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WEAVING CHAOS INTO ORDER: A RADICALLY PRAGMATIC AESTHETIC by Charlene Haddock Seigfried Few probably recallJohn Dewey's explanation of how pragmatism embraces two types of anti-intellectualism.1 Thanks to Richard Rorty, this deconstructive side of pragmatism has been reclaimed. But he goes too far when he reduces pragmatism to purely linguistic analysis to bring out its similarity to Jacques Derrida's and Jean-Francois Lyotard 's critiques. I agree with Rorty that pragmatism, like poststructuralism , insists that it is impossible "to step outside our skins—the traditions, linguistic and other, within which we do our thinking and self-criticism—and compare ourselves with something absolute."2 However , I think that he departs from most pragmatists when he says that we cannot "separate the tool, Language, from its users and inquire as to its 'adequacy' to achieve our purposes" (p. 32). The adequacy in question is to the achievement of purposes, not to the manipulation of language. Whether, for instance, I have successfully achieved my goal of tenure cannot simply be reduced to a comparison of different sentences , as Rorty claims (pp. 32-33). Our praxis, the ways we actively organize experience to make ourselves at home in it, presupposes the meaning structures provided by language. Itdoes not follow, however, that praxis is reducible to alternate language games. When most pragmatists—from William James, John Dewey, and George Herbert Mead to contemporary practitioners— appeal to the reflective appropriations of various organizations of experience , they are not attempting "to get back behind language" to 108 Charlene Haddock Seigfried109 something which grounds it. They are suggesting, instead, ways to cut off the infinite interpretive regress of free-floating language games without having recourse to metaphysically grounded absolute claims or to what Lyotard calls the "terrorism of ultimate signifiers." Experience, rather than language, is the central interpretive principle privileged by pragmatists. It is deliberately chosen not only because, like the similar term, "phenomenon," it is neutral as to subjectivity and objectivity until specified, but also because it represents our active appropriation of the world as an indispensable source of the particular ontological distinctions or epistemological categories which otherwise seem to be ready-made.3 As lived, experience is always already determined , but such distinctions as exist are historically developed and can therefore be reflectively retrieved, questioned, and transformed. The point of such reflective questioning of always already determined experience is not to get back to some pristine, "pure experience."4 It is to display both the constructive character of our appropriations and the resistances encountered because of past occurrences which have cut off some possibilities and opened up others. Dewey, for instance, expresses this interpretive starting point as "living in a world," which means living in a series of situations in the sense that "interaction is going on between an individual and objects and other persons. . . . An experience is always what it is because of a transaction taking place between an individual and what, at the time, constitutes his environment."9 "Environment" is taken in the phenomenological sense of "horizon" and therefore includes not only the persons with whom one is talking, but also the subject talked about, and whatever else besides the individual structures the particular transaction. "The environment, in other words, is whatever conditions interact with personal needs, desires, purposes, and capacities to create the experience which is had" (EE, p. 44). James, on the other hand, defines this interpretive starting point as the "full fact": "A conscious field plus its object as felt or thought ofplus an attitude towards the object plus the sense of self to whom the attitude belongs ... is afull fact, even though it is an insignificant fact; it is of the kind to which all realities whatsoever must belong."6 Just as the pragmatists take as their starting point the transactive constitution of self and world rather than language or free-floating interpretation, so they also do not end up in postmodernism or postrationalism , but in what—for lack ofa better term—can be called "pragmatic rationalism." James, for instance, understands rationalism as the 110Philosophy and Literature cognitive dimension ofthe drive to order our experiences satisfactorily, that is, to bringabout a world in which we can...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-329X
Print ISSN
0190-0013
Pages
pp. 108-116
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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