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  • How to Submit to Inquiry:Dewey and Foucault
  • Paul Rabinow

The problem reduced to its lowest terms is whether inquiry can develop in its own ongoing course the logical standards and forms to which further inquiry shall submit.

—John Dewey, Logic 13

Gilles Deleuze, in his book What Is Philosophy? asks: "What is the best way to follow the great philosophers? Is it to repeat what they said or to do what they did, that is, create concepts for problems that necessarily change?" (Deleuze and Guattari 28). I imagine few in this audience would disagree with that claim. The changing, historically situated, interplay of concepts and problems is a register that those inspired by the work of John Dewey can readily acknowledge as pertinent even if what Dewey meant by each of the terms and what Deleuze meant by them is clearly not the same thing.1

Over the years, I have given my own mode of inquiry a number of different names including "the anthropology of reason" or "fieldwork in philosophy" or more recently "designing human practices." In each case I was drawn to inquiring into situations of ethical, religious, and/or scientific problems as the object of my inquiry as well as attempting to formulate my own practice as itself having the objective of being ethically or scientifically remediative. Said another way, in each of my inquiries, what was at stake was understanding the "human thing"—anthropos—to quote Thucydides, the logos that was at issue for those under study—the objects of inquiry—as well as my own practice as inquirer. In a word, for me, anthropology has always been, literally but problematically, anthropos + logos as both object and objective of the practice of inquiry.

The work of John Dewey was significant from the outset, albeit mediated by the presentation of my teacher at the University of Chicago, Richard McKeon. Dewey was equally a touchstone for my doctoral advisor Clifford Geertz, who paid homage to Dewey even if he did not use his concepts explicitly. After a long encounter, both personal and conceptual, with Michel Foucault, the work of Dewey unexpectedly came to the fore for me. It was [End Page 25] only recently as I tried to clarify my thoughts and orient to major new inquiries concerning the life sciences that I began to read extensively in Dewey's works. I have found them to be concise, conceptually rich, and providing an unexpected resonance with many aspects of the inquiries I had been conducting and continue to conduct today. Let me explain.

I. The Recent and Not So Recent Past

The American philosopher Richard McKeon characterized Dewey as using a mode of approach he called "problematic," although "problem-centered" or even "problematizing" might be more apt. "The problematic method proceeds through inquiry as opposed to dialogue, debate, and proof" (Plochmann 87). The small set of thinkers who have motivated me to a life of inquiry and to whose work I continually return, each in their own way fits the problem-centered mode of pursuing thinking through inquiry. Thus, Max Weber, John Dewey, Richard McKeon, and Michel Foucault all advocated the practice of an engaged inquiry rather than forms of deductive proof or determinative negation. Furthermore, with the exception of McKeon, each one also eschewed much hope in the variants of communicative rationality so pervasive in our times.

For all four of these thinkers, reason was both an object of inquiry as well as a touchstone for guiding inquiry. Each problematized reason as both his object and his objective—to use Dewey's terms—in his own distinctive, and at times, unsettling, manner. Ultimately all four, I believe, came to understand reason as a problem, perhaps the quintessential problem for philosophers: a problem, they all concurred, that should not afford a single or universal solution. Rather, as Dewey advocates in countless places, reason is a practice, through which the thinker attempts to establish what might well be called a curational relationship attuned to specific situations, one adjusted to the specific problem at hand, one that had to be taken up in a manner that consequently required it to be flexible in the standards and forms appropriate to...


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