Code: TP-27


Dewey’s Plea for a Method of Moral and Political Diagnosis and Prognosis

Without explicit formulation of guiding principles, inquiry in any field remains what Kant called "a merely random groping." [1]   Ordinarily, successful research strategies get preserved in institutions, but if their conceptual apparatus becomes habitual, or if it is inadequately formulated, it defeats inquiry, as Dewey observes:

Directing conceptions tend to be taken for granted after they have once come into general currency.  In consequence they either remain implicit or unstated, or else are propositionally formulated in a way which is static instead of functional.  Failure to examine the conceptual structures and frames of reference which are unconsciously implicated in even the seemingly most innocent factual inquiries is the greatest single defect that can be found in any field of inquiry.  Even in physical matters, after a certain conceptual frame of reference has once become habitual, it tends to become finally obstructive with reference to new lines of investigation. [2]

In his 1938 Logic: The Theory of Inquiry, Dewey argues that in order to turn evolved strategies into operational rules, axioms, and principles that are necessary for programmed research, we need logical "legislation." I begin my discussion of this seemingly outlandish claim with a brief review of what Dewey describes as a common pattern of inquiry.

            Dewey notes that we can distinguish five steps for completing a thought, i.e., for establishing a proposition and "warrantably assertible conclusion," through controlled inquiry.  Their sequence is not fixed and they may vary in scope. [3] His final account lists (1) description of the existential conflict situation that calls for inquiry, (2) institution of the problem, (3) formulation of an idea of a solution, or end-in-view, (4) reasoning, namely, review of the relevance of connected ideas ("suggestions") and development of a "proposition" about what needs to be done, and (5) review of available resources, namely, establishment of facts relevant to the proposed solution. [4]   All these operations are required for a warranted assertion about what needs and can be done to resolve an existing conflict; it is only on the basis of these combined operations that we can meaningfully expect to acquire the confidence in ideas that is required for warranted assertions and the decision to act on them.

            In his short catechism concerning truth Dewey contends that "experience is a matter of functions and habits, of active adjustments and readjustments, of coordinations and activities, rather than of states of consciousness" that mysteriously represent the real. [5]   It is the transformation of uncertain, disturbed existential situations by operations that modify existing conditions such that they get integrated into harmonious situations.  In the course of it we draft ideas of means and ends and strategies for creating settled situations in which people can realize their capacities.  These ideas are not representations of existing conditions, but anticipations of consequences, forecasts of what does not yet exist anywhere, and therefore embodied in symbols.  The ideas are then examined for their functional fitness for resolving existential conflict situations, and thus they become operational

in that they instigate and direct further operations of observation; they are proposals and plans for acting upon existing conditions to bring new facts to light and to organize all the selected facts into a coherent whole. [6]

The observed facts "which present themselves in consequences of the experimental observations the ideas call out and direct, are trial facts" that are as operational as are the ideas because they are selected, described, and arranged for solving the conflict in a given situation, and because they are such that they fit together in ways adequate for that purpose.  They are provisional facts because they have yet to be tested for evidence "of their power to exercise the function of resolution" in the case and it has yet to be demonstrated by experiment that they can be instrumental in the matter. [7]

            As long as the resolution remains a mere possibility, however, it can be worked out only in symbolic form, regardless of the actual status of the observed trial facts.  For the resolution cannot be carried to term unless the trial facts are functionally connected with the conflict that calls for inquiry, and they can be so connected only with the help of ideas and symbols in propositions.  Very unlike in traditional (representational) theories of inquiry, in Dewey’s operational account propositions are proposals in which what is "pre-sented" in observation is tentatively projected onto the conflict that calls for inquiry and taken as "representative" for its resolution.  Without such symbolic propositional connection, the observed facts would simply "relapse into the total qualitative situation" and lose their significance for the resolution of the conflict through inquiry.  As Dewey points out in his final response to Russell’s critique, propositions so understood "are means, instrumentalities, since they are operational agencies by which beliefs that have adequate grounds for acceptance [warranted assertions] are reached as end of inquiry." [8]

