Panel Discussion:


Pragmatism with the Negative: A Response to “Pragmatism with Ressentiment


  Traditionally, pragmatism has been characterized as an optimistic, if not downright cheery, outlook on the possibilities for human action and progress. Recently, however, several authors have begun to challenge this interpretation and insist upon a conception of pragmatism in tune with the darker elements of existence.[1] Belonging no doubt to this general trend was the SAAP 2007 panel on “Pragmatism with Ressentiment” whose authors – Stuhr, McAfee, and Colapietro – sought to understand what resources there are in pragmatism for confronting and also appropriating the presence of personal and social resentment in our culture. The current project seeks to take up this panel’s implicit challenge – that of thinking pragmatism together with difficult and troubling phenomena – by examining the relationship between pragmatic philosophy and the negative.

One way to understand our theme is to situate pragmatism in relationship to Hegel’s conception of the negative. For Hegel, negativity is the productive driving force behind the unfolding of history. Furthermore, Hegel understands history as a closed system that reduces ultimately forms of otherness such as negativity to self-same identity. Thus, Hegelian negativity is always subsumed into the larger totality such that it is converted essentially into positivity.

In response and opposition to the Hegelian notion of history, pragmatism insists upon the open-ended nature of knowledge and reality. Pragmatists argue that the cosmos is, in the words of William James, a “multiverse” consisting of great diversity and lacking a grand narrative and overarching meaning. Or, as John Dewey writes, the idea of the Whole is an imaginative ideal, not a literal fact. In this way, pragmatism is committed to acknowledging that life contains many elements that are random, mysterious and meaningless. This means that there is room within the pragmatist world-view for genuine non-productive forms of negativity such as death, revolt, criticism and denial.

The aim of this panel is to begin to explore the places where pragmatist authors confront and even celebrate the existence of such non-productive negativity.  To do this, the members of this panel consider three themes in the works of pragmatist philosophers: critique, pessimism and death.

“Toward a Conversation with the Negative: Pragmatism with Psychoanalysis” suggests that, by allowing itself to be informed by the insights of psychoanalysis, pragmatism may be offered an avenue for becoming a critical philosophy in the vein of the Frankfurt School while maintaining its ethical meliorism.  That is to say, by looking through the lens of psychoanalysis’ engagement of the irreconcilable conflicts of humanity in civilization we may develop a more tempered pragmatism which is capable of seeing the limits of human possibility and learn to work towards livable solutions to questions which are ultimately irresolvable. 

“Pessimism in the Thought of John Dewey” argues that Dewey confronted the negative, in the form of suffering and death, such that he was sometimes led to defend philosophical pessimism.  To make this argument the paper reviews contemporary scholarship on Dewey, as well as Dewey’s writings, to discover pessimistic moments in his thought. The paper concludes with the suggestion that a faithful reading of Dewey as a philosopher who is sensitive to both the good and bad aspects of the human condition is both possible and valuable. 

Finally, the panel concludes with a reflection on possibilities for a pragmatic and naturalist encounter with human mortality.  This paper attempts to show how death, pragmatically considered, can both enrich and fill out the meaning of human life.



Toward a conversation with the negative: Pragmatism with Psychoanalysis


            This paper seeks to make a contribution to questions raised by McAfee and Colapietro in their panel Pragmatism with Ressentiment concerning the possibility of a psychoanalytically informed pragmatism, or at minimum I wish to attempt to say something new about the relationship between these two schools of thought and something about what I think they may gain from one another.  This paper will focus on asking what a serious conversation between pragmatism and psychoanalysis will look like by engaging the places where the two sciences diverge rather than the places where they converge.  In particular I will argue that a productive dialogue can emerge from the engagement of psychoanalysis by pragmatism precisely because on the face of it pragmatism’s meliorism is so clearly irreconcilable with what I will characterize as the ‘deep ambivalence’ of psychoanalysis.

