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The Narrative and Identity of Pragmatism in America: The History of a Dysfunctional Family?
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we have recently seen the publication of several books on the narrative and identity of Pragmatism. Perhaps this is a sign that, after the first decade of the twenty-first century, scholars of Pragmatism now have the required distance or historical perspective to be confident about the history of Pragmatism in the twentieth century. In this paper, I examine the narratives of Pragmatism in Richard Bernstein’s The Pragmatic Turn and Colin Koopman’s Pragmatism as Transition. In spite of their differences, these scholars argue for an inclusive “big-tent” Pragmatism. Their view of Pragmatism in America is optimistic and reconciliatory about the past, present, and future tensions that exist between pragmatist thinkers. They propose and envision different “waves” of Pragmatism, each one providing a new harmonious synthesis of what came before. While this is a desirable and attractive narrative, I do not think these scholars address and come to terms with the core and most difficult issues that seriously split pragmatists today. In this essay, I outline these issues in the hope that a genuine reconciliation will someday be possible. I argue that we must confront the philosophical and the non-philosophical reasons why at different times in the history of our philosophical family we have not been a good example of the community of inquiry of which we often preach.

Richard Bernstein’s Narrative of Pragmatism

Among Richard Bernstein’s many virtues are his openness, generosity, and his quest to build bridges and continuities between philosophers and philosophical traditions that may seem irreconcilable to many. Bernstein’s most recent effort in this regard is the reconciliation of philosophers who belong to the same historical family of philosophers as his own: Pragmatism. He does this by offering a new narrative of the history of Pragmatism that includes the classical pragmatist, Neo-pragmatists, and even philosophers associated with other traditions.

Bernstein’s inclusive narrative takes place at a time in the United States when there is a growing concern from different generations of scholars that something must be done to bridge the obvious gap that exists between different types of pragmatists in America. In particular, there is tension and a lack of dialogue between those who continue to reconstruct the view of Classical American Pragmatism (CAP) and the “language-centric Pragmatism” of Neo-Pragmatism (NP). Although all pragmatists in America are part of a philosophical family, it is a dysfunctional one. Bernstein knows this very well, and his reconstruction of the history of Pragmatism in the twentieth century is the source of hope that we could at least appreciate each other as sharing a history. In his recent work, Bernstein makes the case for a big-tent Pragmatism that includes such thinkers as Wilfrid Sellars, Hilary Putnam, Jürgen Habermas, Donald Davidson, Richard Rorty, John McDowell, Cheryl Misak, Cornel West, Jeffrey Stout, and Robert Brandom. According to Bernstein, the proper narrative about Pragmatism will disclose that these philosophers (most of whom are considered to follow NP) as well as the classical figures (Peirce, James, Dewey) and CAP are part of the same philosophical family. Bernstein concludes: “The best philosophic thinking of our country can be understood as variations on pragmatic themes [introduced by the classical figures]. This is my warrant for calling the twentieth century The Pragmatist Century.”

To make his case, Bernstein first challenges what he considers to be the standard narrative about Pragmatism in the United States, that Pragmatism was born out of different interpretations of Peirce’s principle or maxim that he presented in his early articles and that was discussed at the Metaphysical Club in Boston. At some point, “Pragmatism” took hold as a generalized name for a distinctively American philosophical movement. But by the late 1930s, Pragmatism began to fade from the American scene as a vital philosophical movement. During the 1950s, “a quiet but dramatic revolution was taking place in American philosophy departments.” The “British-linguistic invasion” or “the linguistic turn” “reshaped most of the prestigious philosophy departments in the United States.” After this, the philosophies of the classical figures (Peirce, James, and Dewey) were almost completely marginalized. The next chapter in this standard story is a leap from the 1960s to 1979, when...


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