Bruce Kuklick’s history of American philosophy (5)

Kuklick, Bruce. A History of Philosophy in America 1720-2000. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2001. 346 pp. $19.95 (pbk), ISBN 0199260168.

Part III: Professional Philosophy, 1912-2000

11. Professional Realism
12. Europe’s Impact on the United States
13. Harvard and Oxford
14. The Tribulations of Professional Philosophy


Methods, Sources, Notes

Finally, we get to something interesting, professional realism (chapter 11). Yet another generational rebellion occurred, this time against idealism. While Kuklick claims that “the two generations of thinkers who formulated these views did not match their mentors in talent or creativity” (201), I think what is more important, were this even true, is to match or exceed one’s mentors in proceeding down the right track and coming up with a sounder philosophical basis. James looked down upon them as dry academic drones, to which I say, consider the source.

In the beginning, there was a rebellion against Royce, who claimed that no first-rate thinker was a realist. He was attacked by William Pepperell Montague and Ralph Barton Perry. Further provoked by James’s radical empiricism, they elaborated a New Realism (a.k.a. Neo-Realism, 1902-1914) and were joined by four others. One was Edwin Bissell Holt. The text does not clarify who the other three were.

Perry and James were nonetheless highly sympathetic to one another. Perry targeted the egocentric predicament, the notion that all we know is our experience, our sense impressions, and thus we can’t legitimately posit an independent material reality. Perry agreed with Royce on the non-viability of representational realism, counterposing his own “epistemological monism.” Consciousness is a subset of existing entities selected by the body’s nervous system. Holt then had to account for sensory error. Montague objected to Holt’s and Perry’s epistemology. The infighting among the New Realists inhibited the New Realists from developing a program that would survive them. (203-7)

Enter Critical Realism (1916-1930).

George Santayana eventually went down the road of the New Realists, but only temporarily. Eventually he posited a relationship between the flux (nature, the objective world) and ideal scientific objects. Consciousness was epiphenomenal. (208)

A watershed in the development of this tendency was the volume Essays in Critical Realism (1920). The other contributors were James B. Pratt, C. A. Strong, Arthur O. Lovejoy, Durant Drake, Arthur Kenyon Rogers, and Roy Wood Sellars. Santayana contributed the key notion of essence, which enabled the Critical Realists to distinguish themselves from representational realist and the New Realists. (209) Although this group did not carry out a cooperative program, they were more influential than the New Realists. (210)

Arthur O. Lovejoy is most famous for his work in the history of ideas. At one point he attacked Perry, but did not put forth his own philosophical position until 1930, in The Revolt Against Dualism, in which he also opposed absolute idealism, pragmatism, and neo-realism. According to his own view of “temporalistic realism,” he vindicated the reality of ideas and images as mental entities, products of time and “distance” from the world of extension. (211) According to Kuklick, Lovejoy’s positive views can only be understood by extrapolating from his criticisms of others.

Now we come to my favorite of classic American philosophers, Roy Wood Sellars. (By “classic” I refer to American philosophy prior to the immigration of European exiles in the 1930s.) Sellars gets high praise from Kuklick. Sellars initiated the term and developed his own comprehensive philosophy beginning with Critical Realism in 1916. While the New Realists had limited themselves to epistemology, Sellars developed an ontology, with an evolutionary view of both entities and knowledge, positing materialism as a necessary condition of realist epistemology. (211-2) Sellars logically separated intuition from knowledge. The physical world cannot be logically constructed from intuitions, because the material world causally and logically precedes intuitions. Sellar constructed what is essentially an emergent materialism (the term is not used in Kuklick’s summary.) (212-3) Note that Sellars harshly criticized the pragmatists; Dewey and the others could not escape from idealism, or from religion. (213-4) Kuklick mentions at the end Sellars’ adherence to a humanistic socialism.

I will come back to Sellars in a succeeding installment, as I consider his contribution far and above what American philosophy contributed to this point. It is important to note also that Sellars was the principal author of the 1933 Humanist Manifesto, and that he, in collaboration with Marvin Farber, V. J. McGill, and others, was a conduit for the development of materialism in the United States, whose influence was curbed by the anti-communist repression of the late-1940s and 1950s. Sellars as well as others found a place for Marxism in American philosophy that was otherwise closed off after Sidney Hook turned against Marxism after 1938. Sellars’ philosophy has some affinity to dialectical materialism, which Sellars discussed as well.