            The symbolic propositional connections of particular operations, however, cannot be what Dewey has in mind with logical forms of inquiry.  Propositional forms of themselves are not logical forms.  Such propositional connections are means for attaining judgments, or warranted assertions, concerning a given problem; they are "operational agencies" for initiating the action required for the desired reshaping of antecedent existential subject-matters or for the transformation of a given problematic into a resolved unified situation.  Ordinarily we make such connections by following the tracks of successful past operations, cultivated habits, and established patterns.  We are able to derive from such operations, habits, and patterns what Dewey calls logical forms only if we can experimentally establish what shapes, forms, and determines them, and then accept it as a rule, or set of rules, for further inquiry.

Any habit is a way or manner of action, not a particular act or deed.  When it is formulated it becomes, as far as it is accepted, a rule, or more generally, a principle or "law" of action.  It can hardly be denied that there are habits of inference and they may be formulated as rules or principles.  If there are such habits as are necessary to conduct every successful inferential inquiry, then the formulations that express them will be logical principles of all inquiries. [9]

"Successful" simply means that in its continuity inquiry produces results that are either confirmed or corrected in further inquiry "by use of the same procedures."  It is this sameness that constitutes ways, habits, customs, and traditions of inquiry.  But by themselves such invariants are not principles, axioms, rules, and binding laws that can and must govern all inquiries.  Only if they meet certain conditions capable of formal statement can we turn them into binding laws and recognize them as the logical forms of all inquiry, namely, demands that inquiry in the complete sense must satisfy.  These conditions, and not the common traits of habits, customs, and traditions of inquiry, are, therefore, the proper subject-matter of logical analysis, as Dewey argues in the opening chapter of Logic. [10] Since these conditions can be discovered in the course of inquiry itself, it is not necessary to assume that they somehow "subsist prior to and independently of inquiry," either as Platonic forms or as Kantian structures of consciousness that "are completely and inherently a priori and are disclosed to a faculty called pure reason." [11]

            When we habitually use without formulation of a leading principle the same procedures that in the past yielded conclusions that were "stable and productive in further inquiry," our research efforts may be equally successful, in spite of differences of subject-matter.  Although Dewey claims at one point that when in a set of procedures habitually performed something invariant is noticed and made explicit in propositional form, then this formulation, "being free from connection with any particular subject-matter," becomes a leading formal principle for further research, [12] it is obvious that being noticed and given propositional form cannot be enough for claiming it to be a binding rule for all inquiries; the propositional formulation of an invariant in relation to a specified set of procedures as such is not a logical form. The formulation becomes a logical form only when it is "accepted" as a rule, or more generally, as a principle or law of operations. [13]   The decisive condition, then, that a propositional form must satisfy in order to become a logical form of inquiry is that it must be accepted and formally recognized as a binding rule for the operations of every successful inquiry, as defined above; logical legislation must impose on it the force of law.

            In efforts to justify acts of logical legislation, it is tempting to misconstrue propositional forms that satisfy this condition as metaphysical presuppositions about experience or its existential material, or as premises of inference, in other words, to anchor them in some existential order which logical legislation merely makes explicit and to which it must conform in order to be justified.  Dewey argues that such representational interpretations are unnecessary because the rules of successful inquiry are to be understood as "directly operational." [14]   And as operational demands they obviously are,

conditions to be satisfied such that knowledge of them provides a principle of direction and of testing.  They are ways of treating subject-matter that have been found to be so determinative of sound conclusions in the past that they are taken to regulate further inquiry until definite grounds are found for questioning them.  While they are derived from examination of methods previously used in their connection with the kind of conclusion they have produced, they are operationally a priori with respect to further inquiry. [15]

Against their epistemological and metaphysical interpretation, Dewey argues that as operational conditions imposed on future inquiries logical forms must be "intrinsically postulates of and for inquiry"--intrinsically, because they must not be imposed from without but discovered in the course of inquiry itself, and postulates, because they can and must be nothing but stipulations and responsibilities accepted for the conduct of inquiry by those committed to it. [16]   He illustrates this point by comparing a law in the logical sense with a law in the legal sense as follows:

One of the highly generalized demands to be met in inquiry is the following:  "If anything has a certain property, and whatever has this property has a certain other property, then the thing in question has this certain other property."  This logical "law" is a stipulation.  If you are going to inquire in a way which meets the requirements of inquiry, you must proceed in a way which observes this rule, just as when you make a business contract there are certain conditions to be fulfilled. [17]

The same must be said about the principles of identity, noncontradiction, excluded middle, the law of causality, the syllogistic forms, etc.

