragmatist in the tradition of Dewey.
- We would have preferred to use the term 'instrumental' which, understood as problem solving, conveys a lot about Friedman's approach to positive economics. Unfortunately, the term has been pre-empted by the modern philosopher Karl Popper, and his disciple in economics Lawrence Boland, and used to stand for something very different from the central ideas in Deweyan thinking. Because of this we feel that there is less risk referring to Friedman's approach in economics as 'pragmatic', ...:3
This decision leaves unresolved the meaning and scientific legitimacy of both Instrumentalism and Pragmatism. Economist Boland found Instrumentalism acceptable as long as it rejects premises 3 and 4, while Hirsch and de Marchi found it unacceptable so defined.
George Soros's practice of Instrumentalism
George Soros (1930- ) is a financial fund manager and global philanthropist. Karl Popper was a tutor of his at the London School of Economics. After reading Popper's The Open Society and Its Enemies in the 1950s, Soros was prompted to enunciate his own conceptual framework.:16, 199–249 While he has not labelled himself an instrumentalist, his framework can usefully be compared with the four premises here proposed as defining that school.
Soros is very familiar with Popper's definition of and criticism of Instrumentalism. He accepts premises 1 and 2 that theories are tools for solving problems: "There are two criteria by which theories can be judged: truth [not falsified by experience] and effectiveness [instrumental efficiency].":218 And he accepts Popper's distinction between pure science and applied science, the former concerned with logical truth and the latter with practical usefulness.
He is also familiar with Popper's refutation of induction in pure science—premise 3—but his personal focus on practical and applied inquiry leads him to limit the scope of that refutation.
- In my view, the contention that scientific laws cannot be verified counts as Popper's greatest contribution to philosophy. It resolves the otherwise insoluble problem of induction. Just because the sun has risen in the east every day since man can remember, how can we be sure that it will continue to do so? Poppers scheme removes the need for certainty. We can accept scientific generalizations as provisionally valid until and unless they have been falsified.:34
Since Soros has no interest in certainties of pure science—a realm in which theoretical knowledge is independent of what people may think is true, he feels comfortable using induction. He focuses on predicting market behavior—a realm in which what people think is itself part of the truth. This focus leads him to accept premises 3 and 4, rejected by Popper and (sometimes) Friedman.
When predicting market behavior, Soros uses induction to develop hypotheses about what market participants think—relations among facts-of-the-case. He does not call them "theories" because they do not seek to establish general truths as theories in pure science do. But they are predictions derived from induction—the practice Popper always rejected and Dewey always embraced. And he always bases them on accurate observations stated as realistic assumptions. He is vocally critical of the sort of unrealistic hypotheses defended by most economists, including Friedman.
- Consider classical economic theory. In its use of the concept of equilibrium, it is imitating Newtonian physics. But in financial markets, where expectations play an important role, the contention that markets tend towards equilibrium does not correspond to reality. Rational expectations theory has gone through great contortions to create an artificial world in which equilibrium prevails, but in that world reality is fitted to the theory rather than the other way round.
- I regard the theory of perfect competition as unrealistic,…:37; 224–5
Accepting premise 4—the elimination of purely mental hypotheses—Soros attributes his personal financial success to detailed and accurate knowledge of expectations—knowledge acquired by constant and careful inductive operations. He ignores Popper's and Friedman's scorn for realistic hypotheses in pure science. He never worries about the "reality" of phenomena assumed to exist outside of experience.
Soros's successful financial practice appears to conform entirely with Dewey's analysis, despite his intellectual roots in Popper's analysis. But given the disagreements between Boland and Hirsch and de Marchi over the meaning of Instrumentalism, there would appear to be no gain in clarity by claiming that Soros is an adherent of that school.
Larry Hickman's practice of Instrumentalism
Larry Hickman (1942- ) is a professor of philosophy. In 1993 he became Director of the Center for Dewey Studies at Southern Illinois University. In 1990, he published John Dewey's Pragmatic Technology, expressing the current meaning and relevance of Dewey's instrumentalism, despite his decision not to use that label in his title.