C. I. Lewis is claimed to be the most influential thinker of the interwar period. His special area of competence was symbolic logic. He expounded his neo-pragmatism in his landmark work Mind and the World-Order (1929). His leading idea, inspired by Royce, was the “pragmatic a priori,” relating to our modes of interpreting given sense-data. Knowledge is where the a priori intersects the empirical. The conceptual and the empirical were kept distinct, avoiding both metaphysics and mysticism. “Conceptual pragmatism” avoids endorsing either realism or idealism. A concept, embedded in a categorical framework, was a plan for action. Knowledge was empirical and predictive. (215-7) Lewis was not opposed to idealism, only to dogmatic idealism. Kuklick proceeds to clarify. (218-220) Sellars objected to Lewis as he did to Dewey. And so do I. Still, there seems to be something interesting here.

Lewis’s position seemed to be definitive, but Wilfrid Sellars, son of Roy, attacked it, famously as “The Myth of the Given.” Wilfrid claimed to follow in Roy’s footsteps, but he was an original thinker in his own right. (Wilfrid is characterized as a “second-generation atheist.”) His style was less accessible than Roy’s. Wilfrid argued that sensory input could not be the basis of conceptual knowledge. Our discursive capability, which is where knowledge finds its place, has an evolutionary history as does sensory experience. (221-2) He became dissatisfied with his own account of the evolution of conceptual / linguistic capability, and in his 1960 lecture series “Philosophy and the Scientific Image of Man” argued for the irreducible difference between humans and other animals, and for mind as radically emergent from the natural. Thus he retained the quandary that perplexed others: the exact placing of mind in the material world. (223)

So, prior to the influx of European refugees we will see in the succeeding chapter, both Sellars for me represent the best of what classic American philosophy was capable of.  What a struggle to climb out of American backwardness.

There are several pieces by Roy Wood Sellars (and his colleagues) on my web site and external links to documents by and about Sellars. See my web pages:

American Philosophy Study Guide

Secular Humanism—Ideology, Philosophy, Politics, History: Bibliography in Progress

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post Bruce Kuklick’s history of American philosophy (4)

Kuklick, Bruce. A History of Philosophy in America 1720-2000. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2001. 346 pp. $19.95 (pbk), ISBN 0199260168.

Part II: The Age of Pragmatism, 1859-1934
10. Instrumentalism in Chicago and New York

John Dewey moved to the University of Chicago in 1894. He was influenced by the Social Gospel, but Protestantism was not adequate to American social reality at this point, with sizable Catholic and Jewish immigrant populations.Young Dewey had linked democracy to social consciousness to a religious commonwealth, but he realized that the church needed reconstruction. Chicago was a hotbed of social conflicts. Dewey arrived in Chicago during the Pullman strike. Chicago’s problems included a typhoid epidemic, economic depression, housing crisis, unemployment, homelessness, child labor, and labor violence.

Dewey’s concerns became secularized. He became involved with Hull House and the public school system. He was a reformist, opposed to both conservatism and radicalism. Dewey’s thought morphed from religious to “scientific” concepts: organism and environment, evolution, mind as a verb rather than a noun, truth as integration of experience and activity yielding predicatability. Dewey jettisoned Hegel and opposed Royce. Dewey’s darwinism was different from Darwin’s: Dewey was more teleological and Whiggish. Dewey sought a philosophy of immanence.

Dewey’s new language of instrumentalism is “almost deliberately ambiguous” (184), circumventing all the old philosophical issues.

Dewey relocated to Columbia University in 1904. George Herbet Mead carried on in Chicago. Dewey was influential in New York City, allied himself with Progressive intellectuals, and sought to formulate a scientific politics and morality. While Dewey attempted the unification of fact and value, others were not convinced. Ever the optimist, Dewey thought the world could potentially become equally transparent to all. (Which means that Dewey did not understand the fundamental nature of class division and class conflict.)

The 1920s were not kind to the Progressive movement. From 1927 to 1939 Dewey published his most important politically oriented books and was the most prominent intellectual spokesman–especially rare for a professional philosopher–in the U.S. of his time. The Public and Its Problems (1927) dispensing with hope for an educated public, was based on the premise that democracy had to be retooled for an industrial age. The American polity required an expert administrative elite to act on behalf of the public good. This orientation was prominent in the 1930s, in the periodical press and among the intelligentsia. Walter Lippman is the most famous of those expressing this view. (Note that this is just what Noam Chomsky trashed in Manufacturing Consent.) Managerialism was the order of the day. But Dewey was different in that an articulate public, which was lacking, was needed, not just experts. Dewey did recognize class interests, which is why the public must make guide the experts on its priorities while the experts supply the fruits of their skills.

