Ratchets, Screwdrivers, and Inquiry

Over the past few weeks there has been one peculiar conversation that has occurred several times and to which I have been privy, adjacent to, and occasionally, submerged within.  The contours of the conversation are something like this: Dewey’s ‘inquiry’ is a reaction; an irritation, to a particular set of circumstances; something about which disturbs the viewer/thinker, and to which the process of intervening into, and seeking some sort of ‘resolution’ to, is precisely the role of inquiry.  If this schematic representation is accurate, then how does this process differ from a strict instrumentalist ‘problem solving’ practice, say of a mechanic looking under the hood, and tinkering until the motor starts.  But so far, invariably, this move in the conversation has been met with the rejoinder, “No. That is not inquiry.”  Why not?

Dewey’s definition of inquiry is a tricky thing.  He tells us,

“Inquiry is the controlled or directed transformation of an indeterminate situation into one that is so determinate in its constituent distinctions and relations as to convert the elements of the original situation into a unified whole.” (in 1938’s ‘Logic: The Theory of Inquiry’, pp. 104-5).

Elsewhere, Dewey elaborates this with elements of the ‘situation’: a field, or environment, within which an organism is situated, and the indeterminacy of the situation being a new element, or set of elements to which the organism is trying to cope.  In this elaboration, the organism ‘adapting’ to these new conditions of the environment seem to be very much about ‘problem solving’: the organism is presented with an undesirable situation, and it engages in strategies based on previous practices in an ‘experimental’ manner until such a time as the situation is ‘resolved’, or ‘adapted to’.  The problem is fixed.  And this read of Dewey actually mirrors one of the lines of criticism leveled against him by long-term opponent Bertrand Russell.

Yet there is something that is too easily missed in a hasty reading of Dewey’s description of inquiry, or even in his later elaborations.  That being that the elements set out on the stage, as it were, are not discrete, ready made, and given.  It is not the ‘organism’ versus ‘the environment’; not a collision of will upon Nature.  It is an organism ‘within an environment’, part and parcel to the goings on, and permutations of the situation at hand.  And the process of inquiry is one which ends, ‘….in its constituent distinctions and relations as to convert the elements of the original situation into a unified whole’.

And if we pause for a moment, and survey the problem space before us, don’t we also now have to contend with this merging of the organism/actor into the environment/problem space?  Doesn’t this talk of ‘unified wholes’ lead us into an ontological question of holism or monism, pernicious or otherwise?  And to which when we start trying to establish then the parameters of our ‘indeterminate situation’ to which inquiry is starting from we run the gamut of trying to include the entirety of the cosmos, because isn’t any given situation in this submergence of actors and environment not determined by a causal chain that stretches out past that butterfly beating its wings in Beijing, and to distant worlds and stars ad nauseam?  (This is in fact, another of Russell’s critiques.)

To which Dewey would respond (taking some interpretive license), “No. The situation is curtailed, and confined, precisely by the indeterminacy at hand.”  It is the singular, and idiosyncratic, elements that render the situation indeterminate and particular to begin with that determine the weight of the relations of the elements to be considered in the ‘fabrication’ of determinacy.  A type of conatus principle then seems to be at work: the demands, and capacities available of the living organism, within its environment, determine the scope and purview of the possible responses to the situation.  The clam is not going to split the atom to adjust to low thermal conditions.

But then we seem to have returned once more to a question of ‘problem solving’.  And to return to our original conversation and the position that ‘looking under the hood’ per se is not inquiry, what is it about this situation, or practice, that does not render it as inquiry?

Unfortunately, perhaps, another digression is called for.  If we continue to follow the contours of these amalgamated conversations (from the hallways between classrooms), we will see that one of the standard tactics in taking up this position specifically in relation to an anthropological space, is to change authorities.  Dewey is put on the shelf for a while, and the German sociologist and philosopher, Niklas Luhmann is brought out, ready to wield the position of something to the effect that, ‘inquiry involves second order observation’. To whit, the infuriatingly provocative phrase, we ‘observe observers observing.’  And that is inquiry!

Observe. Observers. Observing.  We seem to have wandered into yet another corner of the conceptual map, with ‘terra incognita’ written quite distinctly in the margins.  But to address this move in the most cursory and perfunctory manner, Luhmann’s second order observer position is one in which the ‘problem solving’ of the inquiry itself becomes part of the inquiry.  The practice of the organism/agent addressing and composing its problem space/environment is material in itself for the practice of inquiry; a reflexive move in which thought thinks itself, in trying to understand the architecture and capacities of the ‘indeterminate situation’.

This is a discursive move.  And a quite successful one.  If success is measured by the fact that the students are usually stunned into submission (or perplexity), and wander off and leave the speaker alone.  But it is also a particularly revelatory one.  If, we include Michel Foucault in the alchemy.  Specifically, if we also invoke the tension that Foucault set up between ‘philosophy’ – “the form of thought that asks what it is that enables the subject to have access to the truth and which attempts to determine the conditions and limits of the subject’s access to the truth” (pp. 15) – and ‘spirituality’ – “the search, practice, and experience through which the subject carries out the necessary transformations on himself in order to have access to the truth” (pp. 15)- in ‘The Hermeneutics of the Subject’.  Here, at its most explicit, Foucault brings out his reproblematization of the central ‘game’ of philosophy: not the presence/absence of ‘truth’, but the conditions and possibilities that enable the speaking to the ‘true’ and ‘false’.  And he elaborates it in terms of this very evocative description of two fields in this process: a mode of veridiction (truth telling) tied directly, and intimately, with a mode of subjectification (the formation of the subject).  This tension is perennial in the history of the West’s (and perhaps beyond?) approach to the question of truth.

Which brings us back to Dewy, and Russell’s grimaces to same.  If the ‘situation’ of the inquiry is not to include the entire cosmos, but is predicated on the capacities and reactions of the given situation at hand, the only way to make this situation of approaching comprehensibility is to recognize the full import of Dewey asserting that the organism is ‘in the environment’.  Not that they are two distinct ontic positions in which an exchange and relationship is articulated, negotiated, or willed.  But that there is a composition shared.  The capacities of the organism are determining and determined by the environment, and thus the ‘irritation’ that leads to the ‘situation’ of the field of inquiry is directly tied to these capacities, and curtailed by their (exploratory) limits.

One more step, then.  And my argument to our original conversation determining inquiry as not being just an instrumental problem-solving act, but that it contains at its core a possibility in which the subject is hazarded.  Hazarded to the transformative act of the inquiry itself.  In Dewey’s terms, the organism within the environment is part and parcel of its capacities and adjustments to the indeterminate situation, and thus is open to the transformations of the practice of rendering determinacy.  In Foucault’s terms, inquiry, mediated by a logos set within history, is possible when, and only when, the subject position of the inquiry is open to being renegotiated, to being put under the pressures of a reflection of the constitutive modes of subjectification that exist, and the possibilities of other modes, under which a dilemma of articulating a ratio of the ‘expansion of capacities’ and the increase of ‘power’ are situated.