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  • Pragmatism without the “–ism”: Cavell, Rhetoric, and the Role of Doctrines in Philosophy

“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 remain conscious of the limits of this approach. In the second section, I draw on Stanley Cavell’s criticisms of pragmatism to illustrate one such limit. Cavell finds (correctly, I think) in the later Wittgenstein a therapeutic way of doing philosophy that helps readers find peace in the battle between –isms. While I agree with many that Wittgenstein’s concerns and methods are closely related to those of the classical pragmatists, I argue that Wittgenstein’s resistance to pragmatism stems in large part from is its status as an –ism, in his words a “Weltanschauung.”7 We should be hesitant to call Wittgenstein a pragmatist, not only because of the differences between his ideas and those of pragmatism’s founders (“pragmatism” is a big tent, after all), but also because a central part of Wittgenstein’s later philosophy is his resistance to promoting contestable theses and doctrines. Bringing together different suggestions from Cavell’s influential interpretation of Wittgenstein, I argue that contending for an –ism is an approach ill-suited to the philosophical goal of overcoming skepticism. To the degree that contemporary pragmatists share this goal, we can learn from Wittgenstein’s distinctive way of philosophizing.

Though I draw on Cavell and Wittgenstein to make this point, this is an exercise in immanent criticism. It is, as it were, a pragmatic analysis of pragmatism. To de-essentialize “pragmatism” and ask to what extent it solves the problems it was designed to solve is itself a very pragmatic way of considering an –ism. This sort of analysis—attending to the concerns that animate an –ism and asking to what extent they are met by being part of an –ism—is something pragmatic philosophers can offer other –isms, for example feminism, Marxism, pacifism, and conservatism, as well as other comprehensive commitments such as Christianity. As William James writes, “Pragmatism unstiffens all our [End Page 7] theories, limbers them up and sets each one at work.”8 In this paper we will see whether pragmatic theories, too, could benefit from some unstiffening.

I. The Thirteen Pragmatisms

From its earliest formulations, pragmatism has been deeply ambiguous. Defining what “pragmatism” means in any of its advocates’ writings is an exercise in frustration. As interpreter Russell Goodman observes, “In James’s Pragmatism alone, pragmatism is at least five things: a theory of truth, a theory of meaning, a holistic account of knowledge, a method of resolving philosophical disputes, and a human temperament.”9 Where Goodman finds five possible options, James’s former student A.O. Lovejoy finds no less than thirteen candidates for what “pragmatism” means.10

In the second lecture of Pragmatism, James makes use of many different senses of pragmatism, freely jumping back and forth between them without acknowledging any tensions between them. He introduces pragmatism as a method and a method only, saying that it has “no dogmas and no doctrines save its method.”11 But he also positions it as an –ism among other –isms, a via media between rationalism and the antireligious side of empiricism. Even while insisting that pragmatism is a method, one way of making our ideas clear, there are notes that would lead one to believe it is the method; James writes, “To attain perfect clearness in our thoughts of an object, then, we need only consider what conceivable effects of a practical kind the object may involve,” and goes on to declare that “the whole function of philosophy ought to be” the application of the pragmatic test and explication of its results.12 On a few occasions, he describes pragmatism as a “movement,”13 growing organically beyond the formulations of canonical pragmatists. But he also treats it in some places as a school of thought tied to certain authoritative figures, as if “pragmatism” is defined with unique reference to what Peirce, Dewey, and Schiller do. Mixed in with these references, pragmatism is referred to as an “attitude” [End Page 8] or a “temperament,” or as a “type of mind” contrasted with a rationalistic sensibility.14 James talks about pragmatism as a mediator rather than a partisan, a corridor connecting different philosophical –isms rather than its own entity.15 Elsewhere, though, he refers to pragmatism as an entity in its own right, and speaks rather strongly of pragmatism as a “she,” complete with her own agency.16 Finally, James on three occasions in the chapter refers to pragmatism explicitly as a doctrine or as having doctrines.17

The grammar of “pragmatism” is just as diverse in John Dewey’s lengthy 1908 review of James’s book. Noting the ambiguity in James’s usage, Dewey begins, “Pragmatism, according to Mr. James, is a temper of mind, an attitude; it is also a theory of the nature of ideas and truth; and finally, it is a theory about reality.”18 His treatment follows some of the same patterns as James’s, and though Dewey goes on to refer to pragmatism as “primarily a method,”19 a movement, and a habit of mind, he also describes it as an entity with its own agency, a school of thought, and a “doctrine.”20

Dewey draws on the same language in his influential “The Need for a Recovery of Philosophy.” In this essay, he argues that the impasse between different philosophical –isms is largely a result of philosophers inheriting a “meaningless” and “artificial” problem. He writes,

It is a commonplace that the chief divisions of modern philosophy, idealism in its different kinds, realisms of various brands, so-called common-sense dualism, agnosticism, relativism, phenomenalism, have grown up around the epistemological problem of the general relation of subject and object. . . . What becomes of philosophy, consisting largely as it does of different answers to these questions, in case the assumptions which generate the questions have no empirical standing? Is it not time that philosophers turned from the attempt to determine the comparative [End Page 9] merits of various replies to the questions to a consideration of the claims of the questions?21

For Dewey, as for James, debates over whether we can really know the world around us have persisted because of the misleading way philosophers ask the epistemological question. Once we reframe or abandon that question, we can leave behind all the pseudo-problems that preoccupy “professional philosophy.” As one keeps reading Dewey’s essay, however, it sounds increasingly as though pragmatism were another attempted answer to these perennial questions, rather than a way beyond them. Dewey writes of “the doctrine of the test of validity by consequences” and “the doctrine that intelligence develops within the sphere of action” as parts of “the pragmatic hypothesis.”22 It is hard not to read Dewey’s empirical alternative to these epistemological –isms as one theory among others, “the pragmatic theory,”23 an attempt to resolve classic epistemological questions by taking into consideration scientific developments.

