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American Pragmatism and the Global City: Engaging Saskia Sassen’s Work
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A Dialogue between American pragmatists in the Deweyan tradition and Saskia Sassen is profitable in at least two ways. First, Sassen’s call for “analytic tactics” might be understood in terms of Dewey’s understanding of “soft method.” Second, Sassen is a model of the publicly engaged scholar, not only because she lives the work but also because she connects theory and empirical research in ways that are necessary if we are to follow the Deweyan call to philosophers to address social problems rather than problems internal to philosophy. In her Coss Dialogue Lecture, Saskia Sassen argues for “analytic tactics,” tactics that work while we temporarily suspend method so that we might destabilize stable meanings. We need to destabilize meanings so that we might be free to see subterranean concepts and their connections that we might not see if we are restricted by disciplinary methodologies.

At the outset of her talk, Sassen made an offhand comment that all disciplines have methods, however problematized they might be. But philosophy as a discipline truly struggles with the question of method. Most of us who are members of the Society for the Advancement of American Philosophy (SAAP) adopt a pluralist approach, but we all know that the lack of clear method in philosophy has given rise to a great deal of anxiety and what I have called elsewhere “border patrols” of the discipline (Meagher, “Feminist”; Meagher, “Pushing”). And the two issues that give rise to the greatest level of anxiety are first, the extent to which philosophy should or should not model itself on the (natural) sciences, and second, whether or not philosophy should engage in public/political/advocacy work. So it is incredibly important for us to engage in dialogue with sociologist Saskia Sassen, as she nimbly crosses this difficult terrain. I thank the Society for inviting Sassen to engage in dialogue with us, and feel privileged to be invited to participate in the discussion in this formal way.

Sassen’s argument for “analytic tactics” as a temporary substitute for social scientific methodology is based on the premise that methods discipline us to make some distinctions and not others, and that those distinctions do not always serve us well—particularly when we seek to understand new phenomena attendant to globalization. My initial response to Sassen’s call for the suspension of method was to think: “Well, there is no analogous or shared problem for philosophers; we always feel free to invent new concepts.” But that is far from true. All of us work with concepts that we (at least sometimes) fail to adequately interrogate—for example, globalization, immigration, and citizenship (to note those that Sassen discussed in her lecture). Yet I find resources in John Dewey for the analytic tactics Sassen is calling for.

John Dewey was wonderfully adept at helping us move beyond given categories so that we could think and enact the world differently. I just finished reading Philip Jackson’s book, John Dewey and the Philosopher’s Task, in which he wonderfully works through Dewey’s successive attempts to write a first chapter for his book Experience and Nature. Jackson highlights key elements of Dewey’s understanding of the task of philosophy: first, Dewey eschewed dichotomies. He resisted the either/or, and thus, to use Sassen’s lecture terminology, he “destabilized” or “unsettled” categories that had been taken as settled, in order to help us see new things or see in new ways.

Dewey’s texts provide many examples, but for illustrative purposes I choose just one, namely his essay “The Child and the Curriculum,” in which Dewey pushes entrenched camps in public education debates stuck at two poles: either we adapt the curriculum to the particular needs of particular children or we make the child conform to a given curriculum. But Dewey introduces the analogy of the map and the explorer. He argues that an explorer needs a map to provide some direction—even if that is so she can discover unmapped terrain. And likewise the map needs the explorer; the explorer’s findings help us see the limitations of any given map and expand it. Dewey argues that the curriculum is like a map; it provides us...



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