Doubt as a form of enquiry

In the last post I discussed what the pragmatic philosopher John Dewey referred to as the quest for certainty. I have been arguing that the discomfort that people feel if something isn’t completely nailed down in advance often prevents them from dwelling long enough with experience to work experimentally. There is rush to define, to plan out in advance, to idealise and to make certain and this is likely to prevent innovative ways of working to which organisations aspire. I have been making an alternative argument that without improvisation, spontaneity and risk there can be no innovation.

Dewey was interested in experimentation and argued that traditions of thought, such as mainstream philosophy, have conventionally been suspicious of the bodily, the temporal and the experiential, instead preferring Plato’s fixed and pure forms. We are generally encouraged to discover pre-existing ‘truth’, rather than dwell in the messy reality of experience. However, he himself was much less interested in knowledge as a pure and static expression of truth, and more committed to knowing as a form of active enquiry, the idea of constantly opening up experience to further experience. I think this idea of constant doubt and enquiry is especially relevant to managers who are thinking about how to deal with the ever changing patterning of experience in organisations that they have to deal with on a daily basis.

Dewey was keen to rehabilitate knowing as doing, which is what he understood experimental method to be. Theory and practice were for him in constant generative tension. All experimentation, he argued involves overt doing and theorising from this, making definite changes in our environment and our relation to it, and theorising further. He did not think of experimentation as a random activity but as one which is directed by the needs of the conditions set by the problem of enquiry. The context we find ourselves in and the problems this context presents us with are where we should start with our enquiry. There is no point in defining that problem and the solution in the abstract. From the first two ideas, the importance of exploring and potentially changing the relationships between us and other objects in our environment, and noticing the particular problems that our environment call out, there follows the intention to construct a new empirical situation in which the objects are differently related to each other and to us.

So enquiry deals with things in flux rather than at rest, and is concerned with the relationships between them. In enquiring into these relationships, they are in their turn changed and brought into different relations.

Experimental knowledge for Dewey is a mode of doing, and like all doing takes place at a time, in a place, and under specifiable conditions in connection with a definite problem. Moreover, the methods for undertaking research are also not necessarily obvious in advance of undertaking the research itself, but can be discovered in the act of experimenting. The notion that the findings of science are a disclosure of the inherent properties of the ultimate real, using presuggested methods, he argues, is a survival of an older metaphysics which is trying to show things beyond nature of a fixed and antecedent reality. The world in which we live, he argues, is stubbornly un-ideal.

Rather than trying to work out in advance what would be best in a particular situation and thinking that we know the best way of discovering it before acting, we have instead to try something out and see how we get on and discover ways of enquiring into it further. Innovations arise from our response to particular problems we are facing, and our evolving ways of coping with them are then again taken up, tested and improved in rounds of further doing. To sustain questioning, it is important not to jump to premature conclusions, he argued. Nor should we mistake the simple for the true, or the familiar for the clear.

Dewey regarded nature as manifold and complex. He argued that the natural sciences disregard the physical heterogeneity of things in order to render them as ‘members in one homogenous scheme, and hence capable of translation and conversion into each other… It is a wonderful ideal but is still man-made, ingenious but not a substitute for things directly perceived and enjoyed.’ Scientific method is very useful for being able to translate one thing into another but this does not mean that it is the best method for every aspect of human experience.

What Dewey takes as important from scientific method, however, is not the idea of certainty, but of productively employing doubt to drive our enquiries in a restless way which is never satisfied with easy solutions and answers. He tried to break through what he understood as a Cartesian and Newtonian dualism of mind and nature being two separate things. For Dewey doubt and uncertainty are constitutive of enquiry and are not part of a ‘dark mystery’ of how we come to come to know nature. We are not outside of nature spectating, but are active participants in the ongoing drama of the world, the story of which we have already been following.

The implications of Dewey’s views on experimental method and enquiry are of particular relevance to managers and leaders. Rather than assuming that the latest grid, framework or ‘toolkit’ is the answer to the particular problems they are facing, managers might instead try things out and discuss with others how they think they are doing. The way they experiment and the methods they discover in the experimentation may only become clear through doing, by acting then reflecting on experience, then acting further, by questioning, then questioning further.


2 thoughts on “Doubt as a form of enquiry

  1. Christopher Dean

    If doubt is a motivating force then it can drive a person either to the comfort of existing beliefs or into a learning process. The former is a short journey that rapidly relieves anxiety, while the latter entails both dwelling in discomfort and engaging in the struggle to resolve doubt through new insight. Flight as a response to doubt is quick & cheap, while “fighting” it demands time & effort that are expended at risk. In “Beyond Religion” (Rider pub., 2012), His Holiness the Dalai Lama asserts “doubt is the mental factor that enables us to inquire and seek out understanding”, though only when we respond constructively to it.

  2. Nick sarra

    Dewey suggested mind as ‘an active and eager background which lies in wait and engages whatever comes its way’ (Art as experience). What is it then that makes it sometimes so difficult for people to engage with whatever comes there way in a communicative and reflexive manner? By reflexive I mean making sense together of what we find ourselves doing experientially in our mutual endeavours as opposed to reflective which might be taken as mind in introspective activity.For me the problem arises in the communicative movement from the reflective to the reflexive. We all need our privacy, the capacity to have at least some control over how we relate the experience of our social being to others .This control ,as Freud realised (the psychopathology of everyday life),is precarious. We are communicating continually with each other whether we wish it or not, pheromonally and viscerally, psychologically, linguistically etc. However the meanings we derive from our communications are negotiated (or not) through the complex interdependencies of power relationships.Therefore these processes of reflection and reflexivity, which are ultimately indissoluble, are where we derive and maintain our sense of self.In other words the act of reflection affirms to us who we are but it is nevertheless a complex act perhaps laden with conflicts and doubts and therefore social since those qualities are inherently relational.The movement to the reflexive is of course also identity forming but with an increased vulnerability to how one might be being formed as a person by others.So Mowles points out how paying attention to experIence with others moves those relationships and Dean rightly identifies our vulnerability to flight to the familiar sense of self.


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