Chapter 6 - Methodology
by convention cold, by convention colour: but in reality atoms and void.”
As mentioned in my introduction, this is a non-empirical thesis submitted towards a ‘vocational’ doctorate. In that regard, it requires a suitable methodology, a way of going about things to achieve the desired result. This chapter, situated midway in the thesis, serves as a pivot, a lynchpin, a way of joining the problems of literacy and digital literacies with potential solutions.<ref>Although methodology sections traditionally appear towards the start of a doctoral thesis, doing so seemed not to sit well with the nature of this particular research. One of the original contributions to knowledge I have identified is the use of Pragmatism as a new kind of lens to solve some of the problems that seem to plague the research area. In order not to ‘beg the question’ I therefore have attempted to critique current approaches using existing conceptual tools, before approaching the field in a different way.</ref> The question most pertinent for this section, therefore, is what constitutes both a suitable research design and platform for action. Following on from my comments at the end of the previous chapter, I will argue that the Pragmatist approach is the most suitable methodology or ‘rationale’ for this thesis.
As Mende points out, research is “a process of producing new knowledge” with researchers needing “knowledge of different types of research processes and knowledge products” (Mende, 2005, p.190). Such knowledge about knowledge Mende calls ‘meta-knowledge’. Without a method of structuring this meta-knowledge, a way of devising a theoretical framework, researchers would find it difficult to operate effectively. And without a sound research basis, educators would be ‘rudderless’ in a sea of opinion and rhetoric.
This thesis operates a meta-level. It is not based upon direct empirical results, nor specifically on analysis of the empirical results of others. Nevertheless, it is important to be clear and rigorous when it comes to the methodology employed in order not only to avoid irrelevant digression but to provide a platform for action.
A methodology, therefore, needs to:
- Be recognised and respected as sound.
- Be well-suited to the research area and aims of the thesis.
- Allow for results that will make a difference to a research area. a.
This thesis will employ a Pragmatic methodology, for reasons that shall become clear. In this chapter I outline some candidate methodologies and approaches, explaining why they fail the three tests I have outlined above. Following this I settle upon Pragmatism as an appropriate methodology, coming up with ’Ten Pragmatic principles’ from the work of a range of Pragmatist philosophers.
There are many methodologies from which to choose when approaching a doctoral thesis. After a trawl through the literature, reflecting on my own experience at BA and MA level in Philosophy and Modern History, and discussions with my supervisor, I narrowed down my candidate methodologies. I rejected those such as Hermeneutics and ‘assortive mixing’ where either the underpinning epistemologies were unsuitable, or they were more suited to empirical research.<ref>Semiotics has been suggested to me as a candidate methodology I perhaps should have considered. After further investigation I believe it would not have suited this thesis for three reasons. Firstly, it would have meant spending a long time with another seemingly-fragmented landscape. Second, the focus on grammatical structures and codes are, I believe, dealt with adequately in the connotative/denotative aspects of my Chapter 5 on ambiguity. Third, Charles Sanders Peirce included Semiotics within his understanding of Pragmatism. Ultimately, and perhaps controversially, I wanted to focus upon practical application rather than quasi-Post-Structuralist textual analysis.</ref> Those I identified as potentially useful to my thesis were Critical Theory, Cybermethodology, Grounded Theory, Post-Structuralism and Pragmatism.
One of these, Cybermethodology, although sounding promising, fails the first test of being recognised and respected as a sound approach. Few details of the method exist outside of a dedicated Wikipedia page<ref>http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cybermethodology</ref> and, as ‘Basic Cyber-Literacy’ and ‘Meta-Literacy’ form part of its components, the approach would beg the question.
Grounded Theory is potentially more promising as a methodology. It is the inverse of the usual scientific method: data is gathered and codified. Out of these categories a theory or ‘reverse-engineered hypothesis’ emerges. The original work in this area was carried out by Glaser and Strauss (1967) although since then each author has promoted his particular strand of Grounded Theory. The Glaserian approach forgoes audio recording of interviews, any ‘talk’ by the researcher doing the coding and, indeed, any pre-interview research into the literature of the area being discussed. The Straussian approach, on the other hand, is less emergent and more systematised, with more emphasis on validation criteria. Abductive reasoning (which Charles Sanders Peirce called a form of ‘guessing’) underpins Straussian Grounded Theory. The ‘abductive leap’ is therefore the reasoning that moving from P to Q involves Q being the most economical explanation for P. Instead of the emergence of Glaserian Grounded Theory based on the creativity of the researcher, Straussian Grounded Theory focuses much more on the four-step process of coding, conceptualising, categorising and theorising.
Grounded Theory is not a descriptive methodology but rather one that seeks to explain people’s actions in a way understandable outside of a particular research area. This is achieved in Straussian Grounded Theory through ‘open coding’, a process in which a researcher goes through their notes line by line coding ‘incidents’ in the data. Once the core variables have been identified, a process of ‘selective coding’ takes place in which interviews and observations are coded in the light of these core variables. Finally, in the stage of ‘theoretical coding’ hypotheses are constructed which help explain the data. In Glaserian Grounded Theory, meanwhile, the process is more serendipitous, with a creative process of ‘theoretical memoing’ (no rules of writing pertaining to style or grammar) being followed by ‘sorting’ (where ideas emerge) and then ‘writing’ (different categories are related to the core variable).
As Thomas & James (2006) point out, Grounded Theory is popular, but this does not necessarily make it a reason to adopt the theory. Qualitative research is a legitimate form of study, they argue, but difficult to carry out. Grounded theory offers a solution to this problem by establishing a set of procedures and a means of generating theory. There have been critics, however: Layder (1993) is concerned that Grounded Theory highlights the immediately obvious and observable at the expense of the structural and invisible elements of social situtations (Thomas & James, 2006, p.3). Robrecht (1995) notes that the elaborate sampling procedure advocated by Straussian Grounded Theorists diverts attention away from the data itself and towards procedures and techniques. Dey (1999) presents a comprehensive list of criticisms pointing out the confusion and ambiguity present in Grounded Theory giving as an example the dichotomy between the Glaserian and Straussian strains of the theory (Thomas & James, 2006, p.4). Grounded Theory is therefore what Stanley Fish (1989) calls ‘theory talk”, that is to say “any form of discourse that has acquired cachet or prestige”. It conflates everyday theory, “I have a theory why squirrels have stopped stealing food from our bird feeder,” for example, with the type of more rigorous generalisations that follows data collection and analysis (Thomas & James, 2006, p.6-7).
