Pragmatism and the AAUP

By Burgan, Mary A. | Academe, September/October 2002 | Go to article overview

Pragmatism and the AAUP


Burgan, Mary A., Academe


Noting that the founding of the AAUP figures importantly in its chapter on "freedoms," a friend recently gave me a copy of Louis Menand's The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America. I've just finished reading this superb study of the rise of American pragmatism, and in the spirit of the thinkers chronicled there, I now report on how the book has been useful to me as general secretary of the AAUP.

But first let me warn that I am an English professor and not a philosopher: after spending fifteen precious minutes cogitating, I gave up on answering a question about pragmatism on my doctoral prelims, and I finally wrote about Henry rather than William James. Nevertheless, Menand's book has alerted me to the extent of my continuing intellectual debts to thinkers like William James and John Dewey.

There are three features among the ideas in tum-of-the-century American "metaphysics" that endure in my own thinking these days. The first is the notion that truth is so much the product of collaborative, and often oppositional, searching that the process itself is essential to the knowing. Epistemological propositions about the ways through which we may (or may not) gain access to universal truths may be argued philosophically, but American intellectuals have generally agreed that no one proposition can be allowed to dominate over others in the academy. Menand's analysis emphasizes that this agreement was not merely a comproraise but a philosophical conclusion of great import to the progress of such disciplines as biology, anthropology, education, and the social sciences.

The second notion is that if truth is a product of collective dialogue, it must be pursued freely. Menand shows that although major American universities were founded by corporate magnates, the liberal tendencies of pragmatism were critical in resisting the founders' instinct to ally research and teaching according to their economic, political, or ideological interests. The third striking feature of pragmatism has been its suspicion of any rhetoric of rightness, or of righteousness.

Menand doesn't dwell on A. 0. Lovejoy, Dewey's partner in founding the AAUP, but Lovejoy's concept of "metaphysical pathos" denotes the liabilities of rhetoric. In The Great Chain of Being, Lovejoy coins that phrase to express the unacknowledged attachment that can weight certain concepts with a kind of emotional value that prohibits further discussion or critique. …

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