- Purchase/rental options available:
Journal of the History of Philosophy 39.4 (2001) 602-603
[Access article in PDF]
Paul B. Thompson and Thomas C. Hilde, editors. The Agrarian Roots of Pragmatism. The Vanderbilt Library of American Philosophy. Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 2000. Pp. ix + 342. Cloth, $39.95.
If "racial memory" is a viable concept, then the enduring paradigm of human productivity is agriculture, whose seventy-century dominion Western industry and urbanization have eclipsed only within the last two hundred years. The fifteen essays collected here explore America's distinctive form of agrarianism: where individualism, democracy, and a seemingly endless frontier transcended European quarrels over "commons" versus "containment." These values also helped forge our indigenous philosophy—pragmatism—and it is the confluence of these two distinctive American forms that intrigues each of these authors.
The essays fall roughly into three groups: 1) historical queries whose connection to pragmatism is marginal, 2) expositions of the agrarian roots of pragmatism, and 3) estimates of the influence of classical pragmatism on the recent rise of neoagrarianism. The first category offers sparkling essays by Charles Taliaferro, James Campbell, Paul B. Thompson, Robert S. Corrington, and Douglas R. Anderson. Together these scholars sketch a history from colonial times to the mid-twentieth century—from Jefferson's "noble agrarian" to the agony of reconstruction, which hastened the split between Northern transcendentalists and Southern romantics. There are some surprises: Franklin outshines even Jefferson with his balanced vision of self-improvement and community weal, and Jefferson's correspondent Crèvecoueur emerges as a visionary who foresaw farming as a wholesome and integrated way of life a century before Emerson and Thoreau. Thomas C. Hilde finds an engagingly pragmatic notion of community in Josiah Royce, and Richard E. Hart discovers Dewey's sense of concrete experience in the novels of John Steinbeck. The contributions of neglected figures such as Francois Quesnay, Liberty Hyde Bailey, John Brewster, and A Whitney Griswold are also recovered.
Turning to the second group, though obviously an irresistible title the notion that classical pragmatism is robustly "rooted" in agrarianism is slightly disingenuous. Peirce and James have no direct ties to agrarianism. And though Dewey's themes of innovation, social intelligence, community, and a conception of experience broadly inclusive of organisms and environments reflect obvious affinities, they do not show that pragmatism grew directly from or is a variant of agrarianism. Happily, the pieces on Dewey contributed by Larry A. Hickman and Armen Marsoobian harbor no such illusions, [End Page 602] and Dewey is specifically disassociated from the claim that agriculture is a privileged form of experience.
The third, and perhaps most significant, aim of the volume is to bring pragmatic insights into the recent groundswell toward neoagrarianism. Where traditional agrarianism was polarized between the domination of nature and its romantic beatification, the movement pioneered by Wendell Berry in the 1970s portrays the farmer as a nurturer whose goal is to seek an optimal harmony in the health of the land, the family, the community, and the country. In this James A. Montmarquet finds a Deweyan respect for an encompassing "situation," a unity of fact and value in stark opposition to the "corporate" mentality of specialization and success measured in economic gain alone. For Jeffrey Burkhardt, land grant universities must renew their original commitment to the family farm by distancing themselves from the forces of positivism and scientism—the technocrats and bio-chemical engineers who have imperiled both the land and the communities who depend upon it. Neither Montmarquette nor Burkhardt are looking for handouts, or for a return to the "idyllic" life of the one-horse plow. They emphasize moral training and a combination of practices designed to support the sustainability of the smaller farm in a competitive marketplace.
One author compares the mention of agrarianism in philosophical discourse to committing a rude act in public. Clearly, however, mere "respectability" is not enough. If the contributors to this volume are correct, agrarianism is a lantern that may illuminate our ongoing search for wholeness and integrity.
Kent State University