The Turn of the Skew: Pragmatism, Environmental Philosophy and the Ghost of William James

By Stephens, Piers H. G. | Contemporary Pragmatism, June 2012 | Go to article overview

The Turn of the Skew: Pragmatism, Environmental Philosophy and the Ghost of William James


Stephens, Piers H. G., Contemporary Pragmatism


This paper addresses two issues: the controversy over pragmatism in environmental philosophy, and the habitual exclusion of William James's work from serious examination. Addressing critiques of pragmatic naturalism from Max Horkheimer, Eugene Hargrove and Holmes Rolston, I argue that their criticisms misfire, primarily due to skewed perception derived from mis-interpretative projections of views to which pragmatism is not committed. I conclude that the critics' major concerns are largely groundless, but that greater emphasis on pragmatism's experiential aspect would clarify this.

1. Introduction

The possibility that pragmatism might offer a new, better direction for environmental ethics was first raised by Anthony Weston in a path-breaking paper in 1985,1 since which time a significant debate between pragmatists and anti-pragmatists has affected the whole field. Arguments on the pragmatist side have tended to criticize the high level of abstraction found within environmental ethics, often arguing against the practical helpfulness of the habitual stress on theoretical axiology, especially intrinsic value theory.

In place of these axiological emphases, pragmatists have urged a greater and more pluralist attendance to specifics of particular environmental problems, and aimed at a greater emphasis on practical policy convergence in political terms. Thus Weston urges a pragmatic "multicentrism" and a plurality of revisioning options for our everyday relationships to the natural world; Andrew Light has suggested a metaphilosophical pragmatism that may help separate wheat from chaff in otherwise interminable theoretical debates, and Bryan Norton has advocated a convergence hypothesis on policy that tries to defuse the tensions between anthropocentric and nonanthropocentric varieties of environmental concern as well as attempting to justify strong conceptions of sustainability in broadly pragmatic terms. On the anti-pragmatist side, J. Baird Callicott has stoutly defended the emphasis on axiology and intrinsic value theory for its radical potential, repudiating pragmatic pluralism in the process, whilst figures such as Eric Katz, Holmes Rolston and Eugene Hargrove have criticized what they perceive as excessive anthropocentrism, subjectivism and instrumentalism within pragmatism. The pragmatist perspective has also attracted hostility outside North America, with similar but more overtly political suspicions of American pragmatism to those of Callicott, Rolston and Hargrove coming from the European left, where the pragmatic connection of truth with success and utility has drawn fire.

Accordingly, a range of anti-pragmatist critics exist, and part of what is striking about their criticisms from a pragmatist perspective is the extent to which the complaints have continuously repeated the same broad themes in response to answers. Thus it remains common for critics to assume a radical incompatibility between pragmatism and intrinsic value theory, despite Hugh McDonald's demonstration that Deweyan ethics actually includes intrinsic value concepts.4 Similarly, the view of pragmatism as subjectivist and thus antinaturalistic is frequently taken for granted, as is the claim that pragmatism is anti-theoretical. This last view, which (as we shall see) is in fact a reheating of quite an old charge, has been maintained by Callicott in his attacks on pragmatism,5 and in fairness, it must be conceded that many environmental pragmatists' fixation on policy and management may have contributed to the view that pragmatism offers little room for intellectual novelty or theory. A similar case obtains, as we shall see, in relation to the lack of attention to the Jamesian tradition,6 where pragmatists themselves may have internalized the view of William James as an anti-naturalistic subjectivist. Thus, even Paul Thompson and Thomas Hilde' s compilation of essays on American pragmatism and the agrarian tradition, which finds room for such figures as Benjamin Franklin and John Steinbeck as well as the more familiar names of Jefferson, Emerson, Thoreau, Royce, Peirce and Dewey, gives only passing mention to James. …

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