Pragmatism and Its Discontents:
compiled with annotations by Ralph Dumain
Capps, John. Pragmatism and the McCarthy Era. Society for the Advancement of American Philosophy, 29th Annual Meeting, Portland, Maine, March 7-9, 2002. On Menand, McCumber, and the 1951-1952 Journal of Philosophy debate.
Collins, Randall. The Sociology of Philosophies: A Global Theory of Intellectual Change. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1998. (Paperback ed., 2000.) The dynamic of the development of pragmatism is also treated in this monumental global survey.
Cornforth, Maurice, Science Versus Idealism: In Defence of Philosophy Against Positivism and Pragmatism. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1975. (Reprint of 1962 ed., originally published 1955.) Chapter 18: Pragmatism (pp. 372-423). Section 7: An Idealism of Action"Philosophy of American Imperialism.
Cotkin, George. "Middle-Ground Pragmatists: The Popularization of Philosophy in American Culture," Journal of the History of Ideas, vol. 55, no. 2, April 1994, 283-302.
In the 1920s and '30s there was a confluence of pragmatism and middlebrow culture. Popularizers of philosophy had academic posts, and they were the spawn of Deweyan pragmatism. Cotkin reviews the ideas and activities of Irwin Edman, Will Durant, Horace Kallen, John Herman Randall, Jr., Harry A. Overstreet, and Thomas Vernor Smith. There was a consensus of condemnation against the technicalities of academic philosophy, following Dewey's denigration of epistemology (i.e. real philosophy) in favor of community service. The professional philosophical community had no problem with these efforts. Later, middle-ground pragmatism absorbed the ideas of Santayana's tragic sense of life, which helped to take the edge off pragmatism's technocratic and managerialist image. These pragmatists also set the stage for the 'chasened liberalism' to come of the Cold War era. Interestingly, dissemination of 'culture' in the 1920s took on the qualities of the intensified consumerism of the era. Durant was the first to achieve best-seller status, to be followed by others. All of these popularizers dealt with questions of social change. Overstreet propagandized the self-reconstruction of the individual. This literature was written in the mode of what today we would call the self-help industry. Kallen, later to be a key figure behind the McCarthyite purges of philosophy departments, was an ethnopluralist who opposed the 'melting pot'. Others were promoters of cosmopolitanism. Middlebrow pragmatism's general ethos of moderation and tolerance was accentuated in Smith's paeans to compromise. And indeed, compromise, middle-of-the road vapidity, an edifying propagandistic approach to ideas devoid of deep conceptual content sum up the shameful mediocrity of this entire school, in my eyes if not in Cotkin's. These people would be proud of the gasbags their tradition has spawned in the persons of Richard Rorty and Cornel West.
Ducasse, C[urt] [John]. Philosophy as a Science, Its Matter and Its Method. New York: Oskar Piest, 1941. See Chapter 4: Philosophy as Light on Social Problems and Chapter 13: Philosophy, Wisdom, and the Application of Wisdom. On this site see quote from Chapter 13: Curt J. Ducasse on Wisdom, Norms, Theory, & Pragmatism.
Eastman, Max. The Last Stand of Dialectic Materialism: A Study of Sidney Hook’s Marxism. New York: Polemic Publishers, 1934.
Harris, Leonard, ed. The Critical Pragmatism of Alain Locke: A Reader on Value Theory, Aesthetics, Community, Culture, Race, and Education. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 1999.
I am utterly fascinated by the intellectual bankruptcy of our time, even as we dredge up the forgotten intellectual past. New questions posed to old material are so cookie-cutter and unimaginative, so much part of the process of intellectual capital accumulation; to paraphrase Lenny Bruce: it's so corrupt, it's thrilling. Cultural relativism is a rather pathetic basis upon which to wage a struggle for survival, but I am more interested in the actual limitations that the whole society (with all the fascistic implications of what it engenders) places upon social actors than in blaming specific individuals as the generators and culprits of bad ideas. After all, everyone is caught up in the same problems, not just hegemonic intellectuals and constipated bureaucrats. It was one thing for Locke to be so limited; it is quite another for us to be so limited in picking over his bones now. Well, it could be considered more of the same, except that our historical age imposes a specifically different set of limitations than Locke's. But now we are stuck with Locke's limitations plus those of our contemporaries. We live in an age of expanded vocabulary combined with restricted vision. (12 July 2001)
Hook, Sidney. Towards the Understanding of Karl Marx: A Revolutionary Interpretation. New York: John Day Co., 1933. Expanded edition: Ernest B. Hook, editor; with contributions by Paul Berman and Lewis S. Feuer and historical introduction by Christopher Phelps. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2002.