Hickman's study places Dewey's pattern of thought in current philosophical context. He argues that it is best understood as a "philosophy of technology" and a modern version of pragmatism.:2
- The feature of Dewey's critique of technology that renders it unique is his contention that tools or instruments cut across traditional boundary lines such as the psychical and the physical, the inner and the outer, and the real and the ideal. This idea, which Dewey cultivated and nourished until it grew into a methodology, was Dewey's instrumentalism.:xii
- The very names that Dewey gives to his method—"pragmatism"..., "experimentalism", and "instrumentalism"—connote technological production and construction. Technology, since its earliest manifestation, has been interdefined with the use of tools and instruments. And what is unique about scientific technology, or what is most frequently called simply "modern science", is its use of instrumentation in order to conduct orderly and productive experimentation.:58
Hickman's first chapter confirms Hirsch and de Marchi's finding that multiple and irreconcilable meaning of Instrumentalism are common. He labels meanings incompatible with Dewey's thinking "naïve" and "straight-line" instrumentalism.
- ... Dewey rejected what I have called "straight-line instrumentalism", or the view that neutral tools are brought to bear on ends that are valued for reasons external to the situations within which those tools have been developed.:12–13, 202
Straight-line instrumentalism separates means from ends by treating theories as tools "in the mind;" as purely mental conjectures. This meaning affects all four premises of instrumentalism.
If theories are simply "in the mind", then applying and testing them can likewise be "in the mind", accomplished by symbol manipulation rather than by observable actions. This interpretation makes premises 3 and 4 unnecessary, leaving premises 1 and 2, which were acceptable to Popper.
Hickman follows Dewey in arguing that theories are not "in the mind" but are statements of potential ways of acting that are tested by application in concrete situations.:113 Competent inquiry starts by judging a situation to be undesirable and seeks an "end" judged more desirable. It creates theoretical and physical tools as "means" to that end. Both mental and physical tools, when they work, become technological artifacts, available for further inquiries and knowings.
This sequence of competent inquiry expresses Dewey's endorsement of all four premises of Instrumentalism as a technological enterprise.
- The principal reason for calling inquiry technological, then, is that it is the means of effective control of an environment that is not what we wish it to be. Inquiry is in this way differentiated from other forms of activity. It produces something new ... What Dewey thought significant about inquiry, and what he thought discloses its technological character, is that every reflective experience is instrumental to further production of meanings, that is, it is technological.:40–1
Hickman defends Dewey's theory and practice against other philosophers claiming the name Instrumentalism, but does not himself adopt that name. Whether "pragmatic technology" used in his title is a satisfactory new name for this school remains doubtful, since neither of these words has a well-established meaning in philosophy.
John Fagg Foster's practice of Instrumentalism
John Fagg Foster (1907-1985) earned his doctorate in economics at the University of Texas. His dissertation advisor was Clarence Ayres, a leading institutional economist and expert on John Dewey's thought.
Foster taught economics at the University of Denver from 1946 to 1976. His interests centered on reforming economists' understanding of instrumental rationality, value theory, and utility. In 2000, his student Marc Tool published Value Theory and Economic Progress, a survey of his thinking and teaching. Tool identifies Dewey's instrumentalism as one root of Foster's analysis:
John Dewey's contribution … is to develop and extend the instrumentalist method of logical inquiry. ... Fosters theory of social inquiry, then, is rooted philosophically in the instrumentalism of John Dewey ...:xi
Tool shows how Foster related Dewey's analysis to the field of economics through the universal factor of technology. As early as 1942, in "John Dewey and Economic Value", Foster called Dewey's analysis a "technological theory of value", a name which Hickman endorsed in 1990 and Tool endorsed in 2000. In that early paper, Tool notes,
Foster shares Dewey's view that technological change "is the chief determining condition of social relationships and, to a large extent, of actual cultural value in every advanced industrial people, which have reacted intensively into the lives of all "backward" peoples.:77
Foster argued that existing technology determines in every society the possible instrumental efficiency of institutions designed to correlate behavior; for example, a society can't design patterns for, or solve problems of, space travel before technology makes such travel possible. This generalization, derived by induction, he called the principle of technological determination. Tool quotes Foster:
The principle of technological determination is simply that social problems can be solved only by adjusting the institutional structures involved in the problems so as to bring them into instrumentally efficient correlation with the technological aspects of the problems. What is meant by "instrumentally efficient correlation" is that the instrumental functions of the institutions in question be carried on at a level of efficiency tolerable to the members of the institution in view of the possibilities indicated by those same technological factors.:92
Tool finds Foster following Dewey in treating theories as tools judged by how well they work to solve problems—premises 1 and 2.
