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  • Old Pragmatisms, New Histories
  • Douglas Anderson (bio)

1. Introduction

The task at hand is to review work on the history of early American pragmatism from the last ten years. However, writing on the history of pragmatism presents us with a different problem than, say, dealing with historical accounts of Mill’s Logic. The meaning of ‘pragmatism’ is routinely contested and, likewise, who is to count as a pragmatist is contested. The issue, of course, arose soon after William James named “pragmatism” in his 1898 talk at Berkeley titled “Philosophical Conceptions and Practical Results.” The discussions of pragmatism that ensued in journals soon thereafter marked James, Charles Peirce, John Dewey, and F. C. S. Schiller as pragmatists. There were, as well, a number of “friends” of pragmatism such as Addison Moore. There were also clear-cut opponents of pragmatism including the likes of Paul Carus and James E. Creighton. But issues quickly muddied the waters. American idealist Josiah Royce, objecting to what he took to be the intellectually loose Jamesian-Schillerian strand of pragmatism, named them ‘pure pragmatists’, and then included himself in the pragmatic tradition arguing—correctly—that he had long defended the importance philosophical ideas held for social change. Accordingly, he named himself an ‘absolute pragmatist’. Peirce, though not a defender of absolute pragmatism, routinely included Royce among the pragmatists, and maintained that his own views were closer in some ways to those in Royce’s later work than to those of Schiller and James. Then, in 1906, Peirce famously muddied the waters further by renaming his outlook ‘pragmaticism’ while still counting it as a version of the larger family of pragmatism. His rebuke of looser versions was in part aimed at James and Schiller, but even more tellingly at more literary-minded folk who had decided they were pragmatists.1 James and Schiller, for their part, saw themselves as giving visibility to a new philosophical method that had historical [End Page 489] roots in Greek and modern British philosophy. Schiller, technically non-American, has received less airtime over the course of the twentieth century in part because his “humanism” was more openly relativistic than the other pragmatisms, and in part because his work met stiff and persistent resistance in the British academy. His openly Protagorean outlook better foreshadowed the work of Richard Rorty than that of the other pragmatists.2 James, who took most of the heat generated by the introduction of pragmatism, spent so much energy defending his views that he had little time to worry about who should be included—given his defensive position, we might say that the more pragmatists the better in a Jamesian world. John Dewey, having read widely in both James and Peirce, was the third of the original Americans identified as pragmatists. But it is interesting to note that he quickly named his thought ‘instrumentalism’ and throughout his career used the term ‘pragmatism’ much less often than one might think. He rejected Royce’s self-proclaimed pragmatism, identifying him as an absolute voluntarist. On the other hand, Dewey’s fame as a pragmatist brought one of his colleagues, George Herbert Mead, into the pragmatic fold.

In any case, one gets the idea regarding the contestation of pragmatism and perhaps its ownership. As the twentieth century developed, Dewey was the only one openly and prominently carrying on the pragmatic tradition. In not keeping step with the linguistic turn folks—or Anglo-American mainstream philosophy in general—pragmatism for the most part fell by the way. Jennifer Welchman argues that “after the Second World War Dewey’s work began to look isolated from the mainstream of twentieth-century philosophy and, eventually, irrelevant to its development.”3 She blames this on Dewey’s failure “to adopt the language and techniques of the newly developed mathematical logic,” his failure to take the linguistic turn, and on the fact that his “work became increasingly incomprehensible to students of the newer logic, epistemology, and theory of language.”4 This is basically accurate but overlooks a few key elements. One is that the folks engaged in these twentieth-century developments, from Dewey’s point of view, remained ahistorical modernist thinkers. They openly challenged the significance of the history...


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pp. 489-521
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