I need to write a review of this book. In the meantime, see my review of Chistopher Phelps' Young Sidney Hook below. I read the hard-to-find first edition. Note the new material included in the recent re-publication. Phelps' admitted to me that he failed in his book to nail down Hook's specific pragmatist input to his study of Marx. Phelps told me that he addresses this matter specifically in his introduction to the new edition to Hook's book. As I recall, there are only a few places in the book that betray a discernable pragmatist perspective.
Jay, Martin. Songs of Experience: Modern American and European Variations on a Universal Theme. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004. Includes chapter on pragmatism.
Lloyd, Brian. Left Out: Pragmatism, Exceptionalism, and the Poverty of American Marxism, 1890-1922. Baltimore; London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997. (Abstract/review)
Pettegrew, John. The Impracticalities of Pragmatism. May, 1999.
My complaint is somewhat different from Pettegrew's. I have no problem with Lloyd's Marxism or trashing of the people in this book per se, but there are key lapses in Lloyd's overall perspective. These lapses include both the basis of intellectual independence and the practical politics ensuing from an autonomous Marxist perspective. Neither of these problems were solved by the Marxism-Leninism that grew out of the Russian Revolution. (3 March 2004) (> bibliography sans annotation)
Ryder, John. Review, in Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society, Winter 1999, Vol. XXXV, No. 1, pp. 197-203. (Abstract/review) (> bibliography sans annotation)
Menand, Louis. The Metaphysical Club. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2001.
This is a middlebrow work, but it is a reasonably intelligent one, and it does highlight the waffling compromising mentality of pragmatism, politically as well as philosophically. Menand offers a social explanation for the rise and fall of pragmatism, which is not dumb though not profound either, not at shallow as pragmatism itself, but not analytically deep. Menand does go to the trouble to explain the philosophical views of the leading players, so at least he understands philosophy to be able to do this, but it's all pretty much on the surface. Menand wants to show how the Civil War changed people and delimited generations, from settled metaphysics and the affirmation of absolutes to a recognition of fluidity, contingency, and chance. Abolitionism was still blamed for the Civil War and castigated as a form of uncompromising absolutism. Menand, to his credit, surprisingly makes racism a major undercurrent of this book. At the outset he claims that while pragmatism did not simply endorse the status quo, it did not fundamentally challenge it, either.
Philosophically, pragmatism was a rebellion against idealism and the old absolutes, based on idealist premises. Politically, it was a rebellion against old and new absolutesi.e. principled positionsa compromise stance attempting to mediate the conflict between capital and labor. In both dimensions, all the conceptual issues were fudged. You have the genuine innovations of Peirce mixed up with some rather contradictory and confused foundations. With James you get the irrationalist wing, with Dewey the scientistic wing. In each case the conceptual edifice is completely screwed up. From my 2003-2004 reading I learned of the influence of religion and idealism on the development of American philosophy, even in the rebellion against it. Higher education was heavily religious in the 19th century, and various of the thinkers concerned, Dewey even, came out of a religious background. Also, idealistic schools of thought, e.g. the Transcendentalists and the American Hegelians, were dominant, and the rebellion against them rather incomplete. It is also important to note what a hodgepodge some of these philosophies consisted of, for example, the most original of them, Peirce, mixing up religious, idealist, and scientific thought. I don't think the record of classic American philosophy is altogether inspiring.
