Pragmatism: An Old Name for Some New Ways of Thinking? Author(s): James T. Kloppenberg Source: The Journal of American History, Vol. 83, No. 1 (Jun., 1996), pp. 100-138 Published by: Organization of American Historians Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2945476 . Accessed: 27/07/2011 13:56
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http://www.jstor.org Pragmatism:An Old Name forSome New Waysof Thinking?
WilliamJames was stuck. Facing the publication of Pragmatism in 1907,he had to decidewhether to stressthe novelty of his philosophyor itscontinuity with earlierideas. James joked that pragmatism would launch "something quite like theprotestant reformation" and predictedthat it wouldbe "thephilosophy of thefuture." Yet he alsobelieved that he andhis fellow pragmatists were building on a foundationlaid byphilosophers from Socrates to theBritish empiricists. To softenthe blowhe was aboutto deliver,James dedicated Pragmatism to the memoryof the venerated John Stuart Mill and addedthe subtitle A NewName forSome Old Waysof Thinking, hoping that such a pedigreemight restrain those inclinedto denouncehis progeny. As myinversion of James's subtitle suggests, a historianseeking to analyzeand explainthe currentrevival of pragmatism confrontsthe same question James faced: Have contemporary pragmatists resur- rectedthe ideas of earlierthinkers or rejectedeverything but the name?' Thereturn of pragmatism is something of a surprise.When David A. Hollinger recountedthe career of pragmatism in theJournal of American History in 1980, he notedthat pragmatism had all but vanishedfrom American historiography duringthe previousthree decades. In 1950,Hollinger recalled, Henry Steele Commagerhad proclaimedpragmatism "almost the officialphilosophy of America";by 1980, in Hollinger'sjudgment, commentators on American culture had learnedto get alongjust finewithout it. "If pragmatismhas a future," Hollingerconcluded, "it will probably look very different from its past, and the twomay not evenshare a name."Yet pragmatismtoday is not onlyalive and
JamesT. Kloppenbergis associateprofessor of historyat BrandeisUniversity. For stimulatingconversation and criticism,I am gratefulto Susan Armeny,Thomas Bender, Casey Blake, David Depew, John Diggins, RichardFox, Giles Gunn, Peter Hansen, David Hollinger,Hans Joas,James Livingston,Timothy Peltason, Am6lie Oksenberg Rorty, Dorothy Ross, CharleneHaddock Seigfried,Richard Shusterman,David Thelen, RobertWestbrook, and Joan Williams.I am particularlyindebted to RichardJ. Bernsteinand RichardRorty for their generosity.
' WilliamJames to HenryJames, May 4, 1907, in The Lettersof WilliamJames, ed. HenryJames (2 vols., New York, 1920), II, 279; WilliamJames to TheodoreFlournoy, Jan. 2, 1907, in Ralph BartonPerry, The Thoughtand Characterof WilliamJames: As Revealedin UnpublishedCorrespondence and Notes, Together withHis PublishedWritings (2 vols., Boston,1935), II, 452-53. Jamestraced pragmatism to its ancientroots in WilliamJames, Pragmatism: A New Namefor Some Old Waysof Thinking(1907; Cambridge,Mass., 1978), 30-31. Ibid., 3.
100 The Journalof AmericanHistory June 1996 Pragmatism:An Old Namefor Some New Ways of Thinking? 101
well, it is ubiquitous.2 Referencesto pragmatismoccur with dizzying frequency fromphilosophy to socialscience, from the study of literatureto thatof ethnicity, fromfeminism to legal theory.As Hollingerpredicted, much of thispragmatism looksvery different from the originalversion. Some postmodernistsare attracted to pragmatismbecause it offersa devastatingcritique of all philosophicalfounda- tionsand justifiesa wide-ranginglinguistic skepticism against all claimsof objectiv- ity,consensus, and truth.So conceived,as a speciesof postmodernismrather than as an updated versionof the quest fortruth that James identified with Socrates and Mill,pragmatism has indeed becomean old name fornew waysof thinking. In thisessay I advancethree arguments: First, the early pragmatists emphasized 'experience,"whereas some contemporary philosophers and criticswho have taken "the linguisticturn" are uneasywith that concept. Second, the earlypragmatists believedtheir philosophical ideas had particularethical and politicalconsequences, whereassome contemporarythinkers who call themselvespragmatists consider it merelya methodof analysis.Third, the currentcontroversy about pragmatism mattersprofoundly to historians.At stakeis not merelythe historicalmeaning of early-twentieth-centurypragmatism, important as thatissue is forintellectual history.Looming even larger for historians in contemporarydebates about pragma- tismare implicitquestions about our practiceof historicalscholarship. Two rival campsare struggling over the legacy of pragmatism. Early-twentieth-century prag- matistsenvisioned a modernistdiscourse of democraticdeliberation in which communitiesof inquiry tested hypotheses in orderto solveproblems; such contem- porarypragmatists as RichardJ.Bernstein and HilaryPutnam sustain that tradition. Othercontemporaries such as RichardRorty and StanleyFish present pragmatism as a postmodernistdiscourse of criticalcommentary that denies that we can escape the conventionsand contingenciesof languagein orderto connectwith a world of experienceoutside texts, let alone solve problemsin that world.Connecting withexperience is preciselywhat we historiansattempt to do. These controversies overpragmatism old and neware thus tied directly to thelegitimacy of our practice in studyingthe past and to the claimsof our communityof inquiryabout the significanceof the past forthe present.
The earlypragmatists sought to reorientphilosophy away from interminable and fruitlessdebates by insistingthat ideas should be testedin practice.As partof theiroverall commitment to problemsolving, their conception of experience linked the philosophiesof WilliamJames and JohnDewey, the pragmatistswho most powerfullyinfluenced American culture during the firsthalf of the twentieth
2 David A. Hollinger,"The Problemof Pragmatismin AmericanHistory,"Journal of AmericanHistory, 67 (June 1980), 88, 107. Fiveyears later Hollinger cheerfully admitted that his obituaryhad been premature.See David A. Hollinger,In theAmerican Province: Studies in theHistory and Historiographyof Ideas (Bloomington, 1985), 23, 25, 43. A splendidsurvey is RichardJ. Bernstein,"The Resurgenceof Pragmatism,"Social Research, 59 (Winter1992), 813-40. 102 TheJournal of American History June1996
century.3What did Jamesand Dewey mean by experience?Both rejectedthe dualisms-the separationof the mind fromthe body, and of the subjectfrom the object-that had dividedidealists from empiricists since Rene Descartesand JohnLocke. They were equally scornful of nineteenth-century idealists' infatuation withintrospection and positivists'reduction of all philosophicalquestions to matter and motion.Instead they preferred other metaphors such as "field"or "stream" or ''circuit"to suggestthe continuityand meaningfulnessof consciousnessthat had eluded bothempiricists and rationalists;their "radical empiricism" rested on theirrevised concept of consciousness.Immediate experience as James and Dewey conceivedof it is alwaysrelational (it neverexists in the abstractor in isolation froma worldcontaining both other persons and concreterealities, as did Descartes's rationalistcogito), creative (it nevermerely registers sense data passively,as did Locke'sempiricist tabula rasa), and imbuedwith historically specific cultural values (it is never"human" or universal,but alwayspersonal and particular).Pragmatists distrustedall formsof foundationalism,all attemptsto establishphilosophy on unchanginga priori postulates.Rather than groundingvalues in the bedrockof timelessabsolutes, they urged us to evaluateall of our beliefs-philosophical, scientific,religious, ethical, and political- beforethe test they considered the most demandingof all: our experienceas social and historicalbeings.4 The earlypragmatists' conception of testingthe truthof ideas in experience igniteda firestorm of controversythat continuesto rage. Philosopherssuch as BertrandRussell, George Santayana, Josiah Royce, and ArthurLovejoy immediately targetedJames. Cultural critics such as RandolphBourne, Van WyckBrooks, and LewisMumford and partisansof naturallaw such as (the erstwhilepragmatist) WalterLippmann and MortimerAdler laterwent afterDewey, as did Marxists suchas TheodorAdorno and MaxHorkheimer. All thesecritics charged pragmatists withelevating expedient, novel, narrowly individualistic, instrumental, and tech- nocraticconsiderations above truthand goodnessas revealedby philosophy,art, or theology.5
3 In thisessay I will concentrateon WilliamJames and JohnDewey insteadof CharlesSanders Peirce for two reasons.First, Peirce explained in 1904 that he "invented"pragmatism "to expressa certainmaxim of logic . . . forthe analysisof concepts"rather than "sensation"and groundedit on "an elaboratestudy of the natureof signs." For the precise reason why Peirce's ideas have influencedanalytic philosophers and semioticians, his workis less pertinenthere. See H. S. Thayer,Meaning and Action: A CriticalHistory of Pragmatism (Indianapolis,1981), 493-94. Second, discussingthe recenttorrent of workon Peirceis beyondthe scope of thisessay. For a fineintroduction, see JamesHoopes, ed., Peirceon Signs: Writingson Semioticby Charles SandersPeirce (Chapel Hill, 1991); on Peirce'stortured life see JosephBrent, Charles Sanders Peirce: A Life (Bloomington,1993); and on his philosophyof science,see C. F. Delaney,Science, Knowledge, and Mind: A Studyin the Philosophyof C. S. Peirce(Notre Dame, 1993). 4 On James'sconcept of immediateexperience, see JamesM. Edie, WilliamJames and Phenomenology (Bloomington,1987); morecomprehensive are Perry,Thought and Characterof WilliamJames; and GeraldE. Myers,William James: His Lifeand Thought(New Haven, 1986). On Dewey'slife and thought,see RobertB. Westbrook,John Dewey and AmericanDemocracy (Ithaca, 1991); on qualitativeissues in Dewey'sphilosophy, see JamesGouinlock, John Dewey's Philosophy of Value (New York, 1972). s A compilationof thesecriticisms is in JohnPatrick Diggins, The Promiseof Pragmatism:Modernism and the CrisisofKnowledge andAuthority (Chicago, 1994). James Hoopes, Robert Westbrook, and I areunpersuaded by Diggins'sinterpretation of pragmatism.For our explanationsand Diggins'sresponse, see JamesHoopes, "Peirce'sCommunity of Signs:The PathUntaken in AmericanSocial Thought," Intellectual History Newsletter, 17 (1995), 3-6; JamesT. Kloppenberg,"The Authorityof Evidenceand the Boundariesof Interpretation," Pragmatism:An Old Namefor Some New Ways of Thinking? 103
Much as such criticismstung, it sharpenedJames's and Dewey'sformulations of theirideas. Some of theirbest writing, notably James's The Meaningof Truth (1909) and Dewey'sExperience and Nature(1925), camein responseto theircritics. Theirclarifications reveal why some contemporary postmodernists' enthusiasm and some contemporarytraditionalists' scorn are misdirectedat Jamesand Dewey. In PragmatismJames had triedto head offsome misunderstandingsin advance. Lookingback at his argument,it is difficultto see how anyonecould accusehim of identifyingtruth with whatever it is convenientto believe.He specified"our duty to agree with reality"and expressedexasperation at his critics'"favorite formulafor describing" pragmatists -"persons who thinkthat by sayingwhatever youfind it pleasantto sayand callingit truthyou fulfil every pragmatistic require- ment."To the contrary,James protested: "Pent in, as the pragmatistmore than anyoneelse seeshimself to be, betweenthe whole body of funded truths squeezed fromthe past and the coercionsof the worldof senseabout him, who so well as he feelsthe immense pressure of objective control under which our minds perform theiroperations?"6 When his criticscontinued to accusehim of counselinghis readersto believe anyfiction they might find expedient, James responded by writing The Meaning of Truth.There he specifiedthe circumstancesin whichone mightinvoke the pragmatictest of truthand clarifiedthe conditionsnecessary for verifying any propositionpragmatically. First, and fundamentally,it mustcorrespond to what is knownfrom experience about the naturalworld. The followingapparently unambiguoussentence has escapedthe attentionof James's critics -and some of his contemporarychampions: "The notionof a realityindependent of . . . us, takenfrom ordinary social experience, lies at the base of thepragmatist definition of truth."Calling himself an "epistemologicalrealist," James explained that he simplytook forgranted the existenceof that independentreality and did not considerits independent existence philosophically interesting or important. Second, to be judgedpragmatically true, a propositionmust be consistentwith the individu- al's stockof existing beliefs, beliefs that had withstoodthe severe test of experience. That,James felt sure, would rule out simplemindedwishful thinking. Finally, a statementmay be consideredpragmatically true if it fulfillsthose two conditions and yieldssatisfaction. Religious faith represented to Jamesa perfectillustration of theappropriate terrain for testing truth claims pragmatically: in the absenceof irrefutableevidence, James judged relevant the consequences of faith for believers.7