            According to the most notorious epistemological and metaphysical interpretations, on the other hand, the logical requirements of inquiry are "externally postulates" and "externally a priori" because they must be imposed from without, say from some fixed Platonic form that exists 6"2’ "ßJ` or some fixed Kantian structure of consciousness, if inquiry is to yield warranted assertibility as a consequence.  But external requirements unavoidably obscure the conduct of controlled inquiry because such fixed structures are by definition inaccessible to empirical inquiry and at odds with its continuity.  Ironically, in Platonic and Kantian efforts to avoid arbitrariness and to secure unshakeable foundations for logical legislation, all is lost, because claims about such unchanging static external conditions can be maintained, Dewey argues, only on the basis of "an elaborate process of dialectical inference." [18] Kant’s own efforts to secure "externally a priori" knowledge, so it seems, were as misled and unsuccessful as he scoldingly says Plato’s were. [19]   They leave empirical inquiry without operational guidance and direction, and ignore the logical rules that continuously develop in inquiry itself. 

            But uneasiness with Dewey’s idea of logical forms lately bred interpretations that mean to show that his strictly operational a priori must be connected with, or anchored in, some independent metaphysical or ontological reality after all, or that the necessity of logical forms must be different in kind from the experimental necessity generated in inquiry, or that all propositions, including propositional formulations of the rules of inquiry, must be interpreted in terms of classification or attribution, i.e., that they are, or depend on, descriptions of generic traits of existence. [20]

            It would seem, however, that the interpretation of rules of controlled inquiry as descriptions of realities or traits of realities is deeply flawed.  For reliable descriptions can be secured only through the controlled operations of inquiry which bring out of "the total qualitative situation" facts about realities that matter in the resolution of existential conflicts that call for inquiry; propositions of classification and attribution are necessarily functions of the propositional formulations of the rules that guide and govern the controlled transactions of inquiry between environment, existential conflict situations, and their desired transformations.  Without explicit formulation and acceptance of the rules that govern such transactions, we would be left either with the realities of as yet untested and thus haphazard transactions of our ancestors or with what William James notoriously called "a big blooming buzzing confusion."  The flaw, then, in the very idea of realist or metaphysical interpretations of logical forms is much more fatal than Dewey’s observation that "the interpretation of all propositions in terms of classification or attribution (and of extension and intension) obscures their intermediary and functional nature" suggests. [21] For in order to be able to claim that the propositional formulations of the rules of inquiry must be based on descriptive propositions of realities one must be totally unaware of, or as Nietzsche argued, have completely forgotten about, or deny altogether the "intermediary and functional nature" of such propositions. [22]

            The obvious source of the uneasiness with an operational theory is the belief that it is much less capable of furnishing the steady direction that is required for the control of inquiry in the management of human affairs than "the classical type of logic." [23]   Being strictly operational, logical forms are intrinsically limited postulates, and the more serious problems that occur in life, many believe, require universally applicable rules of inquiry that enable anyone to locate and solve such problems wherever and whenever they occur.  We learn, however, from experimental scientists that what enables anyone to do so, ironically, are precisely the explicitly stated limited conditions, as Dewey observes:

Postulates alter as methods of inquiry are perfected; the logical forms that express modern scientific inquiry are in many respects quite unlike those that formulated the procedures of Greek science.  An experimenter in the laboratory who publishes his results states [1] the materials used, [2] the setup of apparatus and [3] the procedures employed.  These specifications are limited postulates, demands and stipulations, for any inquirer who wishes to test the conclusion reached.  Generalize this performance for procedures of inquiry as such, that is, with respect to the form of every inquiry, and logical forms as postulates are the outcome. [24]