There is a lot about racism in this book. Louis Agassiz, Benjamin Peirce (Charles's father), maybe William James's father, and several others, were die-hard racists and one was a Southern sympathizer. Agassiz was a biologist and I think opposed Darwin. Anyway, it is very interesting to read about these people's pseudoscientific and philosophical ideas, because you get an idea about the structure of their thought, the inept way they put concepts together. On a larger scale, I would say this was the way the whole 19th century proceeded. Physics and chemistry could progress relatively untroubled (so I assume), but everything else was a mess. Shallow scientism mixed with religion and half-baked philosophy seems to have been the norm, fed by huge gaps in objective knowledge. (It is no wonder that Engels had to intervene.) My point is that it is not only the rise of science and the projection of subjective ideas into observed phenomena in a pseudoscientific manner that are responsible, which is bad enough, but the confused and methodologically naive way of structuring concepts and their relation to data. (Think also of the possible correlations, positive or negative or any, between Hume's empiricism and racism. And don't tell me it's about the Enlightenment.) There is no pure science in men's minds at this stage in history, there's a hodgepodge of notions and approaches. So the problem is the interaction of scientific and other conceptual processes, which means, the total cultural-ideological system. (Generally, philosophers are not prepared to handle this. Everything, including the study of cultural systems, is up in the sky, assuming a coherence in thought on the ground that doesn't exist.) (29 February, 3 & 7 March, 10 July 2004)
Chapter 13 brings the major players together. Holmes' view of law is discussed. James sets up a lecture series for Peirce and lectures himself, establishing the Peirce's obscure label pragmatism as a household philosophical word. With practice, the fixation of belief is consolidated, and proves ideas to be true, including religious ones, according to James. James detested Hegel, and criticized Dewey's The Principles of Psychology only because he saw too much Hegel in it. Dewey was out to do in representationalism. Pierce was not happy with either James or Dewey. You can read the philosophical summaries for yourself. My only comment is that it's a shame taht American philosophy could not produce better than all the insipidity outlined here.
James was influenced by the British empiricists while Dewey rebelled against them, also with a Hegelian touch. Both were influenced by the New Psychology, but both rebelled against German experimental psychology. Pragmatism seems to be scientific and Darwinian, yet James attacked science. Pragmatism seems to grow out of statistical thinking, but its proponents did not necessarily endorse laissez faire economics or ethical individualism. Menand is looking for a pragmatic account of the emergence of pragmatism. Menand already elaborated on the political ramifications of the Pullman strike (which involved Eugene Debs as one of the uncompromising 'absolutists', along with the Pullman company, as seen by Dewey and Jane Addamswhat unspeakable banality!). Now he sees the solidification of pragmatism as tied to the end of laissez faire capitalism (Gilded Age) and the beginning of regulated capitalism (p. 371). James was not thrilled with social adjustment or the gigantic machinery of industrial capitalism, though. (He should be classified as a Romantic.) But Dewey and Addams were interested in reform and harmonizing antagonistic interests, abjuring a fundamental attack on the established order. (372-3) According to the tenor of the times Pullman and Debs (an "abolitionist" of the labor movement) were both seen as dangerous extremists and absolutists. Pragmatism fit nicely into this scenario. (373) Again, Menand emphasizes race, and makes a key point that the price of reformism at the end of the 19th century was the complete disenfranchisement of black people (374).
Pragmatism was skewered by none other than Bertrand Russell, not exactly Mr. Profundity himself, but imagine how banal it must be for Russell to turn up his beak at it (374-5). Menand sees the weakness of pragmatism as the inability to judge interests and wants. (375)
Chapter 14 treats the historically important conception of cultural pluralism. While I know something of the figures that come under this category, I am not so well versed in the relations between them, and I learned quite a bit in this chapter. This is also, not surprisingly, a topic in which Jews and blacks play a significant role. James's pluralism was a metaphysical one, another plank of his irrationalist world view. Arthur Bentley, a student of Simmel and Dilthey, applied pluralist ideas to the study of interest in politics and government. The issue of cultural pluralism grew out of the disquiet induced by the mass immigration of Eastern and Southern Europeans under way. Even progressives of that day were largely racists who maintained the superiority of Anglo-Saxons above all others. Interestingly, Menand links the anti-immigrant hysteria of the time with the explosion of anti-black hysteria, manifested in the film Birth of a Nation and the revival of the Ku Klux Klan (directed against immigrants and Catholics as well as blacks). (387-8)