It would appear that Glaser and Strauss had in mind an accelerated reverse-Kuhnian period of ‘normal science’ when defining Grounded Theory. That is to say that theory is said to ‘emerge’ from the data in a way that explains the phenomena and is refined and refined to fit it more closely. If it does not fit the phenomena then it is rejected in the same way as Kuhn describes the period of’ revolutionary science’. However, given that a theory can be refined ad infinitum to explain the phenomena, when should this process stop? As Allan (2003) suggests, Grounded Theory assumes researchers are machines, coming to situations as unbiased observers and free from prejudice and interest. What, for example, constitutes the ‘saturation point’ at which no more refinement is deemed necessary? Would this be different in different disciplines and for different researchers?
Perhaps the most pertinent reason why Grounded Theory is not a suitable methodology for this thesis is that it depends on the lens of one researcher in one particular context. Given that this is a non-empirical thesis drawing on the work of a diverse mix of educators and academics to approach the literature in such a strictly systemised way, looking to ‘code’ the data would be inappropriate. There is no data to code. The underlying epistemology - the ‘revisability’ of Grounded Theory - is, however, appropriate to Digital and New Literacies. Fortunately, there are other methodologies that avoid some of the problems making Grounded Theory problematic for a non-empirical thesis.
Dismissing Cybermethodology and Grounded Theory from the list leaves us with three candidate methodologies: Critical Theory, Post-Structuralism and Pragmatism. I will consider each in turn, using the three tests for a methodology (outlined earlier) as a guide.
Critical Theory is a complex fusion of two different schools of thought. Although based upon a critique of society and culture, Critical Theory remains an umbrella term within which are found Marxist theory and the ideas of the ‘Frankfurt School’. Whilst the former has a normative dimension (there is a way that the world ‘ought’ to be) the latter is more of a hermeneutic approach (gaining knowledge through interpretation of ‘texts’). These two distinct streams are merged by Postmodern such as Michel Foucault and Jean Baudrillard in the sense that they consider almost everything be a ‘text’ that can be opened up to multiple (and potentially infinite) interpretations. In addition, a ‘linguistic turn’ in the social sciences from the 1960s onwards led to theorists such as Horkheimer, Derrida, Chomsky and Barthes redefining the social sciences as dealing with symbolic representations of the world. The fusion of the two streams became complete when, from the 1980s onwards, Habermas redefined Critical Theory as a theory of communication.
Horkheimer defined a ‘critical theory’ as adequate only if it is simultaneously explanatory, practical and normative. “That is, it must explain what is wrong with current social reality, identify the actors to change it, and provide both clear norms for criticism and achievable practical goals for social transformation” (Bohman, 2010). Critical Theory undoubtedly fulfils the third of the criteria set out as necessary for a methodology underpinning Digital Literacies: if Critical Theory were successful, society would be transformed. However, as Bohman goes on to elaborate, Critical Theory is “rife with tensions” because of its ambition to transform capitalism into ‘real democracy’ (Bohman, 2010).
The failure of Critical Theory to revolutionise society is a result of “the failure to overlook the most serious motive behind Critical Theory, its negative aspect and messianic impulse” (Blake & Masschelein, 2003, p.55). To respond to this negative aspect, continue the authors, “is to accept as valid the cry, “I don’t know what, but not this!” - and thus to repudiate the fatalism of a seemingly compulsory acceptance of the present” (ibid.). A second phase of Critical Theory led by Jürgen Habermas, one of the leading intellectuals of our time, seeks to transform it into “the mode of inquiry that participants may adopt in their social relations to others” (Bohman, 2010). Habermas combines the transcendental idealism evident in the first phase of Critical Theory with a selection of ideas from the American Pragmatist tradition (Shalin, 1992, p.253). The latter is evident in Habermas’ claim that universal consensus is the ultimate goal of communicative action, with anything short of this demonstrating our lack of commitment to the overall process. As Shalin points out, this differs with Pragmatism as, in the latter, a dissenting attitude is “imminently rational in that it points to conflicting potentialities of being,” alerting us to the “risks and uncertainties inherent in alternative lines of action” (Shalin, 1992, p.258).
Through the work of Habermas, Critical Theory, as defined in its second phase, is a recognised and respected methodology (or ‘rationale’). It is an established and active research area with journals, professorships and many books dedicated to debates and developments. In this sense, Critical Theory not only meets the third of the aims of a methodology, but also the first (being recognised and respected as sound). It is only with the second criterion that issues emerge: Critical Theory’s suitability to the research area of Digital and New Literacies.
There are three main issues with Critical Theory that I will outline here that I believe make it unsuitable as a methodology within the area of Digital and New Literacies. First, there is the difficulty of a theory which is general and universal in outlook, but which depends upon subjective experiences. Every approach is an ‘interpretation’ leaving little solid ground upon which to build. It leaves the individual in an epistemological dilemma: either their choice of approach seems arbitrary, or the Critical Theorist has a ‘special ability’ to make correct choices, with neither being satisfactory. The way out of this dilemma explained by Bohman (2010), to treat the subjects of inquiry as ‘knowledgeable social agents’ and to focus on the goal of “initiat[ing] public processes of self-reflection”, seems to beg the question when it comes to fostering digital literacies. One cannot assume competencies and behaviours that one is hoping to instil.
Secondly, Critical Theorists conceptualise praxis (the enactment of a theory) almost solely in terms of work. Whilst Critical Theorists set their sights against the ’scientification’ and ‘technologization’ of society, they often fall back onto instrumentalist thinking. Even Habermas, claim Blake & Masschelein (2003), strips individuals of the ‘humanness’ of their interaction, conceptualising communication in terms of “the economic and rational logic of performance and counterperformance” (Blake & Masschelein, 2003, p.54). A methodology suitable for understanding and putting into practice work around Digital and New Literacies should not be continually reduced (or necessarily even be reducible) to such considerations.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, a methodology should help make clear the path from theory to practice for a research area. Critical Theory does the opposite of this, adding a layer of complexity to an already confusing and contested field. Using Critical Theory as a methodology for research into Digital and New Literacies would be to multiply uncertainty and confusion. There is quite enough of that, as we shall see, due to the propensity of theorists for ‘umbrella terms’ in the arena of new and digital literacies.
The next candidate methodology or rationale I will consider is Post-Structuralism, a name give to a loose collection of (mainly French) ideas and authors by US academics. Related to Postmodernism and likewise lacking a ‘manifesto’, Post-Structuralism is a rejection of many schools of thought, including Structualism, Phenomenology, Analytical philosophy, and Marxism. The reasons for Post-Structuralism as a candidate methodology for this thesis are threefold. Firstly, the ‘subject forms the object’ - that is to say that the reader replaces the author as primary, with no one particular view being classed as ‘authoritative’. Secondly, Post-Structualists tend to avow practical expression rather than abstract arguments, with Jacques Derrida’s (1985) anti-apartheid writing being an example of this. Thirdly, there is a close link between Post-Structuralism and Constructivism, a movement favoured by progressive educators.