Dewey was most influential exponent of naturalism in New York. Others included his disciple Sidney Hook, Frederick Woodbridge, Irwin Edman, Herbert Schneider, John Herman Randall, Alvin Johnson, and Morris R. Cohen. Interestingly, the American naturalists rehabilitated Spinoza, whom the idealists had disdained (190-1). Santayana was also influential. Note that Kuklick states: “Naturalism was indeed more of a mood than a reasoned philosophy.” (191)  American naturalism was very much influenced by Darwinism (and in my opinion, with a tendency toward eclecticism rather than an integrated system). Those who had come out of Protestantism were rebelling against idealism. They were joined by younger Jews who were marginalized in American society and had no truck with Protestantism. Paradoxically, though Dewey was the spiritual leader of the naturalists, he never succeeded in establishing a school of successors.

Dewey, unlike other proponents of naturalism, did not leave religion entirely behind. He wrote A Common Faith partially in rebuttal to Reinhold Niebuhr’s Moral Man and Immoral Society. Dewey opposed both supernaturalism and atheism, positioning himself as an advocate of scientific method. Experience if not belief can be religious: this position Dewey believed to be consonant with experimentalism. Some other proponents of naturalism could not go along with this; Dewey acknowledged their objections but defended his view.

Is natural piety a continuation of prior beliefs? Is this progression towards secularity unique to Western civilization? Opponents as well as proponents of secular society had to answer Dewey’s challenge. Dewey was the main influence in the secularization of public intellectual debate. (193-5)

The next generation took this shift for granted. Major academic institutions followed this precedent, as evidenced in the expansion of the social sciences.

The concluding section of this chapter, and thus of this segment of the book on pragmatism, is “Dewey’s Legacy.” Dewey’s maturation was consonant with that of America as a whole, even beyond its academic institutions. This was the era of the public intellectual. Even discounting political influence, pragmatism overflowed its philosophical boundaries to influence all of intellectual life, including literary modernism and historiography. Dewey gained the reputataion of America’s greatest thinker.

One can at least get glimpses from Kuklick’s own text of the downside of this otherwise upbeat picture. Pragmatism is often touted, and even now celebrated, as America’s premiere philosophical contribution. Yet, while America became the advance guard of capitalist civilization, its intellectual backwardness is most striking. The ideological symptom of American philosophy never transparently reflected the society’s underlying reality, nor did it realize its actual cultural potential. Kuklick reiterates in the final paragraph that all these ideas emanated from the “educated upper-middle class”, and all we see added to this picture is a glimpse of the children of immigrant Jews becoming atheistic naturalist apprentices of the WASP intellectual elite, a phenomenon of the first half of the 20th century. So finally we get out of all this the managerialist intellectual correlate of the New Deal, at best, with philosophical ideas no more advanced.

For dissenting views on pragmatism’s legacy, see the annotations and follow the links in my bibliography:

Pragmatism and Its Discontents: Annotated Selected Bibliography

See for example this essay by Dale Riepe, a philosopher in Buffalo who did not go along with the program:

Critique of Idealistic Naturalism: Methodological Pollution in the Main Stream of American Philosophy

See also my American Philosophy Study Guide.

post Bruce Kuklick’s history of American philosophy (3)

Kuklick, Bruce. A History of Philosophy in America 1720-2000. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2001. 346 pp. $19.95 (pbk), ISBN 0199260168.

Part II: The Age of Pragmatism, 1859-1934

6. The Shape of Revolution
7. The Consensus on Idealism, 1870-1900
8. Pragmatism in Cambridge
9. Pragmatism at Harvard
10. Instrumentalism in Chicago and New York

Chapter 8 begins with the Metaphysical Club, founded in the 1870s. The six most prominent members were William James, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Chauncey Wright, Charles Peirce, Nicholas St John Green, and Joseph Bangs Warner. The term “pragmatism” has its origin in Kant.

Peirce was heavily influenced by Kant. To advance further, Peirce developed semiotics, opposed British empiricism and Cartesian skepticism. He was worried about the notion of nominalism as the putative basis of science. According to Peirce, metaphysical realism entails nominalism. He committed himself to epistemological realism in order to justify science, resulting in an idealist position. Science has a religious dimension. Induction is justifiable.

The fixation of belief, the achievement of truth via consensus, could only be accomplished by scientific method. The meaning of thoughts are constituted by the habits they produce; their effects constitute the whole conception of the object

How this squares with the unification of science and religion is a mystery.

Peirce takes the position of phenomenalism while rejecting nominalism.

Peirce was dismissed from Hopkins and suffered financial misfortunes. His writing became more obscured and he did not formally publish. He was nevertheless quite influential. He tweaked and revised his philosophy in later years. Some characterize his position as “semiotic realism.”

Peirce was undoubtedly innovative, but what a mess!

Chapter 9: Harvard became the most prominent institution for philosophy in the USA, with James and Royce as the most influential.

James moved from physiology to psychology to philosophy. Will or mind partially constitutes objective reality. James incorporated evolution but rejected determinism, upholding the notion of free will. He also maintained that philosophical positions are a matter of temperament. All are logically defensible, but theism is more congenial, to James.