17 (1995), 3-6; JamesT. Kloppenberg,"The Authorityof Evidenceand the Boundariesof Interpretation," ibid., 7-15; RobertWestbrook, "The Authorityof Pragmatism,"ibid., 16-24; and John PatrickDiggins, "Pragmatismand the Historians,"ibid., 25-30. On criticswho valued the capacitiesof creativeindividuals above pragmatists'concerns with communities of discourseand social justice,see CaseyNelson Blake,Beloved Community:The CulturalCriticism of Randolph Bourne, Van WyckBrooks, Waldo Frank,and LewisMumford (Chapel Hill, 1990). On Walter Lippmannand MortimerAdler, see Edward A. PurcellJr., The Crisisof DemocraticTheory: Scientific Naturalism andthe Problemof Value(Lexington, Ky., 1973). On TheodorAdorno and Max Horkheimer,see MartinJay, The DialecticalImagination: A Historyof the FrankfurtSchool and the Instituteof Social Research,1923-1950 (Boston, 1973). 6James,Pragmatism, 111-12. 7 WilliamJames, The Meaningof Truth(1909; Cambridge,Mass., 1975), 117, 106, 126-28. 104 TheJournal of American History June1996
Dewey, whose proddinghad helped spurJames to refinehis position,likewise arguedthroughout his long careerthat we should conceiveof all our knowledge as hypothesesto be testedin experience. At the coreof James's and Dewey'spragmatism was experienceconceived, not as introspection,but as theintersection of the consciousself with the world. They conceivedof knowingsubjects as embodimentsof reason,emotion, and values, and theyemphasized the inadequacyof philosophers'attempts to freeze,split apart,and compartmentalizethe dynamiccontinuities and multipledimensions of life as we live it. Theyconceived of individualsas alwaysenmeshed in social conditions,yet selectingwhat to attend to fromthe multiplicityof conscious experience,and makinghistory by makingchoices. They conceived of experience as intrinsicallyand irreduciblymeaningful, and theyinsisted that its meanings werenot predeterminedor deduciblefrom any all-encompassingpattern. They arguedthat meanings emerge as culturestest their values in practiceand thatwe encounterexpressions of thosemeanings in the historicalrecord. Languagewas thuscrucial for understanding the experienceof others,but for Jamesand Deweylanguage was onlyone importantpart of a richer,broader range thatincluded interpersonal, aesthetic, spiritual, religious, and otherprelinguistic ornonlinguistic forms of experience. Moreover, they realized that language not only feedsthe imagination but also placesconstraints on understandingby specifying a particularrange of meanings.In Pragmatism,James wrote, "All truththus gets verballybuilt out, storedup, and made availablefor everyone. Hence, we must talkconsistently, just as we mustthink consistently." Although James appreciated whatis now characterizedas the arbitrarinessof signifiers,he drewthe following noteworthyconclusion: "Names are arbitrary,but once understoodthey must be kept to. We mustn'tnow call Abel 'Cain' or Cain 'Abel.' If we do, we ungear ourselvesfrom the whole book of Genesis,and fromall its connexionswith the universeof speech and factdown to the presenttime." We cannottest every propositionourselves or enterthe immediateexperience of others.Yet we never- thelesshave accessto verifiablehistorical knowledge, even if onlyindirectly and throughlanguage. "As trueas past timeitself was, so truewas Julius Caesar, so truewere antediluvian monsters, all in theirproper dates and settings.That past timeitself was, is guaranteedby its coherence with everything that's present. True as the presentis the past was also."8 When dealingwith verifiable data, whether about Caesarsor about ceratopsians,we place each datumin the web of evidence we humanshave been spinningfor centuries. Even when considering unverifiable narrativessuch as Genesis,we risklosing the coherence that makes communication possibleunless we preservemeanings within our web of culturalmemory. Deweyshared that appreciation of the importance of symbols and theindispens- abilityof commonunderstandings. "All discourse,oral or written,"he conceded in Experienceand Nature,"says things that surprise the one thatsays them." But thatmakes communication difficult, not impossible.Conversation understood as
8 James,Pragmatism, 102-3. Pragmatism:An Old Name forSome New Ways of Thinking? lOS
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.r.sult con-.. rrqusite to ndraking soci.a:,,l actio. Throug langag "th of jon exeiec are cosidre an trnmitd Evnt cano bepasdfo 106 TheJournal of American History June1996
one to another,but meaningsmay be sharedby means of signs";eventually such sharingconverts "a conjoiningactivity into a communityof interest and endeavor." Dewey acknowledgedthe challengeof such communication:"mutual interest in sharedmeanings" does not emerge "all at onceor completely." LikeJames, however, Deweyemphasized that such communication can yieldprovisional understandings of thepast, its meanings for the present, and itsrole in theformulation of shared socialaspirations. For Dewey, dialogue betweenindividuals in community,with its "directgive and take," providedthe model for such communication:"the wingedwords of conversationin immediateintercourse have a vitalimport lacking in the fixedand frozenwords of writtenspeech."9 Dewey realized that the conceptof experiencecaused difficultiesfor many analyticphilosophers, who defined philosophy as thestudy of languageand logic, but despitetheir criticism, he clungto it to the end of his life.Dewey toyed with exchangingthe word "experience"for "culture" as late as 1951, but in the end he refused:"we need a cautionaryand directiveword, like experience,to remind us thatthe worldwhich is lived,suffered and enjoyedas well as logicallythought of,has thelast word in all humaninquiries and surmises."10 In short,the pragmatic sensibilityof James and Dewey was a profoundlyhistorical sensibility. Listingsome of the thinkerswho aligned themselveswith James and Dewey suggeststheir enormous impact. Sociologists such as GeorgeHerbert Mead, legal theoristssuch as OliverWendell HolmesJr. and Louis D. Brandeis,economists such as RichardT. Ely, politicaltheorists such as HerbertCroly, theologians such as WalterRauschenbusch and ReinholdNiebuhr, founders of the National Associationfor the Advancementof ColoredPeople such as W. E. B. Du Bois and WilliamEnglish Walling, and feministssuch as JaneAddams and Jessie Taft all derivedfrom pragmatism a conceptionof experienceand a way of thinking about abstractand concreteproblems that oriented them to historicalanalysis and awayfrom inherited dogmas. Those who lookedto philosophyand socialscience forsolid, permanent principles found pragmatism disappointing and unattractive. But manyof thosewho sharedthe beliefof James and Deweythat the shiftfrom absolutesto the testof experiencemight encourage independent thinking and democraticdecision making endorsed pragmatism because it unsettledtraditional waysof thinkingwithout sinking into the morassof subjectivismthat swallowed someturn-of-the-century rebels, such as FriedrichNietzsche. The steadyinglifeline of experienceprevented pragmatists from sliding into fantasy,cynicism, or self- indulgence. As the ripplespragmatism sent acrossAmerican thought extended wider and widerduring the earlytwentieth century, they met -and eventuallywere sub- mergedby -more powerfulwaves coming from other directions. Among the most importantof these was enthusiasm for the certainty widely attributed to thenatural sciences,which stood in sharpcontrast to the pragmatists'forthright admission
9John Dewey, Experience and Nature,in John Dewey, The LaterWorks, 1925-1953, ed. Jo Ann Boydston (17 vols., Carbondale,1981-1990), I, 152; JohnDewey, The Public and Its Problems,ibid., II, 330-31. 10Dewey, Experience and Nature,appendix 2 (1951), 372. Pragmatism:An Old Namefor Some New Ways of Thinking? 107
of uncertainty.Behaviorists in psychology,sociology, and politicalscience adopted Dewey'senthusiasm for testing hypotheses but jettisonedhis concernwith the qualitativedimensions of experienceand inquiryin the human sciences." Philosophersturned increasingly toward the modelsprovided by mathematics and physicalscience, a trendalready underway before European emigres began arrivingin the United Statesin the 1930s. The emigres'quest forprecision and theirimpatience with pragmatism combined to transformAmerican philosophy departmentsby elevating the study of language and logicand marginalizingJames's and Dewey's concernswith epistemology,ethics, and politicalphilosophy. A disciplinescurrying to masterthe logical positivism of Rudolf Carnap, which sought to rid philosophyof all questionsthat could not be answeredthrough scientific verification,had littleinterest in the earlypragmatists' attachment to immediate experienceand theirdemocratic reformist sensibilities. Dewey had describedthe writingsthat launched the analytic philosophy movement, which sought to reduce philosophyto propositionallogic, as "an affrontto the common-senseworld of action,appreciation, and affection."The workof the British philosophers Bertrand Russelland G. E. Moore, Dewey wrote,threatened to "land philosophyin a formalismlike unto scholasticism."James had urgedRussell to "saygood-bye to mathematicallogic if you wishto preserveyour relations with concrete realities!" But manymidcentury American philosophers preferred Carnap and Russellto "commonsense" and "concreterealities"; they shared Russell's long-standing con- temptfor pragmatism. The new breedof analyticphilosophers shunned history, shiftedtoward technical discourse, and judged meaninglessall propositionsthat couldnot be verifiedby scientific procedures.James wrote about religious experience and Deweyabout aesthetics, ethics, and politicsin thehope ofhelping philosophy escape such a narrowlyrestricted role.'2 Developmentswithin the pragmatist camp also made it increasinglyvulnerable to such attacks.In the 1930sand 1940ssome championsof pragmatismtried to popularizethe ideas ofJames and Deweyby simplifyingthem for mass consump- tion. WhereasJames and Deweyhad urgedtheir readers to thinkcritically about theirown experienceand to take responsibilityfor shaping their culture, such writersas Will Durant,Irwin Edman, Horace Kallen, Max Otto,Harry Overstreet, John Herman Randall, and Thomas VernorSmith made available versionsof pragmatismthat simply endorsed the rough-and-readydemocratic sentiments of most middle-classAmericans. Such effortsdid littleto bolsterthe prestigeof
" On thetriumph of scientismin Americansocial science, see DorothyRoss, The Originsof AmericanSocial Science(Cambridge, Eng., 1991), 390-470. 12 On the relationbetween scientism and the transformationof philosphy,see Daniel J. Wilson, Science, Community,and the Transformationof AmericanPhilosophy, 1860-1930 (Chicago, 1990); and LaurenceC. Smith,Behaviorism and Logical Positivism:A Reassessmentof the Alliance (Stanford,1986). For Dewey's judgmentof BertrandRussell and G. E. Moore,see JohnDewey, Essays in ExperimentalLogic, in John Dewey, The Middle Works,1899-1924, ed. Jo Ann Boydston(15 vols., Carbondale,1976-1983), X, 357-58. William Jamesto BertrandRussell, Oct. 4, 1908,inJames, Meaning of Truth,299-300. Russell'sjibe appeardin Bertrand Russell,"Dewey's New Logic,"in The PhilosophyofJohn Dewey, ed. Paul A. Schilpp(1939; New York, 1951), 135-56. On thisvolume, see Westbrook,John Dewey and AmericanDemocracy, 496-500. 108 TheJournal of American History June1996
pragmatismamong professional philosophers or other American intellectuals aspir- ing to scientificprecision rather than democraticdeliberation.'3 AfterDewey died in 1952, his ideas faded quicklyinto the background.Even thoughone of the mostprominent thinkers of the post-WorldWar II period, ReinholdNiebuhr, shared many of Dewey's, and especiallyJames's, ideas, his critiqueof Dewey'soptimism helped discreditpragmatism as too sunnyminded forserious intellectuals. As RichardRorty has put it, pragmatismwas crushed between"the upperand the nethermillstones": a revivedinterest in theologyor existentialismfor some, the "hard-edgedempiricism" of Carnap forothers. For reasonsreflecting changes within philosophy and in the broaderculture, then, Americanintellectuals during the 1950sand 1960seither forgot about pragmatism or, as Hollingerput it, learnedto get along withoutit. That is no longertrue. Explainingthe resurgenceof pragmatismrequires sketching the complexcultural changesthat cleared the groundand made possibleits return.14 Firstthe claimsto objectivityof the naturalsciences, which had intimidated humanistswhile they inspired philosophers and social scientists,were rocked by the historicistanalysis of ThomasKuhn, whosesignificance in thistransformation is difficultto overestimate.Many of the schemesfor social engineeringhatched by enthusiastsfor science led to resultsthat ranged from disappointing (the War on Poverty)to disastrous(the warin Vietnam),as boththe findings of researchers and theirapplication to socialproblems were shown to be groundedin questionable assumptionsand, despitethe scientists'notion of value neutrality,susceptible to appropriationfor ideological purposes."1 Then social scientists began to admitwhat pragmatistsand suchpractitioners of theGeisteswissenschaften (human sciences) as WilhelmDilthey had knownsince the nineteenth century: Because human experi- ence is meaningful,understanding not onlyexpression but also behaviorrequires interpretingthe complex and shiftingsystems of symbols through which individuals encounterthe world and with which theytry to cope with it. Meaningsand intentionschange over time and acrosscultures; as thatrealization spread, hopes of findinga universallogic or a generalscience of social organizationfaded. In theirplace emergedhermeneutics, which relies on methodsof interpretationto achieveunderstanding of historical experience and forgoesefforts to generaterules of transhistoricalhuman behavior.
