A Condensed Argument from My Recent Series

I have long thought that Analytic Philosophy (eg. Wittgenstein, Margolis, Bernstein, Rorty) has been moving toward forms of pragmatism that has implications for Ed Reform. (Many ed theorists incorporate elements that seem pragmatic (Vygotsky/Rogoff, Bruner, Samuel Messick for example). What stumped me was the last mile of pedagogy and teacher practice. This is what I sensed reading the posts of Tom Sherrington; this is how a pragmatist teacher would develop their practice to be both pragmatic and scientific.

I often feel like pursuing change and Ed Reform is like operating with one hand tied behind your back because of inappropriate knowledge requirements and background assumptions that are seldom questioned. It is frequently chalked up to paradigm differences, but there are real questions about this kind of analysis. Incommensurability is simply more rare than is generally acknowledged and it would be better to pursue a deeper analysis and critique instead of the easy out of paradigmatic differences. Here is an example:

I like EC Lagemann’s analysis who claims that education today can’t be understood without acknowledging that, of the two competing visions of 20th century education, Thorndike won and Dewey lost. To understand what that phrase means I frame this competition through WVO Quine’s paper: Two Dogmas of Empiricism.

A note of clarification — Pragmatism is plagued by differences spun up by different philosophers; it is not seen as a coherent field. That is why I focus on Quine. Rather than expanding on Pragmatism like so many philosophers do, Quine (like CS Peirce) focuses on the core problem plaguing science. The need to build a science that acknowledges the double dependence of language and experience and is grounded in practice. Many practice problems today are rooted in a denial of the relevance of practice and language to scientific practice.

In this drama that Lagemann sets up, Dewey is represented by Quine and Thorndike is represented by Carnap and the logical positivists. Quine’s aforementioned paper was famous for discrediting the Analytic — Synthetic distinction, but Quine went beyond this goal to the heart of this philosophy. Carnap’s goal was to found science in mathematical regularities, but divorced from the semantics aspects of language. Quine states that understanding, including scientific understanding, must include a double dependence on language and experience. To quote Quine:

My present suggestion is that it is nonsense, and the root of much nonsense, to speak of a linguistic component and a factual component in the truth of any individual statement. Taken collectively, science has its double dependence upon language and experience; but this duality is not significantly traceable into the statements of science taken one by one.

Quine makes the reductionism at the root of Thorndike’s vision null and void.

Quine concludes that we are left with this:

Carnap, Lewis, and others take a pragmatic stand on the question of choosing between language forms, scientific frameworks; but their pragmatism leaves off at the imagined boundary between the analytic and the synthetic. In repudiating such a boundary I espouse a more thorough pragmatism. Each man is given a scientific heritage plus a continuing barrage of sensory stimulation; and the considerations which guide him in warping his scientific heritage to fit his continuing sensory promptings are, where rational, pragmatic.

Pragmatists like CS Peirce or John Dewey are thoroughly scientific, but they build their science from actual practice, not abstract mathematical constructs. This is why language does not run roughshod over science (i.e. no radical relativity). Instead of grounding science in the analytic synthetic distinction, it is grounded in the actual (language embedded) practice to which the science is directed. This is what I read into the Posts of Tom Sherrington (here and here). For instance, assessment is not based on random mathematic regularities only, but builds first from a model of practice built from actual teaching practices and student cognition. Only then do the doubly dependent tools of science become relevant.

For your reference:


Lessons that misfire. Good intentions + bad theory = poor results

Towards an Assessment Paradigm Shift