Franz Boas absorbed some of the pseudoscience of his time, but he boldly challenged the racist presumptions of his day beginning with an argument for the "plasticity of human types." Horace Kallen, a Jew, and Alain Locke, a black philosopher and the first black Rhodes scholar, met at Harvard. Kallen was initially an assimilationist, did an about-face and embraced his Jewish identity. He also sought to enlist his student Locke in his campaign for dual identity. (388-9) Locke initially attempted to rise above race, but he was mistreated so badly at Oxford this proved to be impossible. Kallen unsuccessfully attempted to intervene on Locke's behalf. Kallen claimed that cultural pluralism was born out of discussions with Locke. In any case, both articulated their ideas about the same time (390-1). Kallen opposed the melting pot concept, and also opposed Boas by adopting the racial assumptions of the antimmigrationists. Kallen argued for preservation of traditional cultures, which would also serve as a bulwark against the vulgarizing tendencies of mass culture. But this was also an argument against the aspiration of upward mobility. Once again, blacks were left out of the picture. (393-4)
W. E. B. Du Bois began with ideas such as the "conservation of races" but ended up with a relational rather than essentialist view of race. Racial identities were fluid and essentially meaningless except in relation to one another. One racial identity cannot change without all others contrasted with it changing as well. The notion of double consciousness embodies this understanding. (394-6)
Alain Locke insisted on the distinction between race and culture. Furthermore, he was a modernist, eschewing separatism, and recognizing that modern systems are predicated on common institutions and social assimilation. This is the real meaning of the melting pot. Ethnic identity and race pride are, paradoxically, means to overcome racialism and foster assimilation. Sameness and difference are functional concepts, not essentialist ones. In modernity, life is no longer cyclical, and the reproduction of custom is no longer imperative. (397-9)
Dewey was no advocate of Anglosaxonism, and could not abide by Kallen's separatism. Dewey also believed in the melting pot concept, wherein everyone would contribute their distinctive accomplishments to a common American identity (400).
Randolph Bourne, a devotee of pragmatism and Boas, was much more radical than Dewey. Bourne advocated a 'trans-national America', criticized mass culture, advocated dual identity and international cosmopolitanism. He did not want to preserve premodern cultures as such. He also advocated Zionism and touted transnationalism as a Jewish idea. (401-4)
Bourne split with Dewey over World War I and denounced pragmatism (401ff). Kallen introduced the term "cultural pluralism" in 1924, at the same time that immigration restrictions became a reality. Cultural pluralism was no longer a radical idea as it had been when Woodrow Wilson had vigorously denounced the very recognition of groups. Menand points out a cardinal weakness of cultural pluralism: like racialism, it prejudges the individual's possibilities via identification with presumed collective properties and presumes "culture" as a stable entity. (406-7) Only Dewey, who did not consider himself a cultural pluralist, seems to have risen above this limitation. Menand also argues that cultural pluralism violates its parent concept, metaphysical pluralism (407).
Overall, this chapter is instructive, but an insufficiency of detail inhibits our ability to judge the overall intellectual and political commitments of the players. Boas was a pioneer of militant anti-racism but was also a carrier of suspect volkish conceptions. The same might have been the case with Bourne. (The German influence was not always a good one, Dewey's wartime slanders of German philosophy notwithstanding.) Dewey comes out looking like a rose, but Dewey also accepted Jane Addams' reactionary ideal of non-antagonism. Bourne was a radical in his antiwar opposition, but more needs to be known about his overall position. (See Lloyd's Left Out.) Du Bois and Locke faced realities none of the others had to deal with; their positions require further analysis as well. Kallen was admirable in his defense of Locke, but his world view seems to be reactionary on the whole. (7 March 2004)
Malik, Kenan. Review.
Mills, C. Wright. Sociology and Pragmatism: The Higher Learning in America. Edited with an introduction by Irving Louis Horowitz. New York: Paine-Whitman Publishers, 1964.
Novack, George. Pragmatism Versus Marxism: An Appraisal of John Dewey's Philosophy. New York: Pathfinder Press, 1975. See also:
Phelps, Christopher. "The Rise and Fall of Sidney Hook," New Politics, vol. IX, no. 2 (new series), whole no. 34, Winter 2003.
Phelps expounds upon the principles of pragmatism (open-endedness, experimentalism, etc.) and demonstrates how Hook violates them in his later anti-communist work. My problem remains that the stated principles are so vaguely general that there's no convincing way they can be shown to have a measurable impact on any theoretical construct or any reason for taking the trouble to make up a whole philosophy out of them. (16 July 2003)
Phelps, Christopher. "Towards the Understanding of Sidney Hook: The Recovery of Marxism", Against the Current, vol. XII, no. 2 [new series], May/June 1997, pp. 25-31. Adapted from a section of Phelps' then-forthcoming book.