Despite the insistence of Post-Structuralists that their focus is upon radical activity and practical expression, their writing is often fraught with complexity and nuance that translation into English can amplify. In the following quotation, for example, Derrida explains both ‘deconstruction’ and the difficulty in translating the word (originally coined by Derrida) into languages other than French:
[I]n spite of appearances, deconstruction is neither an analysis nor a critique... It is not an analysis in particular because the dismantling of a structure is not a regression toward a simple element, toward an un-decomposable origin. These values, like that of analysis, are themselves philosophemes subject to deconstruction. No more it is a critique, in a general sense or in a Kantian sense. The instance of krinein or krisis (decision, choice, judgment, discernment) is itself, as is all the apparatus of transcendental critique, one of the essential “themes” or “objects” of deconstruction. (Derrida, 2008, p.4)
With even less of a structure or basis to build upon than Critical Theory, the writings of Post-Structuralists can be self-referential and the ideas expressed difficult to break into. For a practical thesis, therefore, this is problematic.
To sidestep this problem some theorists (such as Roland Barthes, who went through a Post-Structuralist phase) have called for a ‘metalanguage’ whereby we could talk about the meaning and grammar of language(s) in a systematised way without prioritising the intentionality of the author. Barthes talks of the author being “a modern figure, a product of our society… emerging from the Middle Ages with English empiricism, French rationalism and the personal faith of the Reformation” (Barthes, 1977). In this way Barthes and his peers rejected the doctrine of Structuralism, the idea that each domain of knowledge can be understood through a linguistic structure.
Assister (1984) has identified four ideas common to the various forms of structuralism: (i) every system has a structure, (ii) the structure determines the position of each element within it, (iii) structures are real things that lie beneath surface meaning, and (iv) structural laws deal with co-existence rather than change. Structuralism appeals, therefore, to a ‘third order’, a reality external to that of reality and the imagination (Deleuze, 2002). Post-Structuralism, in rejecting Structuralism, posits that the latter is synchronic (or ‘descriptive’) whilst the former diachronic (or ‘historical’). There is no rational way to evaluate preferences relating to truth, morality or aesthetics, argue Post-Structuralists - leading to what Michel Foucault (1976:2003) terms the ‘insurrection of subjugated knowledges’. Language and texts are not natural but are instead constructs which may be interpreted, and interpreted in an infinite number of ways.
In terms of this thesis, Post-Structuralism seems to be, at first blush, a useful methodology to employ. It rejects the binary opposition between, for example, signifier and signified meaning that we can use it to make sense of what has been termed the ‘Read/Write Web’ in which the reader is in some way also the author. Post-Structuralism also rejects the concept of a single, stable notion of ‘self’ and instead embraces the tensions between multiple personas and ways of being. This helps explain the variety of ways in which we represent ourselves in both physical and digital worlds. Interestingly, some Post-Structuralists claim that the ‘truth’ of a population is located at the edges rather than the core, at the places in which it is changing rather than the places at which it remains static. “[Words] signify from the "world" and from the position of one who is looking” states Lévinas (2003, p.12), meaning that although the limits of knowledge are important they cannot be observed directly, only identified through their effects. Given that the debate around digital literacies presuppose that the practices they contain lie on the outer boundaries of what we know, the Post-Structuralist approach would seem suitable.
There are, however, some issues with Post-Structuralism which make it unsuitable as a methodology for this thesis. As I identified in the introduction to this chapter, there are broadly three criteria for a methodology. Whilst Post-Structuralism certainly seems suited to the aims of the thesis, it is questionable as to whether it can fulfil completely the other two aims. The first criterion, that the methodology is ‘recognised and respected as sound’ would seem unproblematic to progressive educators and those embracing Constructivism (a theory that we generate meaning and knowledge through the interplay between the ideas we encounter and experiences we have), but would be rejected by more conservative colleagues.
Closely allied to this issue of recognition across the political and educational spectrum is the third criterion: that the methodology will allow for results making a difference to the research area. Post-Structuralism emerged from France in a period when Cold War collaboration with the USSR led to a dissatisfaction with ‘Marxism’ (if not with Marx). Post-Structuralist authors define their approach almost entirely in negative terms, as a rejection of what has gone before and therefore, it could be claimed, define a philosophy that is more an expression of a problem than a method of finding a solution. Post-Structuralism has been attacked as relativist and nihilist by a range of critics and, lacking a clear manifesto and coherence of approach, certainly seems to be an amorphous collection of ideas difficult to apply in practice. It is not a methodology but rather an anti-methodology.
Finally, there is the issue of application. Although the concepts allied to Post-Structuralism are appealing to those investigating New and Digital Literacies, the movement lacks the power of an epistemology that can make a difference in practice. Stating, for example, that the limits of knowledge play an unavoidable role at its core is more of a reminder to consider elements in their totality rather than epistemological bedrock. Post-Structuralism is an approach that, although appealing, is defined too much in negative to be useful for this thesis. As with Critical Theory, it appears it has no way to build its way out of a potential collapse into solipsism and subjectivism.
To recap once again, a methodology suitable for this thesis must be:
- Recognised and respected as sound.
- Well-suited to the research area and aims of the thesis.
- Allow for results that will make a difference to a research area.
So far I have rejected Cybermethodology, Grounded Theory, Critical Theory and Post-Structuralism. The next candidate methodology to consider is Pragmatism. I will find that this methodology is especially suited to the current thesis as it fits the three criteria set out above. In addition, it is a methodology and rationale with which I am acquainted. As William James explained through the title and content of Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking, there is little ‘new’ in the philosophy of Pragmatism other than its name. Indeed, although it was Charles Sanders Peirce who coined the term ‘Pragmatism’ the ideas it represents have older origins and wider usage. Ralph Waldo Emerson, for example, demonstrated his adherence to a proto-Pragmatist project, stating:
Our life is an apprenticeship to the truth that around every circle another can be drawn; that there is no end in nature, but every end is a beginning; that there is always another dawn risen on mid-noon, and under every deep a lower deep opens. (Emerson, 1841)
Pragmatism has evolved over the last century and a half and therefore has many definitions but I will begin here with a definition by the populariser of Pragmatism, William James:
Pragmatism… asks its usual question. "Grant an idea or belief to be true," it says, "what concrete difference will its being true make in anyone's actual life? How will the truth be realized? What experiences will be different from those which would obtain if the beliefs were false? What, in short, is the truth's cash-value in experiential terms?
