Pragmatism Blues

by Ralph Dumain

“. . . the Americans are worlds behind in all theoretical things, and while they did not bring over any medieval institutions from Europe they did bring over masses of medieval traditions, English common (feudal) law, superstition, spiritualism, in short every kind of imbecility which was not directly harmful to business and which is now very serviceable for making the masses stupid.”

— Friedrich Engels, Letter from Engels to Friedrich Albert Sorge, 29 November 1886, in: Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels Correspondence 1846-1895: A Selection with Commentary and Notes (London: Martin Laurence Ltd., 1934), p. 451.


The current revival of pragmatism, as a cover for contemporary irrationalism and a vehicle for the ethnic diversification of American professional philosophy, ought to be held in the highest suspicion. If we trace this back to its social origins in the late ’70s, we see Richard Rorty as its prophet, the consummate liberal narcissist coming into his own just as social liberalism is collapsing into irreversible ruin. Before that, you have the scientific wing of pragmatism embodied in analytical philosophy. This too postdates the heyday of classic American pragmatism, which is seen by Brian Lloyd as comprised of irrationalist (James) and scientific (Dewey) wings. In celebrating the revival of pragmatism, especially with ties to popular culture and other ideological fashions, we ought to be critical of just what it is we are supposed to be celebrating.

But there’s more. Every cultural strategy, every ideology, is both enabling and disabling. It facilitates functioning in a given social environment while disenabling alternative perspectives and strategies. Hence, a national tradition in philosophy is not to be unequivocally celebrated as an organic indigenous phenomenon, a wholly legitimate expression of the national character. A nationally dominant philosophical trend could equally be held under suspicion just because of its social function. Perhaps as an alternative to celebration or self-indulgence, an internationalist or at least comparative perspective would better serve the nation’s needs. This is especially so in a nation so fundamentally infused with hucksterism that its most organic intellectual might well be the man who coined the phrase, there’s a sucker born every minute.”

By contrast we could mention Engels’ early essay on the condition of England. Engels has an international perspective, albeit one confined to the three major players on the world stage of his time: Britain, France, Germany. In each case he analyzes the motive forces and the strengths and weaknesses of the national philosophical configuration. One can be utilized to criticize another or show it in a different light. This is a notably different approach from the current pragmatic revival.


Anderson Douglas R. Philosophy Americana: Making Philosophy at Home in American Culture. New York: Fordham University Press, 2006. Table of contents.

Schroeder, Steven. Review, Essays in Philosophy, Vol. 8, No. 1, January 2007.

Anderson is concerned about the gap between professional philosophy and the popular mind. He seeks to address this gap by evoking familiar American cultural themes—wandering, gambling, popular music—and the history of American thought including its most characteristic products, transcendentalism and pragmatism. Anderson cannot be unmindful of the impossible task of making philosophical reflection at home in an anti-intellectual culture, so he indulges in this incoherent and useless exercise in sympathetic magic by playing off ideas mimetically to the cultural environment of which they are alleged to be an organic expression. Unfortunately, such prestidigitation reveals the bankruptcy of a prospective for American society and thought. Kinda like the Democratic Party.


Glaude, Eddie S., Jr. In a Shade of Blue: Pragmatism and the Politics of Black America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007. Table of contents. Publisher description.

Eddie S. Glaude Jr. teaches religion and African American Studies at Princeton University. He is the author of Exodus!: Religion, Race, and Nation in Early Nineteenth-Century Black America, editor of the anthology Is It Nation Time?: Contemporary Essays on Black Power and Black Nationalism and co-editor with Cornel West of African American Religious Thought: An Anthology.

The publisher’s description of the book as well as the author’s religious concerns and association with Cornel West is a prescription for intellectual insipidity and opportunism. Glaude . . .

. . . makes an impassioned plea for black America to address its social problems by recourse to experience and with an eye set on the promise and potential of the future, rather than the fixed ideas and categories of the past. Central to Glaude’s mission is a rehabilitation of philosopher John Dewey, whose ideas, he argues, can be fruitfully applied to a renewal of African American politics.

According to Glaude, Dewey’s pragmatism, when attentive to the darker dimensions of life—or what we often speak of as the blues—can address many of the conceptual problems that plague contemporary African American discourse. How blacks think about themselves, how they imagine their own history, and how they conceive of their own actions can be rendered in ways that escape bad ways of thinking that assume a tendentious political unity among African Americans simply because they are black, or that short-circuit imaginative responses to problems confronting actual black people. Drawing deeply on black religious thought and literature, In a Shade of Blue seeks to dislodge such crude and simplistic thinking, and replace it with a deeper understanding of and appreciation for black life in all its variety and intricacy. . . .

In other words, provincial, hollow, worthless rhetoric, following in the footsteps of Cornel West’s vacuous “prophetic pragmatism”.

Peddling such shoddy goods, America’s intelligentsia has obviously reached a dead end.


Pragmatism and Its Discontents: Selected Bibliography
American Philosophy Study Guide
The American Hegelians and Related Topics: Selected Bibliography
Black Studies, Music, America vs Europe
Black Music & the American Surrealists: A Bibliography
The Ins and Outs of Lloyd’s Left Out
Cornel West’s Evasion of Philosophy, Or, Richard Wright’s Revenge
Engels on the British Ideology: Empiricism, Agnosticism, & “Shamefaced Materialism”


Eddie Glaude, Jr. @ Reason & Society blog

The Condition of England. I: The Eighteenth Century by Frederick Engels

Originally posted on R. Dumain’s blog Studies in a Dying Culture on February 19th, 2007.
Categories: American Philosophy, Black Studies, popular culture, pragmatism.

See also: Imre Madách on national character.

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Uploaded 23 February 2019

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