Digifesto

Tag: john dewey

Horkheimer, pragmatism, and cognitive ecology

In Eclipse of Reason, Horkheimer rips into the American pragmatists Peirce, James, and Dewey like nobody I’ve ever read. Normally seen as reasonable and benign, Horkheimer paints these figures as ignorant and undermining of the whole social order.

The reason is that he believes that they reduce epistemology to a kind a instrumentalism. But that’s selling their position a bit short. Dewey’s moral epistemology is pragmatist in that it is driven by particular, situated interests and concerns, but these are ingredients to moral inquiry and not conclusions in themselves.

So to the extent that Horkheimer is looking to dialectic reason as the grounds to uncovering objective truths, Dewey’s emphasis on the establishing institutions that allow for meaningful moral inquiry seems consistent with Horkheimer’s view. The difference is in whether the dialectics are transcendental (as for Kant) or immanent (as for Hegel?).

The tension around objectivity in epistemology that comes up in the present academic environment is that all claims to objectivity are necessarily situated and this situatedness is raised as a challenge to their objective status. If the claims or their justification depend on conditions that exclude some subjects (as they no doubt do; whether or not dialectical reason is transcendental or immanent is requires opportunities for reflection that are rare–privileged), can these conclusions be said to be true for all subjects?

The Friendly AI research program more or less assumes that yes, this is the case. Yudkowsky’s notion of Coherent Extrapolated Volition–the position arrived at by simulated, idealized reasoners, is a 21st century remake of Peirce’s limiting consensus of the rational. And yet the cry from standpoint theorists and certain anthropologically inspired disciplines is a recognition of the validity of partial perspectives. Haraway, for example, calls for an alliance of partial perspectives. Critical and adversarial design folks appear to have picked up this baton. Their vision is of a future of constantly vying (“agonistic”) partiality, with no perspective presuming to be settled, objective or complete.

If we make cognitivist assumptions about the computationality of all epistemic agents, then we are forced to acknowledge the finiteness of all actually existing reasoning. Finite capacity and situatedness become two sides of the same coin. Partiality, then, becomes a function of both ones place in the network (eccentricity vs. centrality) as well as capacity to integrate information from the periphery. Those locations in the network most able to valuably integrate information, whether they be Google’s data centers or the conversational hubs of research universities, are more impartial, more objective. But they can never be the complete system. Because of their finite capacity, their representations can at best be lossy compressions of the whole.

A Hegelian might dream of an objective truth obtainable by a single subject through transcendental dialectic. Perhaps this is unattainable. But if there’s any hope at all in this direction, it seems to me it must come from one of two possibilities:

  • The fortuitously fractal structure of the sociotechnical world such that an adequate representation of it can be maintained in its epistemic hubs through quining, or
  • A generative grammar or modeling language of cognitive ecology such that we can get insights into the larger interactive system from toy models, and apply these simplified models pragmatically in specific cases. For this to work and not suffer the same failures as theoretical economics, these models need to have empirical content. Something like Wolpert, Lee, and Bono’s Predictive Game Theory (for which I just discovered they’ve released a Python package…cool!) may be critical here.

Dewey’s Social Ethics

From Elizabeth Andersons’ excellent Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on (John) Dewey’s Moral Philosophy. Emphasis mine:

As a progressive liberal, Dewey advocated numerous social reforms such as promoting the education, employment, and enfranchisement of women, social insurance, the progressive income tax, and laws protecting the rights of workers to organize labor unions. However, he stressed the importance of improving methods of moral inquiry over advocating particular moral conclusions, given that the latter are always subject to revision in light of new evidence.

Thus, the main focus of Dewey’s social ethics concerns the institutional arrangements that influence the capacity of people to conduct moral inquiry intelligently. Two social domains are critical for promoting this capacity: schools, and civil society. Both needed to be reconstructed so as to promote experimental intelligence and wider sympathies. Dewey wrote numerous works on education, and established the famous Laboratory School at the University of Chicago to implement and test his educational theories. He was also a leading advocate of the comprehensive high school, as opposed to separate vocational and college prepatory schools. This was to promote the social integration of different economic classes, a prerequisite to enlarging their mutual understanding and sympathies. Civil society, too, needed to be reconstructed along more democratic lines. This involved not just expanding the franchise, but improving the means of communication among citizens and between citizens and experts, so that public opinion could be better informed by the experiences and problems of citizens from different walks of life, and by scientific discoveries (PP). Dewey regarded democracy as the social embodiment of experimental intelligence informed by sympathy and respect for the other members of society (DE 3, 89–94). Unlike dictatorial and oligarchic societies, democratic ones institutionalize feedback mechanisms (free speech) for informing officeholders of the consequences for all of the policies they adopt, and for sanctioning them (periodic elections) if they do not respond accordingly.

Dewey’s moral epistemology thus leads naturally to his political philosophy. The reconstruction of moral theory is accomplished by replacing fixed moral rules and ends with an experimental method that treats norms for valuing as hypotheses to be tested in practice, in light of their widest consequences for everyone. To implement this method requires institutions that facilitate three things: (1) habits of critical, experimental inquiry; (2) widespread communication of the consequences of instituting norms, and (3) extensive sympathy, so that the consequences of norms for everyone are treated seriously in appraising them and imagining and adopting alternatives. The main institutions needed to facilitate these things are progressive schools and a democratic civil society. Experimentalism in ethics leads to a democratic political philosophy.

My suspicion is that John Dewey’s ethics would provide a substantive philosophical foundation for the latest swathe of open government and “Gov 2.0” initiatives, if anyone bothered looking for one.