Jane Addams Conference on Social Entrepreneurship

I just learned, too late I’m afraid, about the Jane Addams Conference on Social Entrepreneurship to be held in Uppsala, November 18-19. It’s organized by the department of Sociology at Uppsala University in cooperation with the Nobel Museum, Stockholm.

You may like to look at the conference program, even if you can’t pop over to Sweden for a couple of days. It’s interesting to see the level of interest in Jane Addams (also John Dewey and WIlliam James) here in Sweden. In many other places in Europe, I’ve seen more interest in the more analytical approach represented by Charles Sanders Peirce (e.g., Kaiserlslautern, Germany) or the language focus represented by Richard Rorty (Cluj-Napoca, Romania), among those working in pragmatism.

A view on learning in Go:

My meetings here at Göteborg University have been held in the School of Pedagogy, which sits in three buildings, labeled, fittingly for an education school, as A-B-C.

But someone showed some imagination, and managed to start my brain spinning, by giving each hus a more lyrical name. I know the dictionary definitions, but I still can’t quite pull these names into a unified whole. Perhaps a Swedish colleague can help?

Hus A, the largest, is named Utsikten, which means “view.” That’s very appropriate, as its windows look out on the beautiful canal with its trees and walkways. The building is trilobite shaped. Its curves mean that each window has a different view. I think of the label as suggesting that we need to look out at the world.

Hus B is named Åsikten. This can also be translated as “view,” but here, I think it means point of view, or opinion. It reminds us that when we examine the world, we all see different things.

Finally, Hus C is named insikten, meaning “insight.” So, we have a view, a point of view, and an insight. Is it saying that as we consider our own view, then that of others, as in Peirce’s community of inquiry, that we develop insight? Or, does it mean that learning involves looking both outward and inward, then recognizing the fallibility of all knowledge? Does insight here really mean reflection, as we find in the water of the canal?

Or, is all of this just playing with the root sikt, and the untranslateablity in order to drive English speakers crazy? I suspect the latter, as I see Göteborg becoming Go:teborg on street signs, and then just Go:. But regardless of the deeper meanings I’m missing, this is just one of the many charming things I’m finding everywhere we look in Go:.

The four P’s of pragmatism

In a 2006 book, Healing Psychiatry: Bridging the Science/Humanism Divide, David H. Brendel notes that psychiatry “is torn by opposing sensibilities. Is it primarily a science of brain functioning or primarily an art of understanding the human mind in its social and cultural context?” He sees the divide between science and humanism as a sickness of psychiatry, one that makes it difficult to heal the emotional conflicts and wounds of patients.

To address the divide, he turns to the pragmatism of Charles Sanders Peirce, William James, and John Dewey. He presents pragmatism in a simple formula (the four P’s) that could apply to most other domains (e.g., Shields, 2008):

  1. the practical dimensions of all scientific inquiry;
  2. the pluralistic nature of the phenomena studied by science and the tools that are used to study those phenomena;
  3. the participatory role of many individuals with different perspectives in the necessarily interpersonal process of scientific inquiry;
  4. and the provisional and flexible character of scientific explanation. (Brendel, 2006, p. 29)

Any such formula has its limitations, but this one seems remarkably effective at capturing salient aspects of pragmatism. The first p, practical, emphasizes pragmatism’s insistence on considering the consequences of any concept, to steer away from abstractions and idealizations that have no conceivable effects in our ordinary experience. The second p, pluralistic, reflects the fact that pragmatism is not so much one method or theory, but rather, an approach that considers any tools that may increase understanding, thereby achieving better practical consequences. It also reflects the assumption that interesting phenomena are unlikely to be captured within a simple category or single way of viewing. The third p, participatory, follows from the second in that multiple perspectives, Peirce’s community of inquiry, are needed to accommodate a pluralistic understanding. And the fourth p, provisional (cf. fallibilism), acknowledges that in a complex and ever-changing world, any understanding is subject to change as we learn more or as events occur.


