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  • Pragmatism without the “–ism”: Cavell, Rhetoric, and the Role of Doctrines in Philosophy
  • Russell Johnson (bio)

“If you will listen to me, I will say, do not involve yourselves in any –ism. Study every –ism. Ponder and assimilate what you have read and try to practice yourself what appeals to you out of it. But for heaven’s sake do not set out to establish any –ism.”

—Mahatma Gandhi1

William James’s 1907 treatise Pragmatism is the book in which James most clearly lays out the core tenets of pragmatism and makes arguments for pragmatism over against rival schools of philosophy. Precisely for this reason, I argue, it may very well be his least persuasive case for pragmatism.

To understand why, we will need to analyze the distinctive grammar of pragmatism. According to James, pragmatism is a method and “a method only,”2 specifically a method that enables us to get beyond two pitfalls. The first pitfall is dogmatism that acts without critical thinking, experimentation, and revision. The second pitfall is what James disparagingly calls “professional philosophy,” which postpones action through a seemingly endless game of doubt and arid philosophical justification. In Pragmatism, James’s goal is to articulate a philosophical method more reflective than dogmatism and more active than professional philosophy, a method driven by an experimental spirit rather than a felt need for the security of philosophical doctrines.

This goal, shared by many pragmatists since James, has been to some degree stymied by what I call the irony of pragmatism. That is, pragmatists seek to evade professional philosophy, but in spite of their efforts, pragmatism has become one more option among philosophical schools of thought.3 Pragmatists hope that by advocating a method for thinking in the context of experimental [End Page 5] action, they can encourage people to think and act without the need for –isms to ground their inquiries in transcendent truth. But, ironically, pragmatists’ energies have often gone toward antecedently justifying the claim that claims do not need to be antecedently justified. Put most bluntly: since its earliest formulations, pragmatic philosophers have been wrapped up in debates about whether or not they can reasonably act without getting wrapped up in debates.

It is this irony, and how philosophers working in a pragmatic spirit can overcome it, that is the focus of the present essay. In the world of ideas, the way something is presented constitutes to a large part what that thing is. Despite the frequent insistences to the contrary—insistences that pragmatism is only a method, for example—pragmatism has on many occasions since its earliest formulations been presented as an –ism, as a school of philosophy inviting assent to philosophical doctrines. Being an –ism is not, in and of itself, a bad thing; there are many noble –isms worthy of adherence. But insofar as one’s goal is to bring people out of skepticism, out of what Richard Bernstein calls the “Cartesian Anxiety,” presenting pragmatism as an –ism is less than ideal.

I argue that there are two competing tendencies within pragmatists’ writings. One is a drive to found or preserve an –ism, which I define as a school of thought with set doctrines. The other, much stronger tendency is to call into question the way of thinking that produces and relies on –isms.4 Some pragmatic authors, including Richard Rorty and Nicholas Rescher, rely more on the rhetorical moves I will call “pragmatism as an –ism.” Others, like Richard J. Bernstein and Cornel West, rely more heavily on what I will call “pragmatism without the –ism.”5 In this paper, I discuss the works of William James and John Dewey precisely because they exhibit both tendencies; the ambivalence within pragmatic rhetoric is most evident in these influential figures.6 Exploring [End Page 6] the tension between these two tendencies will shed light not only on pragmatic rhetoric but more generally on the nature of philosophical commitments.

It could be argued, quite reasonably, that propounding philosophical doctrines is unavoidable if one seeks to promote a viewpoint and demonstrate its points of contrast with extant philosophical approaches. I am not arguing that pragmatists should give this pursuit up entirely, only that we...


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