The Eclipse of Pragmatism

By Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. TalisseDewey Time Mag Cover

Pragmatism is widely regarded as the Unites States’ only indigenous philosophical movement. Founded by a quirky and largely isolated genius, Charles Peirce, pragmatism was introduced as a method for clear thinking which insisted that all words and statements be understood in terms of concrete experience. It was popularized by William James in a series of lectures delivered in Boston and New York 1906 and 1907. Indeed, many of the connotations of the term as it is used in popular parlance derive from James’s writing; it was James who identified pragmatism with the doctrines the truth is what “works” and that statements should be accepted or rejected in part according to their success. Yet pragmatism received its most sustained articulation in the philosophy of John Dewey, who in the course of his long academic career incorporated central insights of Peirce and James into an all-embracing philosophical system of experimental naturalism. In Dewey’s hands, pragmatism became the philosophical basis for accounts of art, experience, mind, knowledge, language, communication, education, happiness, science, religion, and politics. And Dewey embodied the pragmatic commitment to unifying theory and practice. He was a tireless public intellectual whose activities ran the gamut from marching in support of women’s suffrage to helping to found the NAACP to presiding over the Trotsky trial in Mexico. It is with good reason, then, that contemporary philosophers who are most keen to ally themselves with this “classical” pragmatist movement tend to idolize Dewey.

Within the community of contemporary advocates of “classical” pragmatism there is a prevailing narrative according to which Dewey and pragmatism were marginalized, dismissed, or “eclipsed” in the years following Dewey’s death in 1952. According to the Eclipse Narrative post-war professional philosophy in the United States fell under the spell of a style of philosophizing imported from England and championed by Bertrand Russell, G. E. Moore, and the early Ludwig Wittgenstein, a style generally called analytic philosophy. Analytic philosophy, with its pretensions to logical rigor and scientific precision, deemed pragmatism “soft” and unserious, driving pragmatist ideas and texts out of the professional mainstream and ultimately underground.

Like many persecution stories, the Eclipse Narrative culminates with a resurrection. It runs as follows: Thanks primarily to Richard Rorty’s influential work, pragmatism saw a renaissance in the 1980s, and is today again considered a major philosophical force. Yet, from the point of view of contemporary classical pragmatists, the resurrection of pragmatism was bittersweet. Rorty had indeed revived pragmatism, but Rorty’s “neo-pragmatism” is, by the Deweyans’ lights, a perverted and emaciated pragmatism, a pragmatism not worth resuscitating. And so, even though pragmatism is now widely recognized as philosophical force, current proponents of classical pragmatism see themselves as marginalized.

And with this sense of marginalization comes resentment. Consequently, it is almost impossible to find a recent work about Dewey’s philosophy that does not rehearse the Eclipse Narrative; and the Narrative is often accompanied by a Cassandra-esque insistence that John Dewey has solved all the philosophical problems and has shown the way to philosophical salvation, if only the professional philosophical mainstream would listen. An academic industry has since emerged devoted to publishing books and articles about What Dewey Said, What Dewey Would Have Said, and Things Dewey Said Before Anyone Else Thought To Say Them. That so much self-avowedly pragmatist philosophy should be so transfixed on ideas and texts that are nearly a century old is staggeringly ironic. After all, pragmatism describes itself as an intrinsically forward-looking philosophy.

As we have argued in our introduction to The Pragmatism Reader (Princeton University Press, 2011), this irony is compounded by the fact that the Eclipse Narrative is rooted in an untenable view of pragmatism’s past. In the first place, the Eclipse Narrative presupposes an unduly unitary conception of the classical pragmatists, failing to notice that Peirce, James, and Dewey disagreed significantly on many substantive philosophical questions, and their differences often track traditional disputes throughout the history of philosophy. Once these differences are properly noted, it is difficult to imagine what a wholesale eclipse of pragmatism could involve.

Secondly, the Eclipse Narrative relies upon an objectionably narrow conception of pragmatism. It is true that in the final decade of his life, Dewey receded from center stage. The majority of his major works were written in the 20s and 30s, and post-war American philosophers did not write much by way of explicit commentary on Dewey’s philosophy. However, this is because many of Dewey’s key insights had been incorporated into the philosophical mainstream; explicit discussion of Dewey was unnecessary because the general thrust of Deweyan naturalism had become the lingua franca of philosophy in America. Thus one finds frequent affirmation of ideas and arguments with an identifiably pragmatist pedigree in the work of post-War luminaries like Ernest Nagel, Sidney Hook, Morton White, Nelson Goodman, Sidney Morgenbesser, W. V. O. Quine, Wilfrid Sellars, and Rudolf Carnap. Oddly, many of these thinkers are identified by those who promote the Eclipse Narrative as the “analytic” philosophers who marginalized pragmatism. On a more responsible reading, Nagel, Goodman, Quine and the others advanced pragmatism beyond its Deweyan articulation. And it is precisely the developments they introduced which have enabled contemporary pragmatist philosophers– Nicholas Rescher, Issac Levi, Hilary Putnam, Richard Gale, Susan Haack, Donald Davidson, Elizabeth Anderson, Robert Brandom, Cheryl Misak, Cornel West, and others– to make their own contributions.

Finally, the Eclipse Narrative encourages the mistaken view that non-pragmatist philosophy simply ignored the classical pragmatists. Again, this view is not sustainable. What one finds in non-pragmatist 20th Century philosophy is a constant engagement with pragmatist opponents, beginning with the criticisms of William James proposed by Russell and Moore, to the nativism defended by Noam Chomsky and Jerrold Katz, the fallibilist foundationalism in epistemology proposed by Roderick Chisholm, the Kantian but yet empirical methodology for moral theory introduced by John Rawls, and the property-dualism in philosophy of mind championed by John Searle. In all of these cases (and there are many others), non-pragmatist philosophers are found developing their views in direct response to pragmatist challenges and alternatives, most often conceding the success of pragmatist critiques of earlier non-pragmatist views.

In short, the Eclipse Narrative is corrosive in that it obstructs deeper and potentially fruitful engagements between current philosophy and some of the classical expressions of pragmatism. Perhaps more importantly, the Eclipse Narrative is demonstrably false. Far from being a once marginalized and only recently revived movement, the arguments and ideas introduced by the original pragmatists have been alive and well since the end of the 19th Century. Indeed, pragmatism is the picture of a successful and enduring philosophical program.

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