13 GeorgeCotkin, "Middle-Ground Pragmatists: The Popularizationof Philosophyin AmericanCulture," Journalof theHistory of Ideas, 55 (April1994), 2 83-302. On Will Durant,see Joan Shelley Rubin, The Making of MiddlebrowCulture (Chapel Hill, 1992). 14 See RichardWightman Fox, ReinholdNiebuhr: A Biography(New York, 1985); and Daniel F. Rice, ReinholdNiebuhr andJohn Dewey: An AmericanOdyssey (Albany, 1993). RichardRorty, "Pragmatism without Method,"in RichardRorty, Philosophical Papers, vol. I: Objectivity,Relativism, and Truth(New York, 1991), 64. On the shiftof Americanphilosophy departments away from pragmatism and towardanalytic philosophy and logicalpositivism, see HilaryPutnam, Reason, Truth,and History(New York, 1981), 103-26; Bernstein, "Resurgenceof Pragmatism,"815-17; and a fineoverview, David Depew, "Philosophy,"in Encyclopediaof the UnitedStates in the TwentiethCentury, ed. StanleyKutler (4 vols., New York, 1996), IV, 1635-63. 1I ThomasS. Kuhn, The Structureof Scientific Revolutions (Chicago, 1962); Paul Hoyningen-Huene,Recon- structingScientific Revolutions: Thomas S. Kuhn's Philosophyof Science,trans. Alexander T. Levine(Chicago, 1993). On the uses of socialscience in publicpolicy, see`Ellen Herman, The Romanceof American Psychology: PoliticalCulture in the Age of Experts(Berkeley, 1995). Pragmatism:An Old Namefor Some New Ways of Thinking? 109
Marchingbehind the bannerof hermeneuticscame an influentialband of scholarswho challengedthe ideal of scientificobjectivity in the humansciences: PeterWinch, Clifford Geertz, Charles Taylor, Anthony Giddens, Paul Ricoeur, MichelFoucault, Jacques Derrida, Hans-Georg Gadamer, andJUrgen Habermas - a newlitany of saints proclaiming variations on a revolutionarygospel of interpreta- tion.They spoke a differentlanguage than did thosenatural scientists, philosophers, and socialscientists who sought to escapethe clutter of history. Instead of timeless principlesand truth,they referred to revolutionaryparadigm shifts, incommensura- ble formsof life,the complexitiesof thickdescription, competing communities ofdiscourse, archaeologies of knowledge, the universal undecidability of texts, the inescapabilityof prejudices,and thecolonization of lifeworlds by an omnivorous technostructure.16 Althoughamong these thinkers only Habermas explicitly placed himself within the pragmatictradition, Americans familiar with James and Dewey noted the similaritiesbetween recent historicist critiques of the sciencesand social sciences and thoseof the earlypragmatists. As thework of thesethinkers, many of whom wereoften grouped together (unhelpfully and evenmisleadingly) under the rubric "postmodernist,"became increasinglyinfluential, many scholars began to move awayfrom the model of the naturalsciences and towardforms of analysismore congenialto hermeneuticsand history,most notably toward pragmatism."7 Despitethe undeniable importance of those broad changes in Americanthought, the resurgenceof pragmatismis largelydue to the remarkablework done by the Trojan horseof analyticphilosophy, Richard Rorty. Rorty's historicism has had such explosiveforce because he attackedthe citadelof philosophyfrom within. Troublingas was his insistencethat philosophy could neverattain the scientific statusanalytic philosophers yearned for, even more unnerving was Rorty'sequally bluntjudgment that the grailof objectiveknowledge would likewisecontinue to eludethe natural sciences and thesocial sciences. Rorty first established his creden- tialswith papers discussing standard topics in the analytictradition. But in his introductionto TheLinguistic Turn (1967), he suggestedthat the conflictswithin analyticphilosophy (between J. L. Austin'sordinary-language philosophy and Carnap'slogical positivism,for example) were so fundamentalthat theycould not be resolved,thus subtly challenging the idea of progressin problemsolving thatanalytic philosophers took for granted.'8 Over the nextdecade Rortybroadened his focusand sharpenedhis critique. Echoingarguments made byJamesand Deweybut presenting them in thediscourse of analyticphilosophy, he insistedin Philosophyand theMirror of Nature(1979) thatproblems such as mind-bodydualism, the correspondencetheory of truth,
16 See RichardJ. Bernstein,The Restructuringof Social and PoliticalTheory (New York, 1976); Fred R. Dallmayrand ThomasA. McCarthy,eds., Understandingand Social Inquiry(Notre Dame, 1977); and Quentin Skinner,ed., The Returnof Grand Theoryin the Human Sciences(Cambridge, Eng., 1985). 17 On thesechanges in philosophy and politicaltheory, seeJohn Rajchman and CornelWest, eds., Post-Analytic Philosophy(New York, 1985); and David Held, ed., PoliticalTheory Today (Stanford,1991). 18 RichardRorty, ed., The LinguisticTurn: Recent Essays in PhilosophicalMethod (Chicago, 1967). 110 TheJournal of American History June1996
theoriesof knowledgeand theoriesof language,and ultimatelythe entireconcep- tionof a systematicphilosophy devoted to findingfoundations for objective knowl- edgeall restedon misconceptions.He urgedhis fellow philosophers to move"from epistemologyto hermeneutics"and to practice"philosophy without mirrors," embracinginterpretation and surrenderingthe vain hope thattheir writings might accuratelyreflect the worldas it reallyis. Systematicphilosophers, such as John Locke,Immanuel Kant, and RudolfCarnap, who soughta scienceof knowledge thatwould discloseobjective truth, should give way to "edifyingphilosophers," suchasJames and Dewey,who would contribute to the"conversation of the West" withoutpromising results philosophy would neverbe able to deliver.Although othershad begun to offervariations on this themeof "historicistundoing," to use Ian Hacking'sphrase for it, Rorty'sassault seemed especially dramatic because it held out no alternativesolutions.19 In ConsequencesofPragmatism (1982), Rortydefended his heretical historicism. We must admit that "thereis nothingdeep down inside us exceptwhat we have put thereourselves"; our mostcherished standards and practicesare merely conventions.Science, Rorty concluded with the provocativebluntness that has becomehis trademark,is only"one genreof literature";all effortsto findsolid, unchangingknowledge are futile.20Rorty himself realized that there was littlein theseclaims that was completelynew. But because enthusiasmfor science had overshadowedthe historicism of earlierpragmatists, and becauseAnglo-American philosophersin particularhad marcheddown a road marked"truth" only to findJames and Dewey waitingthere for them, Rorty'srevival of pragmatism seemedrevolutionary. Againstcritics who assailedhim as a relativist,Rorty responded that the notion of relativismitself becomes incoherent when we appreciatethe contingentstatus of all our knowledge.From his perspective,there is nothingfor "truth" to be relativeto exceptour tradition,our purposes,and our linguisticconventions. Whenwe havecome to thatrealization, a calmacceptance of our condition becomes possible.While pragmatismcannot offer objectivity, neither does it threatenthe survivalof civilization.Revolutionary as his messagewas, Rorty's mood was down- rightupbeat. He proclaimedpragmatism "the chief glory of our country's intellec- tual tradition"and notedthat James and Dewey,although asking us to surrender
19 RichardRorty, Philosophy andthe Mirrorof Nature(Princeton, 1979). See Alan Malachowski,ed., Reading Rorty:Critical Responses to Philosophyand the Mirrorof Nature (Cambridge,Mass., 1990); and HermanJ. Saatkamp,ed., Rortyand Pragmatism(Nashville, 1995). Ian Hacking,"Two Kinds of 'New Historicism'for Philosophers,"in Historyand. . .: Historieswithin the Human Sciences,ed. Ralph Cohen and MichaelS. Roth(Charlottesville, 1995), 296-318. The veryuseful words "historicism" and "historicist"continue to baffle somehistorians, probably due to theiralmost opposite meanings in thework of the philosopherof scienceKarl Popperand in contemporarycritical discourse. Popper used "historicism"to designate(and denigrate)any theory (such as Marxism)that purports to predictthe futurecourse of human eventsaccording to ostensiblyscientific laws. Morerecent commentators understand historicism as "the theorythat social and culturalphenomena are historicallydetermined and that each period in historyhas its own values that are not directlyapplicable to otherepochs. In philosophythat implies that philosophical issues find their place, importance,and definition in a specificcultural milieu. That is certainlyRorty's opinion." Ibid., 298. 20 Rorty,Philosophy and the Mirrorof Nature, 392; RichardRorty, Consequences of Pragmatism:Essays, 1972-1980 (Minneapolis,1982), xl, xliii. Pragmatism:An Old Name forSome New Ways of Thinking? 111
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all commitmentsand all communities. CourtesyCambridge University Press.
cthneurotic Cartesian quest forcertainty, "nevertheless wrote, as Nietzscheand Heideggerdid not, "in a spiritof social hope."" Surprisingly,given the ardentopposition to dualism that Rortyshares with Jinesand Dewey,on theconcept of experience he has substituteda newdichotomy Nt thoseJames and Dewey attacked.Demonstrating the distancebetween his viewand theirshas becomeconsiderably easier thanks to the appearanceof Rorty's *h" "Dewey betweenHegel and Darwin" (1994). There Rortyacknowledges thedifference between the historicalDewey and his "hypotheticalDewey," a philosopherwho would have been "a pragmatistwithout being a radicalempiricist," without,in otherwords, Dewey's crucial commitment to experience.The central &tinction,Rorty now concedes, lies in Dewey's(and James's) continuing emphasis enexperience, which Rorty finds quaint but unhelpful. He tiesit to theirpurported beliefin itpanpsychism,"a word for the supposed abilityof mindsto commune withother minds that Rortyhas resurrectedfrom the lexiconof James'scritics * pokefun at those who considerexperience important. According to Rorty, contemporaryphilosophers "tend to talk about sentencesa lot but to say very
21Rorty, Consequences of Pragmatism,xviii, 160, 161. 112 TheJournal of American History June1996
littleabout ideas or experiences."James's and Dewey'stalk about the relation betweenideas and experiences,in Rorty'sjudgment, "runs together sentences with experiences- linguisticentities with introspectiveentities." They "should have droppedthe termexperience rather than redefined it." "Myalternative Dewey," he concludeswistfully, "would have said, we can construe'thinking' as simply the use of sentences."22Seeing the linguisticturn as a step forwardrather than a dead end,Rorty dogmatically refuses to acceptany philosophy in which something otherthan language,namely, experience - understoodnot as introspectionbut as the intersectionbetween the consciousself and theworld -plays an important part.As Rortynow admits,James and Deweyhad a verydifferent conception of philosophy,and that differencecontinues to manifestitself in the contrasting versionsof pragmatism in contemporaryscholarship. Given historians' strong com- mitmentsto referentialityin writing history, to the possibilityof connectingthe argumentswe constructto thelives we writeabout, and to testingthose arguments withinour scholarly community, the early pragmatists' emphasis on experiencewill remainfor historians an attractivealternative to Rorty's narrow interest in sentences. Rorty'smove awayfrom James and Dewey'sview of experienceand towarda new culturalideal in whichpoets and novelistswould replacephilosophers first becameclear in his elegant,widely read Contingency,Irony, and Solidarity(1989). His shifthas coincidedwith the new tendency of some literary critics to characterize themselvesas pragmatists.Just as dissatisfactionwith prevailing orthodoxies has sparkednovel approaches in philosophyand the socialsciences, so manystudents of literaturehave deserted the New Criticismand structuralismand turnedtoward pragmatism.Reversing the commontendency, stemming from the writingsof RandolphBourne and Van WyckBrooks and reachingfruition in LewisMumford's The Golden Day (1925), to contrastthe pragmatists'supposedly arid fetish with techniquewith the transcendentalists' celebration of imagination, some critics now invokea refashionedpragmatism in theirconstructions of a rich,home-grown literaryheritage. For example,Richard Poirier argues in Poetryand Pragmatism (1992) fora continuoustradition of "linguisticskepticism" running from Ralph Waldo Emersonthrough William James to the modernistpoets RobertFrost, GertrudeStein, Wallace Stevens,and T. S. Eliot. Those poets share,according to Poirier,"a liberatingand creativesuspicion as to the dependabilityof words and syntax,especially as it relatesto mattersof belief."23
22 RichardRorty, "Dewey between Hegel and Darwin,"in ModernistImpulses in theHuman Sciences,1870- 1930, ed. DorothyRoss (Baltimore,1994), 46-68. In this essayRorty acknowledges his debt to intellectual historiansfor demonstrating the differencebetween the historicalDewey and his "hypotheticalversion" but thencontends that the ideas of Dewey'sgeneration no longermake sense. 23 RichardPoirier, Poetry and Pragmatism(Cambridge, Mass., 1992), 5. On pragmatismas the antithesis of literarytheory and a rationalefor critics to focuson recoveringauthors' intentions, see StevenKnapp and WalterBenn Michaels,"Against Theory," Critical Inquiry, 8 (Summer1982), 723-42. For the claim thatwe mustsupplement pragmatism with other value orientations(such as Marxism)because the pragmaticmethod "cannothelp us do the social workof transformation,"see FrankLentricchia, Criticism and Social Change (Chicago, 1983), 4. StanleyFish arguesthat we createthe meaningof textswhen we interpretthem; trying to catchwhat Fish means by pragmatism is thuslike tryingto catcha flywith a fishnet. See, forexample, Stanley Fish,Doing WhatComes Naturally (Durham, 1989). On one versionof Fish'spragmatism, see theexamination of legal theorybelow. Pragmatism:An Old Namefor Some New Ways of Thinking? 113
Poirierenlists James to providean Americanalternative to varietiesof post- structuralismimported from France and fashionableamong contemporary critics. He quotesa phrasefromJames's The Principles ofPsychology on "there-instatement of the vague to its properplace in our mentallife" -a phraseconsistent with James'sportrait of the depth and richnessof immediateexperience - then draws an etymologicalline from"vague" to "extravagance"and then to "superfluity." This tenuouslink prompts him to assertthat for James, as forEmerson, thinking involvespunning, so that"gains and lossesof meaningare in a continuousand generativeinteraction." Poirier compares the writingsof Emersonand James with thoseof Frost,Stein, Stevens,and Eliot, whom theyresemble in theiruse of metaphorand their"allusiveness and elusivenessof phrasing." Poirier characterizes James'slanguage as "no less 'superfluous"'than the language of modernistpoets, "subjectto the same degreeof metaphoricalproliferation, slippage, and excess." James'slanguage slides "out of bounds,toward the margin, until it becomesloose andvague." AlthoughJames conceded the limits imposed on clarityby the ineffable in experienceand theunstable in language,as his classicThe VarietiesofReligzous Experiencemakes abundantlyclear, in his writingshe soughtto move beyond the vague, ratherthan to revelin it.24 Jamessharpened his thinking against the hard edges of the world he encountered in experience,and his own writingreflected his preoccupationwith clarity and precision.In a letterto his formerstudent Gertrude Stein, written shortly before his death,James explained why he had not yetfinished reading a novelshe had senthim: "As a rule readingfiction is as hardfor me as tryingto hit a targetby hurlingfeathers at it. I need resistanceto cerebrate!"James's pragmatism also reflectshis awarenessof the resistanceto vaguenessoffered by the worldbeyond hisown fertile imagination. In theabsence of any "resistance" in "externalreality," writingcan becomean exercisein creativity-or an excusefor unrestrained self- indulgence.James also insistedon respectingthe conventionalmeanings of words lestwe become"ungeared" from our cultural tradition and unableto communicate witheach other.When criticsalign his pragmatismwith a "linguisticskepticism" thatencourages creative (mis)readings by "strongpoets" - criticHarold Bloom's descriptionof critics who interpret texts unconstrained by conventional understand- ings-they departfrom James's vision.
