What is Instrumentalism?


Instrumentalism is a methodological approach in Epistemology and Philosophy of Science. It was advanced by the American pragmatist philosopher John Dewey, who held the view that (philosophical) theories are instrumental – literally, instrumental means that something services only as a means of pursuing an aim. That is to say, the worth of theories is not measured in the binary true or false or even if they are applicable to reality or depict reality accurately. Instead, Dewey thought theories to be useful if they showed to effectively explain phenomena and predict outcomes of particular events. Instrumentalism thus holds that for a theory to be ‘true’ (though strictly speaking, Instrumentalism denies that theories can be evaluated as either true or false), we are to look at how successful it is at proposing a solution to a problem. Furthermore, it holds that theories are deemed valuable by their function in human activity.

In Philosophy of Mind, Instrumentalism is a theoretical approach to understand the function of the mind. It holds that ‘propositional attitudes’ (i.e. the way someone related to a proposition, for instance having an opinion on said proposition or emotionally responding to said proposition) cannot be used for a scientific study of the mind. However, Instrumentalism would opt for a pragmatic option in the matter and nevertheless say that it is best to act as if that were the case.

As mentioned above, Instrumentalism is closely related to Pragmatism. Briefly, Pragmatism emphasises the practical approach – evaluation of a theory or phenomenon rests on whether there are practical consequences to them, and therefore constitute the essential criterion in determining whether theories, concepts, events, phenomena, etc. have any meaning or value. Pragmatism is strongly opposed to Scientific Realism, which is the view that the world around is best described by rigorous scientific investigation; the reality of the world is independent of human interaction with it.

Other Kinds of Instrumentalism

While there are many kinds of instrumentalism in philosophy, two that have not been mentioned stand out:

  • Moral Instrumentalism – a view that holds that moral rules are tools for moral good. That is to say, any kind of morality that a society holds has come to the fore only because that society finds that kind of morality as useful. In some sense, Moral Instrumentalism resembles Utilitarianism and was developed from the works of David Hume and John Stuart Mill.
  • Political Instrumentalism – a view that holds that all matters of politics are to be understood as merely ‘means to an end’. That is to say, all matters of intrigue or appeal to popular support that politicians employ are useful as a means to achieve a certain end. This view of politics was initiated by Niccolò_ Machiavelli, and was further developed by John Dewey as an instrumentalist approach to political life.

Further Reading

Dewey, J., Morris, D. and Shapiro, I. (1993). John Dewey: The Political Writings, Indianapolis: Hackett.

Dewey, J. (2008). The Early Works of John Dewey, 1882-1898, Volume 1, Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.

Pappas, G.F. (2008). John Dewey’s Ethics: Democracy as Experience, Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

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