Pragmatism: From Progressivism to Postmodernism

Pragmatism: From Progressivism to Postmodernism

Pragmatism: From Progressivism to Postmodernism

Pragmatism: From Progressivism to Postmodernism

Synopsis

American pragmatism can be best understood against the background of 20th-century American culture and politics. The essays in this volume, by philosophers, cultural critics, and historians, explore the development of pragmatism in this context. The emphasis in this volume is on the interrelations between the philosophical or foundational issues raised by pragmatism as a philosophical movement, and the cultural, political, and educational programs that have been associated with pragmatism from James, Dewey, and Mead to Rorty and Cornel West. The book is divided into three parts, reflecting the periods of Progressivism, Positivism, and Postmodernism. The contributors explore the ways in which pragmatist writings have been appropriated or misappropriated in the literature and practice of Progressive reformers, positivist academics, end-of-ideology liberals, and postmodernists.

Excerpt

David Depew and Robert Hollinger

Pragmatism has become popular again. It has become so popular, in fact, that everyone seems to know what it is. In keeping with pragmatism's antiessentialist spirit, however, we should recognize that from its earliest days pragmatism has meant many things to many people. Only a year after William James's influential 1907 lectures on pragmatism, Arthur O. Lovejoy was able to discriminate thirteen distinct meanings for the term. Since then, every subsequent rebirth of pragmatism has generated more views about it. Indeed, having been given new currency by Richard Rorty, the term pragmatism is now being bandied about in so many ways that Lovejoy, were he alive today, would be cast into paroxysms of Schadenfreude.

We say Schadenfreude because Lovejoy regarded pragmatism's dissemination of meaning as ipso facto a condemnation of it. Like other professionalizing philosophers, Lovejoy believed that if philosophy was to make as much progress as science, it would have to trade in sober, unambiguous, technical meanings. By contrast, the editors of this volume, and many of the intellectual historians and historically sensitive philosophers who have contributed to it, are not as sour as Lovejoy was about plural meanings. On the contrary, we are generally in sympathy with pragmatism's tendency to let a thousand semantic flowers bloom. But for this very reason most of us do not believe that taking a pragmatic view of history grants to one's present interests or one's prospective hopes unlimited license to reshape the past, especially the past of one's own intellectual filiation. If pragmatism's present condition is to be properly assessed and if its future prospects are to be realized, no good will come from retrospectively prescribing to diverse people living in diverse times what they must have meant.

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