I had always dismissed Hook as a Cold War mediocrity, so I was surprised to find his second book on Marxism, From Hegel to Marx, so good. It is a valuable guide through the Young Hegelians, information about which was mighty scarce in the anglophone world in the 1930s. I read this article before I had the chance to read Hook's magnum opus Towards the Understanding of Karl Marx.
Phelps traces the main ideas of Hook's work and their reception and rejection by the Communist Party. Hook sought to uncover the real Marx from underneath the rubble of Second International orthodoxy and its selective appropriation of Engels. Phelps describes Hook's approach, which from the article's skeletal description appears much more subtle than some of the western Marxist clichés we are used to by now. (Phelps in a footnote criticizes Paul Buhle for distorting the historical record.) Also, Hook had studied much of the relevant literature in German, including the work of Lukács.
Hook's emphasis on Marxism as a philosophy of social action was combined with Dewey's pragmatism, and here is where the controversies began. Hook received much praise for his efforts, which were pathbreaking in the American context, but he was also roundly criticized, even by some of the same people who praised him. Phelps treats in detail the negotiations between Hook and the leaders of the American Communist Party. Ultimately, the party intellectuals attacked Hook, but their savage attacks were so crude and ad hominem that other anti-Hook party intellectuals could not abide them.
Phelps seems favorably disposed not only towards giving young Sidney a fair hearing at last, but towards pragmatism as a respectable bed-mate for Marxism. (18 June 1997)
Phelps, Christopher. Young Sidney Hook: Marxist and Pragmatist. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1997.
A brief glance through this book suggests this will turn out to be a fascinating read in several ways. My guess is that it will yield greater understanding of the political and ideological forces among which left intellectuals navigate. The question is whether Phelps is up to delving into the philosophical issues involved. My guess is that the philosophical and even the ultimate political issues will have to be extracted by inference from beneath the ostensible content of Phelps's text.
One can already get a feel for some of the problems just by browsing the book for a few minutes. I will just summarize some themes that will serve as reference points for later reflection:
(1) Hook's struggle with the Communist Party, not only politically but intellectually
(2) Hook's incorporation of Deweyan pragmatism, Lukacs, and Korsch, and his quarrels with Soviet dialectical & historical materialism
(3) Hook's interaction with the Trotskyists and socialists and his engineering of the American Trotskyist "French Turn"
(3a) Hook's involvement with the Dewey Commission to investigate the Moscow Trials
(3b) Dewey's philosophical quarrels with Eastman & the issue of elitism
(4) Hook's growing skepticism about Trotsky and the Trotskyists, both philosophically and politically
(5) Hook's growing concern about illiberal traits within the entire Marxist movement
(5a) Hook's concern over the attraction of intellectuals to power
(6) Hook's growing fear of totalitarianism, not only Stalinist but Nazi
(7) Hook's turn toward American liberal democracy as the world's only practical hope
(8) Hook's opposition to socialist opposition to participation in World War II
(9) All of the above as leading to Hook's turn to the right after 1938
(10) Hook's conception of scientificity and its role in his growing hostility to the Marxisms of the day
(11) The relationship between Hook as an individual maverick & his loss of a left power base he could trust.
Here one will see similar themes and social forces in play as with other famous apostates of the left, from Burnham in 1940 to many of the famous New York intellectuals in the late 1940s and thereafter. Phelps claims that Hook made significant contributions to a distinctively American Marxism that should not be lost. It will be interesting to see exactly what Phelps thinks they are and how deeply he understands them. I have my doubts, but we shall see. It appears that Phelps is attuned to the motivations behind Hook's political shift and may well have a plausible explanation.
