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The American Evasion of Philosophy

A Genealogy of Pragmatism

Cornel West

Publication Year: 1989

Taking Emerson as his starting point, Cornel West’s basic task in this ambitious enterprise is to chart the emergence, development, decline, and recent resurgence of American pragmatism. John Dewey is the central figure in West’s pantheon of pragmatists, but he treats as well such varied mid-century representatives of the tradition as Sidney Hook, C. Wright Mills, W. E. B. Du Bois, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Lionel Trilling. West’s "genealogy" is, ultimately, a very personal work, for it is imbued throughout with the author’s conviction that a thorough reexamination of American pragmatism may help inspire and instruct contemporary efforts to remake and reform American society and culture.

"West . . . may well be the pre-eminent African American intellectual of our generation."—The Nation

"The American Evasion of Philosophy is a highly intelligent and provocative book. Cornel West gives us illuminating readings of the political thought of Emerson and James; provides a penetrating critical assessment of Dewey, his central figure; and offers a brilliant interpretation—appreciative yet far from uncritical—of the contemporary philosopher and neo-pragmatist Richard Rorty. . . . What shines through, throughout the work, is West's firm commitment to a radical vision of a philosophic discourse as inextricably linked to cultural criticism and political engagement."—Paul S. Boyer, professor emeritus of history, University of Wisconsin–Madison.

Wisconsin Project on American Writers

Frank Lentricchia, General Editor

Published by: University of Wisconsin Press

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pp. xi-xii

This book was made possible - as are all my writings - by my loving family and friends: my inimitable parents, Clifton L. West, Jr., and Irene Bias West; my steadfast brother, Clifton L. West Ill; my supportive sisters, Cynthia West Cole and Cheryl West; my close confidant, James Melvin Washington, Professor of Church History at Union Theological Seminary ...

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pp. 3-8

A small-scale intellectual renascence is occurring under the broad banner of pragmatism. The controversial works of Richard Rorty - aided by the differing views of fellow pragmatists such as Hilary Putnam, Ian Hacking, and Richard Bernstein - have unsettled academic philosophy. Literary critics of the pragmatist persuasion like Frank Lentricchia and Stanley ...

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1. The Emersonian Prehistory of American Pragmatism

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pp. 9-41

The long shadow cast by Ralph Waldo Emerson over American pragmatism has been often overlooked and rarely examined. Yet Emerson not only prefigures the dominant themes of American pragmatism but, more important, enacts an intellectual style of cultural criticism that permits and encourages American pragmatists to swerve from mainstream ...

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2. The Historic Emergence of American Pragmatism

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pp. 42-68

American pragmatism can be understood as what happens to the Emersonian evasion of epistemology-centered philosophy when forced to justify itself within the professional perimeters of academic philosophy. The first articulators of American pragmatism - members of the Metaphysical Club in Cambridge, Massachusetts - were learned professionals principally inter-...

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3. The Coming-of-Age of American Pragmatism: John Dewey

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pp. 69-111

American pragmatism reaches its highest level of sophisticated articulation and engaged elaboration in the works and life of John Dewey. To put it crudely, if Emerson is the American Vico, and James and Peirce our John Stuart Mill and Immanuel Kant, then Dewey is the American Hegel and Marx! On the surface, these far fetched comparisons reveal the poverty ...

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4. The Dilemma of the Mid-Century Pragmatic Intellectual

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pp. 112-181

The legacy of American pragmatism for mid-century intellectuals was the project of promoting an Emersonian culture of creative democracy by means of critical intelligence and social action. The major proponents of this project and legacy were no longer white Yankees but rather two second-generation Jewish Americans, Sidney Hook and Lionel Trilling; ...

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5. The Decline and Resurgence of American Pragmatism: W.V. Quine and Richard Rorty

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pp. 182-210

Although American pragmatism is widely regarded as the distinctive American philosophy, it has never been hegemonic in the academic profession of philosophy. Even during the heyday of James and Dewey, old forms of idealism and new versions of naturalism and realism dominated the major philosophy departments in the country. Moreover, the major fol-...

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6. Prophetic Pragmatism: Cultural Criticism and Political Engagement

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pp. 211-242

The move from Rorty's model of fluid conversation to that of the multi-leveled operations of power leads us back to Ralph Waldo Emerson. Like Friedrich Nietzsche, Emerson is first and foremost a cultural critic obsessed with ways to generate forms of power. For Rorty, these forms are understood as activities of conversation for the primary purpose ...


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pp. 243-272


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pp. 273-279

E-ISBN-13: 9780299119638
Print-ISBN-13: 9780299119645

Publication Year: 1989