Though locked in a permanent philosophical tug-of-war, James temporarily caved in to Royce’s objective idealism. Only temporarily, as James as as averse to German thought as he was to materialism.

James’s pragmatism fused psychology and logic, distorting Peirce’s conception of pragmatism, i.e. became more decisively subjectivist.

Royce for his part shifted to an absolute pragmatism. Note the numerous contortions with the concept of “experience”.

James’s most public intervention was his Varieties of Religious Experience, pragmatically justifying religion, but rejecting the Absolute, which he found unacceptable in light of human suffering, i.e. the problem of evil.

Royce countered with The Philosophy of Loyalty, concerning himself with the harmonization of conflicting wills, moral progress, and “loyalty to loyalty”—serving better and better causes.

The next section of this chapter concerns these pragmatists’ political thought, but I will skip to the next section, and come back to this topic. James moved on to develop a radical empiricism, his fundamental metaphysical category being “experience,” leaning toward panpsychism, then rejecting monism for pluralism. Later Royce moved to pluralism.

While more or less objective in characterizing the metaphysical and epistemological views of Peirce, James and Royce, Kuklick does not shy away from judgment of their social and political thought, which he finds devoid of substance. Peirce was in effect apolitical. James and Royce essentially functioned in the social role of philosophical clergymen, catering to the better instincts of the upper middle class. Royce was worried about the loss of community and rampant individualism, and wished for the reconciliation of labor and capital. James hoped for a gradual amelioration of the differential distribution of wealth, also desiring the reconciliation of capital and labor. Both extolled the martial virtues, James seeking the moral equivalent of war.

Kucklick dissects the anatomy of their philosophical projects, and given their priorities, the reasons for the underdevelopment of their social thought. (170-1) This is as close as he gets to a philosophical “indictment”; it correlates with his earlier remarks as to why these pragmatists were obtuse to real social theory, such as that of Weber or Marx.

As to their enduring posthumous reputations, Ralph Barton Perry buried Royce and elevated James.

The final section of this chapter is titled “America’s gift to philosophy.” James’s impact can be understood on the basis of his communication of a passionate concern for the human predicament. However, what Kuklick has actually demonstrated is that America’s “gift” was provincial, incoherent, obscurantist, by turns subjectivist or regressively metaphysical, based on fundamentally impoverished notions (experience), and represented only a small slice of American reality. Yet the pragmatist heritage, retooled and reconfigured within the limiting institution of American philosophy and religion departments, continues to be touted (in popular works especially) as quintessentially American in a positive rather than a constrictive sense. The track record of American philosophy up to this point is not something to be proud of; it could be described, borrowing Engels’ characterization of German philosophers, as “a pauper’s broth of eclecticism.”


The Ins and Outs of Lloyd’s Left Out (review of Left Out: Pragmatism, Exceptionalism, and the Poverty of American Marxism, 1890-1922 by Brian Lloyd) by R. Dumain

Pragmatism and Its Discontents: Annotated Selected Bibliography

post Marcuse, one-dimensionality, & the fate of utopia

Note these two articles on Marcuse’s development:

Discovered manuscript shows Marcuse’s evolution by Laura Gardner, Brandeis Now, Oct. 9, 2013

Newly Discovered Draft of Marcuse Book Reveals Turn Toward Pessimism by Marc Parry, The Chronicle of Higher Education, September 30, 2013

Note also the upcoming conference at Brandeis University, 1-2 October 2014:

The Many Dimensions of Herbert Marcuse

This is the 50th anniversary of Marcuse’s One Dimensional Man. That book was published as the first signs of the destabilization of American liberalism and middle class complacency could be felt. Here one does not see much of the social forces that are about to explode.

How different is An Essay on Liberation, 1969, in which Marcuse continues the same ideas but in a radically different situation from that of five years previous. 1969, following the revolutionary year of 1968, is in the throes of the height of the revolutionary wave of the ’60s, and this sea change is reflected in this book.

The interim five years saw the publication of essays and lectures.  Here is a key quote from The End of Utopia, July 1967, which eloquently indicates the imperviousness of the American social order to serious social critique:

What I have called the total mobilization of the established society against its own potentialities is today as strong and as effective as ever. On the one hand we find the absolute necessity of first liberating consciousness, on the other we see ourselves confronted by a concentration of power against which even the freest consciousness appears ridiculous and impotent. The struggle on two fronts is more acute today than it ever was. On the one hand the liberation of consciousness is necessary, on the other it is necessary to feel out every possibility of a crack in the enormously concentrated power structure of existing society. In the United States, for example, it has been possible to have relatively free consciousness because it simply has no effect.

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