It is this latter way of thinking about pragmatism that gets taken up by pragmatism’s early critics.24 These critics of pragmatism focused most of their attention on the ways of conceiving pragmatism that I am here calling “pragmatism as an –ism.” In the pair of essays “The Thirteen Pragmatisms,” a review of James’s Pragmatism, A. O. Lovejoy refers to pragmatism variously as an “entity,” a “school,” and a “system of thought.”25 The term he uses above all, however, is “doctrine.” He takes it upon himself to distinguish the various doctrines of pragmatism, and maintains that pragmatism claims to be “a doctrine one and indivisible.”26 Bertrand Russell, in a review of Pragmatism published a year later, likewise treats pragmatism as a set of substantive doctrinal commitments, a “full-fledged philosophy” that seeks to be “accepted.” Like Lovejoy, [End Page 10] Russell talks primarily about the “doctrine” of pragmatism and criticizes the worldview of pragmatism’s “founders.”27

We can conclude from this rhetorical analysis that there are two tendencies at play in the discourse surrounding pragmatism in its early years. The first tendency is to speak of pragmatism as chiefly a method or a temperament, organically emerging in different thinkers’ minds and available for anyone who wants to clarify their ideas. This is what Bernstein has in mind when he talks about “pragmatic themes” or “the pragmatic turn,” and what we are here calling “pragmatism without the –ism.” The second tendency is to speak of pragmatism as a set of doctrines, maxims, theories, and principles; the only proper philosophical method; or an explicit school of thought at odds with other philosophical camps. This is what I mean by “pragmatism as an –ism.” Many advocates of pragmatism argue for the former, but periodically suggest the latter. Critics of pragmatism overwhelmingly focus on the latter and ignore or only give passing mention to the former. This pattern has continued over the last century of discussing pragmatism.

Historically, the felt need to argue for pragmatic doctrines has conflicted with and sometimes precluded any efforts to apply pragmatic methods in concrete situations. Thus, the critics of pragmatism I have discussed stand for many when they take pragmatism to be a set of doctrines to evaluate, a school of thought to join or reject, a candidate for the one correct philosophical method. Because of the presence of pragmatism as an –ism within the pragmatists’ own writings, they cannot entirely blame their interpreters for treating them as fodder for professional philosophical deliberation rather than as a spark to thoughtful, experimental action. To understand why this might be the case, let us consider pragmatism’s relationship with skepticism, and the criticisms of pragmatism made by Wittgenstein and Stanley Cavell.

II. Getting Beyond Skepticism

“Pragmatism,” Stanley Cavell writes, “seems designed to refuse to take skepticism seriously.”28 By contrast, for Cavell, Ludwig Wittgenstein’s philosophy is a prolonged engagement with skepticism that takes skepticism more seriously than it takes itself. I do not take this objection—nor does Cavell—as a reason [End Page 11] to disregard pragmatists’ treatments of skepticism, but rather a challenge to consider how pragmatists understand the etiology of skepticism and how to go about responding to it.

For the early pragmatists and for Wittgenstein, the legacy of “professional,” or epistemology-centered, philosophy is a largely fruitless contest between assertions of certainty and assertions of skepticism, wrapped in argumentation and paradigmatically expressed in statements like “I know that is a tree” and “But do you really know it’s a tree?” The pragmatists and Wittgenstein want to get beyond this, but their approaches are different. The difference, put most starkly, is that the pragmatists seek to evade skepticism or overcome it once and for all, while Wittgenstein seeks to engage it patiently and therapeutically. As Goodman writes, “Whereas the proper response to skepticism is a matter of central concern to Wittgenstein, pragmatists tend to sidestep it—more or less instinctively in James, more self-consciously in Dewey and Peirce.”29

This side-stepping, what Cornel West aptly calls the pragmatist “evasion of philosophy,” stems from a desire for progress. As West writes, “The epistemological problematic of modern philosophy now, in Dewey’s view, stands in the way of American and world progress. Like religion, for him, it misdirects human powers and misleads human energies.”30 For the pragmatists, the professional philosophers’ game of endless fault-finding and reason-giving diverts the dynamic powers that humans could otherwise use to organize, experiment, develop, and solve. To prevent people from straying down the path of professional philosophy, or to prevent them from defaulting to inaction because of their lack of transcendental justifications, James and Dewey insist that the skeptical threat is not a real threat but a distraction, the result of readily disposable illusions.

James and Dewey frequently characterize skepticism as little more than an inveterate hang-up among philosophers. Though they are not as flippant about skepticism as Richard Rorty, we do find the seeds of Rorty’s self-described effort to tell the skeptic to “get lost.”31 For James and Dewey, skepticism is [End Page 12] a temptation nourished by bad habits picked up in philosophy departments. They try to persuade their readers to avoid this philosophical temptation via a threefold approach.