How, then, can we possibly hope to carry over "the essential elements of the pattern of experimental knowing into the experience of man in its everyday traits" and to broaden it to insight into specific conditions of value and into specific consequences of ideas? [25]   How can the plea for the limiting context of inquiry lead to the belief that the logical forms of modern inquiry must in time develop into "a method for locating and interpreting the more serious of the conflicts that occur in life, and a method of projecting ways for dealing with them: a method of moral and political diagnosis and prognosis"? [26]   By using social inquiry "to test the general logical conceptions that have been reached," Dewey demonstrates at length how they can become such a method simply because information about the setup alone can tell inquirers what to look for and how to observe it, and thus participate in concerted efforts to address existing problems.  Publishing results without detailed information about the setup would irresponsibly send others on a wasteful wild goose chase and turn controlled inquiry into "a merely random groping." [27]

            We have learned from modern physics that what reliable experimental observations we are able to make depends on the setup of apparatus in the narrow sense, as Dewey shows in his review of Heisenberg’s principle of indeterminacy. [28] But the lesson he draws from this fact is much broader, namely, that "knowing is one kind of interaction which goes on within the world" and that "knowing marks the conversion of undirected changes into changes directed toward an intended conclusion." [29]   This conclusion depends largely, though not exclusively, on the setup of the institutional "apparatus" that regulates research, namely, the logical forms that govern inquiry and determine the intricate organization of research programs with their specific fields, goals, commitments, assignments, tools, teams, and procedures. 

            Commenting on the broader consequences of the situation in modern physics, Dewey argues that it calls for a radical revision of the received concept of inquiry:

If we persist in the traditional conception, according to which the thing to be known is something which exists prior to and wholly apart from the act of knowing, then discovery of the fact that the act of observation, necessary in existential knowing, modifies that preexistent something is proof that the act of knowing gets in its own way, frustrating its own intent. . . .   Fundamentally, the issue is raised whether philosophy is willing to surrender a theory of mind and its organs of knowing which originated when the practice of knowing was in its infancy. [30]

Dewey’s reconstruction avoids such frustration through the setup of laws of inquiry designed for prompting nature to release the resources required for the desired transformation of existential conflict situations that prompted the setup.  This multiply corresponding setup sustains and guarantees the continuous transaction of inquiry.  Everything depends on it.


Boisvert, Raymond D.  1988.  Dewey’s Metaphysics.  New York: Fordham University Press.

Dewey, John.  1977 [1910].  "The Influence of Darwinism on Philosophy."  In John Dewey, The Middle Works, 1899-1924, Volume 4: 1899-1909, ed. by  Jo Ann Boydston, 3-14.  Carbondale and Edwardsville:  Southern Illinois University Press.

Dewey, John.  1978 [1910].  How We Think.  In John Dewey, The middle works, 1899-1924, Volume 6: 1910-1911, ed. Jo Ann Boydston.  Carbondale and Edwardsville:  Southern Illinois University Press.

Dewey, John.  1983 [1922].  Human Nature and Conduct.  In John Dewey, The Middle Works, 1899-1924, Volume 14: 1922, ed.  Jo Ann Boydston.  Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press.

Dewey, John.  1984 [1929]. The Quest for Certainty: A Study of the Relation of Knowledge and Action. In John Dewey, The Later Works, 1925-1953, Volume 4: 1929, ed. Jo Ann Boydston.  Carbondale and Edwardsville:  Southern Illinois University Press.

Dewey, John.  1986a [1933].  How We Think, Revised Edition.  In John Dewey, The later works, 1925-1953, Volume 8: 1933, ed. Jo Ann Boydston.  Carbondale and Edwardsville:  Southern Illinois University Press.

Dewey, John.  1986b [1938].  Logic: The Theory of Inquiry.  In John Dewey, The Later Works, 1925-1953, Volume 12: 1938, ed. Jo Ann Boydston.  Carbondale and Edwardsville:  Southern Illinois University Press.

