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A Pragmatist in Paris: Frederic Rauh's "Task of Dissolution"

From: Journal of the History of Ideas
Volume 58, Number 2, April 1997
pp. 289-308 | 10.1353/jhi.1997.0016

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Journal of the History of Ideas 58.2 (1997) 289-308


Richard Rorty has suggested that we think of "pragmatism in the professorial sense" as "just a repudiation of the quest for certainty and foundations." In other words think of a pragmatist as someone who links the quest for privileged method with the quest for foundational knowledge and gives up both. As Rorty explained several years ago,

If one believes, as I do, that the traditional ideas of "an absolute ('objective') conception of reality" and of "scientific method" are neither clear nor useful, then one will see the interlocked questions "What should be the method of the social sciences?" and "What are the criteria of an objective moral theory?" as badly posed.

Pragmatists not only give up the quest for grounding, foundations, or essences, then, but they also understand that the dissolution of essences leads in turn to "the dissolution of inquiry into a self-reweaving web of beliefs." If this "seems wacky to you," Rorty notes, "consider that such a dissolution is a natural and easy consequence of a generalized antiessentialism." Whether he speaks in terms of foundations or essences, Rorty's message remains the same: pragmatists not only let go of the quest for foundations, they also let go of the quest for privileged method.

Perhaps the principle difficulty with this way of defining pragmatism is that not very many people seem to qualify as pragmatists. What Rorty has been able to do with remarkable consistency, others have been less willing and less able to do. There are, of course, still numerous foundationalists among us who are explicit about their commitment to the quest for foundations and to the quest for method that accompanies it. While anti-foundationalism may be all the rage, "it would be too much to say that the foundationalist argument lies in ruins. It is in fact remarkably resilient and resourceful in the face of attacks against it." Furthermore, even where the "death of foundationalism" is a given, the quest for method continues to hold interest. To cite only one notable example among many, Jürgen Habermas may have successfully resisted the seductive attraction of the quest for Letzbegründung or ultimate foundations, but he clearly remains committed to "a metahermeneutical analysis" of communication, the purpose of which is "to identify universals and thus to produce a type of theoretical knowledge." This kind of "anti-foundationalist theory hope," can be found among Deweyan pragmatists as well. While many of them let go of the quest for foundations with relative ease, they find it difficult to abandon the quest for method or to allow the epistemological enterprise to succumb to Rorty's "vulgar pragmatism." Furthermore, in doing so they believe that Dewey would have sided with them rather than with Rorty.

Given the difficulty in identifying pragmatists who have consistently abandoned both quests, it is especially striking to discover Frédéric Rauh practicing "pragmatism in the professorial sense" in the philosophy section of the Faculté des lettres of the Sorbonne and Ecole normale supérieure during the first decade of the twentieth century. While this period of French history certainly produced intellectuals who were sympathetic to the American pragmatists, these intellectuals were, as Durkheim noted, "far from subscribing to all their theses." Renouvier, for instance, remained, in James's own words, "too classic in the general rationalism of his procedure." Similarly, James's good friend Boutroux, though "simpatico" toward American pragmatism, also "betrayed ... a philosophical inheritance quite foreign to that of James." Ralph Barton Perry, comes to a similar conclusion with regard to Bergson, writing that Bergson and James "exchanged salutations and gifts, and then proceeded on their way. In no sense did they coincide either as systems or in their particular theorems." Apparent alliances, then, emerge finally as "misalliances," showing that "what has passed as pragmatism in European philosophical thought has not been distinctive of the essential and most important features of American pragmatism." Whatever their affinities with pragmatism may have been and whatever their contributions to dissolving the longstanding quests of the Western tradition, these French intellectuals remained committed to the quest for foundations or method or both.

Throughout the first...

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