The moment pragmatism asks this question, it sees the answer: True ideas are those that we can assimilate, validate, corroborate and verify. False ideas are those we cannot. That is the practical difference it makes to us to have true ideas; that, therefore, is the meaning of truth, for it is all that truth is known-as. (James, 1995, p.77)
In this sense, it is already clear that Pragmatism is well suited as a methodology that fits the third of the criteria specified above. Pragmatism is focused on a ‘difference’ making a difference in practice, with truth being defined by James elsewhere what is “good in the way of belief”. Truth, he explains, “is one species of good, and not, as is usually supposed, a category distinct from good.” (James, 1995, p.30). A thing is not good because it is true, but may be true because it is good. Pragmatists reject the Correspondence Theory of truth, which holds that a statement is true if and only if it accurately describes (i.e. corresponds with), that being described in the external world. This causes a problem in terms of verification; how can we know whether our ideas are true? Pragmatists answer this question by reference to a ‘community of inquirers’ rather than individuals. Truth becomes what is “expedient in our thinking” (James, 1995, p.86) and dependent upon discussion and debate within society:
The 'absolutely' true, meaning what no farther experience will ever alter, is that ideal vanishing-point towards which we imagine that all our temporary truths will some day converge... Meanwhile we have to live to-day by what truth we can get to-day, and be ready to-morrow to call it falsehood. (James, 1995, p.86)
I will explore in the next section how Pragmatism has been developed by philosophers such as Dewey, Quine, Davidson and Rorty but, for now, we must examine whether the core of Pragmatism constitutes a sufficient basis - and meets the set criteria - as a methodology for this thesis. Having established already that the third criterion is satisfied by Pragmatism, we turn to the first and second criteria to see if they, too, can be satisfied.
Pragmatism is a philosophy that, in its present form, is around 150 years old but with roots that go back further. Several research journals are dedicated to the field and three of the best-known and most influential philosophers of the 20th century, William James, John Dewey and Richard Rorty, were all Pragmatists. It is a coherent approach taught in modules in high ranking and respected universities with academic papers and books based on the Pragmatist method being contributed to the world’s body of knowledge every day. It is safe to say, therefore, that Pragmatism can be deemed an approach that is ‘recognised and respected as sound’.
As for the second criterion, I would argue that Pragmatism is well suited to the 21st century world, particularly suited to research in the digital sphere, and especially suited to research on digital and new literacies. The reasons for this suitability are threefold. First, Pragmatism is what John Dewey calls a ‘practical fallibilism’ (Biesta & Burbules, 2003, p.13). This uncertainty is not because of a gap between mind and matter but “stems from the fact that we can never be certain that the patterns of action that we have developed in the past will be appropriate for the problems that we will encounter in the future” (ibid.). In terms of Digital and New Literacies, we cannot be sure what kinds of ‘texts’ (and therefore what kind of literacy practices) will emerge in future. As a result, although we may do our best to make provision for what we see on the horizon, Pragmatists cannot be certain that past patterns of action will suit future problems. Such practical fallibilism is well-suited to such an uncertain or rapidly changing future.
Second, Pragmatism does not constitute a “recipe for educational research and educational researchers” being “as much a way of un-thinking certain false dichotomies, certain assumptions, certain traditional practices and ways of doing things” (Biesta & Burbules, 2003, p.114). Given that the central question of this thesis is “What are digital literacies?” it seems particularly appropriate to explicitly analyse the boundaries of literacy practices as well as question dichotomies, assumptions and traditional practices. Whilst this may also have been true of Critical Theory, Pragmatism provides some ground upon which to make judgements. Verification is available through what a community of enquirers would settle upon ‘in the long run’.
Third, Pragmatism does not aim to close the book and end the story by reference to definitions and postulating static theories. Instead, theories have a ‘cash-value’ and constitute tools:
But if you follow the pragmatic method, you cannot look on any such word [such as 'God' or 'the Absolute'] as closing your quest. You must bring out of each word its practical cash-value, set it at work within the stream of your experience. It appears less as a solution, then, as a program for more work, and more particularly as an indication of the ways in which existing realities may be changed. (James, 1995, p.21)
It is us who impose categories on the world, argues the Pragmatist, and ‘truth’ is a process of assimilation - not of discovery. Pragmatism, therefore, is a philosophy that provides a sound methodology on which to base the remainder of this thesis. In the next section I will give an overview of the development of Pragmatism as a theory in order to define what will be referred thereon as a form of shorthand as ‘The Pragmatic approach’.
The Pragmatic approach
I have suggested that Pragmatism is a philosophy particularly suited to the digital world, and especially suitable for research into Digital and New Literacies. This is due to its focus on the provisionality of knowledge and truth, as well as the communitarian and democratic values upon which it is based. Pragmatism as a methodology is interested in the ‘cash-value’ of propositions and theories and does not see theory and practice as separate spheres. Instead, as Dewey indicated, it is the choice between intelligent practice and uninformed practice. In this section I give an overview of some of the leading Pragmatists, outline the modifications and improvements they have suggested, as well as indicate debates and disagreements between them. From each I will take away a number of ‘guiding statements’ which result in a series of ten such statements which will guide the subsequent work in this thesis.
We have already seen that it was Charles Sanders Peirce who first formally began the Pragmatist project and William James who popularised it. Peirce’s project was anti-Cartesian in approach and focus, whereas William James was concerned with the concept of ‘truth’ - especially as it related to religious belief. In addition, they both discussed the debilitating habit of Descartian skepticism: James in particular thought that cultivating a habit of doubt in relation to truth statements was indicative of an attitude rather than an intellectual position (Mounce, 1997, p.88). Skepticism is the result of confining one simply to the intellectual and theoretical sphere, as dangerous as confining one solely to the non-rational. Instead, James argued, we should allow our ‘passional nature’ to help us decide upon the truth or falsity of statements and propositions:
Our passional nature not only lawfully may, but must decide an option between two propositions, whenever it is a genuine option that cannot by its nature be decided on intellectual grounds; for to say, under such circumstances, ‘Do not decide, but leave the question’ is itself a passional decision - just like deciding yes and no - and is attended with the same risk of losing the truth. (James, 1896, no page)
Just like an historian, we gain certainty through commitment, by leaving certain areas unquestioned. Certainty both in history and science comes through being ‘imperfectly theoretical’ or, in other words, being theoretical up to a point. As Mounce puts it, “It is only in philosophy, where commitment is at a minimum, that scepticism flourishes without limit” (Mounce, 1997, p.99)
As a result of the need for commitment to gain certainly it can be seen that endless definitions do not serve to advance our understanding of the world and move closer towards truth. ‘Bachelor’ is an oft-cited example of a definition that means something precise. However, an alien to our planet would have to understand the institution of marriage before grasping the meaning of ‘bachelor’. This, without the usual frames of reference, is not something that can be done quickly. Instead of definitions, then, it is the commitment to a statement, proposition or belief that helps us make our ideas clear. To use another example from Mounce, there is no sharp demarcation between day and night yet we still find it useful to use these terms. It is, to foreshadow a later discussion, a ‘convenient hypocrisy’.
