Dewey 4: Instrumental Logic and Public Policy Formation

Candid portrait of American philosopher, psychologist, and educational reformer John Dewey standing in a wooded area, 1935. (Photo by JHU Sheridan Libraries/Gado/Getty Images).

It should be evident that the notion that reason has an instrumental function and that logic is instrumental has significant consequences for the development of public policy and the conduct of public debate. Rational public discourse cannot simply involve an attempt to gain enough public support that one’s personal ideas can be enacted into policy. From a sophio-agapic point of view, public policy formation begins with identifying a problem. Ultimately, it is about adopting strategies and tactics that will lead society to a better state. [1] As to justice, public policy is finally about the gradual evolution of a more just society in a way in which all citizens’ rights are protected and enhanced. As such, it is an essentially logical process. Dewey put it this way:

It is reasonable to search for and select the means that will, with the maximum probability, yield the consequences which are intended. It is highly unreasonable to employ as means, materials and processes which would be found, if they were examined, to be such that they produce consequences which are different from the intended end; so different that they preclude its attainment. [2]

Applied to the realm of public discourse, this principle can be stated as follows:

Public policy is unreasonable if it adopts policies and processes that, under examination, are likely to produce consequences contrary to the public good and the intended result.

Political actors must be willing to subject their views to criticism and modify their policies where the best evidence indicates that the public good intended cannot be acquired by the means chosen. This inevitably involves a logical and reasoned approach to public policy development, not simply enacting policies that more special interest groups favor.

Wise public policymaking involves using all forms of logic. Political actors must guess what the wisest public policy is (hypothesis). They must gather facts that either support or do not support our hypothetical public policy. Finally, in reaching our conclusions, we must ensure they’re not deductively incoherent. This is a part and parcel of proving or disproving the hypothesis.

Deliberation and Enhanced Common Sense

We have already seen that abductive logic proceeds from a perceived problem to a hypothetical proposal for the solution of the problem to a testing of that problem. Where ideology is allowed to determine the adoption of solutions to political problems, ideology or preconceived notions are improperly allowed to determine results. Here is how Dewey puts the problem:

But in social matters, those who claim that they are in possession of the only sure solution of social problems often set themselves up as being peculiarly scientific while others are floundering around in an “empirical” morass. Only recognition in both theory and practice that ends to be attained (ends-in-view) are of the nature of hypotheses and that hypotheses have to be formed and tested in strict correlativity with existential conditions as means, can alter current habits of dealing with social issues. [3]

Here, we have clearly stated the fundamental problem with much modern political discourse. Both those on the political left who favor collectivist solutions and those on the right who favor unlimited personal freedom believe themselves to possess the only sure scientific solution to political problems. Therefore, they do not see the need to consider their proposals as hypotheses that must be checked against reality to ensure that they work in practice.

It is not enough for there to be debate, discussion, argumentation, or even conversation and dialogue. The conversation has to be conducted to evaluate public policies and choose rational means to test them before adoption, or at least before adoption in such a way that the consequences might be disastrous. In this vein, more judgments cannot be excluded from the evaluating process since they are part of the complex and intricate existential and potentially observable and recordable material that makes up the facts of the case. [4]

Wherever political conclusions are taken to be a priori true or determined by ideological, philosophical, or other commitments, the process of reasonable policy determination is bypassed. Do we put it this way as respects, classical laisse faire economics:

In consequence, the three indispensable logical conditions of conceptual subject-matter of the scientific method were ignored; namely, (1) the status of theoretical conceptions as hypotheses which (2) have a directive function in control of observation and ultimate practical transformation of antecedent phenomena, and which (3) are tested and continually revised on the ground of the consequences they produce in existential application. [5]

This failure of logic can be seen in both the ideological commitments of the right and the left, Marxist and Capitalist. Once again, Dewey is clear:

A further illustration of the demands of logical method may be found in other current theories about social phenomena, such as the supposed issue of “individualism” versus “collectivism” or “socialism,” or the theory that all social phenomena are to be envisaged in terms of the class-conflict of the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. From the standpoint of method, such conceptual generalizations, no matter which one of the opposed conceptions is adopted, prejudge the characteristic traits and the kinds of actual phenomena that the proposed plans of action are to deal with. [6]

This conclusion is at the root of the sophio-agapic program. Whenever ideology supplants wise policy adopted to serve the best interests of all of society (the maintenance and creation of social harmony), there has been a failure of both logic and consideration of the best policy to undergird society.