            In his The American Evasion of Philosophy Cornell West writes, “Dewey holds pragmatism to be a historical theory of critical intelligence and scientific inquiry and of reform and amelioration.”[2]  On the other hand, in his The Informed Heart: Autonomy in a Mass Age Bruno Bettelheim writes, “Psychoanalysis suggested that maybe it was not society that created all the difficulties for man, but rather the hidden, inner, contradictory nature of man that created difficulties for society” and later in the same work, “life [for psychoanalysis] consists of struggles to reach higher levels of integration within a basically irreconcilable conflict.”[3]  In the sentiments expressed above, which I take to be representative of the attitude and comportment of the two fields of inquiry in question, one can begin to see where psychoanalysis and pragmatism will come to loggerheads and what a dialogue between the two will look like.  That is to say, both psychoanalysis and pragmatism engage humanity as irreducibly historically situated but where pragmatism sees almost boundless opportunity for progress psychoanalysis sees a tortuous history of compromise formation, unexperiencable historical trauma grounding our psychical natures, and deep unreason at the heart and foundation of our highest aspirations for reasoned discourse.  This latter attitude is what I will characterize as the deep ambivalence of psychoanalysis.  That is to say, unlike pragmatism which views inquiry’s end as the resolution of problems; psychoanalysis takes inquiry to discover those limit places wherein humanity is fragmented, wounded, irreconcilable with the world it must inhabit.  In a word, knowledge claims are for psychoanalysis never final and never offer a solution, they point to a problem which is a problem because we are constituted in such a way that it must be.  Psychoanalysis, unlike pragmatism, is a deeply ambivalent science because for it the end of inquiry in a particular instance is the negotiation of a situation such that an unsolvable problem may be rendered livable.

            It is not the aim of this paper to argue for a reconciliation of these two attitudes.  Rather, I propose that what may emerge from a serious encounter between psychoanalysis and pragmatism is a dialectic of high meliorism and deep ambivalence.  In concluding his presentation at the 2007 meeting of the SAAP Vincent Colapietro asked, “What better test case for the therapeutic power of a psychoanalytically informed approach to pragmatic reconstruction could there be than the offensive against resentment?”[4]  What I take the deep question Colapietro is here asking to be is: If we allow pragmatism to traverse dark ground it has traditionally eschewed what dark corners of the human condition open themselves to us and become available to investigation? By taking up the notion of “work” in psychoanalysis as a way into pragmatisms meliorism for psychoanalysis and the notion of history in pragmatism as a way into psychoanalysis’ deep ambivalence for pragmatism I propose that we afford ourselves and opportunity to better our science and start to answer the kinds of Colapietro is asking.  That is to say, by starting an exchange between these two ways of thinking about human problems I suspect we can move to a pragmatism which is better suited to the world in which we live precisely because psychoanalysis can tell us where inquiry can discover nothing more that is useful and instead orient it towards the melioration of real human conflicts not by trying to offer solutions which settle problems but by finding ways to make them livable.











Pessimism in the Thought of John Dewey

The purpose of this paper is to examine the role of philosophical pessimism in the thought of John Dewey. The paper does not advance the counter-intuitive and radical claim that Dewey, contrary to all appearances, is a full-blown pessimist. Instead, the paper argues that there are moments in his writing where Dewey endorses a pessimistic worldview and therefore his outlook on life ought to be understood not, as some have argued, as a naïve and unqualified optimism, but rather as a form of hard-nosed realism that acknowledges the good and the bad in life.

The principal obstacle to discovering Dewey’s pessimism is his seemingly unwavering belief in human progress. The first part of the paper will examine the secondary literature on the relationship between progress and pessimism in Dewey’s thought. According to Dewey’s conception of instrumentalist pragmatism, human thought is a natural tool designed for reconstructing problematic situations in order to arrive at more meaningful forms of experience. In this way, Dewey’s instrumentalism appears to insist upon the ability of humanity to shape, control and transform experience despite the conditions for, and constraints upon, action. In short, Dewey’s instrumentalism would seem to amount to the view that human capability is unlimited, that everything is possible. For this reason, commentators such as Raymond Boisvert have argued that Dewey’s thought endorses so thoroughly the modern, Baconian belief in scientific progress that it lacks altogether a tragic or pessimistic sensibility.[5]      

However, in recent years a particular segment of Dewey scholarship has begun to examine aspects of Dewey’s thought that are at odds with this form of Baconian, progressive instrumentalism. Particularly noteworthy here is Donald Morse’s attempt, in a direct response to Boisvert, to show that Dewey’s thought both acknowledges and accommodates the tragic as an essential limit upon human capability.[6] Also worth mentioning in this context is Victor Kestenbaum’s recent book in which he claims that Dewey’s entire corpus is concerned with the relationship between the natural and the transcendent, the latter of which exceeds human mastery as an ideal for practical conduct.[7] Finally, William J. Gavin has explored the theme of death in Dewey’s thought and, in particular, how this theme shaped Dewey’s understanding of the limited possibilities available to human thought and action.[8] What each of these scholars has in common is a commitment to the view that, despite appearances to the contrary, Dewey does in fact possess a robust appreciation for the unmasterable aspects of life and the limitations that often check humanity’s powers.