It is precisely the fact that Pragmatism allows for error and chance that makes it a practical philosophy. Instead of committing ourselves to a form of omniscience when using the words ‘know’ and ‘certainty’ we use them as practical instruments to go about our business in the world. For example, I may know that I am soon to attend a conference in a foreign country. I can express this certainty despite the fact that attendance there depends upon my continued health, an absence of airline strikes, and various geological phenomena (such a volcanic ashclouds) not taking place.
For Pragmatists, and James in particular, truth becomes close to utility - what is ‘good in the way of belief’. James’ The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902) is a defence of this position: we cannot base beliefs on a theoretical conception of the world because this would, in effect, be a ‘view from nowhere’. Pragmatism, it will be remembered, is a philosophy that rejects the existence of an objective standpoint from which to ascertain the truth or falsity of a statement or belief. Reasoning is allied to experience rather than replacing it. For Peirce and James, meaning can only be grasped through practice, not through armchair philosophising. The ‘Pragmatic Maxim’ as formulated by Peirce states explicitly that a conception does not differ from another conception (either in logical effects or importance) other than in the way it could conceivably modify our practical conduct.
Whilst James wrote in an accessible style, sometimes to the detriment of cohesion, Peirce wrote cohesively, sacrificing some accessibility. The core of his Pragmatist (or ‘Pragmaticist’) philosophy was the theory of ‘signs’, which Peirce derived from his universal categories of ‘First’, ‘Second’ and ‘Third’. A sign (First) always stands for an object (Second) to somebody who interprets that sign (the interpretant - ‘Third’). Much of Peirce’s philosophy was based upon these categorisations: ‘Firstness’ (monadic: to do with quality of feeling), ‘Secondness’ (dyadic: to do with reaction) and ‘thirdness’ (triadic: to do with representations and habits). The categorisations, outlined in ‘On a New List of Categories’ (1867), mapped onto his three grades of clarity in ‘How To Make Our Ideas Clear’ (1878). These three grades form a spectrum from clarity relating to everyday conceptions, through clarity regarding parts of a definition, to clarity regarding the conceivable practical implications of the object under consideration.
The triadic relationship outlined by Peirce is important in collapsing the assumed subjective/objective dichotomy. Ordinarily, a cube perceived to be ‘red’ would either be assumed to be objectively so (i.e. to all observers, at all times), or subjectively so (i.e. to a particular observer under certain conditions). Common sense tells us that the ‘red’ cannot be a property of the cube itself: if a blue light were shone the cube would appear to be a different colour to an observer than if a yellow light were shone upon it. Peirce explains that the ‘redness’ of an object can nevertheless be a ‘real’ fact because of the triadic relationship between First, Second and Third:
It is said that what is relative to thought cannot be real. But why not, exactly. Red is relative to sight but the fact that this or that is in relation to vision that we call being red is not itself relative to sight; it is a real fact. (Peirce, 1935(V) quoted in Mounce, 1997 ,p.20)
The quality of ‘redness’ is a ‘sign’, a First, standing for a Second (the object) to a Third (the observer). Peirce explains that the interpretant of a sign is itself always itself a sign, meaning that it stands in a triadic relation to another. Every action has its concomitant symbolic action; this is the ‘sign’. Firsts and Seconds are universal categories containing non-rational reality - but not objects and other things which make the up the universe. The latter are Thirds, understandable only in a triadic relationship with Firsts and Seconds. In the example above, the individual (interpretant) is understandable only through her experience of ‘redness’ (a sign) as it pertains to the cube (the object).
In many ways, this is similar to Wittgenstein’s argument against the possibility of a ‘private language’. For an individual to use such a language, they would have to name a sense experience and thereafter use the same term when referring to it. However, because the interpretant is prevented from herself being a sign (because of the private nature of the language) the triadic relationship is broken. Hence a private language is not possible (Mounce, 1997, p.27).
Ever-fond of placing things into categories of three, Peirce analysed the process of inquiry as comprising three fundamental forms of inference: abduction, induction and deduction. The beginning of inquiry comes through abduction, or ‘hypothetical inference’. Whilst standard inference involves hypothesising from existing cases (for example, ‘all swans are white’), abduction begins with a problem which is solved intellectually before being confirmed empirically. Further inquiry tests the theory: abduction precedes induction (and relates to the ‘abductive leap’ referenced earlier). Finally, deduction allows us to determine the consequences of the first two stages of inquiry. This conception of science, and inquiry in general, is fallibilist. As Mounce explains:
The view is that as scientific inquiry proceeds it is always liable to replace its own results. This means that the picture of the world that it develops or suggests at any given time is not absolute. Tomorrow we are likely to change… Science can progress because what is true at one stage can be taken up into the view that replaces it, so that at a later stage we are in a better position to appreciate the earlier one. (Mounce, 1997, p.18)
Instead of building huge structures upon a basis that may shift, we instead constantly evolve and re-evaluate the basis of our beliefs, jettisoning them if they become unusable or are no longer ‘good in the way of belief’.
For there to be a continuum in this evolutionary account it makes no sense to talk of individual events, beliefs and experiences forming a whole. This, for Peirce, assumes a homogeneity that can be turned at will into heterogeneity. Although dealing with cosmology in his explanation, Peirce explains that the move is made as a whole from potentiality to existence:
From this point of view we must suppose that the existing universe, with all its arbitrary secondness, is an offshoot from, or an arbitrary determination of, a world of ideas, a Platonic world; not that our superior logic has enabled us to reach up to a world of forms to which the real universe, with its feebler logic, was inadequate. (Peirce, 1935(VI), quoted in Mounce, 1997, p.63)
Experience and the universe is given to us in toto and we gradually refine our understanding of it. There is nothing to which we can refer over and above that which is given. It is like a blackboard, Peirce explains, that provides a continuum in two dimensions upon which a chalk line is drawn. The continuity inherent in the line must be explained through the original continuity of the blackboard “which makes everything upon it continuous” (Mounce, 1997, p.65).
Pragmatism, then, for its early adherents, represented a significant shift away from the correspondence theory of truth and from religious justifications and ways of understanding the world. From these we will take away three guiding statements:
1. Pragmatism is an anti-skeptical endeavour.
2. Dividing lines between theory and action are arbitrary.
3. Truth is conditional and dependent upon a community of inquirers.
Those who followed Emerson, Peirce, and James took Pragmatism in new directions. The first of these was to do so in a positive way was John Dewey. In a similar vein to William James taking Peirce’s ideas and applying them to a particular context (religion and the search for truth), John Dewey took and expanded upon the philosophy of James. Dewey’s focus was education, seeing schools as a means of accelerating democracy and social reform. Like Peirce, he rejected Cartesian representationalism, believing that sensory experience is ineffable.