First, they show the impossibility of certainty. They dismiss the felt need for indubitable grounds as unreasonable. As James writes memorably, “Objective evidence and certitude are doubtless very fine ideals to play with, but where on this moonlit and dream-visited planet are they to be found?”32 Even when James and Dewey engage skepticism directly, their approach is to persuade their readers to not become preoccupied with the pseudo-problems of skepticism. In Dewey’s mind, “the quest for certainty” is a quest on which pragmatists do not need to embark; his book by that name is a plea to choose an alternate path.33 Second, James and Dewey sing the praises of the pragmatic intellect and its democratic sensibility, and invite their readers to join them in reveling. James and Dewey share an exuberance about action, and of thinking when one is caught up in activity. James writes of “the active sense of living, which we all enjoy, before reflection shatters our instinctive world for us, is self-luminous and suggests no paradoxes.”34 In this rhetorical line, running throughout James and Dewey’s work, skepticism only becomes a temptation when we lose sight of the core doctrine of pragmatism that we are, at base, fallible agents experimenting in a receptive world. Third, they insist that to be a pragmatist means to dismiss hang-ups about skeptical doubts; James writes, “a pragmatist turns his back resolutely and once and for all upon a lot of inveterate habits dear to professional philosophers.”35 This rhetoric invites the reader to identify as a pragmatist and to see those who feel the need for certitude as part of a “them,” while those acting to make a better world are an “us.” In this process of dismissing skepticism, we see pragmatism presented as a set of doctrines, as a position over against other positions, as a school of thought with which one can self-identify, and as the proper method for inquiry. James’s and Dewey’s response to skepticism, thus, hinges on their readers having faith in pragmatism as an –ism.

When Cavell says that pragmatism does not take skepticism seriously enough, this is the approach he is referring to. To understand his objection, we will need [End Page 13] to understand his distinctive understanding of “skepticism.” For Cavell, skepticism is not a philosophical position among other philosophical positions so much as it is a temptation, a fear, and a part of the human condition. “I do not,” he writes in The Claim of Reason, “confine the term to philosophers who wind up denying that we can ever know; I apply it to any view which takes the existence of the world to be a problem of knowledge.”36 This includes philosophers who think they need to refute skepticism or who think they have already done so; as Cavell writes, “the effort to deny skepticism is itself an expression of skepticism.”37 It also includes nonphilosophers who get wrapped up in the question of whether or not the world as they experience it is the same as the world others perceive and live in. For Cavell, then, skepticism is not first and foremost an –ism replete with doctrines like “Nothing is indubitable” or a tradition that stretches from Pyrrho to Hume to the postmoderns. Skepticism is, at its core, a sense of dissatisfaction at our inability to form accurate judgments about the world and those around us, what Peter Dula calls “the failure of knowledge to live up to our expectations.”38 Its philosophical incarnations are only scholarly attempts to wrestle with this deeply rooted dissatisfaction. For Cavell, incongruities in everyday life—for example, when one is positive one knows the answer but turns out to be incorrect—can nourish the perceived need for philosophical justifications. Skepticism for Cavell is the lack of certainty felt as a threat; it is not so much a philosophical conclusion as an epistemic fear. Whereas for the pragmatists skepticism is one symptom of reading too much philosophy, for Cavell it is skepticism that compels us to philosophize in the first place.

While the pragmatists are right in their efforts to not try to refute skepticism on its own terms (a move that Cavell insists is just another form of skepticism) their approach is too impatient, too hasty, too dismissive of the real fear that skepticism holds. Pragmatic arguments for the truth of fallibilism and pragmatic rejections of “paper doubts” are like a gardener mowing away weeds and insisting that they are gone—when the roots remain.

Unlike the pragmatists, who see skepticism as a failure to extricate oneself from the preoccupations of professional philosophy, Cavell sees skepticism as emerging from ordinary life. For Cavell, skepticism arises from the feeling of lostness or disorientation that comes from realizing that our minds never [End Page 14] quite grasp the truth as decisively as we could want. It is the sensation, present in philosophical texts but also present in everyday life, that the world is not ultimately congenial to our mental capacities, but is hostile and foreign to our always-expecting minds. This feeling can be sharp in instances of betrayal, when the reality of the world clashes so catastrophically against one’s understanding of the world that one loses confidence in one’s ability to make sense of things. Events can throw us back on ourselves and make us reconsider not only our expectations but the validity of expecting itself. Cavell would agree with the pragmatists that our lives are experimental in nature, but would emphasize the pain and disorientation that result when these experiments come back negative. I give all my best reasons to persuade someone to change his ways, but he finds them all unconvincing, and I start to question whether my reasons are good enough to justify my own convictions, or if reasons ever actually convince anyone of anything. I learn something new and disturbing about a friend, and I wonder, “Do you ever really know anyone?” Experiences like these foster within some people a desire for certitude, a yearning for security and assurance. On Cavell’s diagnosis, the doubts and felt need for justification that drive people to philosophize come from these experiences.

