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NWSA Journal 15.1 (2003) 196-201

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Feminist Interpretations of John Dewey by Charlene H. Seigfried. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2001, 304 pp., $65.00 hardcover, $24.50 paper.
Living Across and Through Skins: Transactional Bodies, Pragmatism, and Feminism by Shannon Sullivan. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001, 217 pp., $39.95 hardcover, $19.95 paper.
Pragmatism, Feminism, and Democracy: Rethinking the Politics of American History by James Livingston. New York: Routledge, 2001, 244 pp., $85.00 hardcover, $22.95 paper.

There is something I crudely call the "so what?" test of philosophy that I apply to every philosophy lecture I hear and every philosophy book or article I read. My cynical attitude stems from being a feminist ethicist who gets impatient with esoteric, abstract, academic discussions. Although every scholar writes for a purpose, I have a strong desire to see my work as useful in making life clearer or better. What makes feminist philosophy and American philosophy (also called pragmatism) so compelling is that it responds to the "so what?" question with a clear commitment to improving the world.

After a hiatus following World War II, American philosophy has seen a resurgence of interest in the last two decades. This renewal is led by scholars who wish to expand the list of thinkers speaking for American philosophy to include marginalized peoples. Traditionally, American philosophy has been associated with the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century works of Josiah Royce, Charles Sanders Peirce, William James, and John Dewey. The expansive rebirth of American philosophy includes the proddings of Cornel West (1989) and Lucius T. Outlaw (1996) who call for the integration of African American thinkers as well as the challenge of Scott Pratt who includes Native American philosophy (2002). However, feminists have been the quickest to embrace American philosophy and expand the pragmatist canon.

Pragmatism describes a genre of philosophy characterized by instrumentality, fallibility, democracy, diversity, and a strong social consciousness. These characteristics reflect in part the mythos of the American experience while challenging traditional Western philosophy's universalism and epistemological certainty. Dewey once described American pragmatism as, "The theory that the process and the material of knowledge are determined by practical or purposive considerations—that there is no such thing as knowledge determined by exclusively, theoretical, or speculative, or abstract intellectual consideration" (1906, 1050). Not surprisingly, feminist philosophers have been attracted to the egalitarian [End Page 196] and anti-foundationalism of pragmatism as well as its activist bias in the belief that society can and should progress.

The earliest and perhaps now leading proponent of exploring the depth of intersection between feminism and pragmatism is philosopher Charlene Haddock Seigfried, who edited and contributed to Feminist Interpretations of John Dewey. In 1996, Seigfried authored Pragmatism and Feminism: Reweaving the Social Fabric that led the way for a series of academic presentations and scholarly works on these intellectual allies. For example, the Annual Meeting of the Society for the Advancement of American Philosophy now regularly holds feminist sessions. Feminist Interpretations of John Dewey is a collection of articles that examines the Deweyan version of pragmatism through the lens of contemporary feminist critique. This anthology is part of the dynamic Re-Reading the Canon series edited by Nancy Tuana. With over eighteen titles to its credit, this series has reexamined the bastions of traditional Western philosophy from Plato to Immanuel Kant while simultaneously rewriting the canon by including the likes of Simone de Beauvoir, Hannah Arendt, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Mary Daly. Like the other anthologies in the Re-Reading the Canon series, Feminist Interpretations of John Dewey brings the work of prominent feminist philosophers, as well as intriguing newcomers, together to give a feminist perspective on the figure in question.

Seigfried's introduction to the volume, much like her book Pragmatism and Feminism, situates pragmatism as ripe for feminist applications, appropriations, and extension. "Today, [pragmatism] can provide intellectual support for feminists who argue that they are not politicizing an otherwise neutral, purely rational...


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