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  • A Review Essay of The American Pragmatists
  • Roger Ward and John Kaag

Introductory Remarks

American philosophy has been shaped, in no small part, by an ongoing argument about what it should become. Margaret Fuller criticized Emerson for being too esoteric. Peirce thought James and Dewey were too nominalist and instrumental. Royce told Peirce to read more Hegel, and Peirce responded by telling him to learn logic. Pragmatism, as a historical occurrence, arose as a series of conversations (some might say “debates”) between a number of figures about its meaning and promise for coming generations. But despite the occasional nastiness of these debates, a loosely knit canon was formed and has gained the attention of an increasingly large readership in the twenty-first century. Today, the scholarly disagreements about the prospects and advantages of pragmatism persist; they do not signal the disintegration of the tradition, but rather its continuation. The most alarming sign of pragmatism’s decline would be the silencing of this disagreement, a sign that one party had laid final claim to American philosophy in a winner-takes-all fight for the tradition. Cheryl Misak’s The American Pragmatists allows a reader to consider pragmatism’s contested beginnings, and then presents a clear narrative in which to cast the tradition. This narrative will invite meaningful and, we believe, fruitful disagreements for years to come. And this is undoubtedly a good thing for pragmatism and our wider philosophical community.

Misak presents a linear story of pragmatists in America by carefully tracing their penumbras of influence in philosophy. This line stems mainly from Peirce, and particularly his 1868 essays. Misak’s story is clearly an alternative history of pragmatism to what she has received as the marginalization narrative, wherein philosophers working within pragmatism or with the classical figures of pragmatism are sidelined by the anglo-analytic philosophical [End Page 114] mainstream. Misak’s story is that pragmatism never left the stage of the philosophical mainstream and that crucial shifts in analytic philosophy have been sponsored by pragmatist ideas. This alternate story, which is offered in fascinating and helpful detail, follows the path of Peirce’s subjunctive notion of truth as what would be the product of inquiry, as it weaves through and connects the thought of C. I. Lewis, Quine, Goodman, avoiding the culde-sac of Rorty’s hyper-Jamesean approach, and winding up in Putnam, and projecting out a bit into Davidson.

For the moment, we want to step aside from the question of the narrative and its alternatives and offer an initial evaluation of the research and presentation of the book. First, the texts and personalities of the figures most prominent in the text are handled clearly and with confidence. While biographical material is more developed with the classical figures of Peirce, James, Royce, and Dewey, remarkable attention is given throughout the book to the interplay of philosophical positions as they develop in relation to criticism contemporary to their formulation. The classical pragmatists and their fellow travelers are shown as responsive and flexible to the needs for adjusting their thought—which leads to a second evaluative point, the justification of her narrative based on a clear and oft-repeated cleaving to Peirce. We think it is due to Peirce’s stable position on truth that he becomes the star of the narrative, somewhat like a fixed point in the heavens by which to navigate. The narrative prior to Peirce leads up to him, and the narrative that follows is judged by its variation or development from the Peircean pragmatic maxim. But as with any key element of a story, this is where her narrative is most vulnerable to challenge. Third, Misak’s argument highlights the historical origin, development, and dénouement of “the pragmatists,” transforming the subject into a rather finite and encapsulated moment in the broader story of philosophy.

If anything about her book will frustrate scholars committed to the marginalization narrative, it is this: Misak intends to contain the pragmatists in the narrative of nineteenth- and twentieth-century mainstream philosophy. As irritating as this might be to some scholars, it should occasion the kind of doubt and constructive inquiry that is necessary for pragmatism to advance as...


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pp. 114-132
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