24 Poirier,Poetry and Pragmatism,44, 46, 92, 131. CompareJames's own cautionarywords about language, whichmight seem to confirmPoirier's view: "Good and evilreconciled in a laugh! Don't yousee the difference, don't you see the identity?"James asked. "By George,nothing but othing!That soundslike nonsense,but it is pure onsense!"James published these epigrams, however, to show how wordsthat struckhim as brilliant whenhe wrotethem-under the influenceof nitrousoxide-dissolved into meaninglessnesswhen the nitrous oxidewore off. In suchextravagant language, James said, "reasonand sillinessunited." See WilliamJames, The Will to Believeand OtherEssays in Popular Philosophy(1897; Cambridge,Mass., 1979), 219-20; see also WilliamJames, The Principlesof Psychology(2 vols., 1890; Cambridge,Mass., 1981), I, 254-55. For an interpretationthat stresses the instabilityof James's writings but emphasizeswhat James hoped to accomplish thereby,see WilliamJoseph Gavin, WilliamJames and the Reinstatementof the Vague(Philadelphia, 1992). 25 WilliamJames to GertrudeStein, May 25, 1910, WilliamJames Papers (HoughtonLibrary, Harvard University,Cambridge, Mass.). On WilliamJames's letters to his brotherHenry that contrast the writingof fictionwith his own strugglesagainst the "resistance"of "facts"and the ideas of "otherphilosophers," see R. W. B. Lewis,TheJameses: A FamilyNarrative (New York, 1991), 409-10. Poirier,Poetry and Pragmatism, 114 TheJournal of American History June1996
Twoof the most prominent late-twentieth-century pragmatists, RichardJ. Bern- steinand HilaryPutnam, have challenged versions of pragmatism, including Rorty's and Poirier's,that emphasizelanguage and dismissthe conceptof experience. Theirwork, less knownoutside philosophy than Rorty's,is of particularinterest to historians.For three decades, since the appearance of his first book,John Dewey (1966), Bernsteinhas workedto forgelinks between recent continental European philosophyand theAmerican tradition of pragmatism. In PraxisandAction (1971), he tracedthe pragmatist philosophy of activity to itsroots in Aristotle'sphilosophy and contrastedthe promiseof that orientationwith the dangerthat analytic philosophymight sink into scholasticismunder the weightof "its own demand forever-increasing technical mastery." Dewey, by contrast, was alertto "themoral and social consequences"of his ideas, whichdemanded a communityof inquiry devotedto the "sharedvalues of opennessand fairness."From the beginning, Bernstein'spragmatism was groundedin a Deweyanconception of experienceand its consequencesfor social organization:"it is only by mutual criticismthat we can advanceour knowledgeand reconstructionof humanexperience. "26 The twinpillars of Bernstein'spragmatism have been a communityof inquiry and social action. In The Restructuringof Social and Political Theory(1976), Bernsteinexposed the reductionismof mainstreamsocial scienceand looked for alternativesin hermeneutics,phenomenology, and Habermas'scritical theory. In BeyondObjectivism and Relativism(1983), he identifiedthe "Cartesiananxiety" thathad dominatedand debilitatedmodern Western thought: "Either there is some supportfor our being,a fixedfoundation for our knowledge,or we cannot escape the forcesof darknessthat envelop us with madness,with intellectual and moralchaos." As an alternativeBernstein invoked the ideas of Hans-Georg Gadamer,Hannah Arendt,Habermas, and Rorty,arguing that these thinkers pointedtoward "the central themes of dialogue, conversation, undistorted commu- nication,[and] communaljudgment" that become possible "when individuals confronteach other as equals and participants."Bernstein advanced a characteristi- callyDeweyan conclusion on theconsequences of these ideas: we mustaim "toward the goal of cultivatingthe typesof dialogicalcommunities" in whichpractical judgmentand practicaldiscourse "become concretely embodied in our everyday practices,"whether those practices involve organizing a neighborhoodto build a playgroundor organizinga groupof students to investigatea historicalcontroversy and test alternativeinterpretations against the available evidence.Pragmatism,
166-67. Foran alternativeview, see David Bromwich,"Recent Work in LiteraryCriticism," Social Research,53 (Autumn1986), 447. Too often,Bromwich writes (with Fredric Jameson and TerryEagleton in mind), critics who indulgetheir own impulsesas readersobliterate the past, minimizing"the differentnessof the past," a consciousnessof which "performs a criticalfunction." Historical materials "are not altogethertractable: they will notdo everythingwe wantthem to." Whenrecounting changes in literarycriticism, Poirier underscores Bromwich's point by shiftingfrom the "linguisticskepticism" he endorsesin theoryto a commonsensereliance on shared meaningsof words.See Poirier,Poetry and Pragmatism,171-93. 26 RichardJ.Bernstein, John Dewey (New York,1966); RichardJ. Bernstein, Praxis andAction: Contemporary Philosophiesof Human Activity(Philadelphia, 1971), 319, 314. Pragmatism:An Old Namefor Some New Ways of Thinking? 115
forBernstein, originates in reflectionon experienceand culminatesin alteredexpe- rience.27 Putnamestablished himself by contributingto debatesin mathematicallogic and philosophyof mind, but like Rortyhe has becomeincreasingly disenchanted duringthe lasttwo decades with much of whatpasses for professional philosophy in the United States.Without denying the importanceof logic, formalstudies, or semantics,Putnam has neverthelessdescribed such workas "peripheral"and a reflectionof the "scientisticcharacter of logicalpositivism" that likewise infects muchanalytic philosophy. "Contemporary analytic metaphysics," he writesacidly, "hasno connectionwith anything but the 'intuitions' of a handfulof philosophers." He is equallyscornful of the nihilism he seesin Derrida'sdeconstruction. "Analytic philosophersbasically see philosophyas a science,only less developed, vaguer and newer,while Derrida basically sees philosophyas literature,as art. I don't think eitheris correct."Putnam interprets Rorty's occasional expressions of enthusiasm forDerrida as the lingeringeffects of Rorty'sdisappointment with the failureof analyticphilosophy to deliverthe certaintyit promised.28 In Realismwith a Human Face (1990), Putnamsought to clarifyhis differences fromRorty by listingfive principles that he-along withthe earlypragmatists- endorses,but thathe expectedRorty to reject.First, our standardsof warranted assertibilityare historical;second, they reflect our interestsand values;and third, theyare alwayssubject to reform,as are all our standards.Rorty accepted those butchallenged Putnam's two other principles: first, that "in ordinary circumstances, thereis usuallya factof the matteras to whetherthe statementspeople make are warrantedor not"; and second, "whethera statementis warrantedor not is independentof whether the majority of one's cultural peers would say it is warranted or unwarranted."From Rorty's perspective, warrant is a sociologicalquestion, so we should evade pointlessdebates about relativismby moving"everything over fromepistemology and metaphysicsto culturalpolitics, from claims to knowledge and appeals to self-evidenceto suggestionsabout whatwe shouldtry." This way of framingthe issue illustratesRorty's characteristic style of argument,which he candidlydescribes as tryingto make his opponentlook bad. When Rortytraces thisdisagreement to Putnam'spurported "appeals to self-evidence,"he does just that:Putnam's formulation, however, does not dependon self-evidenceany more thanJames's or Dewey'sideas of experiencedepended on "introspection";it de- pends insteadon evidencederived from experience.29 Theirsecond principal difference, Rorty points out, stems from Putnam's "dislike of,and myenthusiasm for, a pictureof human beings as justcomplicated animals."
27 Bernstein,Restructuring of Social and PoliticalTheory; Richard J. Bernstein,Beyond Objectivismand Relativism:Science, Hermeneutics, and Praxis(Philadelphia, 1983), 18, 223. 28 Putnam,Reason, Truth,and History,126; HilaryPutnam, Renewing Philosophy (Cambridge, Mass., 1992), 197; interviewwith Putnam in GiovannaBorradori, The AmericanPhilosopher, trans. Rosanna Crocitto (Chicago, 1994), 60-61, 66. 29 HilaryPutnam, Realism with a Human Face (Cambridge,Mass., 1990), 21; RichardRorty, "Putnam and the RelativistMenace," Journal of Philosophy,90 (Sept. 1993), 449, 457. 116 TheJournal of American History June1996
Putnam has argued that "one of our fundamentalself-conceptualizations" as humans"is thatwe are thinkers,and thatas thinkerswe are committedto there being some kind of truth."In Putnam'swords, "that means that thereis no eliminatingthe normative,"and Rortyis correctto emphasizethe gulfdividing him fromPutnam on thisissue. Putnamconcedes the historicistpoint thatour waysof usinglanguage change, but he insiststhat even so, "someof oursentences are true,and-in spiteof Rorty'sobjections to sayingthat things 'make' sentences true-the truthof 'I had cerealfor breakfast this morning' does depend on what happenedthis morning."30 This conclusion,which many historians will find congenial, depends finally on Putnam'sJamesianconception of whatit is to be humanand his conviction,which he has reiteratedagain and again duringthe last fifteenyears, that we should characterizethe mind as "neithera materialnor an immaterialorgan but a system ofcapacities," which returns us to theearly pragmatists' theory of voluntary action. In two essayswritten with Ruth Anna Putnam,Putnam stresses the "continuing interactivenature of experience"as Dewey conceivedof it. Thinkinginvolves relatingour choices and ouractions to theirconsequences, which requires reflecting not merelyon our wordsbut on the experiencedeffects of our practicalactivity. "We formulateends-in-view on the basisof experience,"they conclude, "and we appraisethese on the basis of additionalexperience." For a pragmatist,to be engagedin thatpractice is "to be committedto the existenceof truth.Democracy is a social conditionof such practice,and thereinlies its justification."31 For Putnam,as forBernstein, all inquirypresupposes values such as mutual understandingand cooperation,which in turnrequire free and open exchanges of ideasamong equals who are committedto thevalue of the practice.All of these aredeeply, irreducibly normative notions, and theyrequire a conceptionof human thinkingand agencydifferent from Rorty's view. At the conclusionof Reason, Truth,and History(1981), Putnamstated this crucial argument clearly and force- fully:"The notionof truthitself depends for its contenton our standardsof rationalacceptability, and thesein turnrest on and presupposeour values."32 Rorty'sdualisms cannot accommodatethe earlypragmatists' conception of artisticor religiousexperience. Rorty shares Dewey's conception of the liberating socialvalue of art,which engages the imagination by destabilizing the established orderand suggestingimagined alternatives. But for Dewey, as forJames,aesthetic
30Rorty, "Putnam and the RelativistMenace," 458; HilaryPutnam, "Why ReasonCan't Be Naturalized," in HilaryPutnam, Philosophical Papers, vol. III: Realismand Reason (New York, 1983), 229-47. See also RichardRorty, "Putnam on Truth,"Philosophy and PhenomenologicalResearch, 52 (June 1992), 415-18; and HilaryPutnam, "Truth, Activation Vectors, and PossessiveConditions for Concepts,"ibid., 431-47. Hilary Putnam,"The Questionof Realism,"in HilaryPutnam, Words and Life,ed. JamesConant (Cambridge, Mass., 1994), 299-302. 31 Putnam,"Question of Realism,"305, 292n6. On the earlypragmatists' theory of voluntaryaction and its relationto theirconception of truth,see JamesT. Kloppenberg,Uncertain Victory: Social Democracyand Progressivismin Europeanand AmericanThought, 1870-1920 (New York, 1986), 79-94. HilaryPutnam and Ruth Anna Putnam,"Education for Democracy," in Putnam, Wordsand Life, ed. Conant, 227; and Hilary Putnamand RuthAnna Putnam,"Dewey's Logic: Epistemologyas Hypothesis,"ibid., 218. 32 Putnam,Reason, Truth,and History,215. For a recentrestatement of this argument,see Putnam, "Pragmatismand MoralObjectivity," in Putnam, Wordsand Life,ed. Conant, 151-81. Pragmatism:An Old Namefor Some New Ways of Thinking? 117
and religiousexperiences of the sort Dewey characterized as "consummatory"derive theirexplosive power from qualities that can renderthem finally inexpressible in language. Rortyadmits the importanceof such fulfillingexperiences-for him theycome fromart, literature, or the wild orchidsthat have fascinatedhim since his childhood- but he denies that such privateenjoyments have anythingto do with philosophy.33James and Dewey disagreed,and the disagreementhas importantimplications. Dewey's aestheticsdiffered from the abstractand formaltheories of analytic philosophersand New Critics.He emphasizedaesthetic experience rather than the objectsof art. He deploredthe compartmentalizationthat cuts art offfrom the restof existence,and he denied the authorityof elitesto defineand control whatpasses for art. As RichardShusterman argues in PragmatistAesthetics (1992), Dewey opposed the idea that all artisticexperience requires interpretation by trainedprofessionals. Such linguisticuniversalism, which Shusterman accurately describesas "thedeepest dogma of the linguistic turn in bothanalytic and continen- tal philosophy,"he judges"neither self-evident nor immune to challenge."Resur- rectingthe ideas ofJames and Dewey,Shusterman insists that pragmatism "more radicallyrecognizes uninterpreted reality, experience, and understandingsas al- readyperspectival, prejudiced, and corrigible- in short,as non-foundationally given." He recommendshermeneutics for use only in particularcircumstances. Shustermaninsists that understanding does notalways "require linguistic articula- tion; a properreaction, a shudderor a tingle,may be enough to indicatethat one has understood.Some of thethings we experienceand understand"-notably aestheticand somaticexperiences - "are nevercaptured in language."34 Rorty,locked inside the tight boundaries of textualism, appreciates such nondis- cursiveexperience but denies it anyphilosophical significance. Dewey, by contrast, wrotethat "a universeof experienceis a preconditionof a universeof discourse. Withoutits controllingpresence, there is no way to determinethe relevancy, weight,or coherenceof any designateddistinction or relation.The universeof experiencesurrounds and regulatesthe universeof discoursebut neverappears as suchwithin the latter. "35 Linguistic pragmatists such as Rortyand othercontempo- rarythinkers who privilegelanguage and distrustexperience not only disagree withDewey but also therebydismiss much of what historians value in theirefforts to understandthe past as it was lived. In James'sintroduction to the lectureseventually published as The Varietiesof ReligiousExperience, he urgedhis listeners to think about especially rich, powerful,
` See RichardRorty, "Trotsky and the Wild Orchids,"Common Knowledge, 1 (Winter1992), 140-53. 34 RichardShusterman, Pragmatist Aesthetics: Living Beauty, Rethinking Art (Oxford, Eng., 1992), 22, 32, 62, 76, 120-34. See also David R. Hiley,James F. Bohman,and RichardShusterman, eds., The Interpretive Turn:Philosophy, Science, Culture (Ithaca, 1991). On thedifference between nineteenth- and twentieth-century hermeneutics,and thereasons why historians should recover the former, see MichaelErmarth, "The Transformation of Hermeneutics:19th-Century Ancients and 20th-CenturyModerns," Monist, 64 (April 1981), 176-94. JohnDewey, Logic: The Theoryof Inquiry(1938), in Dewey,Later Works,ed. Boydston,XII, 74. See also the thoughtfuldiscussion in RichardShusterman, "Dewey on Experience:Foundation or Reconstruction?," PhilosophicalForum, 26 (Winter1994), 127-48. 118 TheJournal of American History June1996
and sometimesunforgettable experiences that he describedas "entirelyunparalleled by anythingin verbalthought." Giles Gunn, in his finebook Thinkingacross the AmertcanGrain (1992), quotes at lengtha passage thatexpresses "much of the heritageof pragmatismthat Rorty has foundproblematic." The meaningof such intenseexperiences, in James'swords, "seems to well up fromout of their verycentre, in a wayimpossible verbally to describe."On reflection,James observed, our experienceof everymoment of lifeseems to expand in the waya revolving disk painted with a spiralpattern appears at once to growcontinuously from withinitself and yetto remainthe same size. Such "self-sustainingin the midst of self-removal,which characterizes all realityand fact,is somethingabsolutely foreignto the natureof language,and even to the natureof logic, commonly so-called,"which explainsJames's aversion to theemerging philosophical obsessions with language and mathematicallogic and his stubbornfascination with reli- gious experience. Somethingforever exceeds, escapes from statement, withdraws from definition, mustbe glimpsedand felt,not told. No one knowsthis like your genuine professorof philosophy.For what glimmers and twinkleslike a bird'swing in thesunshine it is his businessto snatchand fix.And everytime he fireshis volleyof new vocables out ofhis philosophic shot-gun, whatever surface-flush ofsuccess he mayfeel, he secretlykens at thesame time the finer hollowness and irrelevance. Whereasphilosophers who have made the linguisticturn might scoff at James's insistenceon the inadequaciesof languageto captureand pin down the magic of experience,historians have good reasonsto pay attention.36 Indeed,for historians the greater temptation may be to treatexperience uncriti- cally,as a courtof lastappeal, slightingthe roleof languageand communication. Despite the incapacityof languageto encompassfully the realmsof religious, aesthetic,emotional, and somaticexperience, we neverthelessusually have access to the experienceof otherpersons, and communicateour own experienceto others,principally through language. Although lived experiencemay exceed the boundariesof discourse,our expressionof it usually,and our discussionof it always,cannot. Moreover, extralinguistic experiences have mostoften been used to authorizethe dogmaticassertions of foundationalprinciples that pragmatists old and new distrust.Traditionally appearing as religioustruths proclaimed by believers,more recently such foundational principles have been assertedby those whoclaim that their race, class, gender, or other characteristic gives them immediate experienceand thusinsights inaccessible, perhaps even incomprehensible, to those outsidethe charmed-or maligned-circle.37How do we assessand adjudicate suchcompeting claims, grounded in appealsto experience?The earlypragmatists'
36 Giles Gunn, Thinkingacross the American Grain: Ideology, Intellect, and theNew Pragmatism(Chicago, 1992), 112-13. ForJames's draft of theopening of his Giffordlectures in Edinburgh,the basisfor The Varieties of ReligiousExperience, see Perry,Thought and Characterof WilliamJames, II, 328-29. 31 For an incisivediscussion from an implicitlypragmatist perspective, see David A. Hollinger,Postethnic America:Beyond Multiculturalism (New York, 1995). Pragmatism:An Old Namefor Some New Ways of Thinking? 119
conceptof truthis crucialnot only because it acknowledgesthose appeals but because,in its ethicaland politicaldimensions, it offersa methodfor evaluating such claims.It thus providesa way of attemptingto negotiatedifferences that mightotherwise seem irreconcilable.That pragmaticmethod is democracy.