Because sensory experience is ineffable, any description of the world will be imperfect as it will fail to express the full context within which it operates. Dewey gives uses the metaphor of a bowl: a description of its contents will fail to include the bowl itself. In order to include the bowl in the description, another bowl would be required, and so on. “In short, the world as experienced, in its qualitative reality, always goes beyond anything that can be put into words” (Mounce, 1997, p.167). Given this, the aim of knowledge is not to correspond to an external world, independent of human experience, but to anticipate future experience (ibid., 163).
Pragmatists see experience as overwhelmingly ineffable, as more than merely the sum of its parts. However, whereas Peirce saw the scientific process as being compatible with, and explainable by, the Pragmatist project, Dewey argued against the scientific view as being an abstraction from the real world. A scientific formula of water is an abstraction from the real substance; the ‘thick’ description of it, from sensory experience, is the more accurate description. Indeed, Dewey sees the scientific formula as more of an instrument than a description. An object, situation or concept has to be grasped in its totality and cannot be usefully sub-divided. For example:
A painting is said to have a quality, or a particular painting to have a Titian or Rembrandt quality. The word thus used most certainly does not refer to any particular line, colour or part of the painting. It modified all the constituents of the picture and all of their relations. It is not anything that can be expressed in words for it is something that must be had. Discourse may, however, point out the qualities, lines and relations by means of which pervasive and unifying quality is achieved. (Dewey, 1938, quoted in Mounce, 1997, p.168)
For Dewey, inquiry begins as a result of disturbance of customary experience, a ‘felt difficulty’. This is the first of fives stages through which the process of inquiry must pass. From the felt difficulty the inquirer goes on to (ii) find its location and definition, (iii) define a possible solution, (iv) consider the implications of the possible solution, and (v) make further observations and experiments leading to an acceptance or rejection of the belief underpinning the possible solution.
Likewise, Dewey outlines five ways in which the ‘traditional view of experience’ needs to be corrected. First, Dewey believes that treating experience primarily as a matter of knowledge is incorrect. Instead, knowledge is merely one element of experience. Second, experience is not essentially subjective - it is a relationship and interaction between subject and object. Third, experience anticipates further experiences; it is concerned not with the past but with the future. Fourth, there is no problem about how experiences are related. Each is related to another, and ‘pregnant with connections’. Fifth, experience should not be contrasted with inference. Experience is anticipatory, so is therefore full of inference. As a result of the above there is, for Dewey, no conflict between Empiricism and Pragmatism, as the latter is the former in its truest form (Mounce, 1997, p.150).
Finally, in this brief consideration of his evolution of Pragmatism, Dewey was at pains to point out that it is we who place a causal structure upon the world. “We are given to forgetting,” said Dewey, “with our insistence upon causation and upon the necessity of things happening as they do happen, that things exist as just what they qualitatively are”.<ref>Quoted in Bernstein, 1960, p.224-43</ref> When we explain an occurrence, therefore, it is only that occurrence that we explain, not the thing itself:
Go as far back as we please in accounting for present condition and we still come upon the mystery of things being just what they are… Their occurrence, their manifestation, may be accounted for in terms of other occurrences, but their own quality of existence is final and opaque. The mystery is that the world is as it is... (Dewey, quoted in Bernstein, 1960, p.224-43)
Dewey was expanding upon the work James had done in this regard relating to the ‘genetic fallacy’ - that to explain how a phenomenon has arisen is to explain it away. Value and fact for both James and Dewey, are separate and should not be confused.
Pragmatism, for Dewey and others, does not contain an epistemology or ‘theory of knowledge’. For this to be the case Pragmatist philosophers would have to accept a distinction between mind and matter, something they reject. Dewey famously stated that, “a problem well put is a half-solved” and indeed many Pragmatists see their project as creating a method of ‘un-thinking’ rather than providing an explicit framework. This is important in terms of the use of Pragmatism as a methodology for this thesis. Instead of providing a rigid framework and set method of approaching the question of digital literacy, Pragmatism instead provides us with a toolkit that allows us to ‘open up new possibilities for thought’ and un-think false dichotomies and established ways of doing things.
Whereas Peirce focused on meaning, and James upon truth, Dewey set his sights upon value. Dewey believed custom and habit to be more important than instinct; it’s what we do and what we value in life that brings value. What all three had in common was their desire to help us sharpen our thinking, state problems well, and to be able to explain the ‘cash value’ of a theory, description or proposition. We can add another two guiding statements to our overview of Pragmatism:
4. Human experience of the external world is ineffable.
5. Pragmatism is a method of ‘un-thinking’ rather than providing an explicit framework.
Although there are other prominent Pragmatist philosophers such as Josiah Royce, Donald Davidson and Hilary Putnam, we will consider only two more here as their innovations relate directly to this thesis: Willard Van Orman Quine and Richard Rorty. Quine’s major contribution to the development of Philosophy can be considered briefly as it was simple but profound. Rorty’s, however, will require more explaining and contextualising.
Quine provided a more visual metaphor for conceiving of the “false dichotomies... assumptions… [and] traditional practices” mentioned by Dewey. In his ‘Two Dogmas of Empiricism’ (anticipated to a great extent by James and Royce) Quine rejected the Kantian distinction between analytic and synthetic propositions - analytic propositions being true by virtue of their meaning (for example, ‘all triangles have three sides’) and synthetic propositions relying upon something else (such as empirical observation or inference) to be counted as ‘true’. Without rehearsing Quine’s arguments in detail, he showed that the analytic/synthetic distinction is predicated upon reductionism, which is itself very difficult to prove.
It is Quine’s ‘web of beliefs’ for which he is best known, whereby each individual has beliefs that are closer or further away from their ‘core’ belief system. Certain beliefs are dependent upon others leading to our always making observations in the light of previous assumptions and theories. Another way of putting this would be that Quine argued that all observation is theory-laden. There are no truths independent of human experience and a universally-held set of beliefs is impossible. This means that disagreements about the truth or falsity of statements involve, in essence, discrepancies between belief systems. As literacy has, to some extent, to be predicated upon tool-use, the opinions and beliefs pertaining to those tools can affect literacies. Whilst disagreements predicated upon beliefs towards the edge of such web of beliefs may be easier to reconcile, those towards the centre of the web would involve a fundamental shift in worldview:
[I]t is misleading to speak of the empirical content of an individual statement - especially if it be a statement at all remote from the experiential periphery of the field. Furthermore it becomes folly to seek a boundary between synthetic statements, which hold contingently on experience, and analytic statements which hold come what may. Any statement can be held true come what may, if we make drastic enough adjustments elsewhere in the system. Even a statement very close to the periphery can be held true in the face of recalcitrant experience by pleading hallucination or by amending certain statements of the kind called logical laws. Conversely, by the same token, no statement is immune to revision. (Quine, 1951, p.447)
This will directly influence the matrix of overlapping literacies approach suggested in Chapter 9 as it is a visual representation of the clash that can take place over literacies due to underpinning belief systems.
