- American Pragmatism and Democratic Faith by Robert J. Lacey
Robert J. Lacey has reservations about both the philosophical roots and the institutional legacy of American participatory democracy. In his combination of political philosophy and intellectual history, Lacey explores several ideas that he takes to be central to participatory democracy in America. Although students of pragmatism may be unsatisfied with some of Lacey’s evaluative conclusions, this book looks at a well-worn topic with new eyes, and offers a fresh interpretation of democratic thought in America.
The central event around which this book pivots is the 1962 meeting of Students for a Democratic Society, which culminated in the Port Huron Statement. For Lacey, we can understand this moment fully only if we understand the political commitments of philosophical pragmatism, the intellectual tradition that inspired the Port Huron Statement. The historical event provides a compelling centerpiece for Lacey’s analysis, as it shows pragmatism’s political potential. With Port Huron at its center, his study stretches back into the past and forward toward the present. To appreciate the intellectual roots of the SDS, he turns to the classical pragmatists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. To assess the influence of democratic thought, he turns to contemporary political theorists who continue the struggle for participatory democracy. The first three chapters of this book analyze the work of C.S. Peirce, William James, and John Dewey, each of whom stand obviously within the tradition of pragmatist [End Page 292] philosophy. The subsequent three chapters analyze the work of C. Wright Mills, Sheldon Wolin, and Benjamin Barber, advocates of participatory democracy whose work stands less obviously in the pragmatist tradition. One of Lacey’s central aims is to show pragmatism’s influence on these three thinkers, whose work either contributed directly to the Port Huron Statement (in the case of Mills), or can be understood as continuing the central democratic goals of the SDS (in the cases of Wolin and Barber).
Lacey’s analysis highlights three central ideas in the work of these six figures. The first, which he calls a “democratic epistemology,” is the notion that the pursuit of truth is a social affair, which relies on contributions from as many inquirers as possible and revises findings as needed. The second tenet Lacey finds in these writers is a “democratic psychology,” which teaches that human nature is “eminently mutable and educable and therefore brimming with unlimited potential” (18). According to this tenet, human beings can endlessly re-fashion their nature, through habit formation. The third concept—“democratic metaphysics”—affirms that humans possess free will and can pursue positive social change hindered by “no serious obstacles” (18). In his treatments of the classical pragmatists, Lacey shows how these ideas surfaced with Peirce, developed in James, and achieved their full political potential in Dewey. In his interpretations of Mills, Wolin, and Barber, Lacey argues that these three ideas provide the intellectual core of each writer’s democratic vision. Following his sixth chapter, on Barber, Lacey gives his evaluation of both the philosophical commitments and the institutional legacy of participatory democracy in a concluding chapter and epilogue.
The major strength of this book is Lacey’s engagement of philosophical ideas. Lacey attends carefully and thoroughly to the development of philosophical ideas both within each thinker’s corpus and also across the historical tradition of pragmatism. The links between epistemology, human nature, political theory, and other central categories are strong and explicit. (However, there seems to be a non-fatal category confusion at the heart of his elucidation of the three pragmatist tenets. Shouldn’t philosophical reflection on the will be treated under the category of “democratic psychology,” and reflection on malleable human nature be considered “democratic anthropology”?) Lacey’s detailed attention to the development of philosophical positions in each writer’s corpus and across the tradition bolsters his argument that Peirce’s nascent democratic thought matured in James’ work and reached full fruition in Dewey’s political theory. When this same attention is directed to the work of Mills, Wolin, and Barber...