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  • Pragmatism as a Way of Life: The Lasting Legacy of William James and John Dewey by Hilary Putnam and Ruth Anna Putnam
  • Brandon Daniel-Hughes
Pragmatism as a Way of Life: The Lasting Legacy of William James and John Dewey. Hilary Putnam and Ruth Anna Putnam. Ed. David Macarthur. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2017. 496 pp. $51.50 hardcover.

David Macarthur has assembled not only a fascinating collection of essays from Hilary Putnam and Ruth Anna Putnam that spans two decades but also a collection that makes a compelling series of arguments about what pragmatism has been, is, and may yet become. This is all the more impressive since it weaves together the voices of two scholars who shared both an intellectual commitment and a life. As a longtime admirer of Hilary Putnam’s work, I was excited to take a deep dive into the thought of Ruth Anna Putnam, and, truth be told, her essays in this volume deliver the stronger notes. Not only do readers gain a glimpse into the fascinating conversations that took place between these two philosophers over the years, but they learn of the tremendous influence that Ruth Anna had on Hilary’s thought as her work turned him toward pragmatism.

The first argumentative thread that unifies the collection is the recurrent theme of continuity. Indeed, the entire text offers, perhaps unintentionally, something of an attempt to hold together the “two pragmatisms” mentioned in Macarthur’s introduction to the volume (3). While the oft-noted tensions between a hard-nosed, scientifically oriented pragmatism grounded in Peirce’s [End Page 96] philosophy of inquiry and his focus on logic and a more socially oriented and experience-centered pragmatism rooted in James and Dewey and their interest in social and psychological problem solving is never papered over, the Putnams do not allow the tension to grow into a parting of ways. “As a way of life,” their interpretation of pragmatism insists that, despite the diverse contexts and objects of inquiry, inquiry itself remains fallible, experimental, and rooted in experience. This holds true in laboratories, classrooms, deliberative bodies, and voting booths. Further, both Putnams contend throughout that pragmatism is equally adept at inquiring into facts and into values. As objects of inquiry, facts and values present unique challenges, but the social and logical inquisitive strategies demanded by both remain the same, even when the concrete instruments and necessary degrees of interpretive sophistication differ. Finally, as the book moves toward its conclusion and Ruth Anna’s voice comes to dominate, it makes the case for continuity between paleo- and neopragmatism. Rorty comes in for some serious criticism, but even the rebukes make the point that a pragmatic orientation always begins with the hypothesis that there is indeed one shared world about which we argue and converse and of which we offer varying criticisms. Distinctions and dichotomies are always only provisional.

The second argumentative thread, though shared by both thinkers, is more apparent in the essays by Hilary and, as the subtitle suggests, emphasizes the present relevance of early pragmatists. Though they helped to form and popularize pragmatism, James and Dewey should not be read as mere historical antecedents but as immediately relevant moral thinkers. While I doubt that readers of AJTP need much encouragement to engage with the texts of these two men, it is fascinating to watch both Putnams interrogate present philosophical debates with their aid. While pragmatism is presently having a moment in the academy, especially among those engaged in interdisciplinary work where the pragmatic emphasis on continuity and its willingness to build bridges between the sciences and the humanities is much appreciated, it is heartening to watch the Putnams anticipate this moment. Further, the essays in the final section, most of which were authored by Ruth Anna, circle back to democracy and our shared social reality in ways that almost seem to expect the present crises in liberal democracies. This is not to suggest that the Putnams, much less James and Dewey, were clairvoyant but rather points to a reality that Ruth Anna foregrounds: life is not composed of isolated pursuits and discrete individuals but is made through collective processes of value-laden inquiry...


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