From calculation to deliberation: the contemporaneity of Dewey

Patrycja Kaszynska (2021):

Culture, Theory and Critique, 62(1-2), pp. 154-166.

The word crisis comes from Ancient Greek κρίσις which can be translated as ‘power of distinguishing’ and is related to modern κρίνω which means ‘to pick out’. This is apt, because the pandemic of 2020 has exposed the limitation of approaches to social governance premised on calculation. The – some would argue false – choice between either saving lives or the economy, is the highest profile example of the necessity to ‘pick’ between different qualitative options. This has brought into relief something suppressed by the calculation approach, namely the need to adjudicate between multiple and competing value orientations in public life. With this, an alternative way of decision making in the public domain is needed, one that does not revert back to mere politics and subjective decisions. This article turns to the writings of John Dewey to look for alternatives. It shows that the model of deliberative inquiry found in Dewey, even though not without its own challenges, presents a viable option to replace metrics-based valuation approaches, without falling back on the whimsy of political judgement. This suggests that Dewey is not just contemporaneous, but that translating his insights into action could not be more urgent.

Extract: “Quantification, commensurability, calculation
Many – some would say most (Zelizer 1994, 2000) – things can be calculated. This, as described below, is due to the fact that calculation has effectively served for a while as the cornerstone of modern societies (Deringer 2018; Desrosières 1998). It has become a method of decision making, certainly in the allocation of public funding but also beyond in that, through Weberian instrumental rationality, it has colonialised the social by presenting itself as a way of deciding the course of social action that is not only more efficient (Taylor 2004) but also, paradoxically, more democratic (see the section discussing the market below).
Important in this process was the establishment of statistical science in the nineteenth century (Desrosières 1998) and the solidification of the dominant place of economics vis-à-vis politics (Mirowski and Plehwe 2009), but as Diaz-Bone and Didier point out, there were a number of developments that came to coincide: ‘The establishment of the metric system in Europe in the 19th century, the upcoming of industrial production, the unification of currencies, the processes of nation building and of internationalization promoted the importance of quantitative information, which are endowed with a huge scope in space and time, which also facilitate comparisons between units and points in time (Diaz-Bone and Didier 2016: 8).’ Facilitating comparison is the key phrase here. The very idea of calculation requires some form of commensurability and typically presupposes quantification. Quantification describes the replacement of entities with numerical surrogates. Espeland and Stevens define it as ‘the production and communication of numbers’ (Espeland and Stevens 2008: 401). And yet, in spite of this deceptively simple formulation, Espeland and Stevens (1998), Espeland and Sauder (2007), Thévenot (2009), Fourcade (2016) and others have shown that quantification is a complex process involving distinctive decisions over which entities should be abstracted and how these new units of analysis come to be defined (to use Fourcade’s terminology ‘nominalised’).”(p. 156).

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