- At bottom, the creation and verification of hypotheses is demonstrably the preeminent focus and application of instrumental logic in pursuit of social problem solving.
… hypotheses are … initial conceptions of possible causal connections awaiting, thorough inquiry, confirmation, revision or rejection. Scientific social inquiry requires that hypotheses become instruments for guiding inquiry both in direction and in substance.:22
Tool's fourth chapter examines how Foster expanded the application of premise 2—the instrumental criterion of judgment—even farther than Dewey had done. Whereas the noun "value" is often applied to anything appraised as beneficial, Foster defined it as the criterion of judgment. He reserved the word "valuations" for appraisals made with that criterion. He recognized that valuations take many forms, but insisted that the criterion applied is in fact singular. Everyone—not just people naming themselves Instrumentalists—always applies the criterion of "what works". Given any end, one unavoidably seeks instrumental means to achieve it.
Foster characterized the generic end-in-view pursued when applying value as "developmental continuity." He called the generic means "instrumental efficiency." According to Tool, these names reveal the joint necessity of all four premises to integrate theory and practice: developing theories inductively as means to solve problems in pursuit of developmental continuity.
- An inductive query may be prompted by the observation of data that do not fit current theoretical accounts. The relevant facts observed are seen as being at variance with prior and settled claims of generality or principle. Questioning the factual particular prompts exploration of the alleged empirically grounded generality.:23
- Foster's perception of social (and economic) inquiry indicates that the initiation, formulation and application of warranted knowledge requires that judgments continuously be made concerning the selection of topic, the choice of data, the logical ordering of data, and the plausibility, pertinence, and explanatory capacity of causal hypotheses.:63
In short, Tool shows that Foster consistently applied the four premises constituting Instrumentalism, but would not have accepted the label "instrumentalism" or "technology" to identify his pattern of inquiry. Tool's closing words avoid the noun Instrumentalism—still encumbered with incompatible premises—in favor of the adjective "instrumental" to identify the endless social process of tool-using and tool-judging: "As is now evident, instrumental value theory provides the meaning of, and an intellectual strategy for, economic progress.":209
Current status of Instrumentalism and its premises
Today, all four premises of Instrumentalism are widely accepted; in fact, so widely that few feel the need to name that school when discussing these patterns of thought. None of the four men practicing the premises above chose to call himself an Instrumentalist.
Premises 1 and 2 have rarely been contested. But Popper's and Dewey's irreconcilable evaluations of premises 3 and 4—endorsing induction and denying deductive truths—remain unresolved and largely ignored. This incoherent legacy from both the critic and the advocate continues to identify the school.
Popper's theoretical destruction of premises 3 and 4 is widely endorsed. But the many scholars who endorse his theory—including economist Milton Friedman and financier George Soros—continue the practices he deplored. Poppers theory has not led them consistently to accept Popper's practice.
The few scholars who endorse Dewey's defense of premises 3 and 4—including philosopher Larry Hickman and value theorist John Fagg Foster—integrate his theory with their practice. But they are unable to convince the many, who practice these premises without logical grounding, that such grounds have been identified. Dewey's theoretical justification of the practices Popper deplored is ignored.
This continued failure to integrate theory and practice seems not to cause intellectual discomfort. But it does rob the name Instrumentalism of intellectual significance. Perhaps this is why modern scholars rarely name the school as an active force. A reader of this article who encounters the name may now understand its historical significance and current eclipse.
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- Dewey, John (1984). ""The Development of American Pragmatism"". In Boydston, Jo Ann. John Dewey: The Later Years v.2. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.
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