Dewey’s The Quest for Certainty illustrates the impatience Cavell sees as characteristic of much pragmatist writing. Dewey writes, for example, “Drop the conception that knowledge is knowledge only when it is a disclosure and definition of the properties of fixed and antecedent reality; interpret the aim and test of knowing by what happens in the actual procedures of scientific inquiry, and the supposed need and problem vanish.”39 That is, the “supposed need” that drives thinkers to develop and debate epistemological theories is the result of a philosophical mistake—a mistake with a long history and impressive pedigree, to be sure, but one that nonetheless can be simply dropped. Cavell’s Wittgenstein would insist that Dewey has the order all wrong. The felt need and problem of knowledge, salient in varying degrees to all people, have prompted people over the centuries to develop philosophical theories to justify their practices of thinking and knowing. Dewey concedes that having a theoretical ground for one’s knowing “may give consolation to the depressed,” but bemoans that the pursuit of this transcendent justification “has had the effect of distracting attention and diverting energy from a task whose performance would yield definite results.”40 Here, too, Cavell would insist that the consolation of philosophy, even if ultimately chasing after a dream, is too captivating—indeed, too central to the human condition—to be abandoned so easily. [End Page 15]

III. The Sound Makes All the Difference

Cavell finds two differences between the later Wittgenstein and the pragmatists, which I argue are closely related. First, he writes that for the author of Philosophical Investigations, “the skeptical is a recurrent threat internal to the possession of human language,” and this construal of skepticism “is sufficient to distinguish his work from a pragmatist (or positivist) instinct toward verifiability, or, say, cash value.”41 Summarizing Cavell on this point, Peter Dula writes, “Skepticism is not to be understood as a philosophical mistake but as a frame of mind, one which cannot be overcome once and for all but must be diagnosed (so that it may be overcome daily).”42 As we have already seen, for Cavell skepticism is rooted deep within the human experience, and its philosophical expressions must be understood as growing out of these roots. Even philosophical skepticism cannot be done away with once and for all—whether by dismissal or by argumentation—because it will always re-emerge from human experiences of disagreement and anxiety.

Among high-profile pragmatists, Richard Bernstein comes closest to Cavell on this point. Bernstein’s discussions of the “Cartesian Anxiety” have much in common with Cavell’s descriptions of skepticism. But there is a subtle difference. In The Abuse of Evil, Bernstein writes, “We need to exorcise the Cartesian Anxiety, or, to switch metaphors, engage in a form of philosophical therapy that will release us from its constraining grip.”43 This change of metaphors is more significant than Bernstein lets on. To speak of the Cartesian Anxiety as something to be “exorcised,” which Bernstein has done throughout his books on the subject, suggests a decisive liberation from epistemological preoccupation.44 Cavell does not think the recurring worries that fuel this preoccupation can be [End Page 16] abolished in one fell swoop, hence an ongoing treatment—like Wittgenstein’s “philosophical therapy”—is required.

This illustrates the substantial agreement, and a significant divergence, between Wittgenstein and the pragmatists. Wittgenstein, like James and Dewey, wants to get (in Bernstein’s phrase) “beyond objectivism and relativism” and toward a conception of thinking properly situated in its active and communal contexts. James, Dewey, and other pragmatists at times make it seem as if this “going beyond” involves a once-and-for-all commitment to pragmatism, what Dewey calls a “transformation.”45 Wittgenstein, however, offers therapeutic techniques for bringing oneself back to the ordinary through reminders that may need to be revisited time and time again.

The second similarity-and-difference Cavell observes has to do with Wittgenstein’s writing style. “Wittgenstein’s role in combating the idea of privacy,” Cavell writes, “and in emphasizing the functions and contexts of language, scarcely needs to be mentioned. It might be worth pointing out that these teachings are fundamental to American pragmatism; but then we must keep in mind how different their arguments sound, and admit that in philosophy it is the sound that makes all the difference.”46 What does Cavell mean by this? What is the difference in “sound” between American pragmatism and Wittgenstein? I argue that the difference has to do with what I have been calling the language of –isms. Wittgenstein, more consistently than James and Dewey, writes in ways that draw readers out of the familiar philosophical habits of proposing and justifying philosophical doctrines. This is the hallmark of Wittgenstein’s style: asking questions, writing aphoristically, jumping between topics, and developing thought experiments and parables with no straightforward interpretations.47 As Richard Rorty writes, Wittgenstein “produced writings which even the most determined efforts of a host of commentators will not be able to construe as offering ‘philosophical theories’ or ‘solutions to philosophical problems.’”48 Of course, Rorty underestimates philosophical commentators’ flexibility in interpreting Wittgenstein, but he is right to suggest that Wittgenstein’s writings resist these interpretations. One key difference between the later Wittgenstein’s work and James’s and Dewey’s is that Wittgenstein consistently [End Page 17] makes it difficult for readers to turn his thoughts into “Wittgensteinianism.” That is, Wittgenstein does not seem to be answering the traditional questions of epistemology. Even when he is clearly addressing epistemological themes, one has to stretch the text if one is to find doctrines, maxims, or theories in Wittgenstein’s later writings.

These two differences between Wittgenstein and the pragmatists, I am here arguing, are related. Because Wittgenstein understands skepticism as a recurring threat emerging from ordinary life, a disease nourished by the very attempt to overcome it once and for all, Wittgenstein’s writings proceed indirectly. Wittgenstein uses sketches, reminders, aphorisms, and digressions rather than straightforwardly arguing for an antiskeptical conclusion or attempting to overcome skeptical illusions decisively. In the next section, I will explore this point in greater depth.