  • Brendel, David H. (2006). Healing psychiatry: Bridging the science/humanism divide. Cambridge, Ma: MIT Press.
  • Shields, Patricia M. (2008, March/April). Rediscovering the taproot: Is classical pragmatism the route to renew public administration? Public Administration Review, 68, (2), 205-221. Washington, DC. (PAR Interview)

Navigating the corridor of inquiry

It’s not often that I have an Aha! moment reading an academic article. Many have significant flaws and many of the best repeat what’s been said many times before. But I had a very different reaction to Patricia M. Shields’sPragmatism as a Philosophy of Science: A Tool for Public Administration.”

The paper shows how pragmatism as a philosophy of science is used in a research methods class. The course includes guides to writing an empirical capstone project, such as steps to follow, the notebook method, and the classification of conceptual frameworks.  But what makes it special is the explication of these in terms of their roots in the ideas of Peirce, Dewey, and James.

She quotes from William James (1904), who writes about the relation of pragmatism to theories:

Theories thus become instruments, not answers to enigmas, in which we can rest. We don’t lie back upon them, we move forward, and, on occasion, make nature over again by their aid. Pragmatism unstiffens all our theories, limbers them up and sets each one at work…

All these [theories], you see, are anti-intellectualist tendencies… [pragmatism] stands for no particular results. It has no dogmas, and no doctrines save its method. As the young Italian pragmatist Papini has well said, it lies in the midst of our theories, like a corridor in a hotel. Innumerable chambers open out of it. In one you may find a man writing an atheistic volume; in the next some one on his knees praying for faith and strength; in a third a chemist investigating a body’s properties. In a fourth a system of idealistic metaphysics is being excogitated; in a fifth the impossibility of metaphysics is being shown. But they all own the corridor, and all must pass through it if they want a practicable way of getting into or out of their respective rooms.

The paper accomplishes four major feats. First, it serves as an excellent introduction to pragmatism, articulating it in terms of actual experience and concrete action in the world, as pragmatists would have it. Second, it offers a way of thinking about research, which can help anyone who struggles with the relation between theory and practice, or gets stuck in dichotomies such as quantitative/qualitative. It show how theories can come alive, be unstiffened, so that they can help us make sense of experience without overconstraining. Third, the paper describes a creative use of an institutional repository, which helps students enter into a community of inquiry. See, for example, the excellent paper by Robert Brom (2000), Workplace diversity training: A pragmatic look at an administrative practice. Finally, it does a fine job of doing what it sets out to do, to describe the process of designing an excellent approach to a research methods or capstone course.


Brom, Robert A. (2000). Workplace diversity training: A pragmatic look at an administrative practice. Applied Research Projects. Paper 91.

James, William (1904, December). What is Pragmatism. From series of eight lectures dedicated to the memory of John Stuart Mill, A new name for some old ways of thinking, from William James, Writings 1902-1920. The Library of America

Shields, Patricia M. (1998). Pragmatism as a philosophy of science: A tool for public administration. Faculty Publications-Political Science. Paper 33.

Inquiry-based community engagement

Melissa Pognon just alerted me to an interesting article by David Low, on university-community engagement. It presents a dialogical, or inquiry-based, view of engagement, drawing from communication theory and Perice’s theory of inquiry. Low emphasizes that

we do not ‘transfer’ or ‘transmit’ knowledge between social systems, but, rather, we engage a method that enables the recognition of a shared object of enquiry – its entelechy (Nicholls 2000) (p. 108).

This shared enquiry must not only tolerate dissent or difference, it actually depends on dissent to function at all. Such a view is radically different from the dominant university discourse around topics such as “knowledge transfer,” “public outreach,” or “service learning.”

Low writes,

without a method to nurture and reveal dissent, universities would be unable to even recognise different ways of being in the world, and enquiry would be rendered impossible (Hawes 1999, p. 235) (p. 111).

I find myself drawn initially to 2×2 tables such as the one Low presents in his grid-group, then later becoming frustrated with all that they obscure as well as reveal. But the article as a whole has many useful insights.


Hawes, L. (1999). The dialogics of conversation: Power, control, vulnerability. Communication Theory, 9(3), 229–264.

Low, David (2008). University-community engagement: A grid-group analysis. Gateways: International Journal of Community Research and Engagement, 1, 107-127.

Nicholls, A. (2000, September). The secularization of revelation from Plato to Freud. Contretemps, 1, 62–70.

Peirce, Charles S. (1877, November). The fixation of belief. Popular Science Monthly, 12, 1-15.