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  • The Pragmatists’ Approach to Injustice
  • Gregory Fernando Pappas

there has been a recent resurgence of pragmatism1 in sociopolitical theory, one in which pragmatism is presented as offering an alternative and promising approach to nonideal theories of justice. This may seem ironic since the record of the classical pragmatists on being explicit about justice or the injustices of their time in their philosophical corpus is a mixed one at best. However, this has not stopped recent philosophers from continuing to draw from the philosophical resources in this tradition to address the injustices of today (e.g., Cornel West, Eddie Glaude, Shannon Sullivan, Melvin Rogers, Jose Medina, Elizabeth Anderson). The title of the 2014 SAAP presidential address by Ken Stikkers was “Toward a Pragmatic Understanding of Racism.”

What is it about this philosophical tradition that seems worth reconstructing for today, in spite of its shortcomings? The short answer is pragmatism is a metaphilosophy guided by a normative vision of democracy. This paper argues that this metaphilosophy is worth reconstruction, but that, in order to advance it, we need to re-examine it by making explicit the basic tenets of this approach to injustices in the world and determining how it differs from other similar approaches. In this reconstructive task, we would do well to revisit some of John Dewey’s and Jane Addams’s insights in regard to proper methodology for philosophy in addressing social problems. In the brief characterizations of pragmatism by Elizabeth Anderson and others, its more radical aspects have been left out.2 This raises some interesting challenges for philosophers today, including Anderson, who claim to practice an “empirical” nonideal approach to actual injustices. The pragmatists’ approach should be distinguished from nonideal theories whose starting point is some grand historical account of injustice or a sociological structural account of injustice. Pragmatism’s most important contribution to the development of nonideal theories today, in fact, points to the ways in which these views [End Page 58] are not immune from making the same mistakes as the most universalistabsolutist approaches in sociopolitical theory such as oversimplification of or blindness to aspects of concrete injustices. The pragmatist’s methodological prescription to be sensitive to the concrete problems of injustice turns out to be a more demanding and “unorthodox” prescription than Anderson and others think.

What Kind of Nonideal Sociopolitical Theory is Pragmatism?

Is the fact that pragmatism as a philosophy does not have a theory of justice a weakness or a strength? There are metaphilosophical reasons that explain Dewey’s relative silence about justice. A theory of justice is as much a dangerous mistake in philosophy as it is a theory of truth, and for the same reasons. They are both part of a philosophical quest that usually ends up committing the “philosophical fallacy”3 and showing the ineptness of philosophy in helping to ameliorate concrete problems. Pragmatism is committed to basing philosophy in lived experience, and, in social philosophy, this means a shift from the theoretical construction of a substantive normative conception of justice to a more contextualist, problem-centered, empirical, and inquiry-oriented approach. A pragmatist’s approach must be distinguished from, and is critical of, approaches to justice that:

  1. (1). start with a theory or theoretical abstraction about what justice is;

  2. (2). start with the assumption of a noncontextual ahistorical universal point of view (the “Archimedean standpoint”4); and

  3. (3). start with or presuppose a political ideology or even a political agenda.

But there are other contemporary approaches that reject these same views. In contrast to these views, it has been said that the proper approach should be nonideal, historical, contextual, and empirical. Philosophers like Amartya Sen and Charles W. Mills have argued that ideal-type approaches are useless, ideological, and may function as blinders to actual injustices, or mask existing oppressions. Instead, nonideal theorists insist that political philosophy should be empirical and realistic, and should start with the actual circumstances in which we find ourselves. The diversity of views within nonideal theory includes the approaches to philosophy of Marxists, feminists, critical theorists, critical race theorists, and Latin American liberation philosophers. Many of these views seem to be in agreement that a proper approach to injustices (for example...


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