Notes and communications.

Author:DeGregori, Thomas R.
Position:A critique of James L. Webb's article
 
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Ayres and Dewey: Forward to the Future--A Critique of James L. Webb's Article.

James L. Webb provided a stimulating and insightful interpretation of the ideas of John Dewey in his provocative article, "Dewey: Back to the Future" (2002). I strongly endorse his call for the "younger generations of institutionalists who have turned away or drifted away from the pragmatic roots of institutionalism" to take a more careful look at the thoughts of Dewey (981). Unfortunately, Webb combined this with what I consider an unwarranted attack on Clarence E. Ayres, whom he accused of incorrectly interpreting Dewey.

Webb opened his narrative on Dewey with a long quote from Dewey's Logic: The Theory of Inquiry, which he claimed demonstrates Dewey's separation between science and technology--"functionally distinct" (982). Nowhere in that quote does Dewey use the word "technology," forcing Webb to construe Dewey's "common sense" as a surrogate for technology. Yet in chapter 4 of the same work, Dewey attacked the artificial "division between 'lower' and 'higher' techniques" as he often did throughout his works (72; for a further cogent example, see Dewey 1938, chapter 1). Earlier in Logic: The Theory of Inquiry, Dewey maintained that the "subject matter of logic is determined operationally" and illustrated it with examples from "industrial arts" (14-15).

In chapter 4, where Dewey spoke of the split between the "traditional logic" "common sense" and "science," he argued that "the attainment of unified method means that the fundamental unity of the structure of inquiry in common sense and science be recognized, their difference being one in the problems in which they are directly concerned, not in their respective logics" (79). This sounds very similar to Ayres' call for a unified field theory of knowledge. More important, it is in line with Webb's one-sentence quote from Ayres' seminal work, "The Theory of Economic Progress," where Ayres argued that "as regards the nature of the process," "there is no difference between 'mechanical invention' and 'scientific discovery'" (Webb 2002, 982; Ayres 1962, 213).

One wonders where Webb would establish the chasm that separates science and technology. Is an architect a scientist, an engineer/technologist, an artist, or all three simultaneously? By 1971, the discovery of restriction endonuclease (enzymes) allowed researchers to cut DNA and insert another gene and create transgenic organisms. Paul Berg used this technique to genetically engineer DNA molecules into bacterial DNA, which was followed by Stanley Cohen and Herbert Boyer transferring a single gene using plasmids to create a transgenic organism (a bacteria). All three won a Nobel Prize for their work and are clearly recognized as scientists. Could not one argue that they are also technologists and could not the same be said for a multitude of scientists/ biotechnologists?

Given the voluminous nature of Dewey's work, Webb and I could exchange selective quotes ad infinitum to prove our own interpretation of Dewey. A far more serious dispute with Webb is his charge that not only is Ayres out of sync with Dewey but that Ayres was out of sync with scientific inquiry and that his "analysis led inquiry in unproductive directions" (995). Webb faulted Ayres for believing in 1923 that an "atom is not a bit of reality, it is an abstraction" (985). At the time that Ayres wrote this, the electron microscope had not yet been invented so nobody had yet seen a molecule let alone an atom. The idea of an atom was a construct or abstraction which facilitated organizing and using an array of empirical data to carry on further inquiry. From John Dalton (1766-1844) to Ernest Rutherford (1871-1937) and Niels Bohr (1885-1962), natural philosophers and physicists had investigated the atom ("indivisible") and eventually theorized a structure similar to the solar system with a large mass in the center composed of protons and neutrons with electrons revolving around it. From these components and their various orbits, all the elements were composed and could be thus organized and understood in Mendeleev's (Dimitri Ivanovich Mendeleev, 1834-1907) table. Mendeleev's table facilitated the discovery of elements to fill in the perceived gaps in the table. What the term atom meant to the ancient Greek atomists was considerably different from what it meant to a physicist in 1923 and what it means to a physicist today. The atom has not changed in the last 2,500 years, but our conception of it has. This means that our concept is an abstraction or construct and not the reality. This does not mean that the concept of the "atom" was a figment of the imagination in 1923 nor that as knowledge advances, our conception of the atom may through time more closely approximate the reality of it. Certainly through time, our concept of it becomes more operational, which is what both Dewey and Ayres were saying.

Webb provided six examples of where "Ayres' analysis led inquiry in unproductive directions" (995-997), three of which will be answered in turn. In addition, I will deal with only a limited number of issues raised though my disagreement with the article ranges across a number of issues, such as the values question, that space limitations do not permit me to cover. In the first one, Webb asserted that to Ayres, "instrumental behavior necessarily involves rigidities, routines, and relatively fixed structures in both intellectual and social spheres" without offering a scintilla of evidence for the claim (995). He then criticized the use of the term "institution." (It should be noted that in the six examples where "Ayres' analysis led inquiry in unproductive directions," an Ayres admission on the problems of the use of the term "institution" is the only case where Webb actually attempted to cite Ayres. The rest is conjecture and, too often, erroneous conjecture at that). I must admit that I have long been troubled by the use of the term in a way so different from common parlance and can recall an argument over it as an undergraduate nearly a half century ago with my mentor, David Hamilton. I have long been an institutionalist who assiduously avoided the term institution but not the Ayresian concept underlying it. Working as a development economist, I found that my work was made vastly more effective by the sensitivity to possible "institutional" resistance, an understanding of which 1 gained from studying with Hamilton and Ayres. The theory also made me more sensitive to possible adverse technological or institutional change contrary to Webb's criticism below. In other words, it gave me the right questions and therefore the enhanced possibility of finding the right answers.

Having accused Ayres of rigidities in the first example, Webb argued that Ayres implied a characterization of science as being a "collection of interchangeable parts" (996). I would be interested to see any evidence that Webb has for this claim. He then attacked Ayres "and those following his lead" for neither allowing for discontinuities nor allowing for "genuine novelty in scientific discovery" or any possibility of disconfirming evidence of the cumulative growth of scientific and technological knowledge. Webb in a display of empty rhetorical flourishes--"highly articulated and interconnected conceptual complexes in science"--provided neither evidence for this claim nor any basis in which it could be logically extrapolated from Ayres' theory. There is no explanation as to why continuity in change can not produce novelty or that Ayres ever claimed that it could not. Nor is there any basis in Ayres for believing that human history was without any discontinuities. Obviously, the cumulative nature of technological change implies some underlying continuity of technology for humankind even though there may be discontinuities as a particular civilization may experience decline. There may also be periods of relative dormancy or stagnation or even disruption in which the technology used to sustain life continues, even if it continues somewhat precariously, so that some continuity remains. The alternative is to believe that there have been times of discontinuities for the entirety of humankind such that those who experienced this transition had recreated technology and science de novo without seeming to start over with simple stone tools. This would also imply that humans could somehow miraculously transit a discontinuity without use of technology to survive while creating it anew. [ await Webb's "disconfirming evidence" of such an event. Absent disconfirming evidence...

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