(Note references to George Novack There are a couple of footnotes to C.L.R. James, but no mention of James's scathing review of Hook's The Hero in History.) (8 June 2003)
One thing that fascinates me, which I have been writing about everywhere, is the idea of scientificity and its relationship to the totality of cultural experience. This is the key, I think, to understanding Hook's motivations, or I should say, one of the major nodes in the network of his ideological (in the neutral sense) complex. It is possible to extract from Phelps' detailed account certain insights about the relationships between intellectual inquiry, autonomy, the transmission of ideas, and institutions. It is much more fascinating than I ever could have anticipated. I am keeping in mind the shifting relationships among science, intellectual freedom, liberal values, workers' democracy, and revolutionary organizations. Hook's notion of scientificity is so key in his motivational structure I'm keeping a close eye on how it relates to the total ideological and social universe through which he moved. (9 June 2003)
A Record of Scholarly Distortion
Given the half-century of Deweys life given over to his notorious anti-communism, the young Sidney Hook who devoted two decades of his life to Marxism has been buried in history. Both the left and the right have trouble accounting for the explanation of Hooks political transition. The right has to explain his youthful Marxist indiscretion; the left must explain his political degeneration, often employing his adherence to the philosophy of pragmatism as an explanation. Phelps convincingly refutes both perspectives and resurrects a Marxist Sidney Hook who is much more interesting than some of us expected.
Marxist and Pragmatist?
This book is truly remarkable, with a paradoxical twist, inscribed in the very subtitle. Though an admirer of the second of Sidney Hooks two Marxist books, From Hegel to Marx (I had not yet read the first), I approached Phelps book with an even greater skepticism about Hook than about pragmatism. Phelps is so persuasive about Hook, though, that I am won over to the young Marxist Hook. I could easily believe that Hook was the greatest American Marxist of his Marxist years, intellectually and politically. But heres the twist that baffles me: I cannot see for the life of me the intellectual contribution that pragmatism made to Hooks Marxism!
What I get from pragmatism are indefinite notions of experimentalism, a spirit of scientific enquiry, opposition to rigidity and dogmatism, and an emphasis on praxis. If thats all there is to it, why would anyone waste his time establishing a separate school of thought in the name of these values? On the contrary, the vagueness of such pronouncements, coming from professional philosophers, suggests that such a doctrine serves more of an ideological function than as a substantive conceptual position. Applied to Sidney Hook, the argument seems to be: pragmatism espouses such values, Sidney Hook espoused and even embodied these values along with pragmatism, hence pragmatism made a significant contribution to Hooks original approach to Marxism. But, with the exception of a discussion of ends and means towards the end of the book, I dont see substantive evidence of this in Phelps book! A person doesnt have to adhere to the philosophical school of pragmatism to embody any of the aforementioned values and characteristics.
It is almost impossible to believe, but this glaring omission stares one right in the face when one reads Phelps account of Hooks premier work, Towards the Understanding of Karl Marx. Phelps explication of Hooks philosophical ideas throughout the book is generally helpful, but in this case we cannot afford to miss out on anything. While I see the heretical ingredients in this book that incensed the Communist Party, I don't see anything I would find objectionable, and I am no sympathizer of pragmatism. My problem is that I cannot see from Phelps description what is distinctively pragmatist about the book. Hook criticizes both wings of German social democracy, utilizes Lukács and Korsch with caveats, emphasizes praxis, mildly criticizes but also defends Engels, praises Lenin's unorthodoxy, mildly criticizes Lenin's politics and philosophy, defines the nature of scientificity in Marx, defends Marx's (not other people's) dialectic method, criticizes Plekhanov and Bukharin, and refrains from criticizing the Comintern and the USSR. This seems almost completely unobjectionable to me, though I see how the doctrinaire idiots at the top of the CP hierarchy could not cope with it. My problem here is that I cannot discern the specific input from Deweyan pragmatism. (24 June 2003)
Drucker, Peter. "Sidney Hook: Marxist Pioneer," New Politics, vol. 7, no. 1 (new series), whole no. 25, Summer 1998.
Philosophy Now, Pragmatism issue, no. 43, October/November 2003.