The Deliberative Process

In matters of practice, there is no substitute for reason and deliberation in the consideration of alternative courses of action. Dewey understands that wherever practical issues are involved, and especially in matters involving political deliberation, the fact themselves and the situation itself continually changes:

Preliminary to offering illustrations of what has been said, I shall summarize formally what is logically involved in every situation of deliberation and grounded decision in matters of practice. There is an existential situation such that (a) its constituents are changing so that in any case something different is going to happen in the future; and such that (b) just what will exist in the future depends in part upon introduction of other existential conditions interacting with those already existing, while (c) what new conditions are brought to bear depends upon what activities are undertaken, (d) the latter matter being influenced by the intervention of inquiry in the way of observation, inference and reasoning. [7]

Deliberation about policy matters takes place in an evolving environment, sensitive to whatever actions are taken, subject to new conditions, and influenced by observers intervening in the situation using inquiry. This may seem not easy to understand, but I think it can be illustrated most adequately by examples from foreign affairs. Political actors make decisions in an ever-changing political environment where multiple nation-states are interested.  No international situation remains constant. There is constant change. Every action, however small, taken by international actors impacts others who will then change their behavior somehow. Finally, the fact that a nation is considering a change in policy influences the entire situation. This involves a constant process of evaluating and examining the various alternative courses of action available in an ever-changing environment. [8] Generally, policy policymakers have a state of affairs they wish could be created (for example, ending a conflict in the Middle East); even this policy goal can be and is subject to change as policymakers, change, and different policies are enacted. The result is that political decision-making, at best, is made in a volatile and rapidly changing environment.


Dewey should be taken seriously in a sophio-agapic understanding of political life. Since all human reasoning, including political rationale, must be conducted reasonably, restrictions are placed upon dialogue. It is also fundamental to a socio-agapic understanding of politics that decisions should be tested to ensure they are correct before being implemented on a grand scale. As Dewey puts it: “Unless the decision reached is arrived at blindly and arbitrarily, it is obtained by gathering and surveying evidence appraised as to its weight and relevancy; and by framing and testing plans of action in their capacity as hypotheses: that is, as ideas.” [9]

All of this involves the condition that dialogue be conducted reasonably and rationally. This takes us back to the fundamental meaning of dialogue. The Greek roots, “dia” or “through” and ‘logos” or “reason” indicate that dialogue is not a mere sharing of opinions. Instead, it is sharing logical views to reach a deeper understanding of the truth about a matter under deliberation. When one deliberates, one considers carefully all of the factors necessary to reach a conclusion. Wise decision-making involves the capacity to deliberate effectively. Once again, deliberation is an essentially social exercise, especially political decision-making. Balancing different social interests, achieving social harmony, and considering the consequences for those impacted are all part of a wise deliberative process.

From Peirce and James, Dewey has a “scientific and instrumental” view of knowledge that includes a kind of fallibilism that recognizes that our ideas, however well attested by reality and comprehensively accepted, can always be wrong and need revision. This excludes any sympathy for totalitarian undertakings in philosophy, politics, education, or any other field of inquiry. This part of Dewey’s philosophy is of increasing importance in our society, in which there are so many loud voices, left and right, who are sure of the truth about their own opinions and are contemptuous of the views of others. Where the advice of Dewey is ignored, there is a failure of logic, an increase in social conflict, and increasing contempt for opposing views—all phenomena we experience in American society today.[10]

The practical difficulties in the way of experimental method in the case of social phenomena as compared with physical investigations do not need elaborate exposition. Nevertheless, every measure of policy put into operation is, logically, and should be actually, of the nature of an experiment. For (I) it represents the adoption of one out of a number of alternative conceptions as possible plans of action, and (2) its execution is followed by consequences which, while not as capable of definite or exclusive differentiation as in the case of physical experimentation, are none the less observable within limits, so they may serve as tests of the validity of the conception acted upon. [11]

I could not more clearly state the sophio-agapic approach to public policy formation than the statement above. All public policy is in the nature of a social experiment, nearly always enacted where significant alternatives are available. Therefore, any given policy should not be seen as irrevocable or logically necessary but merely hypothetical. In executing such policies, policymakers should be conscious of the potential for error and, therefore, should be careful to evaluate the consequences of the policy and reverse courses if it turns out to have been unwise. This is the essence of a wise approach to policy initiatives.

Copyright 2024, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] John Dewey, Logic: The Theory of Inquiry (New York, NY: Henry Holt and Company, 1938), at 498.

[2] Id, 10.

[3] Id, 497. A generalization in the form of a hypothesis is a prerequisite condition of the selection and ordering of material as facts. Id, at 498.

[4] Id. “The notion that evaluation is concerned only with ends and that, with the ruling out of moral ends, evaluative judgments are ruled out rests, then, upon a profound misconception of the nature of the logical conditions and constituents of all scientific inquiry. All competent and authentic inquiry demands that out of the complex welter of existential and potentially observable and recordable material, certain material be selected and weighed as data or the “facts of the case.”

[5] Id, 506.

[6] Id.

[7] Id, 162-163.

[8] Id, 170.

[9] Id,161.

[10] Id, 507.

[11] Id, at 509