IV. Fear and Doctrine

A deeper comparison between Wittgenstein and the pragmatists will help us understand how this objection relates to the limitations of pragmatism as an –ism. Wittgenstein refers to pragmatism by name in two places. The first is found in an offhand reference in Remarks on the Principles of Psychology distinguishing his treatment of meaning from a rough version of the pragmatic theory of truth.49 The second is found in On Certainty: “So I am trying to say something that sounds like pragmatism. Here I am being thwarted by a kind of Weltanschauung.”50

This remark does not admit of an easy interpretation, but I agree with Cheryl Misak, who writes, “On my reading, what Wittgenstein meant in claiming that a world-view was getting in the way of his embracing pragmatism is that he did not want to adopt pragmatism as a theory of truth (or, indeed, as a theory of anything else), but only as a method. The Weltanschaulicher character of pragmatism—that is, its being an ‘–ism’ or a positive theory or explanation—disturbed him.”51 Wittgenstein, like the pragmatists, is inveterately leery of –isms, [End Page 18] or rather of the notion that we need –isms in order to think clearly, create, help others, make judgments, form communities, or pray. Part of this wariness is the idea that –isms artificially preclude certain aspects of people’s experiences from the realm of significance. –Isms tend to function as Procrustean beds, holding onto doctrines about “the way things are” without exceptions. When exceptions to those rules are found, the natural response of proponents of an –ism is to explain how those exceptions are not what we take them to be, to revise the –ism to accommodate the exceptions into new rules, or to reject the –ism in favor of a new and more inclusive –ism. Wittgenstein suggests that the actual complexity of human life and experience often exceeds our ability to make law-like declarations about it, and thus the perceived failures of the law-like declarations of pragmatism as an –ism are sufficient to paralyze those in the grip of skepticism. What happens, for example, when a disagreement is not resolved by putting the question in the context of practice? What happens when practical consequences seem inscrutable? Instead of asserting doctrines that lend themselves open to constant doubting and testing, Wittgenstein contends, what philosophers ought to do is suggest methods for approaching the incongruities we face. James and Dewey agree with this, though this is not consistently reflected in their writings.

Additionally, for those accustomed to the patterns of inquiry of professional philosophy, to propose doctrines is to give them exactly what they are accustomed to doubting and justifying. To propound pragmatist doctrines to epistemology-centered philosophers is like throwing sticks at a fire to put it out. When presented as an –ism, pragmatism triggers the familiar processes of professional philosophers—and the philosopher within each of us—to continue questioning and evaluating the –ism before acting upon its exhortations.

There is a core insight at the heart of Dewey’s notion of the “quest for certainty,” Bernstein’s analysis of the “Cartesian Anxiety,” and Cavell’s idiosyncratic definition of skepticism. That insight is that both those who doubt that we can ever know anything and those preoccupied with proving the contrary are caught in the same trap. Skeptics and antiskeptics alike have a felt need for a theoretical justification in order to have confidence that the world is knowable. The pragmatists, like Wittgenstein, believe that you do not need such a theoretical justification. But insofar as they propound pragmatism as an –ism, pragmatism will likely be interpreted as an attempt to meet that felt need rather than an attempt to dissolve it.

Another problem with pragmatists proffering an –ism to one who acutely feels epistemic fear is that it does not deal with the root cause of the fear, and thus the fear is not allayed but merely shifted. Here, a distinction needs to be made between a worry and a fear. Let us consider a woman who occasionally hears creaking in the trusses and joints of her old house and begins to worry [End Page 19] that the house is not structurally sound. Her worry will be allayed by someone coming in and installing a column in the center of the house—then she will be able to live her life normally. Now, consider a man whose house collapsed in on itself when he was a child, trapping him for days but not killing him. Later in life, he is often paralyzed with fear that his house will collapse, and this phobia inhibits him from leading a normal life. To install a column in his house might comfort him for a while, but soon he will begin to fear that the column itself is not structurally secure. We misunderstand the problem that inhibits him from “going on” if we treat it as an easily treatable worry rather than as a deep-seated fear. This, I take it, is analogous to Cavell’s charge that pragmatism does not take skepticism seriously—pragmatists treat skepticism as a worry that can be dismissed, or proved to be innocuous or mistaken, when for many it is a fear. Asserting the core doctrine of pragmatism is like building a column in the phobic man’s house; no matter how reliable this doctrine, it will not be enough. It misdiagnoses the fear that prevents the sick-souled from confidently taking the risks of knowledge. The fear is not allayed, it is only shifted from fear about knowledge in general to fear about the adequacy of pragmatic doctrines. In this way, the impatience of the pragmatists, their unwillingness or inability to plumb the depths of the fear that nourishes epistemological doubt, is intimately connected with the rhetorical moves that I have called “pragmatism as an –ism.”

Pragmatist writing is characterized by a call for action, since the desire for a more democratic, truth-seeking, peaceful society is the driving motivation behind pragmatism. Numerous authors, including Dewey, West, Rorty, and Eddie Glaude,52 consider the pragmatist conception of inquiry as the intellectual outlook most conducive to effective social change. Wittgenstein and Cavell are by no means hostile to these efforts, and in fact, both afford action a central role in their descriptions of cognition.53 However, in his discussion of mourning, Cavell draws our attention to the moments in human life when purposeful action seems impossible and the right thing to do is dwell in inaction.54

Pragmatists exhort their readers to act, and to perpetually discern a potentially better course of action “along the way” through projecting likely [End Page 20] consequences. This can often be good advice, but some people find themselves in situations in which no course of action seems to present itself. Put bluntly, to these people the pragmatist rhetoric of action can sound like a friend telling a recent divorcée walking out of the courthouse to “get back in the game! There are plenty of fish in the sea.” Often, getting to the point where one can act confidently is not the result of correcting a philosophical mistake, but is instead the result of having to really reckon with our own lack of control over consequences. There may be times when people need to hear the pragmatist message that “people are the agents of their own destinies,”55 as Louis Menand puts it. But there are also times when destiny seems so wildly beyond the grasp of our agency that all we can do is lament.56 The pragmatic method of putting contemplation in the context of action is a valuable tool, but Cavell reminds us that it cannot be a panacea. It can never be the method, since there are instances in our lives in which action seems impossible and what is called for instead is patience, mourning, and the difficult work of returning to the ordinary.