From Quine’s work, then we can add two further guiding statements to the five we have gathered so far:
6. A universally-held set of beliefs is impossible.
7. Any statement can be accommodated as ‘true’ by amending a belief system to a greater or lesser extent.
Perhaps the most contentious of Pragmatist philosophers has been Richard Rorty. A modern Pragmatist writing in the late twentieth century, Rorty stood apart from Quine and Davidson (Quine’s student), developing his own version of Pragmatism. He rejected the ‘mirror of nature’, or the representational theory of knowledge, denying that there exists an ineffable external world which we can only ever describe incompletely. Instead, he took an almost Kuhnian stance (Kuhn, 1962) on the development of theories as merely ‘vocabularies’ by which communities of inquirers describe their activities.
Throughout his career Rorty was plagued with criticisms of relativism; by denying the ‘mirror of nature,’ critics said, no statement could ever be said to be true or false. Anything goes. Rorty responded by rejecting entirely conceptions of epistemology, which many see as the bedrock upon which philosophy stands.<ref>The three central questions of epistemology are ‘What is knowledge?’, ‘How do we acquire knowledge?’, and ‘How do we know what we know?’ Rorty rejected these questions as irrelevant.</ref> Philosophy, he believed, was an ‘illusory activity’ (Mounce, 1997, p.177) with philosophers merely ‘clearing the road’ for prophets and poets who had visions of new communities (Rorty, 1992, p.132). In Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature Rorty states that he and previous philosophers such as Quine and Davidson, “see knowledge as a matter of conversation and of social practice, rather than as an attempt to mirror nature” (Rorty, 1979, p.171). Rorty named his approach ‘epistemological behaviourism’ explaining that rationality and epistemic authority is governed by what society (or a given community) does or does not allow us to say.
As regards charges of relativism, Rorty labels his views ‘ethnocentric’: anti-representationalist, anti-universalist and anti-rational (in some readings of ‘rational’). He believes us to have no external, rational warrant over and above open-minded, reflective discussion upon which we can base decisions, actions and judgements. Indeed, some have found Rorty’s views so extreme that they have accused him of a misreading of Peirce and Dewey and other early Pragmatist philosophers. They argue that whilst the Pragmatist project, to paraphrase the title of one of Peirce’s seminal works, is about ‘making our ideas clearer’, Rorty’s ‘pragmatism’ effectively muddies the waters.
Mounce is a prominent critic of Rorty, believing that his version of Pragmatism is almost diametrically opposed to that of Peirce and James. Indeed, he claims that Rorty’s philosophy fails the Pragmatic test because it is “not fruitful, productive of good consequences” (Mounce, 1997, p.209). Mounce presents a sustained critique of Rorty’s philosophy using a test devised by van Inwagen. Using the novel Nineteen Eighty-Four (is Rorty a Realist like the character of Winston or an anti-Realist like O’Brien?) Mounce argues that whilst Rorty the philosopher and O’Brien the character may differ in their politics, they agree in their philosophy. That is to say that, for Mounce andother critics, Rorty’s evasive ethnocentrism collapses into either solipsism or meaningless relativism. Comparing Peirce and Rorty, Mounce states that “The two have nothing in common except that they are called by the same name [Pragmatists]. It is evidently not through any continuity in the ideas that this development can be explained” (Mounce, 1997, p.229).
The ‘first Pragmatism’ Mounce terms ‘Classical Pragmatism’ and contains the work of Peirce and James along with lesser figures such as Morris Cohen. The second pragmatism began with Dewey, who believed that there can be nothing in reality which transcends the categories of the human mind. Mounce believes this to be “not a new philosophy but… a variation on Positivism, a form of extreme Empiricism. It is in conflict with the first Pragmatism, not at incidental points, but in its essentials” (Mounce, 1997, p.231).
Whilst this is not the place to go into a detailed critique of Mounce’s understanding of Rorty’s philosophical approach, I would suggest that Mounce may be overly purist when it comes to the development of Pragmatism since the time of Peirce and James. Indeed, the title The Two Pragmatisms could be said to draw an arbitrary distinction in a more nuanced evolutionary spectrum of ideas. There are certainly some salvagable aspects of Rorty’s philosophy for the purposes of this Pragmatic methodology. The first is evident in his quoting with approval Sellars, who states that there are no beliefs that cannot be revised:
In characterising an episode or a state as that of knowing, we are not giving an empirical description of that episode or state; we are placing it in the logical space of reasons, of justifying and being able to justify what one says.” (Sellars, quoted in Rorty, 1990, p.41)
This would appear to be a synthesis of Peirce (in that we use ‘know’ in a practical sense) and James (the non-rational nature decides) within a Quinean ‘web of beliefs’. As such, it is relatively unproblematic although moving towards the linguistification of the Pragmatic project. It is the next step that Rorty takes with which critics take issue, the idea of the ‘hermeneutic circle’. Expanding upon Dewey’s statement that we have to take in the whole of a situation or conception to fully understand it, Rorty explains that this makes our interaction with the situation or conception conversational rather than confrontational, as it is more like ‘getting to know someone’ than having something demonstrated:
In both cases we play back and forth between guesses about how to characterise particular statements or other events, and guesses about the whole point of the situation, until gradually we feel at ease with what was hitherto strange. (Rorty, 1990, p.319)
This ‘hermeneutic circle’ is a departure from the philosophy of Dewey, who in turn had moved away from that of Peirce and James. It rejects any idea of there being categories in nature to which human knowledge or even statements can refer: framing inquiry in terms of a conversation rather than truth-seeking involves dealing as much with psychology as philosophy. This, along with Quine’s web of belief, influences my discussion of a matrix of digital literacies in Chapter 9. However, Rorty makes one further leap, announcing that the purpose of his philosophical project is ‘edification’:
The point of edifying philosophy is to keep the conversation going rather than to find objective truth. Such truth, in the view I am advocating, is the normal result of normal discourse. (Rorty, 1990, p.377)
Whereas Peirce moved the ship away from land with his anti-Cartesianism, this is akin to cutting the anchor to be left at sea. Rorty claims that the philosopher mediates between incommensurable statements, criteria and principles, being called upon in Kuhn-inspired periods of ‘abnormal discourse’. Scientists are ‘creators’ rather than ‘discovers’ in periods between ‘normal science’. There is no objective ‘real’ world which we reveal; instead we create it through negotiation and alignment.
