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Reviewed by:
  • A Companion to Pragmatism
  • Matthew J. Brown
A Companion to Pragmatism. John R. Shook and Joseph Margolis, eds. Oxford, Eng.: Blackwell, 2006.

Reviewing a book like A Companion to Pragmatism, with its substantive introduction, thirty-eight essays, and over four hundred pages of material, is a fool’s task, too large to do in a way that is fair, unified, or representative. A look at the list of contributors will tell you that this is bound to become a crucial introductory and secondary source for the study of pragmatism; you do not need me to tell you that. I will simply attempt to hit on some of the high and low points of the book and apologize in advance for an undue but hardly avoidable emphasis on my own personal interests.

The collection begins with a brief introduction by Joseph Margolis, which attempts to account for the coherence of the original movement and its contemporary prospects. Margolis focuses as much on the tactical work done by Dewey in institutionalizing pragmatism as on the contents of the various thinkers who make up the tradition. He shows, surprisingly but convincingly, that the present-day legacy of pragmatism is due more to Dewey’s retrospective unifying of his, Peirce’s, and James’s work than to Peirce’s and James’s founding statements. Margolis’s introductory essay adds a fresh and important perspective to how we think of pragmatism as a philosophical movement.

Part I, “Major Figures,” gives sketches of the major figures belonging to the pragmatist tradition, from Peirce to Rorty. There is always plenty of room to whinge about which figures are and are not included. Neither Nicholas St. John Green nor Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., makes the list, while W. V. O. Quine does, in a rather desultory essay by Roger F. Gibson, Jr., raising but not offering any input into the question of whether Quine counts as a pragmatist.1 Two of these articles are reprinted from a previous volume, Vincent Colapietro’s discussion of Peirce, and Leonard Harris’s on Alain Locke.

Of particular interest to me was the chapter on John Dewey, by Philip W. Jackson. Jackson turns out to be an august and able interpreter of Dewey and provides a solid introduction to his thought. Besides giving a good overview, Jackson also provides an informative (and very critical) analysis of Dewey’s collaboration with Arthur Bentley in Knowing and the Known. Jackson seems to approve of Thomas Dalton’s judgment that “[n]one of Dewey’s friends and intellectual foes did more to dismantle Dewey’s naturalism and his experiential conception of inquiry than Arthur Bentley” (as cited in Shook and Margolis 63).2 [End Page 101]

Part II, “Transforming Philosophy,” discusses interfaces between pragmatism and other philosophical views, both friendly and inimical. Here, Susan Haack’s essay “Not Cynicism, but Synechism: Lessons from Classical Pragmatism” stands out as a gem. Putatively a contrast between Peirce’s philosophy and Rorty-style neo-pragmatism, Haack thankfully promises not to devote much attention to the latter. Instead, we have a remarkably clear and sympathetic reading of Peirce’s “most darkly Cimmerian” set of ideas. Haack does the best job I have found of explaining Peirce’s “key synechistic hypotheses—objective idealism, agapism, tychism, [and] logical realism” (143) to the non-specialist.

Shannon Sullivan’s discussion of pragmatist feminism includes a nice overview of Jane Addams that is marred by a hyperbolic and oversimplified critique of Addams as implicitly affirming a racial hierarchy and racist stereotypes. While Addams’s writings on the issue are problematic, the most charitable reading of Addams’s work probably does not support Sullivan’s attack. Sullivan’s article also shows how the intervening years have answered Charlene Haddock Seigfried’s question, “Where are all the pragmatist feminists?” (see Seigfried 1–43) focusing especially on the work of Lisa Heldke (see 234–36).

Part III, “Culture and Nature,” provides applications of pragmatism to a variety of topics in philosophy by first-rate contemporary pragmatists. Amongst the top of this set of essays are Mark Johnson’s on pragmatism and cognitive science and Richard Rorty’s “Pragmatism as Anti-Authoritarianism,” as well as many...