- Extending the Pragmatist Tradition:Replies to Commentators
I want to begin by thanking Judith Green for organizing this symposium, and all the contributors for their thoughtful attention to my work.
Pragmatism is currently undergoing an apparent revival, with a number of philosophers not normally associated with the movement claiming to have joined the club: following the lead of Dick Rorty, Isaac Levi, and Hilary Putnam, Robert Brandom and Huw Price have also declared their pragmatist allegiance. I, too, have signed on. But, as Seth Joshua Thomas astutely notes in his essay, should those who have labored long and hard during times when the writings of Peirce, James, and Dewey were neglected (and often brusquely dismissed) take these self-ascriptions seriously? After all, none of us newcomers has anything like the depth of understanding of the pragmatist canon exhibited by many distinguished scholars—people like Richard Bernstein, Larry Hickman, Christopher Hookway, Cheryl Misak, and Ruth Anna Putnam.
Neo-pragmatism is inspired by particular themes in the writings of Peirce, James, and Dewey, and aims to extend the pragmatist tradition by developing those themes in the context of contemporary philosophical discussions. That context might draw on ideas in Anglophone philosophy—as Brandom integrates pragmatist insights with recent views about meaning—or it might use the writings of the classical pragmatists to elaborate European approaches to social philosophy (as with Jürgen Habermas and Axel Honneth), or it might borrow eclectically from various philosophical traditions and from the circumstances of life today to launch philosophical inquiry in new directions. A personal neo-pragmatist confession: I care less about whether my readings [End Page 97] of James and Dewey are correct than whether they provide ideas that prove useful in advancing the inquiries that concern me. A “strong misreading” (in Harold Bloom’s sense) would be good enough—possibly even better.
That attitude can easily appear cavalier, and invite objections that show how specific ventures in neo-pragmatism distort the ideas of those from whom they claim inspiration. I am grateful to my commentators for understanding that such criticisms are most pertinent to me when the distortion hampers my own philosophical investigations. When they chide me for not attending to the actual positions held by James and Dewey, their complaints are grounded in the thought that I might have offered a superior approach to the problems I tackle, had my scholarship been more careful. In proceeding in this way, their perspective is both generous and apt.
In the sections that follow, I’ll try to explain where I think they are correct and where I’m still inclined to dig in my heels. I’ll consider the issues about representation of the world raised by Kamili Posey, Jacoby Carter, and Devin Fitzpatrick; after that I shall turn to Seth Joshua Thomas’ reflections on my approach to ethics and values; finally, I’ll take up the concerns about my discussions of religion, voiced both by Judith Green and by Devin Fitzpatrick. But before I elaborate detailed responses, I think it will help to provide an overview of the themes I draw from the classical pragmatists, so as to make clearer why I consider myself working within the pragmatist tradition.
What Counts as pragmatism?
A straightforward approach to determining whether someone is a pragmatist (or a Kantian, or an Idealist) is to apply a litmus test: there’s some specific thesis that the genuine pragmatist (Kantian, Idealist) must espouse. Whether this approach will work for other philosophical traditions, it’s surely a strange one for pragmatists to adopt. Thinkers like James and Dewey, who worry about “essences,” would be suspicious of the thought that pragmatism has an essence—and the practice of all three classical pragmatists consists in borrowing from various philosophical traditions and reconfiguring the themes they take. A better picture, I suggest, is Wittgenstein’s famous figure of the rope composed of many strands, no one of which runs through the whole.
My suggestion faces an obvious rejoinder. In the book that gave the movement its name, James’ second chapter purports to tell us “What Pragmatism means.” His explanation traces pragmatism back to Peirce’s “How to make our ideas clear,” and...