Forboth James and Deweydemocracy was much more than a formof government or a set of legal arrangements.Dewey urgedus to stop "thinkingof democracy as somethinginstitutional and external"and to see it as "a wayof personallife," to realizethat "democracyis a moralideal and so faras it becomesa factis a moralfact." In James's words, "democracy is a kindof religion,"and forpragmatic reasons"we are bound not to admitits failure." Such "faithsand utopiasare the noblestexercise of human reason," and we mustnot surrender them to cynicism.38 Jamesand Deweyconsidered their pragmatism inseparable from their commit- ment to democracyas an ethicalideal. Both believed that theirchallenge to inheritedphilosophical dualisms and absolutes,their conception of truthas fluid and culturallycreated, and theirbelief that all experienceis meaningfulwere consistentonly with democracy, specifically with the principlesof social equality and individualautonomy. The idealsof equality and autonomyappealed to James and Dewey becauseof theiropen-endedness and flexibility.They did not entail particularconceptions of the good lifefor all people at all times,although they did ruleout fixedand hierarchicalsocial systems sustained by appeals to allegedly universaltruths that all membersof the societymust embrace. Forappeals to universaltruths, James and Deweysubstituted a process of inquiry thatwas both democraticand scientific.Dewey's enthusiasm for science is often misinterpretedas a narrowconcern with techniqueto the exclusionof ethical considerations;to the contrary,Dewey valued the scientificmethod because it embodiedan ethicalcommitment to open-endedinquiry wherein human values shapedthe selection of questions, the formulation of hypotheses, and theevaluation of results.Dewey conceivedof the ideal scientificcommunity as a democratically organized,truth-seeking group of independentthinkers who testedtheir results againstpragmatic standards, but thosestandards always reflected moral, rather thannarrowly technical, considerations. This unifyingthread connects all of Dewey'swritings. In The Studyof Ethics (1894), he insistedthat knowing cannot be separatedfrom valuing. The qualitative and socialdimensions of experience make pure "objectivity" or "neutrality" impossi- ble forhuman beings. In The Public and Its Problemshe cautionedthat "the glorificationof 'pure' science"is but "a rationalizationof an escape" because knowledge"is whollya moralmatter." In Experienceand Naturehe stressedthe moraland aestheticdimension of experience,its qualitativeas well as cognitive
38John Dewey, "CreativeDemocracy-The Task beforeUs," in Dewey,Later Works,ed. Boydston,XIV, 228; WilliamJames, The Social Value of the CollegeBred, in WilliamJames, Writings, 1902-1910, ed. Bruce Kuklick(New York, 1987), 1245. 120 TheJournal of AmericanHistory June 1996
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understandingand desire,with that world to whichone-sided philosophy confines 'nature."39 Dewey judged the notionof "value-free" inquiry abhorrent as well as incoherent. An addressDewey wrotefor a banquet celebratinghis eightiethbirthday in 1939states clearly and conciselythe connection between his devotion to democracy and his philosophicalconceptions of experienceand ethics.Democracy, Dewey proclaimed,is "a wayof life"that requires "faith in thecapacity of humanbeings forintelligent judgment and actionif proper[that is, democratic]conditions are furnished."To thosewho judged thisfaith naive or utopian,Dewey insisted that itderives neither from metaphysics nor from wishful thinking but from the everyday experienceof neighbors and friendsgathering "to converse freely with one another. Intolerance,abuse, calling of names because of differences ofopinion about religion or politicsor business,as well as becauseof differencesof race,color, wealth or degreeof cultureare treasonto the democraticway of life."Anything that blocks communicationengenders "antagonistic sects and factions" and underminesdemoc- racy.Legal guarantees- the focusof late-twentieth-centuryefforts to assurethe rightto freeexpression -are inadequatewhen "the giveand takeof ideas, facts, experiences,is chokedby mutualsuspicion, by abuse, by fearand hatred."For Deweydemocracy required more than securing individual rights. It requiredfaith in thepossibility of resolving disputes through uncoerced deliberation, "as cooperative undertakings,"instead of havingone partysuppress the otherovertly through violenceor moresubtly through ridicule or intimidation.If such cooperationis impossible,then deliberative democracy as Deweyconceived of it is impossible.40 The emphasison differencein thecontemporary United States does notdiscredit Dewey'spragmatism, as some writersunfamiliar with his ideas assume; instead it echoesDewey's own viewof diversity.Achieving the cooperationnecessary for sociallife requires "giving differences a chance to showthemselves," he insisted. "The expressionof differenceis not only a rightof the otherpersons but is a meansof enrichingone's own life-experience."Dewey's conception of democracy involvedenriching the range of choices,and expandingthe possibilities of finding differentkinds of fulfillment, for all persons.Democracy does not impose authority fromabove but reliesinstead on "theprocess of experienceas end and as means," as thesource of authority and themeans of choosing among and testingalternative directions.This processis continuousbecause its terminuscannot be designated, or even imagined,in advanceof democraticsocial experimentationto create"a freerand morehumane experience in whichall shareand to whichall contribute." Deweyharbored no secretdesire to bringall diversityto an end underthe shelter of a snug but stiflingconsensus: to the contrary,a democracywithout difference was a contradictionin terms,because he believedpassionately that all individuals,
39 JohnDewey, The Studyof Ethics:A Syllabus,in John Dewey, The EarlyWorks, 1882-1898, ed. Jo Ann Boydston(5 vols.,Carbondale, 1967-1972), IV, 339; Dewey,Public andIts Problems, 344-45; Dewey,Experience and Nature,74-76; and JohnDewey, Art as Experience,in Dewey,Later Works, ed. Boydston,X, 156. 40 Dewey,"Creative Democracy-The Task beforeUs," 224-30, esp. 226-28. 122 TheJournal of American History June1996
in theiruniqueness, make differentcontributions to democraticlife. The richer the mix,the richerthe culturethat results from the interaction.4' Dewey'scommitment to pluralismand diversity,to therecognition and cultiva- tionof difference,and to thepotential of communicationto engendercooperation and clarify,if not resolve,disputes illustrates how wrongheadedis the familiar charge,which Dewey explicitlyand repeatedlydenied, that his emphasison a communityof inquiryreveals the latentelitism of pragmatism.Throughout the 1920s,against behaviorists and empiricalsocial scientists who invoked his pragma- tismon behalfof theirefforts at socialengineering, he insistedon expandingthe "communityof cooperativeeffort and truth."In IndividualismOld and New (1929) he elaboratedthe argumentadvanced in The Public and Its Problems concerningthe follyof relyingon elites.He admittedthat some communitiesof scientists,"small groups having a somewhattechnical ability," did indeedillustrate how the processof inquirymight work, yet he insistedthat such groupsreveal only"a possibilityin the present- one of manypossibilities that are a challenge to expansion,and not a groundfor retreatand contraction"from democracy. Unfortunately,interpreters of Dewey'sideas sometimesignore such explicit argu- mentsand assertthat there must be somethingantidemocratic about communities ofinquiry, even those that are open, expanding,and democraticallyconstituted.42 Althoughit has longbeen common to contrastJames'sindividualism to Dewey's commitmentto socialaction, their differences are subtler.They reflect in partthe simplefact of James'sdeath in 1910 and Dewey'sgrowing involvement in the distinctivepolitical controversies of the followingfour decades, ratherthan any fundamentalinconsistency in theirpolitical orientations. Both conceived of lived experienceas irreduciblysocial and meaning-laden;both frequently invoked de- mocracyas thesocial ideal consistentwith their pragmatism. James attributed the "unhealthiness"of laborrelations, for example, to "thefact that one-half of our fellow-countrymenremain entirely blind to the internalsignificance of the lives of the otherhalf." Instead of enteringimaginatively into theirways of life- to say nothingof enteringinto constructive,democratic dialogue withthem- "everybodyremains outside of everybodyelse's sight."In additionto endorsing deliberative,or discursive, democracy- defined by the creative potential of egalitar- ian dialogue,not merelydemocratic institutions or universalrights to participate in politicalactivity -James also championedwhat would now be designatedmulti- culturalism.His ideal of a democraticculture, grounded on his conceptionof
41 Ibid., 228-30. On thisdimension of Dewey'spragmatism, see also HilaryPutnam, "A Reconsideration of DeweyanDemocracy," in Pragmatismin Law and Society,ed. MichaelBrint and WilliamWeaver (Boulder, 1991), 217-43. On the importanceof pluralismto pragmatism,see also Putnam,Words and Life,ed. Conant, 194-95. 42John Dewey, Individualism Old and New, in Dewey,Later Works, ed. Boydston,V, 115. The assumption thatknowledge inevitably masks and imposespower often underlies such chargesof elitism.From a Deweyan perspectiveone mightconcede the point and ask whatalternative is preferableto stipulatingthat democratic principlesshould shape the processof inquiryand theformation of thosecommunities that evaluate knowledge claims.Particularly for scholars, the refusal to admitthat there are betterand worse-moreand lessdemocratic- waysto generateknowledge is self-defeating.See the judiciousreview essay: Thomas Bender, "Social Science, Objectivity,and Pragmatism,"Annals of Scholarship,9 (Winter-Spring1992), 183-97. Pragmatism:An Old Namefor Some New Ways of Thinking? 123
immediateexperience and his commitmentto pragmatism,"commands us to tolerate,respect, and indulge"those "harmlesslyinterested and happyin their own ways,however unintelligible these may be to us." His creedwas "Hands off: neitherthe whole of truth nor the whole of good is revealedto anysingle observer." The politicalconsequence of James's pragmatism was "thewell-known democratic respectfor the sacrednessof individuality,"the "toleranceof whateveris not itselfintolerant."43 The earlypragmatists' arguments for democracy helped inspiregenerations of socialand political activists ranging from Progressive reformers through New Dealers to membersof the civil rightsmovement and the New Left. In the debates thatrage among contemporary thinkers concerning the politicalconsequences of pragmatism,the democraticconvictions of James and Deweyhave slippedout of focusbecause the political ideas of linguistic pragmatists such as Rortyhave attracted so muchattention. Because Rorty's version of liberalism appeals to manyAmericans disillusionedwith politics or cynicalabout itsprospects, it is importantto be clear about thesimilarities and the differencesbetween his ideas and thoseof the early pragmatists.Rorty has repeatedlycharacterized the cultureand institutionsof liberaldemocracy as a preciousachievement and endorsedthe social-democratic programthat has been at the heartof pragmaticpolitical activism since the days ofJamesand Dewey,or Rauschenbuschand Croly.But, unlikeJamesand Dewey, he deniesthat pragmatism provides any philosophical foundation for such a poli- tics- or that we need one. Rortynevertheless characterizes pragmatism as "a philosophyof solidarity rather thandespair." He triesto reassurehis readersthat we need not discardour beliefs about thenatural world, or our moraland politicalvalues, just becausewe realize we havemade them,rather than found them. Our faithin science,like our other faiths,helps us get thingsdone, and it will continueto help us even afterwe havestopped trying to "divinize"it -likewise ourdemocratic faith. In theabsence of foundations,Rorty recommends that we look insteadto history-butfrom an idiosyncratic,even antihistoricalvantage point. We mustaccept "our inheritance from,and our conversationwith, our fellow-humansas our onlysource of guid- ance." This is our defenseagainst the nihilism that those who believein universal principlesfear will follow from pragmatism. "Our identificationwith our commu-
13 WilliamJames, Talks to Teacherson Psychology;And to Studentson Some of Life'sIdeals (1899; New York, 1958), 188-89, 169, 19-20. On James'stragic sensibility and Dewey'sindomitable democratic faith, see Kloppenberg,Uncertain Victory, 115-95, 340-415. OnJames'spolitics, cf. the contrasting emphases of Deborah J. Coon, "'One Momentin theWorld's Salvation': Anarchism and theRadicalization of William James, "Journal ofAmericanHistory, 83 (June 1996), 70-99; and GeorgeCotkin, William James: PublicPhilosopher (Baltimore, 1990). On Dewey'sdemocratic ideas, cf. Westbrook,John Dewey and AmericanDemocracy; and Alan Ryan, JohnDewey and the High Tide of AmericanLiberalism (New York, 1995). For the long-standardview of the differencesbetween James's and Dewey's outlooks,see JamesCampbell, The CommunityReconstructs: The Meaningof Pragmatic Social Thought(Urbana, 1992). Forcriticism of Dewey,George Herbert Mead, andJames Tuftsfor trying to moderateclass conflict and to translatetheir Protestantism and republicanisminto a reformism supposedlyill suited to theindustrial era, see AndrewFeffer, The ChicagoPragmatists andAmerican Progressivism (Ithaca, 1993). An imaginativeanalysis that creditsDewey and especiallyJames with realizing that corporate capitalismushered in possibilitiesfor a "postmodernsubjectivity" is JamesLivingston, Pragmatism and the PoliticalEconomy of CulturalRevolution, 1850-1940 (Chapel Hill, 1994). 124 TheJournal of American History June1996
nity-our society,our politicaltradition, our intellectualheritage-is heightened when we see this communityas ours ratherthan nature's,shaped ratherthan found,one among manywhich men have made." If we were to surrenderour aspirationsto certainty,he writes,we "would regardthe justificationof liberal societysimply as a matterof historicalcomparison with other attempts at social organization."At firstglance historians might find Rorty's argument intriguing: He urgesus to "trynot to want somethingwhich stands beyond history and institutions"because "a beliefcan stillregulate action" even if we realize it is "caused by nothingdeeper than contingenthistorical circumstances." In Rorty's "liberalutopia," the claimthat there is "'somethingthat stands beyond history' has becomeunintelligible."44 Rortyurges us to discardattempts to providephilosophical props to hold up our humanitarianand democraticvalues, to faceunblinkingly the contingencyof our senseof selfand our commitments,and to adopt a postureof ironicdistance fromwhatever we nowaccept as our"final vocabulary." The heroof Rorty's "liberal utopia" can "sloughoff the Enlightenmentvocabulary" of rationalfoundations underlyinguniversal principles and strivesimply to avoidinflicting pain on others, a tabooRorty simply posits as self-evidentto anyonewho has inherited our tradition. Having givenup his own adolescentattempts to "hold realityand justicein a singlevision," Rorty has become convincedthat "an intricately-texturedcollage ofprivate narcissism and publicpragmatism" may be ourbest hope for synthesizing love and justice. We can no longeraim formore than what Alan Ryan calls "welfare-capitalism-with-a-humanface,"Rorty has written. Terms such as "capital- ist economy"and "bourgeoisculture" have become meaninglesssince 1989; in the absenceof anycontrasting socialist alternatives, "we Westernleftists" should "banalizeour vocabularyof politicaldeliberation." Taking that advice to heart, Rortyclaims that our political needs boil downto "security"and "sympathy"or, as he put it, "mereniceness" to all "featherlessbipeds." Such formulations, evidently calculatedto infuriateRorty's earnest critics, no doubtaccount for much of his no- toriety.45 Rortycontends that philosophycan no longeroffer much guidanceto those interestedin ethicsand politics.For him liberaldemocratic cultures are simply "a productof time and chance," "an accidentalcoincidence, " or "a fortunate happenstance,"and thehistorical emergence of the United States was "an admirable result"that occurred "just by good luck." Rorty'sdevil-may-care view of history as capriceand his intentionallybanal ethicof "niceness"contrast strikingly with James'sstance in suchessays as "The MoralPhilosopher and the MoralLife" and Dewey's historicalanalyses of the connectionsbetween theories of ethicsand
