across the great divide
Who owns anti-foundationalism? Arguments that truths arise from contextual and plural sources, as well as studies of the social and intellectual environments through which these truth claims arose, have gained surprising attention in the past decade. Not because they are new, necessarily; debates between the Sophists and the Platonists point to similar epistemological fisticuffs. Rather, the decline of Marxism as an institutionalized, statist doctrine underpinning a quasi-expansionist Soviet Union, combined with a marked distrust for universalist, one-size-fits-all mechanistic determinism, has created an opening for more esoteric and pluralistic understandings of political, cultural, and social events.
The accepted narrative explaining these recent years has been relatively and deceptively simple: in the late 1970s, a number of American academics began reading European authors, generally known as “postmodernists” or “poststructuralists.” Convinced by (or seduced by, depending on the political proclivities of the narrator) the arguments of theorists such as Foucault, Derrida, Lyotard, Deleuze, and Latour, and their progenitors Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, and Adorno, scholars replicated their anti-foundationalism, their critical approaches, and their opaque writing style. For those critics who tell this story most often, these tendencies have led to a slippery aestheticization of philosophy, a propensity for jargon which obscures any real argument, and a betrayal of the truth. Defenders, in their turn, show the political potentialities, the intellectual challenge, and the continuing explanatory power of such analyses.1
This essay does not continue this debate. Instead, I want to challenge its underlying presumption that a European invading philosophy displaced the pragmatic truth-telling of the Anglo-American world. This insistence on the radical disconnection between English-language and Continental European theory both profoundly misrepresents the foundations of American intellectual history and willfully ignores the cross currents of philosophical thought predating the advent of “postmodernism.” In contrast, I look back a century to a period when both the American and European scholarly worlds grappled with the sureties of Hegelian thinking (of both its left and right varieties).
William James and Henri Bergson embodied this philosophical approach at the beginning of the twentieth century. One American, one French, they were both friends and competitors. Each was the best-known philosophical intellect of his time and place, each transcended the narrows of academia to hold a place in the popular imagination, and each was a unavoidable influence on subsequent minds. Most importantly, each viewed the other as a colleague and an influence, a relationship which (for reasons discussed below) remains mostly unexamined today.
Within the United States, James is known as the exemplary American philosopher: he created (or at least popularized) pragmatism, the philosophy of everyday experience, and he embodied the plainspoken and straightforward style of the Harvard man. He brought philosophy into its own, freeing it from the excessive abstractions of its history, and built a new, streamlined mode of thought which could serve as the foundation of a truly American approach. James, in other words, stands as the rebuttal to European ownership of philosophical inquiry.
But this summary ignores at least three vital truths, as well as disregarding the complexities of pragmatism. First, William James’s renown extended far beyond the borders of the United States. Because of the historical marginalization of this fame, the implications and effects of his popularity in Europe and beyond are too often discounted or slighted. Thus the international influences and consequences of his thought, the Jamesian reverberations in the philosophy and art of other languages and countries, are lost. Second, James’s reputation during his lifetime rested upon far more than his pragmatism: his empiricism, his psychological theory, and his pluralism held wide recognition as equally or even more important than pragmatism. James became solely identified with pragmatism only as his contributions to intellectual history were reduced to their most simplistic levels. Third, James saw himself as part of an international community of philosophers. Certainly he rejected certain European theoretical approaches, most notably Hegel’s, but he drew upon and even promoted other thinkers doing the same. James’s personal and intellectual relationship with the French philosopher Henri Bergson typifies these engagements, for...