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  • Pragmatist Feminism as Philosophic Activism:The {R}evolution of Grace Lee Boggs
  • Danielle Lake

How Do We Reimagine?

We reimagine by combining activism with philosophy. . . . We have to see every crisis as both a danger and an opportunity. It's a danger because it does so much damage to our lives, to our institutions, to all that we have expected. But it's also an opportunity for us to become creative; to become the new kind of people that are needed at such a huge period of transition.

—Boggs, "How Do We Reimagine?"

this essay seeks to add to the emerging dialogue about the incredibly rich and complex nature of Grace Lee Boggs's philosophic activism by exploring the connections and tensions between her philosophic activism and pragmatist feminism. As an Asian American immigrant with a PhD in philosophy, her life's work has had a profound impact on the world but has received little attention from American philosophers until recently. I argue that the threads of connection between Boggs and pragmatist feminism visualize an approach to philosophic activism1 that can be a resource for scholar-activists committed to addressing the social justice challenges of our time and place. In particular, they highlight the need for creating space and opportunities for a situated, relational, and transformational philosophic praxis. They also further visualize academic philosophy's absent role in—and lack of impact on—the world today.

The essay is inspired by a 2015 trip to the Boggs Center and the discovery that Boggs's philosophy was deeply influenced not only by Hegel, Marx, Mao, James Boggs, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr., and her Johnson-Forest comrades, but also by the foundational figures within American pragmatism. For instance, her work is steeped in the philosophy of George Herbert Mead; her educational approach emerged from the philosophy of John Dewey; and—as she notes—her activist commitments resonate with Jane Addams's approach to social change. The following reflections were propelled by this [End Page 25] discovery, by my admiration for Boggs's work and past study of the same American philosophers. These reflections were propelled by the tensions I have felt about my engagement within formal academic structures and the privileged social identities I hold. What lessons might I and other academic philosophers learn from exploring the links and the tensions? And what strategies might we uncover for fostering resilient philosophic change agents? In exploring these threads, I determine that this form of philosophic activism presses us to consider the need for sustained engagement on and across borders, for courageous and creative hope in the face of the tragic present, and for co-transformative, relational meliorism.2

Grace Lee Boggs: A Love for, Rejection of, and Rejection by Academic Philosophy

Boggs is largely remembered for a lifetime of philosophic activism within a range of social movements, including Black Power, labor rights, and food justice movements across the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Yet she begins her autobiography with a scathing critique of philosophy; she writes that she was blessed to be born "female and Chinese American" because she "might have otherwise ended up teaching philosophy at a university." Such a fate would have meant she lived out her life as "an observer rather than an active participant in the humanity-stretching movements that have defined the last half of the twentieth century" (Living for Change xi). Despite this scathing critique, philosophy played a seminal role in shaping her sense of self over a very long life. In combination with her activist commitments, it moved her to call for a philosophic activist praxis I argue is desperately needed to address current social issues.3

Born in Rhode Island in 1915, Grace was the daughter of Chinese immigrant parents with contrasting perspectives on American life. She was raised within a white, suburban, middle-class neighborhood where she rarely had the chance to interact with other Chinese Americans. According to Boggs (and her biographer Stephen M. Ward), these conflicting social identities and experiences directly impacted her willingness to move across spaces of difference and fruitfully engage the tension between conflicting ideas throughout her life.

The only female Chinese American undergraduate at Barnard...


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