This issue is mostly disappointing. Its one redeeming feature is the outline of Peirce's philosophy, which has something to offer as did Peirce himself, the best of the classic American pragmatists. Coincidentally, quality of the articles mirrors the nature of the philosophers treated, i.e. declining the further one gets from Peirce. I don't regret the fact that William James was neglected, then. Judging from the interview and article on Rorty, Rorty comes off as an imbecile, worse even than I thought him to be. And this is the problem with American pragmatism, perhaps reflective of American society itself: i.e. pragmatism wrti large is largely disconnected sloganeering, the philosophical equivalent of the advertising industry, bragging about the goods it can deliver without delivering a connected and coherent approach to understanding reality one can sink one's teeth into. (There is also an iunterface between pragmatism and philosophy of science, but I fail to see why a scientific realist or materialist would take on the label.) The overall presentation of pragmatism here is also lacking. The fragmented journalistic style in popularizing philosophy may pique someone's interest in a topic, but ultimately it becomes little more than a publicity device. There's no serious thought or perspective in it. If you are interested in fads, you might want to read more about the attempt to resurrect pragmatism in the USA, of which Rorty is just the tip of the iceberg. Pragmatically, it's about finding an institutional niche for people who wouldn't have jobs under the regime of analytical philosophy. Intellectually, it is a haven for the new irrationalists, including minorities who now have a category under which to push their wares: African Americans, Native Americans, Latinos, etc. (2 Jan 2004) (> bibliography sans annotation)
Postel, Danny. "Sidney Hook, an Intellectual Street Fighter, Reconsidered," The Chronicle of Higher Education, volume 49, issue 11, November 8, 2002, p. A18.
Riepe, Dale. "Critique of Idealistic Naturalism: Methodological Pollution in the Main Stream of American Philosophy," in Radical Currents in Contemporary Philosophy, edited by David H. DeGrood, Dale Riepe, & John Somerville (St. Louis, W. H. Green, 1971), pp. 5-22.
Ryder, John. Interpreting America: Russian and Soviet Studies of the History of American Thought. Foreword by Nikita Pokrovsky, Moscow State University. Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 1999. (The Vanderbilt Library of American Philosophy)
Starr, Mark. "Organized Labor and the Dewey Philosophy," in: John Dewey, Philosopher of Science and Freedom: A Symposium, edited by Sidney Hook (New York: Dial Press, 1950), pp. 184-193.
EARLY AMERICAN PHILOSOPHY:
The Colonial Period: Puritanism and 18th-Century Idealism
The American Enlightenment: Nature and Knowledge, Revolutionary Social Thought, and Political Theory
Transcendentalism: The Romantic World View, Emerson, and Thoreau
AMERICAN PHILOSOPHY IN THE GOLDEN AGE:
Pragmatism: Peirce, James, Dewey, and Recent Pragmatism
Idealism, Realism, and Naturalism
Ryder's superb book has not received the attention it is due. This book is the logical successor to Evert van der Zweerde's Soviet Historiography of Philosophy: Istoriko-filosofskaja Nauka. In a review of the latter book (Metaphilosophy, vol. 30, no. 4, Oct. 1999, pp. 389-393), Ryder challenges the author's claim that the survey of Soviet philosophy is now completed. While Soviet philosophy has been unjustly neglected by Western scholars except in an adversarial sense, there remain further studies of Soviet accomplishments to be done: possible areas include Soviet studies of phenomenology, philosophy of science, analytical philosophy, and Asian philosophy. Ryder confirms that history of philosophy was the one area that escaped the general Stalinist stagnation and where the best of Soviet philosophy could be found. Ryder's book fills in yet another gap in Western studies with this survey of Soviet work on American thought.
While, paradoxically, I may well know the history of Soviet philosophy better than I do American philosophy, even without reading Russian, I believe Ryder's book is of wide application for those interested in American thought and not just Soviet thought. As bad as Soviet Marxism was in so many ways, Soviet philosophers were allowed to do serious work in history of philosophy, with increasing objectivity after the 1950s, and their materialistic perspective gave them insight, to the extent that they were not straightjacketed by narrow dogmatism and rigid propagandism. Marxists in the West have not necessarily covered all areas of investigation, let alone with thoroughness and professionalism, in spite of greater prevailing freedoms. Hence, the more competent Soviet studies of certain subjects may be the place to go to find Marxist analyses. Secondly, a survey such as this could help provide a perspective on American thought and perhaps even serve as an introduction of sorts. I personally find this study of American philosophy much more interesting than I find "American philosophy" itself.
