- Pragmatism, Nihilism, and Democracy: What Is Called Thinking at the End of Modernity?
Prelude: The Vanishing Subject
I have elsewhere argued that the original American pragmatists revolutionized twentieth-century European philosophy by determining or reshaping the intellectual agendas of Edmund Husserl, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Émile Durkheim, Georges Sorel, Jean Wahl, and Alexandre Kojève. I have also argued that the “critique of the subject” proposed by poststructuralist feminists—particularly by Judith Butler—becomes more coherent and consequential when we rewrite its Nietzschean genealogy to include its pragmatist antecedents.1
In this space, I want to argue that William James and John Dewey are better guides to the end of modernity than Friedrich Nietzsche and Martin Heidegger, who still reign as the court poets of the so-called linguistic turn. I will claim that because the pragmatists do not abstain from the universalization of the commodity form (that is, from “objectification,” reification, exchange value, modern credit, etc.) and do not indulge an idealization of artisanal labor, they are more useful philosophers for our own time—the [End Page 32] time of “globalization”—than Nietzsche or Heidegger and, for that matter, Horkheimer, Adorno, or Habermas.2
I begin by rehearsing the adjournment of modern subjectivity accomplished in James’s essays on radical empiricism. Then I enlist Jose Ortega y Gasset, a close reader of Heidegger, to ask why that accomplishment has not been adequately acknowledged—which is to ask why Heidegger’s version of an end to modernity has kept its accreditation. At this stage of the argument, the critics of pragmatism, who invariably emphasize that metaphors of money, commerce, and credit disfigure the philosophical discourse of James and Dewey, turn state’s evidence and make my case for pragmatism. In concluding, I will suggest that these metaphors, and the nihilistic discourse we call pragmatism, are the linguistic resources we need to escape the “pathos of authenticity” and to address, accordingly, the universalization of the commodity form as both an impediment to and the condition of democracy.
In my view it is almost self-evident that pragmatism dwells in, and on, the end of modernity, simply because it gives up the ghost of modern subjectivity—that is, the historically specific compound of assumptions, ideas, and attitudes that convenes each individual as a set of radical discontinuities (e.g., mind versus body) that are in turn projected outward, as language and work, and which meanwhile confers an ontological priority on the individual whose freedom resides in release from identities and obligations determined by the past (that is, by historical time). Almost but not quite self-evident. Sometimes changes are so profound, so complete and effective, that we do not recognize them as events that have already occurred.3
Donald Davidson suggested as much in 1986, in an influential essay entitled “The Myth of the Subjective.” Here he noted that the ideas associated with “the relation between the human mind and the rest of nature, [or] the subjective and the objective as we have come to think of them, . . . are now coming under critical scrutiny, and the result promises to mark a sea change in contemporary philosophical thought—a change so profound that we may not recognize that it is occurring.” The change he had in mind was the “demise of the subjective,” which would derive from the collapse of the ontological division between mind and world, between thought and thing, or, as Davidson once put it, between scheme and content. “What we are about to see,” he claimed, “is the emergence of a radically revised view of the relation of mind and the world.”4 [End Page 33]
Until that happened, most philosophers would cling to a Cartesian “myth of the subjective,” which Davidson summarized as follows: “Since we cannot be certain what the world outside the mind is like, the subjective can keep its virtue—its chastity, its certainty for us—only by being protected from contamination of the world.” Myth or not, it had determined the intellectual agenda of modernity: “To a large extent this picture of mind and its place in nature has defined the problems modern philosophy has thought it had to solve.” Or again: “Instead of saying...