Dewey, John.  1987 [1934].  Art as Experience.  In John Dewey, The Later Works, 1925-1953, Volume 10: 1934, ed. by Jo Ann Boydston.  Carbondale:  Southern Illinois University Press.

Dewey, John.  1988 [1941].  "Propositions, Warranted Assertibility, and Truth." In John Dewey, The Later Works, 1925-1953, Volume 14: 1939-1941, ed. by Jo Ann Boydston, 168-188.  Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press.

Dewey, John.  1989a [1942].  "Inquiry and Indeterminateness of Situations."  In John Dewey, The Later Works, 1925-1953, Volume 15: 1942-1948, ed. Jo Ann Boydston, 34-41.  Carbondale and Edwardsville:  Southern Illinois University Press.

Dewey, John.  1989b [1944].  "Challenge to Liberal Thought."  In John Dewey, The Later Works, 1925-1953, Volume 15: 1942-1948, ed. Jo Ann Boydston, 261-275.  Carbondale and Edwardsville:  Southern Illinois University Press.

Kant, Immanuel.  1965a [1781/1787].  The Critique of Pure Reason, tr. Norman Kemp Smith.  New York:  St Martin’s Press.

Kant, Immanuel.  1965b [1787].  "Preface to the Second Edition."  In The Critique of Pure Reason, tr. Norman Kemp Smith.  New York: St Martin’s Press.

Nietzsche, Friedrich.  1979 [1873].  "On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense."  In Daniel Breazeale, Philosophy and Truth:  Selections from Nietzsche’s Notebooks of the early 1870's, 79-91.  Atlantic Highlands, NJ:  Humanities Press.

Sleeper, R. W.  1986.  The Necessity of Pragmatism: John Dewey’s Conception of Philosophy.  New Haven: Yale University Press.


[1] Kant 1965b, 21.

[2] Dewey 1986b, 501.

[3] Dewey 1978, 236-241; see also 1986a, 200-209.

[4] Dewey 1986b, 105-122.

[5] Dewey 1978, 5f.

[6] Dewey 1986b, 116.

[7] Dewey 1986b, 117.

[8] Dewey 1988, 175.

[9] Dewey 1986b, 21.

[10] Dewey 1986b, 9-29.

[11] Dewey 1986b, 23.

[12] Dewey 1986b, 20.

[13] Dewey 1986b, 21.

[14] Dewey 1986b, 9-29 passim.

[15] Dewey 1986b, 21.

[16] Dewey 1986b, 23f.

[17] Dewey 1986b, 24.

[18] Dewey 1984, 231.

[19] Kant 1965a, A5f/B9f.

[20] Sleeper 1986, Boisvert 1988, et al.

[21] Dewey 1986b, 298.

[22] Nietzsche 1979, 86ff.

[23] For Dewey’s comparison-contrast of the operational logic of modern science with the "the classical type of logic," see Dewey 1977 passim.

[24] Dewey 1986b, 26. Kant makes similar observations about the philosophical significance of the experimental method.  For a discussion of the influence of experimental science on his "treatise on method" see ... .  In this paper I ignore this influence and go along with Dewey’s neo-Kantian understanding of Kant’s position.

[25] Dewey 1984, 155.

[26] Dewey 1977, 13.

[27] Dewey 1986b, 481-505.  Frequently these endeavors are seen as sufficient evidence for dismissing Logic as uncritical scientism, or physicalism, that is at odds with Dewey’s other writings, such as Human Nature and Conduct (1983) and Art as Experience (1987).  Dewey (1986b, 480), however, emphatically rejects this view: "The question is not whether the subject-matter of human relations is or can ever become a science in the sense in which physics is now a science, but whether it is such as to permit of the development of methods which, as far as they go, satisfy the logical conditions that have to be satisfied in other branches of inquiry."  It would be odd, indeed, if such conditions could be safely ignored where the conflict of leading ideas in inquiry seems to be worst and where we can least afford to trust uncontrolled intuition and unbridled conversation.

[28] Dewey 1984, 160-164.

[29] Dewey 1984, 163.

[30] Dewey 1984, 164.