V. Conclusion

Wittgenstein and pragmatism strive to get beyond the “Cartesian Anxiety” and toward a life of hopeful action and inquiry within a trusted community. On Cavell’s interpretation, Wittgenstein’s approach is better suited to this than the pragmatists’. Cavell discusses this in terms of patience and impatience. Wittgenstein takes time to reckon with the full weight of the skeptical threat and the anguish that accompanies it, whereas pragmatists, eager to act, sometimes present an –ism to those trapped in skeptical fear. Though Cavell does not say it, one of the strengths of the Philosophical Investigations is that it resists being turned into “Wittgensteinianism” but instead proceeds therapeutically.57 Just as a therapist cannot simply tell a client that it will all be all right and he can get on with his life, so a philosopher cannot simply tell someone trapped [End Page 21] in skeptical doubt that she can experiment confidently in an uncertain world. Arguing with them is unlikely to work either, since what skepticism calls into doubt is the validity of argumentation.58 Not everyone feels this pain and doubt acutely, and so many will readily accept the pragmatists’ vision of a world ripe for action. But for “sick-souled” types, who most acutely feel the need of epistemological justification, James and Dewey’s advocacy for pragmatism as an –ism can seem like ignoring the heart of the problem.

I have been arguing that the rhetorical presentation of an idea is constitutive of that idea’s grammar. When presented as an –ism, pragmatism will likely be treated as a philosophical theory to evaluate according to the familiar epistemological process of doubting in abstraction from practice. Since one of the pragmatists’ goals is to call this process into question, this mode of presentation mitigates the effectiveness of pragmatist rhetoric in bringing readers beyond objectivism and relativism. To the extent that pragmatists draw on the language of –isms, theories, and doctrines to present pragmatism, they make pragmatism sound like the sort of professional philosophical position they insist we do not ultimately need. Wittgenstein’s largely inconclusive writing style is one attempt to get past this irony, but it is not the only one. Another approach is to show rather than to say what pragmatic inquiry looks like in practice, not to argue for pragmatism so much as enact it.

We are now in a better position to understand Wittgenstein’s oft-discussed relation to William James. When asked what her teacher Wittgenstein thought of James’s Pragmatism, G. E. M. Anscombe replied that not only had Wittgenstein not read Pragmatism, but if he had read it, he would have hated it.59 We have no reason to doubt Anscombe’s judgment, and yet it might seem strange given Wittgenstein’s rare admiration for James’s Varieties of Religious Experience and Principles of Psychology.60 I contend that the divergence is due in large part to the fact that in Pragmatism we are confronted primarily with pragmatism as an –ism, a theoretical position ripe for doubting and redoubting, while in the other books—no less pragmatic—we discover James’s thought in action and are whisked up in the adventure of inquiry. In the Varieties and other texts, [End Page 22] readers do not encounter arguments for why we should enlist in a philosophical school so much as we are invited to join James in practicing the pragmatic method and seeing what happens. The payoff of reading James’s writings is not so much a set of theses to be adopted, but a glimpse at the world through James’s eyes. In these texts, we find a world that is incredibly complicated and yet one for which we are well-suited.61

Following Wittgenstein on this, we can conclude that the value of pragmatist writings is not limited to the soundness of pragmatist theories. Although pragmatists’ argumentative work has philosophical value, we more readily encounter the pragmatic spirit when we get caught up in the action of pragmatic inquiry than when we read defenses of pragmatism as an –ism. [End Page 23]

Russell Johnson
University of Chicago
Russell Johnson

Russell Johnson is a PhD candidate in philosophy of religions at the University of Chicago. His research interests include Christian theology, nonviolence and conflict, and the philosophy of communication.


1. Mohandas Gandhi, The Essential Gandhi, ed. Louis Fischer (New York: Random House, 2002), 266.

2. William James, Pragmatism (Mineola, NY: Dover, 1995), 18, 20.

3. Though Richard J. Bernstein celebrates the omnipresence of pragmatic themes in contemporary philosophy, he writes, “The reconstruction of philosophy that Dewey sought to bring about has not only failed to occur, but many professional philosophers have become more and more obsessed with the ‘problems of philosophy.’” Philosophical Profiles: Essays in a Pragmatic Mode (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1986), 270.

4. I use the term “–ism” in this paper to refer to things that share a family resemblance with (among many others) empiricism, rationalism, behaviorism, and historicism. It is entirely separate from words that just happen to end in “–ism,” like baptism, vandalism, and botulism.

