Part One: A Pragmatist Framework for Inquiry
First, I will defend a broadly pragmatist, Deweyan model of inquiry. Time does not permit me to flesh out Dewey's theory of inquiry in full detail, nor to explain the difference between my own views and his, but I will concentrate on the following features of the pragmatist framework of inquiry. First, inquiry begins with a situation that is pre-cognitively problematic; the problem is a matter of an objective but also qualitatively felt conflict in the situation, not merely due to subjective or theoretical factors, and the explicit formulation of the problem comes within inquiry itself, rather than occurring prior to inquiry. It is the objective, precognitive, problematic situation which lends significance to the problem at hand. Second, inquiry draws the resources for resolving problems from the situation itself; the materials of inquiry are always immanent, not transcendent. Third, inquiry proceeds by complementary processes of gathering data and proposing solutions; these processes coevolve and both facts and ideas are mutually revisable. Fourth and finally, competent inquiries require not only processes of reasoning but also experimental interventions.
The first key element of a pragmatist framework of inquiry is the claim that all genuine, significant inquiry begins not with mere "paper" problems, but with precognitively felt problematic situations, situations whose problematic nature arises from objective conflicts within the situations themselves. A crucial and ongoing part of inquiry is formulation and refinement of the problem itself, the attempt to explicitly represent the implicitly felt difficulty.
Inquiry must rely on resources within the situation in order to solve the problem: the accumulated wisdom of the inquirer in terms of facts, theories, methods, and values developed in prior inquiries, the factual conditions present in the situation, and the ongoing opportunities for tentative intervention and testing. There is no room for transcendent factors in a pragmatist account.
There are two major types of resources available to the inquirer: facts and ideas. Facts are data that represent concrete features of the situation, particular or universal. The main function of facts in inquiry is to indicate set conditions or constraints: first, in determining what the problem at hand is, then, in constraining the field of possible solutions. Ideas are representations of operations to be performed on the situation in order to solve the problem. Their content is conceptual or ideal in the sense that it represents not actually existent conditions, but rather future possibilities for activity that might result in problem solutions. Instead of constraining inquiry, ideas attempt to indicate the open possibilities of inquiry. They are doubly hypothetical: they are hypotheses for solutions of the problems, and they are hypothetical imperatives for action.
Besides two types of resources that are available to inquirers, there are also two broad types of techniques that are available: reasoning and experimentation. The role of reasoning is quite familiar: it helps us work out in an abstract way the consequences of certain ideas. Solving any problem also requires experimental operations of making and doing. Ideas cannot be tested by a purely passive collection of facts through observation. Active interventions of an experimental nature provide necessary evidence about the prospective effectiveness of solutions.
Part Two: Evaluative Inquiry and Social Problems
The theory of inquiry discussed up to this point is meant to apply generally to all types of inquiry. The theory is insofar necessarily quite schematic, and has often been criticized for being so general as to be empty (Rorty 1986). I hope that I have given you a flavor of the significant, substantive points made in a general theory of inquiry like Dewey's. Now we turn to what inquiry looks like in more specific terms once we turn to inquiry into values and social problems.
Social inquiry is necessary whenever the problematic situation is essentially a problem of social structure, coordination, or relationships. Problems of social inquiry often take the form of crises of value, where inquiry will focus on evaluation or reevaluation of previously held values. We need to know not just what is going on in the situation, or what is to be done in the situation, but how we should value (things in) the situation. The subject-matter of social inquiry generally has an emphasis of this kind.
In contrast to many philosophical traditions of social inquiry, the pragmatist must insist that the problems of social inquiry are not set prior to inquiry. Problems arise from concrete problematic situations, and are specified and revised in response to those situations. The problems of actual social inquiries, rather than mere intellectual games, are not "big questions" that have been set for social inquiry from time long forgotten. While the problems may be quite generic because of a very wide scope, they are also quite particular to a concrete, culturally and historically situated context.
