- Pragmatism and the Reflective Life
In the brief autobiographical remarks found in the preface of Stuart Rosenbaum’s Pragmatism and the Reflective Life, we discover that Rosenbaum began his philosophical career in the tradition of analytic philosophy. It is precisely this background in the analytic tradition that gives weight to the powerful criticisms he levels against that tradition as he wends his way through his new-found love, American pragmatism. He informs us that American pragmatism has taught him to appreciate far more of human experience than is tolerated in the analytic tradition and in Anglo-European philosophy in general. He believes that it is the American pragmatist tradition that has exhibited a holistic picture of human experience, thereby permitting us to practice philosophy aesthetically, with art and literature given their due worth within philosophy. With John Dewey as his primary dialogue partner, Rosenbaum embarks on a journey to display the superiority of the pragmatist approach to ethics and religion.
Rosenbaum’s chief criticism of the analytic and Anglo-European traditions is this: the claims to exclusivity in ethics and religion originate with the insistence by these traditions that when we deliberate about these matters, we must do so through justification. The Platonic project of using dialectic to access abstract concepts a priori is what Rosenbaum has in mind when he speaks of justification, which is the demand that nature be informed and measured by the eternal, unchangeable, and perfect entities that transcend it. For Plato, genuine knowledge has its source outside the everyday experiences of the human self that are embedded in the conditions of Heraclitus’s flux. Those concepts and ideas that are to inform how we ought to live do not arise out of nature but are only accessible insofar as we transcend nature.
The analytic/Anglo-European traditions tout justification through the conceptual clarity and precision of moral terms as the royal road to providing a [End Page 281] defense of ethical values. This road, as Rosenbaum rightly points out, is the path of ontotheology, which desires to discover some ultimate and unassailable foundation or ground for whatever is. Although Rosenbaum does not mention Heidegger in connection with ontotheology, it was Heidegger who first diagnosed this desire to capture the totality of being or existence through reason alone. Rosenbaum locates the source of ontotheology in Platonism but also in the Enlightenment project’s zealous demand to discover a universal morality and a common or universal religion that is grounded exclusively in reason. This excessive optimism in reason is laudable but misguided. The consequence is the preference for the static over the dynamic, precision over process, clarity over ambiguity, the universal over the particular, transcendence over immanence, supernaturalism over naturalism, and so on. In brief, according to Rosenbaum, the analytic/Anglo-European traditions have led to the jettisoning of much of human experience that could not be neatly packaged and explained away by reason. Because justification is driven by a dialectical, intellectualist desire for rational domination, the path of justification—the desire for Descartes’ clarity and distinctness—leads to the neglect of biological, psychological, social, political, cultural, and other dimensions of human experience out of which reason’s concepts arise. This forgetting that the human self, including reason and its concepts, is thoroughly embedded is the source of the false belief that one’s perspective is universal. Claims to exclusivity in morality and religion can be traced to the belief that one has attained the entirely unrestricted point of view wholly severed from the conditions out of which it has arisen.
Rosenbaum offers pragmatism as a viable alternative to the rationalism of the Platonist tradition. Pragmatism’s chief virtue, according to Rosenbaum, is that its adherents prefer explanation over justification. For those who are interested in debating whether God exists, whether value is different from fact, whether the mind or soul is separate from the body, and so on, pragmatism is certainly unsatisfying. Pragmatists, and their close kin the naturalists, skirt the metaphysical, theological, and epistemological issues dogging the intellectualist/rationalist tradition. Put differently...