- Democratic Hope: Pragmatism and the Politics of Truth
The dormancy of American pragmatism is over. At least, this is what numerous articles and books have unequivocally stated in the decades since Richard Rorty gave up his belief in orthodox analytical epistemology and settled into his own brand of John Dewey's antifoundational epistemology. Even though Rorty's interpretation and manipulation of Dewey have been controversial, we are all the better for the revival of discourse around what pragmatism was, is, and will be. Robert Westbrook's Democratic Hope: Pragmatism and the Politics of Truth (2005), a recent contribution to this revival, clearly demonstrates the value of a vibrant and robust tradition of pragmatism to American intellectual and public life. The depth of knowledge and passion for the subject matter that made Westbrook's magnum opus, John Dewey and American Democracy (1991), a landmark study are on display in this text as well. In both works, what makes Westbrook's intellectual history extraordinary is his own involvement with and contribution to pragmatism through detailed historical accounts and evaluations of contemporary philosophers' interpretations of the classical pragmatists.
Democratic Hope: Pragmatism and the Politics of Truth has a powerful introduction and nine articles arranged into two sections, the first entitled "Pragmatism Old" and the second "Pragmatism New." Broadly, each contribution to the volume advances an aspect of pragmatism's relationship to politics and political theory. The first section is more historically oriented and foundational in that it provides a grounding in the events, circumstances, and intellectual circles that gave rise to the work of Charles Sanders Peirce, William James, and Dewey. The second section [End Page 76] is more germane to current discussions about pragmatism's roots and future as well as its connections to other fields. Here, we see discussions of the wide-ranging views of Hilary Putnam, Richard Posner, and Cornel West. The compilation includes previously published pieces that have been thoroughly expanded and updated; these, together with the new pieces, create a comprehensive and well-ordered collection. Two sections of the text, in particular, merit a brief analysis to illustrate Westbrook's contribution to pragmatism's ongoing dialogue. The first is the introduction, where Westbrook confronts Rorty on the political implications of Rorty's conception of pragmatism. Specifically, Westbrook highlights Rorty's view that pragmatism does not necessarily imply support for democracy over other forms of government that history has shown to be oppressive. Rorty sees pragmatism as not having any de facto political commitment that would suggest that democracy is better than fascism. This contentious point—that pragmatism and democracy are not deeply linked—has met with virulent disagreement from many neo-pragmatist critics, who cannot accept Rorty's claim to stand on the shoulders of Dewey when he severs this critical link.
The implications of Rorty's view on the amorality of pragmatism eventually rubbed Westbrook the wrong way and he was persuaded to reject his previous views. Westbrook puts his change of heart this way:
I myself once shared Rorty's view of this matter, claiming that pragmatism "has no determinate moral and political implications." I now think I was wrong, or at least think I was wrong about those versions of pragmatism (most of them) that are wedded to the conviction that inquiry in general and scientific inquiry in particular provide the best antifoundationalist, nonskeptical route to justified belief.(p. 9)
What seem to have turned Westbrook were the arguments put forth in Cheryl Misak's wonderful text, Truth, Politics, and Morality: Pragmatism and Deliberation (2000), and conversations with the political theorist James Johnson. Significant to Westbrook's reevaluation of Rorty's views is its illustration of two vitally important factors in pragmatism's emergence from dormancy: first, pragmatism necessitates a discussion of politics both in the abstract and in the real world (something often missing from the philosophy done prior to its resurgence) and second, pragmatism fundamentally stresses the need for a community in which democracy can be practiced (something supposedly missing...