Principled, reflective inquiry

Considerations of lived experience and real-life problems, and problemsolving, are what matters to Dewey, rather than "big style" epistemology. Human experience is an active and constantly organising affair, with pragmatist expressions such as "field", "stream", or "circuit", pointing to that experience as ongoing and relational, not to be falsely abstracted into discrete units (Pettegrew, 2000). Experience, whether implicitly or explicitly, is tied to a spirit of experimentation. Experimentation concerns a capacity to question, to refuse final answers; in his words, "experience in its vital form is experimental, an effort to change the given; it is characterized by projection, by reaching forward into the unknown" (Dewey, 1977b, p. [1]). The sequence of "reflective thinking" as a method of inquiry involves the following steps, even if these are not necessarily neat or consecutive in practice: to start with, there is a sense of doubt or query, an inkling that "something is wrong". Doubts arise concretely when our habitual ways of dealing with the world fail us, prompting one to define this sense of "not working" more clearly; indeed its problematic status is progressively articulated as it is subject to inquiry. Through reflection, a hypthothesis emerges, an imaginative leap, involving ideas, theories, and models—"Could it be this?", "Is x causing y?", and so on. These notions are subject to further analysis, to controls of some sort, so that the emergent hypothesis needs to be plausible rather than fanciful; "A problem well put is a problem half-solved", as the saying goes. Judgments about plausibility are not universal, but situated in acts of specific inquiry. To Dewey, it is the process of inquiry that really counts. Things do not stop, even if they rest temporarily: "A new order of facts, suggests a modified idea (or hypothesis) which occasions new observations whose result will determine a new order of facts, and so on ..." (Dewey, 1977c, p. 37). There can be no disinterested inquiry and, far from being merely cognitive or intellectual, the process is seen as a response to pressing practical and existential issues. Moreover, acts of inquiry are seldom lone ventures, but involve a community of inquirers, a shared paradigm of questions that emerge at a particular historical juncture.

Philosophy as equipment for living

Dewey's model of interested and engaged human inquiry brought into purview a range of interconnected themes in his writings: the notion of inquiry as embedded (communal), fallible (Pierce, the father of pragmatism, had proposed "fallibilism" as crucial to philosophy) (Hausman, 1999; Orange, 1995), subject to revision (what Dewey called "warranted assertability"), and the importance of learning over knowing and the human being as socially constituted ("transactive"), located within continual fields of communication. Rather like Foulkes in a therapy context, Dewey offers an ecological perspective, in which "mind" is no long privately owned and separable from "surrounding" dynamic processes; for him, language was crucial to the emergence of mind. Dewey asks questions as to how we improve ourselves, even though his moral theory claims to reject general answers to this. In a valuable reading, Fishman (2007), argues that Dewey's emphasis on "living in hope" (realistic, rather than "pie in the sky" hope) qualifies him as a kind of ameliorist, concerned with how we evaluate our current actions and take the next step. In this regard, neo-pragmatist Rorty (e.g., 1980, 1982), who counts Dewey as his foremost hero, sees him as "revolutionary philosopher", who, like Nietzsche, changed the way we think about human issues of inquiry and living; more later, in the final chapter, on Dewey's ethics and democratic selfhood.

  • [1] Nietzsche is not a democratic thinker, indeed, is usually thought of as the reverse; many of his statements appall modern sensitivities.

    Then again, who, in the nineteenth century, was a democratic theorist, in the way we now understand it? Critchely (2008) notes that most philosophers, prior to the twentieth century, had "aversive reactions" (p. 220) to the notion of democracy. Nietzsche is more correctly thought of as a "philosopher of self-creation", who emphasizes the singular, the romantic, the heroic (Rorty, 1999, p. 26). In a rare reference to the philosopher, Foulkes (1975a, p. 165) refers to the need in group to help people "to become what they are, to use Nietzsche's dictum". However, at the same time, perspectivism underpins democratic values and pluralism, supporting a dynamic, agonistic, and contextualist view of democracy (Hatab, 1999). Rorty (1999, p. 267) also points to the importance of the moral perspectivism of Nietzsche, promoting, in theory, the profusion of "new sorts of human lives", in some ways as compatible with values of diversity and pluralism.

 
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