Rorty’s ‘settled position’ is that we need to become ‘ironists’ without a permanent ‘final vocabulary’:
I shall define an ‘ironist’ as someone who fulfils three conditions: (1) She has radical and continuing doubts about the final vocabulary she currently uses, because she has been impressed with other vocabularies…; (2) She realises that the argument phrased in her present vocabulary can neither underwrite nor dissolve those doubts; (3) Insofar as she philosophises about her situation, she does not think that her vocabulary is closer to reality than others, that it is in touch with a power not herself. (Rorty, 1989, p.73)
Applauding the work of Davidson and Wittgenstein, Rorty talks of alternative vocabularies as ‘tools’ that help avoid both reductionism and expansionism. Instead of asking questions such as ‘What is the place of value in a world of fact?’ we should restrict ourselves to those such as ‘Does our use of these words get in the way of our use of those other words?’. It is a question of tool efficiency, Rorty states, not of whether our beliefs are contradictory (Rorty, 1989, p.114). Language and culture are contingent upon thousands of non-teleological mutations in a similar way to a coral reef we first came across in Chapter 5 when discussing ambiguity: “Old metaphors are constantly dying off into literalness, and then serving as a platform and foil for new metaphors (Rorty, 1989, p.118). In this sense, descriptions of the world are always re-descriptions in that they do not correspond to an absolute ‘truth’ but fit within what Rorty calls a ‘language game’. What starts off as a metaphor gains a literal and common usage - in other words “our theories about the linguistic behavior of our fellows will suffice to let us cope with its utterance in the same unthinking way in which we cope with most of their other utterances” (Rorty, 1989, p.120).
Unlike Hilary Putnam, who sought to divorce truth from ‘warranted assertability’, Rorty believes they are one and the same thing. Putnam is strongly anti-relativist but believes that there is no ‘God’s eye view’ from which one can judge the truth or falsity of a given statement. “Our lives,” he stated, “show that we believe that there are more and less warranted beliefs about political contingencies, about historical interpretations, etc.” (Putnam, 1985, p.70). Putnam holds that something can be verified (or an assertion warranted) yet not be true. A community of enquirers settling upon a particular description for Rorty would be true for that community, whereas for Putnam it would be a case of warranted assertability (Żegleń & Conant 2002, p.83). Without descending into the somewhat protracted debate between (and around) these two philosophers, Putnam has accused Rorty of being a nihilist, anarchist and a relativist. In particular, Putnam claims that no Pragmatist before Rorty was a cultural relativist in the sense of rejecting the difference between warranted assertability and truth. Putnam and others have therefore labelled Rorty a ‘neopragmatist’ claiming that his influence from French postmodernists such as Derrida has ‘linguistified’ his thinking into treating Science, and to a great extent, Philosophy, as a form of literature. Putnam believes that Rorty should stick with calling his philosophy ‘Rortyanism’ without claiming affiliation with the Pragmatist tradition (neopragvideo, 2007, p.9.43).
Although certain elements of Rorty’s Pragmatist philosophy are problematic and, to a great extent, deserve several theses in their own right, there are three further guiding statements we can add to our project of defining a form of ‘Pragmatic shorthand’:
8. Knowledge is a matter of social practice rather than mirroring nature.
9. We ‘create’ rather than ‘discover’ truth.
10. New concepts are often understood through metaphor, enter common usage, and then ‘die off into literalness’.
Pragmatism is a living, evolving philosophical approach, a method of unthinking rather than an explicit framework. It has developed from the time of Emerson through to Rorty, and will continue to do so. I have extracted ten guiding principles from some of the principle exponents of Pragmatism in an attempt to formulate a methodology or 'rationale' for this thesis.<ref> In addition, applying a Pragmatic methodology or rationale is a logical extension of my educational history thus far. Given my first degree was in Philosophy and my MA thesis concentrated on a history of Victorian educational ideas, Pragmatism allows me to simultaneously focus on digital and new literacies from a conceptual point of view and concentrate on the utility of such a conceptualization.</ref> In the next section I will list these ten guiding principles, explain how the ‘Pragmatic approach‘ will serve as a shorthand for them, and apply them to the concept of Digital and New Literacies.
Pragmatism and digital literacies
In the preceding section we gleaned the following from an overview of five prominent Pragmatist philosophers: Peirce, James, Dewey, Quine and Rorty:
- Pragmatism is an anti-skeptical endeavour.
- Dividing lines between theory and action are arbitrary.
- Truth is conditional and dependent upon a community of inquirers.
- Human experience of the external world is ineffable.
- Pragmatism is method of ‘un-thinking’ rather than providing an explicit framework.
- A universally-held set of beliefs is impossible.
- Any statement can be accommodated as ‘true’ by amending a belief system to a greater or lesser extent.
- Knowledge is a matter of social practice rather than mirroring nature.
- We ‘create’ rather than ‘discover’ truth.
- New concepts are often understood through metaphor, enter common usage, and then ‘die off into literalness’.
Superficially, the ‘fuzziness’ of Pragmatism as a philosophical approach may appear problematic when charging proponents of concepts such as ‘Digital Literacy’ with ambiguity. However, as we have seen, Pragmatism does not have a defined epistemology and is more a way of ‘un-thinking’ than providing an explicit framework or programme which can be followed. In relation to this thesis, then, references to ‘the Pragmatist approach’ or simply ‘Pragmatism’ will be taken as shorthand to mean the ten guiding statements set out above.
In addition, and as a starting point, I shall take into account the Deweyan maxim that the way in which a problem is stated can affect the way it is solved. I will avoid talking of the ‘truth’ or ‘falsity’ of a given definition or belief, instead talking of its utility and whether it is has a ‘cash value’ - in other words whether it works in practice. As Marx has been perhaps over-cited as bemoaning, “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it” (Marx, 1845;1969). This thesis, whilst non-empirical, has very firmly in its sights an aim to provide a bedrock upon which considered and reflective action can take place.
The second half of this thesis will be structured as follows. First, in Chapter 7, I will analyse the research in the arena of ‘New Literacies’ through the lens of Pragmatism. In Chapter 8 I will look at what constitutes digital literacies, examining definitions and considering whether they are ‘good in the way of belief’. Chapter 9 will look for a way out of the problem of defining digital literacies drawing particularly on the work of Quine and Rorty. I will suggest that creating a matrix out of the elements of digital literacies solves many of the problems of rigid definitions and inflexible frameworks.
As I have argued, Pragmatism is particularly suited to digital environments because of its fallibilist and provisional approach to knowledge as well as its communitarian aspect. Pragmatism is especially suited to digital literacies, as we will see, because it allows us to avoid some of the problems holding back and providing a sticking point in the research into Digital and New Literacies.