The values that play a crucial role in inquiry are not brought in from outside of it, as unyielding constraints on inquiry. Values, as much as any material that plays a role of inquiry, are subject to revision and refinement in the attempt to resolve a problematic situation. Certain values may be rejected as too constraining; certain goals might be rejected as too utopian. Facts may come to light that show certain of our values to be in conflict with other deeply held values. There are in general many ways that the process may require the modification or rejection of values.
Experiment is practically more difficult in social inquiry than in physics; this much is obvious. Yet, methodologically, it is no less important. Experimentation should not be construed too narrowly: as much as we would like all manner of efficacious controls on our experiments, these will not be appropriate or practicable in every circumstance. The major opening for experimentation in social inquiry comes in the realm of policy: social policy ought always to be of the form of an experiment. There is no possibility of having all the evidence in before making policy recommendations; policy must always be seen in the logical role of ongoing experimentation.
Part Three: Politics As Method
In the prior section, we have discussed inquiries into problems whose subject-matter was explicitly social. But it should be fairly clear that these are not the only situations in which inquiry may evaluate or transform social structures. Indeed, we must all realize that, even if political values as ideology are not to be imported into inquiry, that inquiries take place in a socio-political context, and all the more so for scientific inquiry, which involves an entire social structure of its own.
That the social structures of science can have epistemological ramifications may appear quite obvious to many. In many circles, these effects are taken as resources for a kind of global skepticism about the prospects of science, while more moderate epistemologists and philosophers of science such as Kitcher, Longino, and Goldman attempt to provide a social epistemology of science that can allow us to evaluate the relationship between social practices of science and scientific knowledge. Yet few have recognized that the epistemic requirements of inquiry can have socio-political ramifications that reach beyond the structures of scientific institutions into political institutions more broadly.
James Robert Brown has argued in recent work (2006) that in the case of medical research, the structures of scientific funding and the practices of corporations create systematic biases that make reliable scientific research impossible. Solutions that focus narrowly on epistemological standards of research or on the internal political structures of science fail to remove the distortions. The problem lies instead in the very nature of corporate initiation and funding of research. Brown proposes a seemingly radical solution: remove the corporate funding by socializing medical research and abolishing intellectual property rights for drugs and medical procedures. Yet the argument relies not on radical political values, but on basic methodological concerns: when we discovered the placebo effects systematic distortion of results, we had to change our methods in order to remove the source of bias; hence, double-blind trials. When the systematic distortions come from the political structures that science is embedded in, we may need to alter those political structures, on purely methodological grounds.
Part Four: The Problem of the Criterion and an Adaptive Model of Value
We've seen a number of ways in which inquiry can be social: it can be inquiry into social problems, or it can be inquiry that requires social adjustments. Often, it is both. These inquiries depend crucially on epistemic, social, and political values. Social inquiry, like all inquiry, often requires an adjustment of our values. And yet, the pragmatist framework I've been discussing here provides no absolute standard for evaluating judgments. In order to judge whether the right or wrong decision has been made, don't we need a set of criteria in which such judgments can ultimately be grounded?
Consider the process of adaptive management in ecology (Norton 2005). Adaptive management is an iterative decision-making process under uncertainty that begins with a plurality of objectives and attempts to maximize those objectives along an adaptive path of development. Multiple criteria and multiple scales can be used, reflecting a plurality of interests and values, and a process of feedback, learning, and Bayesian inference can lead towards increased achievement of goals that also get refined in the process.
Adaptive management is an iterative process that leads to progress of both values and achievements. It requires no external standard of value to judge its success; rather, the internal concerns of participants are sufficient to identify that success. Pragmatism insists that such internal standards are all that is available within the situations in which inquiry takes place, and so an iterative process of evaluation is what we must settle for.
- Brown, James Robert. (2006). "Politics as Method: The Case of Medical Research," PSA 2006, not yet published.
- Norton, B. G. (2005). Sustainability: A Philosophy of Adaptive Ecosystem Management. U Chicago Press.
- Rorty, R. (1986). Introduction. In Boydston, J. A., editor, The Later Works of John Dewey, Volume 8: 1933, pages ix–xviii. Southern Illinois UP.