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In Pragmatism and the Reflective Life, Stuart Rosenbaum deftly weaves moral themes around the locus of pragmatism, using these themes to defend the titular “reflective life.” The leading figure here is John Dewey, who, in his writings on democracy, community, and morality, provides the basis for reflective living. Rosenbaum, in explicating the main ways pragmatism deviates from traditional historical philosophical models, provides a clear explanation of pragmatism to his readers. He achieves his main goal, clarifying the meaning of pragmatism and its attendant democratic ideology: ecumenism.
Rosenbaum states that “the content of the reflective life . . . is its commitment to autonomy, community, and ideality” (157). He approaches these themes through chapters entitled, “Pragmatism,” “From Moral Theory to the Reflective Life,” “The Reflective Life,” “Ideals,” “Deliberation,” “Education,” and “Ecumenism.” Rosenbaum, in “Pragmatism,” sets the stage for the exploration of the reflective life and provides a clear and concise understanding of the nature of pragmatism, especially in regard to the work of John Dewey.
To begin with, says Rosenbaum, one must understand what features distinguish pragmatism from traditional Western philosophy—its focus on experience and its endorsement of radical empiricism. In regard to the former, Rosenbaum underscores “the central intellectual commitment of the pragmatist tradition, the idea that experience itself is the source of its own guidance; experience itself is the source of aims and methods, principles, goals, and ideals that may yield better experience [End Page 78] and better institutions.” He further notes that “experience does not need the guide of external authority; it needs no external control to achieve betterment” (25). In regard to the latter, he lays out three definitive differences between the radical empiricism of pragmatists and traditional empiricism. The first difference, Rosenbaum makes clear, is that pragmatism treats epistemology and metaphysics as socially and culturally embedded (26). Pragmatists are especially attuned to how metaphysical and epistemological problems stem from specific contexts: “Since pragmatists see all phenomena, even sophisticated intellectual phenomena, as fully embedded within cultural and ecological contexts, they think that understanding such phenomena requires understanding those contexts. This respect for cultural context is the second definitive difference between pragmatism and classical empiricism” (26–27). This respect for culture is manifested in a genealogical understanding of moral problems. In other words, moral problems arise through and in specific cultural contexts.
The third difference Rosenbaum identifies stems from pragmatism’s respect for science. Science, considered as a tool, “enables cognitive interactions within human environments, cultural and natural, but it does not enable knowledge transcending those environments” (29). Pragmatism’s rejection of the quest for transcendent knowledge is, in fact, the main theme underlying the differences between radical empiricism and classical empiricism. This pragmatic theme is clearly illustrated in the works of John Dewey. Rosenbaum makes this theme explicit, stating that “pragmatists do not seek conceptual universality, conceptual necessity, or a priori knowledge. Instead, pragmatists see humans as thoroughly embedded in their natural world, and this embedding includes their concepts and their ability to manipulate those concepts” (2). This position distinguishes pragmatists from philosophers of other traditions. Rosenbaum continues: “Conceptual universality, necessity, and a priori knowledge, the primary goals of analytic philosophers, are not goals for pragmatists because pragmatists do not regard those things as separable in thought from the widest possible human agreement about how to use ideas of morality and religion to seek better lives for individuals and communities” (2–3). Here Rosenbaum brings Dewey into the conversation, noting that he reacted against those strains of “Western thought that seek transcendence for humanity,” by recalling “humanity back to the natural world” (4).
According to Rosenbaum, the recognition of the import of cultural context—and moral genealogies—allow humans to lead the reflective life. Rosenbaum continues to display a solid grasp of pragmatism in his chapter on deliberation, a main theme in pragmatist ethics, and one related to social and cultural appreciation. As Rosenbaum artfully explains, agents deliberate when faced with difficult situations (107). In these situations, one is required to “be deliberate about one’s action...