5. Bernstein begins his book The Pragmatic Turn with a worry about –isms and whether it is worth continuing to speak of pragmatism in this way. Like others who worry about “pragmatism,” however, his main concern seems to be whether lumping diverse thinkers into one category obscures their differences. See Richard Bernstein, The Pragmatic Turn (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2010), 1. Similarly, Sidney Hook discusses the rhetoric of –isms in objections to pragmatism in Pragmatism and the Tragic Sense of Life (New York: Basic Books, 1974), xv.

6. While C. S. Peirce relies on many of the rhetorical tendencies I discuss in this paper, his conception of the scope and purposes of pragmatism and philosophy make him a less characteristic representative of the pragmatic tradition as it developed through the twentieth century and into the present. For good studies that compare Peirce and Wittgenstein on skepticism, see Anna Boncompagni, Wittgenstein and Pragmatism: “On Certainty” in the Light of Peirce and James (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016); and Christopher Hookway, “Peirce and Skepticism,” in The Oxford Handbook of Skepticism, ed. John Greco (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 310–29.

7. Ludwig Wittgenstein, On Certainty, ed. G.E.M. Anscombe and G.H. von Wright, trans. Denis Paul and G.E.M. Anscombe (New York: Harper and Row, 1972), §422. In an excellent recent book, Anna Boncompagni analyzes this remark in the context of Wittgenstein’s overall relation to pragmatism. She writes, “Wittgenstein expresses a basically negative attitude toward pragmatism as a Weltanschauung, but acknowledges affinities with pragmatism as a method” (Wittgenstein and Pragmatism, 55). While I fully endorse this conclusion, Boncompagni situates Wittgenstein’s resistance to pragmatism in his suspicion of progress narratives and scientific optimism, whereas I focus more on the rhetorical dimension.

8. James, Pragmatism, 32.

9. Russell B. Goodman, Wittgenstein and William James (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 8.

10. See A. O. Lovejoy, “The Thirteen Pragmatisms, Part I,” Journal of Philosophy 5, no. 1 (January 1908): 5–12; and Lovejoy, “The Thirteen Pragmatisms, Part II,” Journal of Philosophy 5, no. 2 (January 1908): 29–39.

11. James, Pragmatism, 21.

12. Ibid., 18, 20.

13. Ibid., 19.

14. Ibid., 20, 27.

15. Ibid., 21.

16. Ibid., 30–32.

17. Ibid., 21, 26, 30.

18. John Dewey, “What Does Pragmatism Mean by Practical?,” Journal of Philosophy 5, no. 4 (February 1908): 85.

19. Dewey, “What Does Pragmatism Mean by Practical?,” 86.

20. Ibid., 87, 96. See also John Dewey, “The Development of American Pragmatism,” in John Dewey: The Later Works, 1925–1953, vol. 2, 1925–1927: Essays, Reviews, Miscellany, and “The Public and Its Problems,” ed. Jo Ann Boydston (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1981), 3–21.

21. John Dewey, “The Need for a Recovery of Philosophy,” in The Middle Works, 1916–1917, vol. 10, 1899–1924: Journal Articles, Essays, and Miscellany Published in the 1916–1917 Period, ed. Jo Ann Boydston (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1981), 24.

22. Ibid., 43, 44.

23. Ibid., 44.

24. The same word—“doctrine”—is used in C. I. Lewis’s definition: “Pragmatism could be characterized as the doctrine that all problems are at bottom problems of conduct, that all judgments are, implicitly, judgments of value, and that, as there can be ultimately no valid distinction of theoretical and practical, so there can be no final separation of questions of truth of any kind from questions of the justifiable ends of action.” Quoted in Cornel West, “Pragmatism and the Sense of the Tragic,” in The Cornel West Reader (New York: Basic Civitas Books, 1999), 176.

25. Lovejoy, “Thirteen Pragmatisms, Part I,” 5, 6.

26. Lovejoy, “Thirteen Pragmatisms, Part II,” 39.

27. Bertrand Russell, “Pragmatism,” in The Collected Papers of Bertrand Russell, vol. 6 (London: Routledge, 1992), 260–84.

28. Stanley Cavell, “What’s the Use in Calling Emerson a Pragmatist?,” in The Revival of Pragmatism, ed. Morris Dickson (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1998), 78. Cf. Stanley Cavell, The Claim of Reason: Wittgenstein, Skepticism, Morality, and Tragedy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979), 225.

29. Goodman, Wittgenstein and William James, 23.

30. Cornel West, The American Evasion of Philosophy (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989), 93.

31. This passage from Rorty is characteristic: “The only people who go all existential about the invisibility of the rest of the tomato are lecturers on epistemology who relieve the classroom tedium by hype. When such lecturers encounter an unstable freshman who actually does feel the tomato to have catastrophic implications, they hasten to join his more robust classmates in assuring him that it is all ‘just philosophy.’” Richard Rorty, “Cavell on Skepticism,” in Contending with Stanley Cavell, ed. Russell B. Goodman (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 13.

32. William James, The Will to Believe and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy (New York: Barnes and Noble, 2005), 13.

33. James’s wrestling with skepticism is clearest in his Essays in Radical Empiricism (New York: Longmans, Green, 1947), and Dewey contends with it in The Quest for Certainty (New York: Capricorn Books, 1929). For a good discussion of James on skepticism, see Charlene Haddock Seigfried, William James’s Radical Reconstruction of Philosophy (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1990).

