restricted access Introduction: 100 Years of Pragmatism
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Introduction: 100 Years of Pragmatism John J. Stuhr   .   .   .   .   .   . I. In 1907, William James published Pragmatism. The book was based most directly on public lectures at the Lowell Institute and Columbia University , but its major ideas and lines of thought had been evident in James’s lectures and publications, and in debates and discussion in philosophy journals, for some three decades. James dedicated the book to John Stuart Mill, “from whom I first learned the pragmatic openness of mind and whom my fancy likes to picture as our leader were he alive today,” and he added a characteristically pluralistic subtitle—Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking—that suggests anything but genuine originality, conceptual sea change, and revolution in philosophy (P, 3, 1). James added, early in the book, that “there is absolutely nothing new in the pragmatic method” and located its earlier if more fragmentary use in philosophers such as Aristotle, Locke, Berkeley, Hume, and Hodgson, in addition to Mill (P, 30). Still, James referred to pragmatism as a “conquering destiny” with “universal mission” (P, 30), and it is clear that he viewed it as original and highly important. Writing that same year to his brother, Henry, he claimed, “I shouldn’t be surprised if ten years hence it should be rated as ‘epoch-making,’ for of the definitive triumph of that general way of thinking I can entertain no doubt whatever—I believe it to be something quite like the protestant reformation” (CWJ, III, 339). James described this general way of thinking as a “turn away from abstraction and insufficiency, from verbal solutions, from bad a priori reasons, from fixed principles, closed systems, and pretended absolutes and origins” and a “turn towards concreteness and adequacy, towards facts, towards action, and towards power” (P, 31). It is, he added, “the attitude of looking away from first things, principles, ‘categories,’ supposed necessities; and of looking towards last things, fruits, consequences, facts” (P, 32). 2  •  John J. Stuhr Today, more than a century after the publication of James’s Pragmatism, has pragmatism’s general way of thinking been triumphant, even epoch-making ? What has been the pragmatic impact of pragmatism? What is its pragmatic meaning today? What are its pragmatic possibilities for tomorrow? This volume addresses these questions. In substance, it is neither an introduction to, nor an explication of, James’s philosophy. Rather, it is an original engagement with the major ways in which James himself understood pragmatism. In orientation, it takes up the spirit of neither closed-minded cheerleading nor closed-minded refutation. Rather, it is a critical assessment of pragmatism in light of more than a century of its facts, consequences, fruits, and last things. Four overlapping issues and clusters of questions constitute the focus of this volume. First, beginning with James’s own projection of the historical importance of his work, attention is focused on the impact of pragmatism in the United States and in the world, both backward in terms of the century after Pragmatism and forward in terms of its present and future potential. In so doing, pragmatism also is situated in contexts that outstrip national boundaries—contexts of modernism and postmodernism, democratic movements and totalitarian regimes, and issues of race, gender, class, and globalization. James characterized pragmatism as a method, as a theory of truth, and as an attitude, each serving as a point of focus here. So, second, consider pragmatism as a method—a method for settling otherwise interminable metaphysical problems, a method for philosophers (finally) to make progress, a method that would “unstiffen our theories” and render philosophy radically experiential and, if those experiences are irreducibly plural, radically pluralistic. Has this method succeeded? Has it achieved a wholesale reconstruction in philosophy by undercutting the assumptions of traditional problems? If pragmatism has not triumphed, how and why has it failed or stumbled? If it has succeeded, how, and how is any such triumph consistent with the seemingly interminable continuation of metaphysical problems and intellectualist tendencies? And can pragmatism really be, as James sometimes squarely says, a method only that “does not stand for any special results ?” Third, James set forth his pragmatism as a theory of truth. In his view, truth is an instrument for getting us into satisfactory relations with experiences, an expedient in our way of thinking, a marrying function between old beliefs and new experiences, and something made rather than found. Is this account of truth true? Does it square with science, including science since James’s day...


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