RichardRorty, "Solidarity or Objectivity,"in Post-AnalyticPhilosophy, ed. Rajchmanand West, 15-16; Rorty,Consequences of Pragmatism,166; RichardRorty, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity(New York, 1989), xvi, 53, 189-90. ` Rorty,Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity,53; Rorty,"Trotsky and the Wild Orchids,"140-53; Rorty, PhilosophicalPapers, I, 210; RichardRorty, "The Intellectualsat theEnd of Socialism,"Yale Review,80 (April 1992), 1-16; RichardRorty, "Human Rights,Rationality, and Sentimentality,"ibid., 81 (Oct. 1993), 1-20. Pragmatism:An Old Namefor Some New Ways of Thinking? 125
politicalorganization, between personal responsibility and social justice. Rorty claimsthat Dewey's pragmatism "did nottell you what purposes to have; itsethics is situationalat best."46That could be said generallyof Jamesas well. But as RobertWestbrook and I argue,Dewey challenged prevailing systems of ethicsand conventionalliberal and socialistpolitical theories, but he neitherendorsed the judgmentof manyanalytic philosophers that ethics and politicalphilosophy are obsoletenor acceptedanything like Rorty'sadvice that urgingsympathy is the bestwe can do. Jamesand Dewey both believed that demolishingearlier arguments about ethicsand politicscleared the wayfor critical analysis of personalfreedom and responsibility,rather than bringing such discourse to an end. As Deweyput it in 1940, in a statementthat indicatesthe gulf separatinghim fromRorty, "any theoryof activityin social and moralmatters, liberal or otherwise,which is not groundedin a comprehensivephilosophy, seems to me to be onlya projection ofarbitrary personal preferences. " When Rorty writes that "we do notneed philoso- phy for social criticism"or contendsthat "Dewey, like Nietzsche,altered our conceptionof reason. . . in a waythat leaves no roomfor the idea thatdemocratic idealscan be supportedby invoking ahistorical 'demands of reason,"'he neglects Dewey'sown "comprehensivephilosophy." More accurateis Rorty'sobservation of the differencebetween his hypotheticalDewey and the historicalDewey, who caredpassionately about demonstratingthe connectionbetween experience and the ethicaland politicalideal of democracy.Historicizing reason, a projectmany of James'sand Dewey's late-twentieth-centuryadmirers share withthem, need not culminatein Rorty'srigid divisions of languagefrom experience and of the privatefrom the public sphere, nor in his dismissalof ethicsand politicsas proper subjectsfor philosophers, nor, as I will arguein my conclusion,in his disregard for the carefuland criticalstudy of how and why our traditionhas taken its distinctiveshape. Rorty's position is insufficientlypragmatic. Although he considers himselfa partisanof social democraticreforms and criticizesacademic cultural politics,his liberalironism encourages selfishness, cynicism, and resignationby undercuttingefforts to confrontthe hard factsof povertyand greed.4
Numerouscontemporary thinkers have invoked pragmatism to bolstera widerange of politicalarguments; their contributions to debatesabout race,gender, and law
46 Rorty,Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity,22, 37, 68; Rorty,"Dewey between Hegel and Darwin,"65, 64. 47 JohnDewey, "Nature in Experience,"in Dewey,Later Works, ed. Boydston,XIV, 150; Borradori,American Philosopher,trans. Crocitto, 117; Rorty,"Dewey betweenHegel and Darwin,"68. On the contrastbetween Rorty'sideas about history, religion, ethics, and politicsand thoseof other pragmatists, seejames T. Kloppenberg, "Democracyand Disenchantment:From Weber and Deweyto Habermasand Rorty,"in ModernistImpulses in the Human Sciences,ed. Ross,69-90; and JamesT. Kloppenberg,"Knowledge and Beliefin AmericanPublic Life,"in Knowledgeand Belief: EnlightenmentTraditions and ModernReligious Thought, ed. William M. Shea and PeterA. Huff(New York, 1995), 27-51. On the connectionbetween Dewey's ideas about ethicsand his commitmentto democracy,see Westbrook,John Dewey and AmericanDemocracy. See also RichardRorty, "Intellectualsin Politics,"Dissent, 38 (Fall 1991), 483-90. 126 TheJournal of American History June1996
makeclear how many distinct versions of pragmatismare aliveand whichversions differmarkedly from the ideas of the early pragmatists. Cornel West has constructed a loose narrativetradition connecting James and Dewey withEmerson, Du Bois, and such thinkersas C. WrightMills, Sidney Hook, and ReinholdNiebuhr. In additionto accuratelyassociating antifoundationalism and democraticsensibility withAmerican pragmatists, West characterizes them as championsof thosewhom the theoristof anticolonialismFrantz Fanon calls "the wretchedof the earth." Westdistances his position from Rorty's pragmatism, which he judgestoo narrowly focusedon languageand insufficientlyattuned to the pressingneed forpolitical activism."The distinctiveappeal of Americanpragmatism in our postmodern moment,"West writes, "is itsunashamedly moral emphasis and itsunequivocally ameliorativeimpulse." Although lack of precisionand inattentionto detailmake West'sThe American Evasion ofPhilosophy problematic as a historyof philosophy, it is a spiritedand provocativepiece of pragmaticcultural criticism.48 An ardentadmirer of Dewey, West nevertheless argues that Dewey's pragmatism mustbe supplementedwith the tragicand religioussensibilities of Niebuhr("the verticaldimension"), the awarenessof class of Karl Marxand AntonioGramsci, and a sharpersensitivity to issuesof raceand gender(the "horizontaldimension") thanthe earlypragmatists showed.49 In recentyears, as he has attainedcelebrity statusof a sortneither James nor Dewey had to endure,West has becomeless an academicphilosopher than a "jazz freedomfighter" whose "prophetic pragmatism" attemptsto translatea philosophicalperspective descended fromJames and Dewey, a religiousawareness of evil and finitude,and a radicaldemocratic politics into the idiomsof postmodernacademic discourse, black spirituality,and hip-hop. Rortyhas complainedthat West's phrase "prophetic pragmatism" sounds as odd as the phrase"charismatic trash pick up."50West's cheerleading seems pointless to Rortysince he believeswe cannotbridge the gap betweenthe richpossibilities availableto us in privatelife and Dewey'simagined "great community," a now- meaninglessutopia we cannot envisionon the flattenedlandscape of welfare capitalism.Between the negative freedoms individuals enjoy in a liberaldemocracy and thepromise of an evenricher form of lifewithin a moreradically democratic public sphere-the "positivefreedom" that Dewey embracedin Liberalismand
48 CornelWest, The AmericanEvasion of Philosophy:A Genealogyof Pragmatism(Madison, 1989), 4. 49 CornelWest, "Politicsof AmericanNeo-Pragmatism," in Post-AnalyticPhilosophy, ed. Rajchmanand West, 259-72. On West'saccount of Americanpragmatism and his "propheticpragmatism," see Kloppenberg, "Knowledgeand Beliefin AmericanPublic Life." Fine studies of philosophy, religion, and ethicsfrom pragmatist perspectivesare HenrySamuel Levinson,The ReligiousInvestigations of WilliamJames (Chapel Hill, 1981); and StevenC. Rockefeller,John Dewey: ReligiousFaith and DemocraticHumanism (New York, 1991). For a "modestpragmatism" that does not relyexplicitly on Dewey but echoesmany of his ideas, see JeffreyStout, Ethicsafter Babel: The Languagesof Moralsand TheirDiscontents (Boston, 1988). s0 CornelWest, Race Matters(1993; New York, 1994), 150-51. For HenryLouis GatesJr.'s description of West as "the preeminentAfrican-American intellectual of our time," see JackE. White, "Philosopherwith a Mission,"Time, June 7, 1993, pp. 60-62; foranother generous assessment of West, see RobertBoynton, "The New Intellectuals,"Atlantic Monthly, 275 (March1995), 53-70. Comparethe pyrotechnic display of ressentiment by Leon Wieseltier,"All and Nothingat All," New Republic,March 6, 1995, pp. 31-36. For responsesfrom readers(including Rorty), see "Decline of CornelWest," ibid., April 3, 1995, pp. 6-7. RichardRorty, review of The AmericanEvasion of Philosophyby CornelWest, Transition,52 (1991), 75-77. Pragmatism:An Old Namefor Some New Ways of Thinking? 127
Social Action-falls a chasm. To Rorty,our centuryillustrates the crueltythat mustresult from attempts to forcecommunity where there is conflict.But to West (and othersdrawn toward Dewey's ideal), it is essentialthat pragmatists continue strivingfor the democratictransformation of everydayexperience. LikeWest, many feminists endorse pragmatism as an alternativeto the sterility of analyticphilosophy and the nihilismof post-structuralismand as a leverto dislodgeentrenched ways of thinking. Against dueling conceptions of fixed "male" and "female"natures, feminist pragmatists instead call foran open-ended,anti- essentialist,experimental approach to gender.In a special issue of the journal Hypatiapublished in 1993, CharleneHaddock Seigfried, who has writtenexten- sivelyon WilliamJames, has broughttogether works by historians, philosophers, and politicaltheorists exploring the potential of pragmatismfor feminism."5 Such earlypragmatists as James,Dewey, and GeorgeHerbert Mead consideredpragma- tisma weaponin thecampaign against restrictive gender roles for the same reason theyconsidered it a weaponin thecampaigns against imperialism and racismand fordemocracy. They allied with feminist activists and championedfeminist scholars such as JessieTaft because theirconception of pragmatismextended beyond languageto an awarenessof the experienceof people who weredenied choices, or unnecessarilyrestricted in theirchoices, by prevailing assumptions and patterns of socialrelations.52 The pervasivenessof powerthat many contemporary feminists emphasize has led some, notablyJoan Scott,to resistthe conceptof "experience"because they fearit can lead us away fromhistoricism toward a new foundationalism.But insteadof dismissingthe conceptas Rortydoes, Scottrecommends examining howexperience is said to yieldunassailable knowledge, a strategyresembling that ofJames and Dewey."3 Similarly,other feminists resist the ideas of a community of inquiryor a deliberativedemocracy because they fear such ideas valorizewhite
" CharleneHaddock Seigfried, Chaos and Context:A Studyin Williamjames (Athens,Ohio, 1978); Charlene Haddock Seigfried,William James's Radical Reconstructionof Philosophy(Albany, 1990). Seigfriedbrought togethera groupof essays with her introduction, Charlene Haddock Seigfried, "The MissingPerspective: Feminist Pragmatism,"Transactions of the CharlesS. PeirceSociety, 27 (Fall 1991), 405-74. And see the specialissue "Feminismand Pragmatism,"ed. CharleneHaddock Seigfried, Hypatia, 8 (Spring1993). Thereare no specifically pragmatistor feministdoctrines about philosophicalor politicalissues, according to RichardRorty, "Feminism, Ideology,and Deconstruction:A PragmatistView," ibid., 96-103. 52 The specialissue "Feminismand Pragmatism"contains essays on the importanceof experiencefor early feministpragmatists and responsesto contemporarylinguistic pragmatists. See especiallyJane Upin, "Charlotte PerkinsGilman: Instrumentalism beyond Dewey," Hypatia, 8 (Spring1993), 38-63; M. ReginaLeffers, "Pragma- tistsJaneAddams andJohn Dewey Informthe Ethicof Care," ibid, 64-77; GregoryFernando Pappas, "Dewey and Feminism:The Affectiveand Relationshipsin Dewey'sEthics," ibid., 78-95; TimothyV. Kaufman-Osborn, "TeasingFeminist Sense fromExperience," ibid., 124-44; MitchellAboulafia, "Was George HerbertMead a Feminist?,"ibid., 145-58; Jane Duran, "The Intersectionof Feminismand Pragmatism,"ibid., 159-71; and LynnHankinson Nelson, "A Questionof Evidence,"ibid., 172-89. For documentsilluminating Jessie Taft's pragmatistfeminism and demonstratingJames's commitment to feminismin practice,see "Archive,"ibid., 215-33. 13 For a persuasivecase forhistoricizing the conceptof experienceand examiningcritically all appeals to experiencethat resemblesthe perspectiveI call pragmatichermeneutics, see Joan Scott, "The Evidenceof Experience,"Critical Inquiry, 17 (Summer1991), 773-97. Cf.James T. Kloppenberg,"Objectivity and Histori- cism:A Centuryof AmericanHistorical Writing," American Historical Review, 94 (Oct. 1989), 1011-30. For a feministperspective on the uses of the conceptof experience,see LorraineCode, "Who Cares?The Poverty of Objectivismfor a MoralEpistemology," Annals of Scholarship,9 (Winter-Spring1992), 1-18. 128 TheJournal of American History June1996
male normsof rationalityand are thus inevitablyexclusionary. Recent work by pragmatistfeminists suggests both how historicizing experience enables us to move beyondlanguage without positing a new foundationalismconcerning "women's waysof knowing" or "rational deliberation" and how to acknowledgepower relations withoutpositing a new essentialismabout "difference"and "power."Pragmatist legaltheorists such as Joan Williams and MargaretJane Radin argue that profound conflicts,for example, those between women who workinside and outsidethe home and betweenwomen who supportand who oppose abortionrights, are powerfullyshaped by deep but seldomrecognized cultural fissures concerning the meaningsof freedomand responsibilityfor men and women.Those divisions can be tracedto the nineteenth-centurydoctrine of separatespheres, unfortunately resurrectedas an indirectconsequence of early-twentieth-centuryfeminist essen- tialism.The ironicresult was a reinforcingof stereotypesof home and mother thatundercut feminists' efforts to loosengender roles and broadenwomen's oppor- tunities.Reinscribing a comparable essentialism under the bannerof "difference," as somecontemporary feminists do, merelyresuscitates older versions of separate spheresand notionsof privileged knowledge that exclude new categories of outsiders ratherthan opening doors of understandingthat might lead to toleranceor even, potentially,mutual respect. From an explicitlypragmatist perspective, Williams challengescurrently fashionable notions of femaleas well as male identityand the ostensiblepredispositions of womenfor "relationships" and "caring"and of men for "justice"and "rights."Radin arguesthat pragmatistfeminists should "rejectstatic, timeless conceptions of reality"in favorof "contextuality,expressed in the commitmentof Dewey and Jamesto factsand theirmeaning in human life, and narrative,expressed in James'sunfolding 'epic' universeand Dewey's historicism."Echoing West's challengeto Rorty'snarrowing of pragmatismto language,Radin concludesin a Deweyanspirit: "If we are pragmatists,we will recognizethe inescapabilityof perspectiveand the indissolubilityof thoughtand action," insightsthat can help feministsavoid rigid and counterproductive dogmas.54 Otherlegal theoristsshare Williams's and Radin'senthusiasm for pragmatism as a way of resolvingthe battlespitting those affiliatedwith the criticallegal studiesmovement on the leftor withthe law and economicsmovement on the rightagainst those attemptingto keep alive notionsof originalintent as the standardfor interpreting the Constitution.From the perspectiveof such legal pragmatists,much legal reasoning- at both ends of the politicalspectrum - is blinkeredby abstractand absoluteprinciples from seeing how the law has func- tionedin practicein Americanculture."
