Pragmatism and moral progress: John Dewey's theory of social inquiry
Philosophy and Social Criticism
809 - 824
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John Dewey developed a pragmatic theory of inquiry to provide intelligent methods for social progress. He believed that the logic and attitude of successful scientific inquiries, properly conceived, could be fruitfully applied to morals and politics. Unfortunately, his project has been poorly understood and his logic of inquiry neglected as a resource. Contemporary pragmatists, like Richard Rorty, for example, dismiss his emphasis on method and avoid judgments of moral progress that are in any way independent of the biases of particular cultures. In this article, I argue that Dewey's theory of inquiry indeed provides intelligent methods and intellectual criteria for engaging moral and political matters. Inquiry, as Dewey conceives it, issues in judgments that are increasingly objective, reliable and refined in application. These judgments are rooted in particular times and places, in actual 'situations', but are not entirely hostage to specific cultures. I then apply Dewey's theory to two standard moral problems to demonstrate how it works. The conclusion is that Dewey's theory of inquiry gets it just right: it provides solid ground for criticism and moral progress while remaining acutely sensitive to cultural differences and changing circumstances. © The Author(s) 2013.