- What Difference Can Pragmatism Make for Literary Study?
That pragmatism might be of some use to literary critics has not always been clear. Certainly, the scholars and philologists who shared university halls with James, Peirce, and Dewey found little interest in the philosophers' methods for fixing belief and settling metaphysical disputes. And when the critics of the 1910s and 1920s bothered to comment on pragmatism's place in American culture, they did so disparagingly, denouncing it as an avatar of the nation's basest impulses, a science-minded block to the imaginative efforts the young country needed. "Pragmatism has failed us," Van Wyck Brooks announced in 1918, "because it has attempted to fill the place that only a national poetry can adequately fill"; its emphasis on "the intelligence which merely sees" had crowded out "the imagination which sees and feels" (100). Putting aside for the moment the fairness of Brooks's jab, we can note that pragmatism long seemed literature's enemy rather than its friend and that when the New Criticism arrived in the 1930s and spread its influence through the 1950s, this hostility—or at least indifference—was never challenged. What, after all, could James or Dewey, let alone Peirce, add to an analysis of a poem? To be sure, a few significant answers were offered: Kenneth Burke's treatment of language as symbolic action and Louise Rosenblatt's transactional theory of reading each demonstrated how pragmatist approaches might account for the work of words.1 But through the 1970s, any plea for pragmatism in English departments could be little else than a minority report. [End Page 374]
Circumstances changed with the publication of Richard Rorty's Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (1979). A decade's worth of debate about the proper place of "theory" had given philosophy (mostly European philosophy) an unprecedented place in literary study, and with the ground so tilled, Rorty's presentation of an antifoundationalist approach able to swap grand theories of meaning for local acts of "redescription" found fast roots. The tent subsequently raised for pragmatism's "revival" in the 1980s covered a range of polemics aimed at cutting the transcendental legs out from under epistemology and aesthetics to situate them within lived communities and institutional practices.2 Richard Poirier's distinctive reading of the pragmatist tradition as "a form of linguistic skepticism" also attracted critics to the budding movement, which soon came to be seen as an American counterpart to the deconstruction of Derrida and de Man (Poetry and Pragmatism 4). Neopragmatism and its emphasis on the workings of discourse thus seemed tailor-made for the concerns and controversies of the linguistic turn.
As the default position of criticism moved toward historical modes (New or otherwise), literary critical interest in pragmatism followed suit, and in the 1990s a series of intellectual and cultural histories widened our sense of pragmatism's key contexts and characters. Cornell West and Giles Gunn extended pragmatism's lineage back in time (to Emerson and Henry James, Sr.) and across the Atlantic, putting Dewey and Rorty in conversation with Nietzsche, Foucault, and Gramsci.3 Mark Bauerlein, on the other hand, turned to the classical pragmatists to criticize the narrow appropriations of their work by the revivalists. And critical texts by Ross Posnock, George Hutchinson, Jonathan Levin, and David Kadlec added greater nuance to the portrait of pragmatism by linking it both to a wide array of cultural contexts (the history of psychology, the Harlem Renaissance, anarchism and its influence on Progressive liberalism) and to literary figures such as Henry James, Marianne Moore, Charles Johnson, and Wallace Stevens.4 Over the course of that decade, these historically minded studies reshaped the general understanding of pragmatism, filling in aspects of the classical...