In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • Pragmatism, Experience, and William James's Politics of Blindness
  • Paul Stob

Twenty years ago, even ten years ago, one might have begun an essay about the intersection of pragmatism and rhetoric by lamenting the dearth of scholarship on the subject. Today, no such lamentations are needed. The past decade has seen an explosion of interest in the way pragmatism and rhetoric can profitably inform each other. Offering everything from formulations of pragmatist rhetorical theory (Mailloux 1998; Schollmeier 2002; Danisch 2007; Crick 2010) to explorations of pragmatist methodology in the study of rhetorical texts (Stroud 2009a; Stroud 2010) to analyses of what individual pragmatists have contributed to the history of rhetoric (Asen and Brouwer 2003; Asen 2003; Finnegan 2003; Greene 2003; Stob 2005), scholars have demonstrated that pragmatism is a rich storehouse for thinking about rhetoric.

Despite this explosion of interest in pragmatism and rhetoric, it is curious that William James—the one who first made pragmatism part of America's intellectual vernacular—has received considerably less attention than other thinkers in the tradition, most notably John Dewey. This is not to say that scholars have completely overlooked James's potential contributions to our understanding of rhetoric (Brigance 1935; Brinton 1982; Danisch 2007; Stob 2008). But it is to say that James's place at the intersection of pragmatism and rhetoric has yet to be made clear. [End Page 227]

The real question, however, is why. Why has James's place yet to be made clear? There are numerous possibilities, but one likely reason is the way James's philosophy is often portrayed. Among the early pragmatists, the story goes, James was the individualist, "captivated by the ideal of absolutely unentangled and unfettered individuality" (Otto 1943, 189). Because rhetoric is largely a social affair, dealing with the way symbols create connections between people, James's individualism may be offputting. As Cornel West sees the situation, James outdid even Emerson in directing philosophical energy "away from the community and back to the individual person" (1989, 54). James was, West continues, "an authentic American intellectual frontiersman, not so much staking land in a wilderness but rather, like Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn, expanding the moral possibilities of individuals on a raft that floats near land and society yet never really banks for long" (1989, 55). If we are interested in the study of rhetoric—which is, if anything, a study of "land and society," to borrow West's phrase—perhaps James's individualism is not the place to turn.

There is another likely reason that James's place at the intersection of pragmatism and rhetoric has not yet been made clear, and this reason is potentially more problematic—not just for James but for many of the early pragmatists. Pragmatism was built on the primacy of "experience"; we might even call it a "cult of experience" (Jay 2005, 261). But in recent years the idea of experience has fallen on hard times (Pickering 1997; Ireland 2004). Especially in the wake of the linguistic turn, the concept can appear antiquated, misdirected, and troublesome (Scott 1991). This may be particularly unfortunate in James's case because experience was, according to one biographer, his "salvation, his religion" (Simon 1998, xxii). For scholars of rhetoric, the problem with James's work is that he relied too extensively on the idea of individual experience without understanding the importance of symbols and society and the way they structure experience (Danisch 2007, 25).

Those interested in the intersection of pragmatism and rhetoric thus have a potential problem on their hands. Given James's role in founding pragmatism, and given the centrality of experience in the pragmatist tradition, important questions arise: What are we to make of the claim that James was a rugged individualist with little concern for symbols and society? Is experience an outmoded modernist idea, misleading now after the linguistic turn? More specifically, does James's discussion of experience have anything to offer our understanding of rhetoric? If we are to continue to [End Page 228] pursue the intersection of pragmatism and rhetoric, these questions deserve at least provisional answers.

My aim in this article is to provide some provisional answers. Building on the work of those who...


Additional Information

Print ISSN
pp. 227-249
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.