I'Joan Williams,"Gender Wars: SelflessWomen in the Republicof Choice," New York UniversityLaw Review,66 (Dec. 1991), 1559-1634. See alsoJoan Williams, "Deconstructing Gender," Michigan Law Review, 87 (Feb. 1989), 797-845; and Joan Williams,"Virtue and Oppression,"Nomos: Yearbookof the American Societyof Politicaland Legal Philosophy,ed. JohnW. Chapmanand WilliamA. Galston(New York, 1992), 309-37. MargaretJaneRadin, "The Pragmatistand theFeminist," in Pragmatismin Law and Society,ed. Brint and Weaver,127-53. 1sSeeJoan Williams, "Critical Legal Studies: The Death ofTranscendence and theRise of the New Langdells," New YorkUniversity Law Review,62 (June 1987), 429-96. Pragmatism:An Old Namefor Some New Ways of Thinking? 129
The riseof legal pragmatismmay seem surprising. The goal of thelegal process is to findtruth. Juries are instructed to decideon thebasis of the evidence presented; the effectsof decisionsexperienced by defendants and plaintiffsare concreteand determinate.The law mightthus seem an especiallyinhospitable place for a linguisticpragmatism that treats all disputesas ultimatelyrhetorical contests. Instead,law offersone of the liveliestarenas of debateabout the consequences of pragmatism,and one thatshould be of particularinterest to historians.The juristRichard Posner, the leadingmember of the law and economicsmovement, believesthat pragmatists' antiessentialism and consequentialismare compatible withhis commitment to "theidea thatthe law should strive to supportcompetitive markets."He reduceslegal pragmatismto the bare minimum:"a rejectionof a conceptof law as groundedin permanentprinciples and realized in logical manipulationof thoseprinciples, and a determinationto use law as an instrument forsocial ends." For Posnerpragmatism is nothingbut a method;substantive changes-from attemptsto reinstatewhite supremacy to commitmentsto securing racialequality -result notfrom careful reasoning but onlyfrom "a suddendeeply emotionalswitch from one non-rationalcluster of beliefsto anotherthat is no more(often less) rational."Holmes at his mostcynical could hardlyhave put the pointmore bluntly. Posner's pragmatism, like Rorty's,thus appears to consistof nothingmore than antifoundationalism.56 But theprotean critic Stanley Fish, in his recentincarnation as a legal theorist, pointsout that Posnerembraces pragmatism as a figleaf to conceal economic dogmasconcerning market efficiency as absoluteas Kant'stranscendental aesthetic or Marx'snotion of theproletariat. Fish contrasts both Posner's faith in themarket and Rorty'sfaith in strongpoets to his own pragmatism,which really does lead nowhere."Once pragmatismbecomes a program"-any program,Fish insists- "it turnsinto the essentialismit challenges."" Fish's linguisticturn carries him even furtheraway fromDewey than does Rorty's.From Fish's perspective, "the law's job" is "to giveus waysof re-describing limitedpartisan programs so thatthey can be presentedas the naturaloutcomes of abstractinterpersonal imperatives." As humanswe cannotescape partisanship or perspective;they are inevitableconditions of our existence.For Fish the pursuit of disinterestedness,James's aspiration to tolerance,and Dewey's desirefor a deliberativedemocracy are all chimerical;only the admission that one's own point of viewremains partial is consistentwith pragmatism. The verypretense of "reasoned exposition"- in judges' opinionsor scholarship- is just rhetoric,"impelled by a visionas partisanand contestableas thatinforming any rhetoric that dares accept thatname."58
56 RichardPosner, "What Has Pragmatismto OfferLaw?," in Pragmatismin Law and Society,ed. Brintand Weaver,42, 44. See also RichardPosner, The ProblemsofJurisprudence (Cambridge, Mass., 1990), 150. 1' StanleyFish, "AlmostPragmatism: The Jurisprudenceof RichardPosner, Richard Rorty, and Ronald Dworkin,"in Pragmatismin Law and Society,ed. Brintand Weaver,63. 58 Ibid, 71, 56. At an interdisciplinaryconference on pragmatismheld in November1995 at the City Universityof New York,Fish was chosento providethe closingremarks, which allowed him to offeras the last wordon thesubject his version of pragmatism -which mightfairly be summarizedas "anythinggoes." Although Bernstein,Putnam, and Westbrookparticipated in the conference,discussion centered on the ideas of thinkers such as Rortyand Fish. That focusreflects current academic debate; this essayattempts to demonstratethe 130 TheJournal of American History June1996
But even Fish slips. He concedesthat his antifoundationalismfinally has a foundation,the conceptof "difference,"which, he asserts,"is not a remediable state;it is the bottomline factof the human condition,the conditionof being a finitecreature." Although the challengeto the law's generalityseems jarring, Fish'sproclamation of differenceresonates with the pleas of manyvoices claiming to speakfor the marginalized in Americandiscourse today. ForJames and Dewey, appreciatingthe inevitabilityof perspectivemade pragmatismnecessary; it was not- as it is forFish - the lastword. From the realizationof differencecame the necessityof democracy.This more robustconception of the relationbetween pragmatismand legal theoryis reflectedin the writingsof thoselegal theorists, such as Cass Sunstein,who considerthe democraticcommitments of James and Dewey integralto the pragmatistproject.59 Aftersurveying the competingversions of pragmatismand postmodernismin legal theory,Sunstein recently concluded that "the valuablepostmodern claims tend to be not postmodernat all, but insteadpart of the philosophicalheritage of pragmatism,"which unsettledformalism without wallowing in the nihilist resignationthat all effortis futilein the face of power. Pragmatisminsists that all our categories,legal and otherwise,are constructed.This awarenessmarks "the beginningof the effortto constructour categorieswell, by referenceto our goals and needs,and not as a reasonto abandonthe whole enterprise." For Sunstein- as forDewey and forthe legal realists who earlier in thetwentieth century embraced pragmatismas thephilosophy informing their jurisprudence - deliberative democ- racyprovides the standardfor judging the adequacyof our waysof determining thosegoals and needs.60 This crucialargument indicates why democracyis uniquelyconsistent with pragmatism.As Putnamhas accuratelypointed out, Deweyoffered an "epistemo- logicaljustificationofdemocracy. " Dewey used epistemologyto grounddemocracy, conceivedas the testingof hypothesesby freeindividuals participating in the unfetteredpursuit of truth. In ourday such a conceptionof democracy must remain open-endedbecause we, unlikeseventeenth- and eighteenth-centurychampions of democracy,cannot claim to knowwhat our finalends will be. Since we cannot answerin advancethe questions"what are we?" and "how should we live?"- questionsearlier democrats thought they could answerthrough reason or revela- differencesbetween linguistic pragmatism and the ideas of earlierpragmatists and to showwhat has been lost in the transformation. 59 Ibid., 72. For versionsof pragmatistlegal theorymore Deweyan than Rortyan (or Fishy),see especially: ThomasC. Grey,"What Good Is Legal Pragmatism?,"in Pragmatismin Law and Society,ed. Brintand Weaver, 9-27; CornelWest, "The Limitsof Neopragmatism,"ibid., 121-26; Radin, "Pragmatistand the Feminist," ibid., 127-53;Joan C. Williams,"Rorty, Radicalism, Romanticism: The Politicsof the Gaze," ibid., 155-80; JeanBethke Elshtain, "Civic Identity and the State,"ibid., 181-96; MarthaMinow and ElizabethV. Spelman, "In Context,"ibid., 247-73; CatharineWells, "Situated Decisionmaking," ibid., 275-93; and especiallyPutnam, "Reconsiderationof DeweyanDemocracy," ibid., 217-43. 60 Cass Sunstein,The Partial Constitution (Cambridge, Mass., 1993), 127. Forcriticism of Sunstein'sprogram as reinstatingthe power of educated white male elites,see RobinWest, "The Constitutionof Reasons,"Michigan Law Review,92 (May 1994), 1409-37. Cf.James T. Kloppenberg,"Deliberative Democracy andJudicial Suprem- acy,"Law and HistoryReview, 13 (Fall 1995), 393-411. On the relationbetween pragmatism and legalrealism, see MortonJ. Horwitz,The Transformationof AmericanLaw, 1870-1960: The Crisisof Legal Orthodoxy(New York, 1992); and JamesT. Kloppenberg,"The Theoryand Practiceof Legal History,"Harvard Law Review, 106 (April 1993), 1332-51. Pragmatism:An Old Namefor Some New Ways of Thinking? 131
tion- we mustcommit ourselves to continuinginquiry. Thus a pragmatistepiste- mologyand ethicsin the spiritof James and Dewey culminatesnecessarily in a democraticpolitics. In Putnam'swords, which echo manysimilar proclamations in Dewey'swork, "democracy is notjust a formof social life among other workable formsof social life; it is the preconditionfor the full applicationof intelligence to thesolution of social problems." It is theform of social life consistent with prag- matism."6
This viewof the relationbetween pragmatism and democracy,which intellectual historianshave been urgingnow fora decade, helps explainthe resurgenceof interestin pragmatism.Now that alternativeideals appear eitherdiscredited or impossible,democracy has emergedas a universallyattractive norm. But in our multiculturaland skepticalage, thecase for democracy can no longerbe established on thebasis of self-evident truths about natural rights or argumentsfrom religious doctrinethat no longercommand general assent. Is therea philosophicalfoundation on whichdemocracy can restat the end of the twentiethcentury? According to linguisticpragmatists such as Rortyand Fish and postmodernisttheorists such as Foucaultand Derrida,whose work has influencedmuch recent American critical theory,there is none. But the greatstrength of pragmatismas Jamesand Dewey conceivedof it, whichhistorians more fully than analyticphilosophers and law- seekingsocial scientistshave recognizedand demonstrated,lay in its denial of absolutes,its admission of uncertainty, and itsresolute commitment to thecontinu- ing vitalityof the ideal of democracyas a wayof life. Indeed,pragmatism appeals to manyAmerican thinkers as a homegrownalterna- tiveto postmodernismthat escapes the weaknessesof Enlightenmentrationalism withoutsurrendering our commitmentsto the valuesof autonomyand equality. Textualistssuch as Rortyand Fishconsider pragmatism consistent with the perspec- tiveon languagemost oftenassociated with Derrida. Otherssee it insteadas a wayof thinkingopen to the criticalinsights of postmodernismbut resistantto cynicismand nihilismbecause of itsconception of experienceand itscommitment to democracy.62 In The New Constellation(1992), his mostrecent work, Bernstein faces the postmodernistchallenge head on. Foucaultand Derridadeny, in radicallydifferent ways,the possibility of reachingthe democraticunderstandings that Dewey envi- sioned.Bernstein successfully undertakes the apparently unpromising task of find- ingin theirwritings ethical and political ideas consistent with his own pragmatism.63 Bernsteinshares postmodernists' commitments to antifoundationalism,fallibilism,
61 Putnam,"Reconsideration of Deweyan Democracy," 217. On thelink between this "modern view of truth" and democracy,see also Putnamand Putnam,"Dewey's Logic," 198, 215-17; and HilaryPutnam in Borradori, AmericanPhilosopher, trans. Crocitto, 61-62. 62 I am gratefulto RichardFox, RobertWestbrook, and Joan Williams for conversations that helped sharpen myunderstanding of the issuesdiscussed in thisparagraph. 63 RichardJ. Bernstein,The New Constellation:The Ethical-PoliticalHorizons of Modernity/Postmodernity (Cambridge,Mass., 1992). 132 The Journalof AmericanHistory June 1996
RichardJ. Bernsteinc. 1992. Since the 1960s, Bernsteinhas elaborated theconnections between the ideas of European thinkers, from Aristotleto JurgenHabermas, and his Deweyan pragmatism,which emphasizes practical politicalactivity. CourtesyRichardje Bernstein. contingency,and pluralism,but he emphasizesthe groundingof pragmatismin the phenomenologyof experience.Because experienceitself is social, Bernstein believes,our private selves cannot be cordonedoff from our ethical responsibilities - even behind the shield of "difference."We mustalways be preparedto expose ourprivate passions and ourpersonal choices to criticismand to engagein dialogue thosewho disagreewith us, not becausewe believethat consensus will necessarily result,but because it is only throughthat processthat we learn to understand one anotherand ourselves. Bernstein'sDeweyan pragmatismpays attentionto history,particularly the historyof Americandemocracy. Whereas Rorty asserts confidently that Americans who inherit"our tradition"share his own commitmentsto preservingindividual privacyand refusingto inflictpain, Bernsteininsists that the "breakdownof moral Pragmatism:An Old Namefor Some New Ways of Thinking? 133
and politicalconsensus" is "the overwhelming'fact' of contemporarylife." Rorty blithelyexplains the emergenceof Americanliberal democracy as a productof chanceand contingency;his accountignores or trivializesthe effortsof historical actors.Behind the values and institutionsthat Rortyand manypostmodernists takefor granted lie not onlythe now-disputeddoctrine of naturalrights and the notionof God's covenantwith a chosenpeople butalso theexperiences of countless Americanswho have struggledto nudge realitycloser to the elusiveideal of de- mocracy.64 Anotherimportant reason for American scholars' renewed interest in pragmatism has been thewidespread influence ofJUrgen Habermas, arguably the most impor- tantphilosopher of the late twentiethcentury, who now describeshimself simply "as a goodpragmatist." Habermas's affinity with American pragmatism will surprise some historianswho knowhim only by reputationor are acquaintedwith only partsof his massivework. In his attemptto freeMarxism from Marx's scientism and hisfetishizing of the proletariat, Habermas has constructeda theory of commu- nicativeaction centered on whathe callsthe ideal speechsituation. His philosophy dependson ideas of the selfconstituted through social interactionand of undis- tortedcommunication as the paradigmfor social democracythat can be traced directlyto Mead and Dewey. Althoughit startleslongtime partisans of American pragmatism,interest in theseideas amongmany younger scholars derives largely fromthe writingsof Habermas.65 Habermastoo has distancedhis understandingof pragmatismfrom Rorty's. In responseto Rorty'sjibe thathe tendsto "go transcendental,"Habermas traces his conceptionof dialogueto "thealready operative potential for rationality contained in the everydaypractices of communication,"which depend on our confidence in the validityof propositions,the rightnessof norms,and the truthfulnessor authenticityof thosewith whom we communicate.In ordinaryexperience, Ha- bermascontends, we learnto recognizethe (frequentlyunrealized) potential of dialogue. Dismissingas self-defeatingthe universalskepticism and resistanceof some postmodernists,Habermas opts insteadfor the perspectiveof the early pragmatists:"I have fora long timeidentified myself with that radical democratic mentalitywhich is presentin the best Americantraditions and articulatedin Americanpragmatism. This mentalitytakes seriously what appearsto so-called radicalthinkers [such as Foucaultand Derrida]as so muchreformist naivete." He endorsesDewey's `'attemptto make concreteconcerns with the dailyproblems ofone's community' [an attemptthat] expresses both a practiceand an attitude."66
64 Bernstein,New Constellation,326-39; forBernstein's extended discussion of Rorty,see ibid., 233-92. See alsoRichardJ. Bernstein, Philosophical Profiles: Essays in a PragmaticMode (Cambridge,Eng., 1986),260-72. 61JUrgen Habermas, "Questions and Counterquestions,"in Habermasand Modernity,ed. RichardJ.Bernstein (Cambridge,Mass., 1995), 198. On the strangecareer of pragmatismin Europe, see Hans Joas,Pragmatism and Social Theory,trans. Jeremy Gaines, RaymondMeyer, and StevenMinner (Chicago, 1993). Joashas also writtenthe best studyof GeorgeHerbert Mead: Hans Joas, G. H. Mead: A ContemporaryRe-examination of His Thought(Cambridge, Mass., 1985). See thesignificant restatement of pragmatism in HansJoas,The Creativity of Action,trans. Jeremy Gaines and Paul Keast (Chicago,forthcoming). 66 Habermas,"Questions and Counterquestions,"196-98. Habermastraces refinements in his majorworks to insightsderived from Mead's symbolic interactionism. See the newconcluding chapter written for the English editionof Jurgen Habermas, Moral Consciousnessand CommunicativeAction, trans. Christian Lenhardt and ShierryWeber Nicholsen (1983; Cambridge,Mass., 1990), 195-202. 134 TheJournal of American History June1996
These controversiesamong contemporary pragmatists replay in a differentkey the familiarcontrast between the imagesof mind as mirrorand lamp, between theempiricism of the Enlightenment and theromantics' obsession with the creative potentialof the artistic imagination. Their disagreements have helped focus debate and enabled otherthinkers, such as Habermas,to clarifytheir own ideas by sharpeningthe distinctions between those who embrace linguistic pragmatism and thosewho see its inadequacies.67 Our heightenedawareness of theopacity and instabilityof language has compli- cated the questionof how we should deal withexperience, both as scholarsand as citizenstrying to reachagreement by exchangingviews. So too, ourheightened awarenessof the historicityof our politicalinstitutions and our sensitivityto the socialand culturaldifferences that complicate democratic dialogue make it hard forus to see how we can achievethe earlypragmatists' political goals. Dewey recognizedthat he failedto provideclear, detailed political strategies for realizing his ideal of democraticlife, and that fuzzinessis one of the mosttroublesome aspectsof his legacy. James's greater sensitivity to theuniqueness of each individual, to thedifficulties of communicatingthe ineffablequality of livedexperience, and to the tragicbetrayal of some ethicalideal in everychoice between irreconcilable conceptionsof the good makehis varietyof pragmaticpolitical thinking perhaps bettersuited to our own time. For as the experienceof communityhas become everrarer in theyears since Alexis de Tocquevillefirst announced its endangered status,and as politicsis moreand moresubmerged beneath a floodof symbols, findingpaths leading toward the creationof democraticcommunities seems more problematicalthan ever. History can help, if onlywe historianshave the courage of our conventions.
