Dewey’s “Pattern of Inquiry”: money shot

Draft of 2009.04.24 ☛ 2015.03.18

May include: philosophyreadings&c.

From John Dewey’s Logic: The Theory of Inquiry, by way of John J. McDermott’s The Philosophy of John Dewey: The Structure of Experience, this summary of Dewey’s own chapter on the nature of inquiry.

In particular, this strikes me as something that bears on many discussions I’ve had about machine learning and modern statistics. And it reminds me of a cultural problem I’ve been wrestling with among genetic programming researchers and operations research people for some time. And would be useful in explaining the pedagogy and practice of engineering “craftsmanship”, and more specifically that of software development.

Oh, and complex systems research and emergence, too. That’s in there, somehow.

So you can see why I might think it’s important to understand.

I can’t quite put my finger on it, but something in here—perhaps obfuscated by what today we might perceive as a difficult style, but which is an attempt to convey very specific concepts in a way that tries to avoid misunderstanding—is vital to many threads in modern life. In particular, something deeply important happens down in the last paragraph, where I’ve highlighted it.

I would love to have a correspondent who could discuss this productively. Perhaps one might be found to read the original Dewey, or even the few surrounding pages extracted in McDermott’s summary, and tell me just what it is I’m responding to?

…Inquiry is the directed or controlled transformation of an indeterminate situation into a determinately unified one. The transition is achieved by means of operations of two kinds which are in functional correspondence with each other. One kind of operations deals with ideational or conceptual subject-matter. This subject-matter stands for possible ways and ends of resolution. It anticipates a solution, and is marked off from fancy because, or, in so far as, it becomes operative in instigation and direction of new observations yielding new factual material. The other kind of operations is made up of activities involving the techniques and organs of observation. Since these operations are existential they modify the prior existential situation, bring into high relief conditions previously obscure, and relegate to the background other aspects that were at the outset conspicuous. The ground and criterion of the execution of this work of emphasis, selection and arrangement is to delimit the problem in such a way that existential material may be provided with which to test the ideas that represent possible modes of solution. Symbols, defining terms and propositions, are necessarily required in order to retain and carry forward both ideational and existential subject-matters in order that they may serve their proper functions in the control of inquiry. Otherwise the problem is taken to be closed and inquiry ceases.

One fundamentally important phase of the transformation of the situation which constitutes inquiry is central in the treatment of judgement and its functions. The transformation is existential and hence temporal. The pre-cognitive unsettled situation can be settled only by modification of its constituents. Experimental operations change existing conditions. Reasoning, as such, can provide means for effecting the change of conditions but by itself cannot effect it. Only execution of existential operations directed by an idea in which ratiocination terminates can bring about the re-ordering of environing conditions required to produce a settled and unified situation. Since this principle also applies to the meanings that are elaborated in science, the experimental production and re-arrangement of physical conditions involved in natural science is further evidence of the unity of the pattern of inquiry. The temporal quality of inquiry means, then, something quite other than that the process of inquiry takes time. It means that the objective subject-matter of inquiry undergoes temporal modification.

Terminological. Were it not that knowledge is related to inquiry as a product to the operations by which it is produced, no distinctions requiring special differentiating designations would exist. Material would merely be a matter of knowledge or of ignorance and error; that would be all that could be said. The content of any given proposition would have the values “true” and “false” as final and exclusive attributes. But if knowledge is related to inquiry as its warrantably assertible product, and if inquiry is progressive and temporal, then the material inquired into reveals distinctive properties which need to be designated by distinctive names. As undergoing inquiry, the material has a different logical import from that which it has as the outcome of inquiry. In its first capacity and status, it will be called by the general name subject-matter. When it is necessary to refer to subject-matter in the context of either observation or ideation, the name content will be used, and, particularly on account of its representative character, content of propositions.

The name objects will be reserved for subject-matter so far as it has been produced and ordered in settled form by means of inquiry; proleptically, objects are the objectives of inquiry. The apparent ambiguity of using “objects” for this purpose (since the word is regularly applied to things that are observed or thought of) is only apparent. For things exist as objects for us only as they have been previously determined as outcomes of inquiries. When used in carrying on new inquiries in new problematic situations, they are known as objects in virtue of prior inquiries which warrant their assertibility. In the new situation, they are means of attaining knowledge of something else. In the strict sense, they are part of the contents of inquiry as the word content was defined above. But retrospectively (that is, as products of prior determination in inquiry) they are objects.

[Latter emphasis is mine.]