Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Dewey's Experimental Logic and the Scholarship of Engagement

John Dewey's experimental logic is neatly outlined in the three chapters on the stages of thought in Studies in Logical Theory. These three stages are useful in thinking about the scholarship of engagement.

On Dewey's account, actors are caught up in the stream of human events. Some of these are moving along without much friction, and thought is primarily qualitative and intuitive. Others are meeting with resistance or generating conflict. At this first stage, thought is more or less effortless and it not itself the main focus of consciousness. (Dewey will later call this stage that of primary experience).

But hesitation from resistance or conflict brings thinking to the center of consciousness. Thought sets out to map the situation, define problems, establish inquiries, gather data, consider the relevance of on-the-shelf knowledge, and draw and confirm conclusions. (Dewey will later call this secondary experience).

This second stage ends when thought knows where it stands. The third stage begins as the results of thought are placed back on the table of primary experience, along with other factors considered relevant by actors in the situation, as resources for finding a way beyond hesitation, beyond resistance and conflict. The results of thought can then be evaluated as instruments in restoring balance, in restoring the flow of experiernce.

In Logic: the Theory of Inquiry, Dewey considered the institutional setting of thought. The research university is the primary institutional home of the second stage of thought. In disciplined inquiry thought generates its own problems, which generate new lines of inquiry or even entirely new disciplines. Logic, epistemology, statistics, research methodology, are all among these tertiary contexts of thought -- thought serving those other areas of thought that serve primary experience.

The ramifications of thought within the university are vast and unpredictable. However, the results of these tertiary disciplines must be judged by how well they open up and contribute to work in e.g., sociology, psychology, and geography. Just as sociology is the study of society and its problems and conflicts, logic is the theory of inquiries in the various fields and disciplines. And the results of thought in these secondary disciplines must similarly be judged by how well they contribute to restoring the flow of primary experience by aiding actors in moving beyond hesitation and getting on with their affairs without resistance and conflict.

As Dewey puts it, the test of thought lies outside of thought. That is, work within university disciplines is subjected to a double test. First it must meet the staandards imposed by the approved methods within the discipline. The work does not yield "results" until that happens. But then these results themselves must be tested in the flow of experience that lies on the other side of the second stage of thought. It is in this sense that knowledge is good only if it works in experience.

This framework assigns two roles for the scholarship of engagement.

On the input side, problems framed for inquiry must be sensitive at some point, and in some way, to the real world needs that give rise to disciplined thought. There must, in other words, be a scholarship of engagement at the input point, at the border between the first stage of thought and the second, that influences the research agenda. Scholarship regarding the economics of the world food supply, in other words, must be alive to the doubts, hesitations, resistances and conflicts which make the food situation unbalanced or disturbed. There must be scholars in the field, so to speak, with in-person, face to face knowledge of farmers, hungry people, refugees, multi-national corporate decision makers, non-governmental organizations and social movement activists.

There also has to be a scholarship of engagement at the output side. This is a scholarship of translating academic knowledge into knowledge resources for practical ends, working with knowledge users, discovering what is useful and what is notin practice. And then communicating those discoveries back into the academy in such a way as to modify the research agenda so that subsequent academic work won't remain sterile and irrelevant.

The test of primary experience does not apply to each and every inquiry within academia. At the input stage it is the research agenda that is subject to this test. At the output stage it is the collective results of a field that are tested in this way. Within academia, that is, within the second stage of thought, there are all manner of internal inquiries, which may arguably be necessary to take up the problems of the world and move towards potentially useful conclusions confirmed by accepted methods. But if academic knowledge is to be more than a sterile game, it requires a scholarship of engagement to test its worth in primary experience and redirect it if it fails that test.

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