- Pragmatism, Old & New: Selected Writings
In the last fifteen years or so, a significant number of collections of pragmatist writings and anthologies of "American thought" have appeared. Whether it is merely a temporary surge of interest or an indicator of a more permanent trend remains to be seen. The fact is, however, that at this time the market offers competing visions of what constitutes the core corpus of pragmatist philosophy; for in a contested tradition of thought, such as pragmatism, the selection of texts is rarely a matter of just picking out the finest exemplars. It is a process of construction or reconstruction, which may prove to be both consequential and controversial.
This collection, compiled by Susan Haack and Robert Lane, is one of the most recent attempts to put together a representative volume that would cover the main strands of pragmatism, old and new alike. It includes selections from the usual suspects—Charles Peirce, William James, John Dewey, Richard Rorty—but thankfully also writings by some less obvious names, such as Frank Ramsey and Sidney Hook. However, Pragmatism, Old & New does not only provide a couple of minor surprises in the authors included; it also offers some unexpected picks from key figures. Overall, the picture presented is one of a living debate between various factions, an impression strengthened by the inclusion of an entertaining "conversation" between Peirce and Rorty. This highlighting of discrepancies in pragmatism can possibly be questioned, but it does provide the collection with a backbone and rationale that helps to set it apart from the competition.
In particular, the volume under scrutiny provides a welcome alternative to the comparable reader assembled by Louis Menand,1 an anthology marked by its rather idiosyncratic view of the tradition and its clear preference for the more radical variants of neopragmatism. Indeed, one of the motivations behind Haack's and Lane's collection is undoubtedly the need to counter Menand's distorted story; Haack has dubbed Menand's take on pragmatism "Vulgar Rortyism",2 a further step toward the abyss from the plain old "vulgar pragmatism" of Rorty. [End Page 575]
The quantitative distribution of texts in Pragmatism, Old & New also reveals something about the editors' perception of pragmatist thought, and possibly also about their personal preferences. The classical pragmatists (by whom I mean Peirce, James, Dewey, George H. Mead, and F.C.S. Schiller) take up about two thirds of the book. There are nine selections from Peirce, five from James, and seven from Dewey; the rest of the authors are confined to one or two contributions each (unless we count the compiled "discussion" between Peirce and Rorty, which would bring their shares to ten and three, respectively). The emphasis is on the core philosophical issues of truth, knowledge, and meaning, although metaphysical, moral, and social topics are also represented, mainly through texts by James and Dewey. Again, this focus brings a welcome degree of continuity to the collection, but also tends to give it a slight slant toward problems of epistemology and realism.
Nonetheless, the collection offers a good overview of the major players in the drama of pragmatism: in addition to the authors already mentioned, there are pieces by Clarence Irving Lewis, Morton White, Willard Van Orman Quine, Nelson Goodman, and Hilary Putnam. There are also omissions, of course. This is unavoidable in a volume that attempts to present the weighty ideas of several seminal minds in a limited number of pages, and cannot be seen as a major fault. Still, it would have been refreshing to see at least one excerpt from the Italian pragmatists of the early 1900s, who admittedly were not as original or significant as Peirce, James, and Dewey, but who nonetheless played an important supporting role in the intellectual history of the early pragmatist tradition. Some inclusions could be questioned as well; Quine is undeniably a seminal American philosopher, and can be seen as an heir to Dewey's naturalistic project, but on the whole his pragmatist credentials are debatable.
These are petty gripes, however. Somewhat more serious doubts could...