restricted access Pragmatism as a Philosophy of Hope: Emerson, James, Dewey, Rorty
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Pragmatism as a Philosophy of Hope:
Emerson, James, Dewey, Rorty

We must not worry
how few we are and fall from each other
More than language can express
Hope for the artist in America & etc

—Susan Howe, "Articulation of Sound Forms in Time"

Meliorism, or philosophical hopefulness, has long been acknowledged to be a genuine influence on pragmatist philosophy. In recent years there has been a surge of interest in this idea as an increasing number of books and articles are calling attention to the role that hope plays in the pragmatist way of thinking. 1 But despite this increase of interest in pragmatist meliorism and the near universal acknowledgment that meliorism is somehow central to pragmatism, it remains to be spelled out exactly how meliorism contributes to pragmatism. I here undertake the project of explicating the philosophical significance of pragmatist meliorism.

I understand pragmatism, and find it at its best, as a philosophical way of taking hope seriously. Pragmatism develops the philosophical resources of hope. One implication is that traditional philosophical categories look different when seen pragmatically, where they are inflected with, and interpreted through, hopefulness. It is thus that traditional philosophical concepts—such as truth—are widely understood to be severely reconstructed by pragmatism. Yet the motivations for, and philosophical significance of, these reconstructions remain obscure so long as the meliorism at the heart of pragmatism is left unexplained. The purpose of this article is to show both that pragmatism is plausibly understood as hopeful philosophy and that this philosophical call to hopefulness is a good successor to the long-standing quests for certainty that have dominated philosophy throughout modernity. [End Page 106]

Pragmatist Meliorism, Pluralism, and Humanism

Hopefulness, which in its more philosophically robust moments can be called meliorism, combines pluralism and humanism, two central themes in the pragmatist vision. Pluralism is the thesis that the realities we inhabit are many. As James put it, "the world we live in exists diffuse and distributed" (1907, 126). There is no one way that things are. The world is dynamic and shifting. Pluralism takes contingency seriously by applying it to reality itself. The result is that things could always be different than they happen to be. The world is thus a pluriverse, not a universe. A corollary of pluralism, humanism is the thesis that we humans make definitive contributions to this pluriverse. Again in James's words the idea is that "the world stands really malleable, waiting to receive its final touches at our hands. . . . Man engenders truths upon it" (123). What reality is depends on our active contributions, interests, and purposes.

Meliorism, holding together pluralism with humanism, is the thesis that we are capable of creating better worlds and selves. Pluralism says that better futures are possible, humanism that possibilities are often enough decided by human energies, and meliorism that better futures are made real by our effort. Meliorism, then, is best seen as humanism and pluralism combined and in confident mood. Melioristic confidence offers a genuine alternative to both pessimism and optimism. These two moods, almost universally proffered by modern philosophers, share a common assumption that progress or decline is inevitable. Meliorism, on the other hand, focuses on what we can do to hasten our progress and mitigate our decline.

As such, meliorism resonates with the central ethical impulse at the heart of pragmatism: democracy. Democracy is the simple idea that political and ethical progress hinges on nothing more than persons, their values, and their actions. Embracing what James called "the strenuous life," democracy, like pragmatism, refuses reliance on all that is not of us: "The pragmatism . . . I defend has to fall back on a certain ultimate hardihood, a certain willingness to live without assurances or guarantees" (1906, 124). Meliorism is the name for that hardihood and willingness. It is tempting, then, to see pragmatism as developing the philosophical consequences of meliorism, while understanding democracy as developing its political and ethical consequences.

Truth in Pragmatist Meliorism

I would like to elaborate on some of the broader philosophical implications of pragmatist meliorism by considering the role that the concept of truth has played in the writings of four pragmatists I accept as exemplary: William James, John...