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  • How Racism Should Cause Pragmatism to Change
  • Robert Cummings Neville (bio)

I. Introduction

"Racism and Anti-Blackness" in America is very bad.1 What has pragmatism had to say about this? Charles S. Peirce was a racist and thought that blacks are inferior.2 Much as most readers of this journal love him for other things, Peirce's pragmatism needs to change in this regard insofar as it bears on his racist views. A significant part of Peirce's racism came from his appreciation of science. Louis Agassiz strongly opposed Darwinian evolution and upheld racist views regarding Africans; he was a close friend of Peirce's father, Benjamin Peirce, who long defended Agassiz. After the Civil War, many scientists added Mexicans and Native Americans to the list of inferior peoples who needed to be controlled by the superior white race.3

Two stories need to be told about this scientific support of racism. One is that the scientists then as now followed the money, which after the Civil War was investing heavily in western expansion of the Manifest Destiny and needed to push Mexicans and Native Americans aside. The other story is that the sciences slowly corrected themselves with empirical evidence and in our day cast doubt on the very categories defining races. At any rate, Peirce's enthusiasm for the scientific community probably reinforced his racism. Were he alive today, he might be influenced by science to take an antiracist stand; at least we can speculate that he would. [End Page 53]

William James was somewhat ambivalent about race and the Civil War, although he aimed not to be racist.4 He too was close to Agassiz and traveled to the Amazon on one of Aggasiz's expeditions.5 Peirce and James and their siblings were in their twenties during the Civil War, and that cataclysm determined how they and their circles related to race. Their careers unfolded during the period of Manifest Destiny as the nation recoiled from the Civil War and looked West. James died in 1910 and Peirce in 1914, months before the beginning of the First World War.

Josiah Royce, an idealistic pragmatist, was born in 1855 in rural California and was raised there, away from the Civil War for the most part. He died in 1916 in the midst of the First World War and was preoccupied in his later years with the break-up of community that led to it. He saw racism as a breach in the community to be overcome by joining all sides in pursuit of a beloved community. But his position fails to acknowledge intractable otherness. It also overemphasizes the value of unity.6

John Dewey began his doctoral studies in philosophy at Johns Hopkins University in 1872 when Peirce was a forty-three-year-old professor there. Dewey saw racism for the evil it is, but not for how evil it is or how pervasive, or how to fix it.7 He too was preoccupied by the issues surrounding the First World War and lived through the Second World War. He died in 1952 when Martin Luther King, Jr., was just finishing his first year of graduate school at Boston University, before the burgeoning of the civil rights movement. Whereas the careers of Peirce, James, and Royce were centered in the nineteenth century, Dewey came into his own in the twentieth. None of them paid sufficient attention to racism for their philosophies to be sufficiently relevant on that topic today.

Pragmatism has come a long way from the days and culture of its founders in relation to issues of race. Cornel West's 1989 The American Evasion of Philosophy: A Genealogy of Pragmatism was a significant and influential [End Page 54] interpretation of the lineage of pragmatism from Ralph Waldo Emerson to Richard Rorty, especially as its figures treated race.8 Victor Anderson, Eddie S. Glaude, William D. Hart, and others have directed vastly improved pragmatic attention to racism in diverse ways.9

My intent here is not to trace this history of pragmatism but rather to argue for the transformation of three early pragmatic themes to attend to racism better, themes that white pragmatists can own as...


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