As for Ryder's views, it is not transparent to what extent he endorses Soviet views, but it is reasonable to infer that where he supplies possible objections, counter-arguments, or qualifications to the claims of some Soviet author, his own judgments are involved as well. With Ryder's qualifications and caveats against dogmatism, combined with the decreasing dogmatism of Soviet historiographical efforts with the passage of time, I daresay what the Soviets have to say is most valuable. (The Soviets turn out to have a much more positive attitude to their subject matter than I do.) There may be generalizations available about the functions served or serviceable by Soviet dialectical materialism as well.
Naturally, intellectuals straightjacketed by Stalinism were only too happy never to hear of Marxism again, as its code words functioned quite differently in their environment than in ours. Not surprisingly, many of them sought here what was censoriously received at home. A specific philosophical standpoint, i.e. that institutionalized by the Soviet system, could in theory serve a constructive and a critical function. But constructive based on what, and critical toward what? They were not allowed criticism against their own hegemony, except for debates within the accepted framework (e.g. on the nature of dialectical logic). Constructively, they were hemmed in by a prior requirement of harmonizing with the sacred textsof Engels and Lenin, basically. There was room for interpretation and maneuvering, but the terms laid down and their institutional enforcement, in the overall setting of sclerotic bureaucracy, must have put a brake on the constructive development of their positive notions as well upon criticism of their dogmatic postulates. What the Soviet philosophers accomplished constructively can be seen in a few works translated into English, but there is still much that is unavailable to us.
There was one other function open to Soviet philosophy, even mandatory hence often abusive, that is, the critical function with respect to bourgeois philosophy. I always insisted that there was something worthwhile here. Naturally, those who sought out the proscribed goodies of the West would pooh-pooh the idea of any such valuable critical function, since that is what they had too much of and did not need. And so I could not get any positive reaction to my suggestion when I actually had the opportunity to talk to Russians. Yet it was evident to me that Soviet philosophy could at least serve to keep philosophy in the West honest, always on the lookout to combat idealist tendencies. Yet, as we see in this book, it became no longer a matter of condemning philosophies wholesale, but examining various tendencies within them, looking out for the progressive and regressive aspects, the good ideas and the obscurantist ideas, the materialist content and the idealist backpedaling. We need to qualify Engels' assertion that the history of philosophy is a struggle between idealism and materialism. It is not reducible to a struggle of one named doctrine against another, but a struggle of materialist and idealist tendencies, even within the same philosophy. This book helps to show this with respect to American philosophy. (24 May 2003) (> bibliography sans annotation)
Manicas, Peter T. Review, in Metaphilosophy, vol. 32, no. 4, July 2001.
Wells, Harry K. Pragmatism: Philosophy of Imperialism. New York: International Publishers, 1954.
This is a crude Stalinist hatchet job, though it was bold of the author to publish this at the height of the McCarthyite repression, which affected his career. While in a general and abstract way Wells brings out the reactionary implications of pragmatism, there is hardly any close reading of the primary texts. The argument is overgeneralized and overpoliticized, more propagandistic than convincing. A more concrete analysis would have been more effective. Wells makes generalized claims about Dewey's philosophy and its sinister implications which are not sufficiently fine-tuned to be convincing. I would have appreciated a more compelling case for Dewey's capitulation to religious irrationalism in A Common Faith. My guess is that the Communist hatred of Dewey stems largely from his defense of Trotsky, though this is not given emphasis. None has admitted to a revenge motive. Though such analyses have their interest, they tend to downplay Dewey's ties to Progressive reformism. (24 January, 1 & 6 June 2002)
Abstracts & reviews compiled & edited 19 March 2005
©2005 Ralph Dumain
Pragmatism and Its Discontents: Selected Bibliography (sans annotations)
The Ins and Outs of Lloyds Left Out by R. Dumain
Philosophy for the Future: The Quest of Modern Materialism: Foreword & Contents by Roy Wood Sellars, V.J. McGill, Marvin Farber
Reflections on American Philosophy From Within: Foreword & Table of Contents by Roy Wood Sellars
Cornel West's Evasion of Philosophy, Or, Richard Wright's Revenge
Pragmatism Blues by Ralph Dumain
Criticism, and the Theory of Signs (Contents)
by Victorino Tejera
The Philosophy of Theory and Practice: Selected Bibliography
American Philosophy Study Guide
Salvaging Soviet Philosophy (1)
The Pragmatism Cybrary
Society for the Advancement of American Philosophy
Central European Pragmatist Forum
Peter T. Manicas Homepage
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