Because the communityof historiansis a paradigmaticexample of a pragmatic communityof inquiry,distinguishing between pragmatism old and new matters profoundlyto us. To "new" textualistpragmatists, history is no more than a linguisticexercise in whichprofessional competitors strive to persuadereaders by fashioningarguments that are judged successfulaccording to variouscontingent and culturallyspecific criteria. For those"new" textualists,historians are writers of textswho have at theirdisposal a varietyof tools,including but not limitedto "evidence," "reason,""logic," and "commonsense," all ofwhich require quotation marksto signaltheir status as merelyconventional notions. Canny textualists claim that all such tropesare rhetoricaldevices deployed (more or less shrewdlyand
67 See Bernstein,"Resurgence of Pragmatism"; and RichardJ.Bernstein, "American Pragmatism: The Conflict of Narratives,"in Rortyand Pragmatism,ed. Saatkamp,54-67. Those contemporariesI have linkedtogether as Deweyancritics of linguisticpragmatism do not necessarilyshare my perception of theirsimilarities. See, for example,Robert Westbrook, "A New Pragmatism,"American Quarterly, 45 (Sept. 1993), 438-44; and the spiritedexchange: Giles Gunn, "Responseto RobertWestbrook," ibid., 46 (June 1994), 297-303; and Robert Westbrook,"Response to Giles Gunn," ibid., 304-7. Pragmatism:An Old Namefor Some New Ways of Thinking? 135
self-consciously)in our discursivetradition to persuadeothers in our community and to achievea certainstanding within it. It is indeed difficultto see howhistory writtenby "new" pragmatistscould contributeanything distinctively different fromnovels or poetryto helpingus to understandexperience, communicate with each other,or constructa moredemocratic culture.68 To "old" pragmatistsand to historiansaligned (consciously or not) withJames, Dewey, Putnam,and Bernstein,history retains its distinctivesignificance as the studyof "a realityindependent of us," to useJames's phrase. We understand,as Putnamhas argued,that our entirepractice as historians-our"form of life,"to use LudwigWittgenstein's phrase-depends on "our beliefthat truth and falsity 'reachall the wayto' the past and 'do not stop short."'It is possibleto admit, withPutnam, that this belief "is partof a picture,"but we shouldacknowledge, withhim, thatas historians"the picture is essentialto our lives." In Putnam's words,"our lives show thatwe believethat thereare more and less warranted beliefsabout politicalcontingencies, [and] abouthistorical interpretations." Were we to discardthat way of lookingat the past, we would have to discardour form of life.69 Narrativescapable of inspiringand justifyingthe sympathy Rorty prizes in "our tradition"already exist, and not onlythose of the novelistsand poetsthat Rorty invokes.They includethe narrativescontained in sacredtexts such as the Bible and seculardemocratic texts such asJudith Sargent Murray's essay "On theEquality of the Sexes,"Abraham Lincoln's Second Inaugural, and MartinLuther King Jr.'s speechat the 1963 Marchon Washington,narratives with powerful ethical and culturalsignificance transmitted by varioustraditions and by the communityof professionalhistorians. In a societythat is ostensiblycommitted to the ideals of democracybut thatfalls tragically short in practice,the narrativeswe historians constructhelp to perpetuatedisturbing and inspiringmemories and thusto shape a culturemore capable of approximatingthose ideals. Withouthistorians' com- mittmentto a pragmatictest of truth,which involves subjecting our accountsof the past to rigoroustesting by our scholarlycommunity, we are lockedinto an exerciseof textualcreation that is arid and pointless. In That Noble Dream (1988), PeterNovick concluded that becausethe ideal of pure scholarlyobjectivity has been exposed as chimerical(thanks in part to textualistssuch as Rortyand Fish), historianshave dividedinto warringcamps, unable and unwillingto reachagreement about standardsof purposeand critical judgment.Although Novick acknowledged the attempts of Bernstein and Putnam,
68 By theirqualifications and caveats,two recentendorsements of textualismillustrate the lure of a more Deweyanpragmatism. On thenecessity of giving some determinate shape to thepast even if one abandonsgrand narratives,see DorothyRoss, "Grand Narrative in AmericanHistorical Writing: From Romance to Uncertainty," AmericanHistorical Review, 100 (June 1995), 675-77. For an argumentthat "strong misreading" -of the sort Rortyrecommends and Derridapractices-"is altogethermisplaced as historicalreading and critique"because "historydoes not emulatecreative writing and is constrainedby differentnorms of inquiry,"see Dominick LaCapra,"History, Language, and Reading:Waiting for Crillon," ibid., 814, 816. 69James, Pragmatism, 111-12, 102-3; Putnam,Words and Life,ed. Conant, 276-77; HilaryPutnam, The ManyFaces of Realism(LaSalle, 1987), 70-71. 136 TheJournal of American History June1996
and ofhistorians such as ThomasHaskell and David Hollinger,to sustaina viable, mediatinghistorical discourse that I have termedpragmatic hermeneutics, he curtlydismissed their effort: "as of the 1980s," he wrote,"hardly anybody was listening."70As the spiriteddebates overpragmatism examined here illustrate, interestin theseideas is now broad and deep. For historiansespecially, the early pragmatismof James and Deweypresents a sturdyalternative to untenableforms of both objectivismand relativism. The pragmatictest we should applyto historicalscholarship is the same test Jamesand Dewey proposeda centuryago: Is it consistentwith the evidencewe have of others'lived experience,and will it make a differencein our lives?If we historiansconceive of our taskas the earlypragmatists did, we willwrite not only withan awarenessof our rhetoricalstrategies but also witha desireto document and explainstruggles over power in the Americanpast and in the culturethat surroundsus and makes our workpossible and necessary.Waged by activists inspiredby religiousand politicaltraditions, these hard-fought battles - and not just theimportant redescriptions, to use Rorty'spreferred term, offered in literary and criticaltexts-made possibleour culture'spainfully limited progress toward greaterautonomy and equalityfor all citizens.Historical scholarship understood as pragmatichermeneutics shows that the outcomeswere the resultnot purelyof chanceand redescription,as the morecavalier of textualistswould have it, but insteadof specificstruggles fought by people who wielded otherweapons be- sides language.71 All of this is not to denythe role interpretationhas alwaysplayed, and will continueto play,in historicalwriting. Just as people in the past selectedparts of theirexperience to recordand preservein the recordsthey left us, we selectparts of the past to examineand we choosehow to tell our stories.But to admitthat interpretationis important is not to claimthat everything is interpretation.It is crucialthat we historiansbe able to distinguishwhat happened from what did not, and what was writtenfrom what was not, and our discursivecommunity musttest its propositions in thewidest range of public forums. Arguments insisting on the importanceof suchpublic verification by appeals to evidencefrom experi- ence,arguments forcefully made againsttextualists by Gunn, Shusterman,West, Williams,Putnam, and Bernstein,are also made byhistorians whose pragmatism derivesfrom James and Dewey. That commitmentexplains why some of us have workedto establishthe differencebetween pragmatists old and new, between Poirier'sextravagant James and the historicalJames, between Rorty's hypothetical Deweyand the historicalDewey. Pragmatismoffers historians something beyond
70 PeterNovick, That Noble Dream: The "ObjectivityQuestion "andthe AmericanHistorical Profession (New York, 1988),629. Forreadings of American historians' practice that discern widespread if implicit commitment to somethingresembling pragmatic hermeneutics, see Kloppenberg,"Objectivity and Historicism";Thomas Haskell, "ObjectivityIs Not Neutrality:Rhetoric vs. Practicein PeterNovick's That Noble Dream,"History and Theory, 29 (no. 2, 1990), 129-57; and David A. Hollinger,"Postmodernist Theory and WissenschaftlichePractice," AmericanHistorical Review, 96 (June 1991), 688-92. 71On the relationbetween religious faith, social reform,and pragmatism,see Kloppenberg,"Knowledge and Beliefin AmericanPublic Life." Pragmatism:An Old Namefor Some New Ways of Thinking? 137
the denial of absolutes,a methodfor providingreliable, even if provisional, knowledgethat can makea differencein howwe understandour cultureand how we live.72 Historiansface a choice,then, between newer varieties of linguisticpragmatism thatsee all truthclaims as contingentand oldervarieties of pragmatism descended moredirectly from james and Dewey.The latterbegin with a nuancedconception ofexperience as thearena for truth testing and culminatein ethicaland democratic activity,the precisecontent of whichcannot be specifiedin advanceor imposed on othersbecause diversity and experimentationare integral to thisform of pragma- tism. "Therecan be no finaltruth in ethicsany more than in physics,"James wrote,until the last human being "has had his experienceand said his say." Or as Dewey put it, "growthitself is the onlymoral 'end."'73 Notwithstandingthose endorsements of indeterminacy,which contemporaries alertto the threatof oppressionand exclusionshould find attractive, James's and Dewey's pragmatismdid not lack substantivevalues: the ideals of democracy, groundedin theirexperience as socialbeings and theircommitment to communities of inquiryrigorously testing all truthclaims, provided the normsthat guided them. Their pragmatismthus extendedbeyond the boundariesof languagein two directions:in its fluidand historicizedconception of the social experience thatlies behindlinguistic expression, and in its dedicationto the diverseforms ofcontinuing democratic practice, including the negotiation rather than the elimi- nationof difference.The earlypragmatists believed that eliminating the obstacles of outmodedphilosophical and politicaldoctrines would freeAmericans to solve the problemsthey faced. The tragediesof the twentiethcentury have made us less sanguineabout thatprospect; we lack theirconfidence that pragmatism and democracyby themselveswill resolveall our conflicts.Thus some contemporary thinkers,like thoseromantics disillusioned by the failuresof eighteenth-century democraticrevolutions, emphasize the instabilityof meanings,the particularity of personalidentities, and the creativegenius of individualartists over rational deliberation.The new linguisticpragmatism will no doubt continueto attract attentionfrom many disciplines because it reflectsthat disappointment and also challengesthe persistentimpulses to formalismand scientismstill powerful in Americanthought. But a revisedversion of thepragmatism of James and Dewey, chastenedby tragedyto distrustsimple democratic cheerleading, can avoid those dangerswhile offeringa method of generatingand testingideas about what happenedto Americansin the past and of deliberatingon whatshould happen
72 On the inevitabilityof selectionand interpretationin historicalwriting, see Putnam,Words and Life,ed. Conant, 206-7. For a recentendorsement of pragmatismas an alternativeto postmodernskepticism about historicaltruth, which recommendscombining it with "practicalrealism" because pragmatismis otherwise rudderlessdue to its "deferenceto practiceover principle,"see JoyceAppleby, Lynn Hunt, and Margaret Jacob, Tellingthe Truthabout History(New York, 1994), 283-91. This familiarbut historicallyinaccurate characterizationofpragmatism as nothingmore than antifoundationalism underestimates its resources for histori- ans' practice. 73 WilliamJames, "The MoralPhilosopher and theMoral Life," in James, Will to Believe, 141;John Dewey, Reconstructionin Philosophy,in Dewey,Middle Works,ed. Boydston,XII, 173. 138 TheJournal of American History June1996
in the future.For thatreason the earlypragmatists' ideas will remainvaluable forhistorians committed to explainingwhy America has takenthe shape it has and forcitizens committed to solvingproblems democratically. The earlypragmatists' "old waysof thinking"already incorporated the most valuableinsights of the linguisticturn and the postmodernsuspicion of power. Thoseinsights did not blindJamesand Dewey,nor have they blinded the contem- porarieswho have resurrectedthe spiritof theirpragmatism, to the worldof experiencethat lies beneathand beyondlanguage and to the ties of mutual respectthat mightbind us togetheras humans despiteour differences.Such clear-sightednesswas among the old waysof thinking central tojames's and Dewey's pragmatism,and it remainsa necessaryalthough not sufficientcondition for advancingtoward the democraticgoals of equalityand autonomy.Without it we engagein shadowplay, unable to distinguishexperience from illusion.