34. James, Essays in Radical Empiricism (New York: Longmans, Green, 1922), 92.

35. James, Pragmatism, 20.

36. Cavell, Claim of Reason, 46.

37. Stanley Cavell, This New Yet Unapproachable America (Albuquerque, NM: Living Batch Press, 1989), 38. As Dula writes, “For Cavell, skepticism includes both ‘skeptics’ and ‘anti-skeptics.’” Peter Dula, Cavell, Companionship, and Christian Theology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 171.

38. Dula, Cavell, Companionship, and Christian Theology, 154.

39. Dewey, Quest for Certainty, 103.

40. Ibid., 35–36.

41. Stanley Cavell, “Responses,” in Contending with Stanley Cavell, 171.

42. Dula, Cavell, Companionship, and Christian Theology, 132. Dula writes elsewhere, “Pragmatism is Wittgenstein without the threat of skepticism. Pragmatism overlaps with Wittgenstein in its criticism of privacy, in its understanding of meaning and use, in its criticism of various forms of philosophical foundationalism, its suspicion of ‘the quest for certainty.’ But pragmatism further understands such knowledge to authorize a dismissal of skeptical questions. Pragmatism wants to register such questions quaint, material at most for eager freshman watching The Matrix in Philosophy 101. The pragmatists are those who ‘assert thesis-wise, the publicness of language, never seriously doubting it’.” Peter Dula, “Wittgenstein among the Theologians,” in Unsettling Arguments, ed., Kelly Johnson, Charles Pinches, and Charles Collier (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2010), 16–17.

43. Richard J. Bernstein, The Abuse of Evil (Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2005), 28.

44. Richard J. Bernstein, Beyond Objectivism and Relativism (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1983). Cf. Bernstein, Philosophical Profiles (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1986), 11.

45. Dewey, Quest for Certainty, 72, 73, 85.

46. Stanley Cavell, Must We Mean What We Say? (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1976), 36. Emphasis mine.

47. On Wittgenstein’s style in his more developed writings, see the introduction to Danièle Moyal-Sharrock, Understanding Wittgenstein’s On Certainty (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004).

48. Rorty, “Cavell on Skepticism,” 20.

49. “But aren’t you a pragmatist? No. For I am not saying that a proposition is true if it is useful. The usefulness, i.e. the use, gives the proposition its special sense, the language-game gives it.” Ludwig Wittgenstein, Remarks on the Philosophy of Psychology, vol. 1, ed. G. E. M. Anscombe and G. H. von Wright, trans. G. E. M. Anscombe (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980), §266.

50. Wittgenstein, On Certainty, §422.

51. Cheryl J. Misak, Cambridge Pragmatism: From Peirce and James to Ramsey and Wittgenstein (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016), 279. While this seems the best interpretation of Wittgenstein’s remark, it is worth mentioning that the German term Weltanschauung has connotations beyond the idea of an –ism as employed in this paper.

52. Eddie Glaude, In a Shade of Blue: Pragmatism and the Politics of Black America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007). Glaude takes issue with Cavell’s interpretation of Dewey, but I think the disagreement can be resolved if we recognize that, as I have been arguing, there are two competing tendencies in Dewey’s writing.

53. Tellingly, both James and Wittgenstein took “In the beginning was the deed” from Goethe’s Faust as a philosophical motto.

54. Cavell, “What’s the Use in Calling Emerson a Pragmatist?” Cf. Russell Goodman’s treatment in “Cavell and American Philosophy,” in Contending with Stanley Cavell, 100–117.

55. Louis Menand, The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2001), 371.

56. Dula’s account of the biblical story of Job provides a Cavellian perspective on this issue. He writes of Job’s friends, “Why does every word they say chagrin Job? It is their failure to be present to him, to put themselves in his presence. They exhibit their doctrines in abstraction, like ‘cut flowers,’ to use Barth’s words.” Cavell, Companionship, and Christian Theology, 206.

57. As mentioned earlier, to say that the Investigations resists this sort of reading does not mean it prevents it. For more on Wittgenstein’s style, see James F. Peterman, Philosophy as Therapy: An Interpretation and Defense of Wittgenstein’s Later Philosophical Project (Albany: SUNY Press, 1992); Gordon Baker, Wittgenstein’s Method: Neglected Aspects (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2004); Judith Rochester, “Philosophy as Therapy” (PhD dissertation, University of Toronto, 1978); and the debates in Wittgenstein and His Interpreters, ed. Guy Kahane, Edward Kanterian, and Oskari Kuusela (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2007).

58. This is not to say that argument has no place in therapy. Cognitive behavioral therapy, similar to Wittgenstein’s approach in many ways, can involve the use of arguments to persuade clients. See Aaron Beck, Gary Emery, and Ruth Greenberg, Anxiety Disorders and Phobias: A Cognitive Perspective (New York: Basic Books, 1985).

59. Goodman, Wittgenstein and William James, ix.

60. Wittgenstein said of James, “That is what makes him a good philosopher; he was a real human being.” Quoted in Maurice O’Connor Drury, “Some Notes on Conversations with Wittgenstein,” in Ludwig Wittgenstein: Personal Recollections, ed. Rush Rhees (Totowa, NJ: Rowman and Littlefield, 1981), 121.

61. I will add that this way of reading James has two advantages: it is consonant with his own descriptions of philosophy as a matter of temperament, and it allows us to look past James’s infamous inconsistency. This inconsistency is frustrating to the degree that we read James to find justified philosophical conclusions; it is more pardonable when we read James to train ourselves to ask questions in a more open-ended, empirical way.

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