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  • Pragmatism and Orientation
  • Scott R. Stroud

American pragmatism, especially in the forms expounded by Dewey and James, has always displayed a respect for the difference personal attitude makes in the quality of our experience. Recently, John Lachs has discussed this characteristic of pragmatism in contrast to the attitudes resident in the tradition of stoic philosophy (2005). He rightly notes that the pragmatism of Dewey (as well as that of James) places importance on certain attitudes or, as I would label them, "orientations," and that the stoic tradition can usefully be seen as a counterweight to pragmatism's emphasized attitude. At issue seems to be the clash between an (at times) overly optimistic hope of the pragmatist with the equally overdone surrender of the stoic.1 Lachs concludes that a useful permutation can be formed, labeled "stoic pragmatism." Such a combined form would embody a certain humility and realistic hope for the future. I think that Lachs does an admirable job in analyzing both of these traditions and in constructing one way of rebuilding an improved notion of pragmatism. What I find interesting is the room his account opens up for discussion on what I believe is a crucial component to Deweyan pragmatism—that of the orientation of the subject toward experience or activity at some general level. According to Lachs' argument, the orientation of surrender that the stoic putatively has leaves out progress that can be made in light of objective suffering, and the one-sided drive of the pragmatist to reform her environment ignores certain limits to activity and enables grand disappointments. Is the only way to address this issue by forging a "stoic pragmatism"? Or are there resources within pragmatism that offer an interesting way to address such worries? I will argue that what Lachs finds so dismaying about the standard form of pragmatism, namely, what he identifies as the hubristic "commitment to bring life under intelligent and effective control" (99), is not something that must lead to dire consequences for the quality of experience. I will argue that the problem Lachs aptly identifies—an orientation that ignores limits and sets up great disappointment—stems less from inherent limits to "growth" (used here as a pragmatic term of art), and more from a problem that Dewey hints at—that of the overemphasis on non-present states to the detriment of the present situation. [End Page 287] The primary culprit is not the pragmatist's pursuits of "progressive adjustment" or "growth," but a driving focus on and attachment to some remote "end" of conduct that effectively ruins the quality of present experience. After defending a reading of Dewey's notion of growth in light of Lachs' argument, I will discuss a version of Deweyan pragmatism that foregrounds the role of orientation in subjects toward activity. I call this form of pragmatism orientational meliorism.2 I will do this by discussing how Dewey conceived of orientation and its role in activity and then demonstrate that, on such an account, the problem is attachment to future, non-present states of affairs. This will be followed by an analysis of a resource in Dewey that may, at first sight, seem unlikely to yield contributions to the contested nature of "growth"—Dewey's discussions of play and work in his educational writings. What I will extract from this analysis is twofold: (1) the role of play and work as attitudes toward activity in general, and (2) the value they hold in guiding the imaginative revisioning of one's orientation toward activity. I will then conclude with three general strategies concerning how one can practice this Deweyan form of orientational meliorism in a situation typically saturated with remote goals and values—the (often) menial and drudgery-filled experience of one's work activity.

Deweyan Pragmatism and the Problems of Growth

To motivate my discussion of growth and its connection to the mental orientations or habits that one brings to activity, I start with a recent critique given by John Lachs of the putatively Deweyan account of growth. Lachs' argument proceeds in three steps, and the first step addresses the incorporation of limitation within pragmatism. In Lachs' words, "intelligent pragmatists have to be stoics from...


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