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  • Pragmatism, Pluralism, Politics: William James’s Tragic Sense of Life
  • Jonathan McKenzie (bio)

This essay aims to contribute to the growing literature on William James in political theory through an examination of the relation between pluralism and pragmatism in social philosophy. Recent works on James by Connolly (2005) and Ferguson (2007) shed light on the valuable contribution of James’s concept of “pluralism” to understanding and interpreting the increasingly fragmented political landscape of the twenty-first century. While each work and others (Schlosberg 1998; Miller 1997; Flathman 1992) add dramatically to our understanding of pluralism, they do so with an unfortunate misreading of James’s comprehensive project. By concentrating on the relationship between James’s pluralism (his ontological orientation) and his pragmatism (his hermeneutic methodology) this work aims to provide recent readings with additional ammunition as well as substantial reason for reserve in the appropriation of James to the contemporary global-pluralist political cause. I do so in three stages; I will 1)construct the arguments posed by recent political interpretations of James; 2) sketch the relation between pluralism and pragmatism in James’s philosophy; and 3) consider the consequences of a pragmatist interpretation of a pluralistic (political) universe as a politics of the tragic through an analysis of “The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life.”

In order to make these claims, this essay must take a stance on James’s philosophy that is often challenged. This essay claims that James’s philosophy exhibits a continuous theme. That is, the problem of the “one and the many,” which James calls the recurrent problem of his philosophy, is the problem that connects pluralism and pragmatism and makes one indispensable in interpreting and employing the other. Pluralism, as ontology, requires a means of interpreting value amidst the “blooming, buzzing confusion” (PP I: 462). Pragmatism, as that interpretive device, requires a pluralistic outlook in order to legitimate itself as a hermeneutic tool. It is the continuity of James’s philosophy that requires us to investigate pragmatism and pluralism in concert.

Jamesian Pluralism and the Global Order

Interpretations of James’s importance for political theory has taken a pluralistic turn, embracing Jamesian pluralism for the case of radical democratic politics. Miller (1997) found, via Jamesian pluralism, a “democratic temperament” that depends on James’s anti-imperialism and suspicion for monism. Schlosberg (1998) “reconstructs” the pluralistic universe through the question of pluralism and social unity, supplying further fuel to the quest for allying James with a sweeping democratic vision that eschews simplicity. The two most nuanced visions for James, however, seem to employ his pluralism for the purpose of articulating appreciation for multiplicity without the companion step of providing substantial means of interpretive strategies for organizing the “chaos” of experience. Both Connolly (2005) and Ferguson (2007) revel in James’s pluralism for its liberatory potential without providing a recourse to the pragmatism that once supplied a great degree of social and political clout for James. In order to fully appreciate this turn in political readings of James, we will investigate each reading in further detail.

In the recent work Pluralism, William E. Connolly attempts a summation of his long work of supplying political theory with a “bicameral orientation” (2005: 4). Essentially, this position holds that an individual 1) has a “creed” that he adopts and 2) recognizes this creed is contestable. This bicameral orientation is located within the socio-political sphere, within realms of knowledge, as well as within the universe itself, giving it an ethical, epistemological, and metaphysical flavor. Connolly utilizes James’s notion of “litter” as a move toward an ecological interpretation of pluralism, arguing that the quasi-chaos of the world places restrictions of individual agency and sovereignty (2005: 72–73). For Connolly, the importance of James lies in this reduced sovereignty and the political possibilities that exist within this sphere. James’s pluralism allows a wide degree of faiths to coexist, which, by its nature, reduces suffering (77). This sort of pluralism, a degree of acceptedness and appreciation amidst multiple worldviews, is precisely the recipe for a democratic society.

Connolly writes the book with an eye toward conservative media forces, which he fears are reducing the original tendency toward pluralism in...

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