The recognition of unchangeable limitations may be understood as the beginning of the pessimistic worldview for it consists in acknowledging that certain unpleasant outcomes – such as death and suffering – are inevitable and unavoidable. This recognition is present in Dewey’s claim that all natural existence consists always of both the stable and the precarious. Dewey reminds us that, no matter how hard we try, we will never be able to radically alter this structure of existence, and he is especially insistent upon the intractable character of the troubling and problematic aspects of existence. As Dewey writes: “There can be no doubt of our dependence upon forces beyond our control.”[9] And: “[W]hen all is said and done, the fundamentally hazardous character of the world is not seriously modified, much less eliminated.”[10] And, most dramatically of all: “Reasoning must fail man”![11] In these instances, Dewey not only describes life in a pessimistic manner; he also insists that human action is powerless to change certain undesirable features of existence. The second part of the paper will highlight Dewey’s comments to this effect in order to support the claim that he at times took the pessimistic outlook seriously.

So, then, what kind of pessimist is Dewey? One helpful way to understand the nature of Dewey’s pessimism is to compare him to the philosopher many consider the great ‘philosopher of pessimism,’ Arthur Schopenhauer. In fact, Dewey himself makes this comparison, focusing on the difference between their conceptions of art and, in particular, the purpose of art in regard to the troubling aspects of existence. Dewey explains that, for Schopenhauer, art is a way out of life, a form of emancipation and escape from suffering.[12] For Dewey, on the other hand, art is a way to beautify and make more meaningful the difficult parts of life. Rather than take us out of life, art for Dewey takes us deeper into it, but in such a way that art highlights and brings to the forefront of experience values and meanings.

It is possible, then, to discern Dewey’s brand of pessimism from the differences between he and Schopenhauer on the value of art for life. Unlike Schopenhauer, whose pessimism culminates in the doctrine of the ‘denial of the will-to-live,’ Dewey is a pessimist similar to the later Nietzsche who argued that we have art in order to be able to handle the terrible truths about life. In other words, Dewey’s is a ‘pessimism of strength’ that prescribes transforming, as much as possible, the dark elements in existence rather than concluding based on these elements that all of life must be declared meaningless. For Dewey, whatever does not kill me only makes my life more meaningful, for it is meaning alone that is capable of redeeming the suffering that gives rise to pessimism. The third part of the paper will consist in presenting a preliminary sketch of Dewey’s brand of ‘pessimism of strength.’






















Naturalism, Death, and Functional Immortality



As direct experience, history, and nature inform us, that which lives also dies. Now given this fact of our existence, that everyone dies, I hold that the meaning of living, that is, of our experience, is never a completely separate issue from the meaning of our deaths and dying. It is within this general context that I wish to sketch an approach to the meaning of death, that is, an approach to the meaning of our living. This is a naturalistic approach, and it is not one that rules out the possibility of immortality, although, as I shall indicate, such immortality is not to be conceived in the traditional Western sense of eternal, immutable, or otherwise ongoing existence of one’s individual personality beyond the death of his or her earthly lived body. I wish, instead, to sketch a kind of “functional” immortality, the real meaning of which, as I believe in general pragmatist fashion about the real meaning of any concept or belief, is constituted by its consequences for living. Yet in the final analysis there is a significant question regarding to what extent one can live as a naturalist and with that alone, that is, an existential, pragmatic question about to what extent this satisfies.  This paper then approaches the most fundamental fact of the negative, our own mortality, and shows that by engaging this brute truth of existence pragmatically we may attain something more in our understanding of life and its meaning than a purely positive account ever can.

While not at great length, the classical American philosopher C.S. Peirce provides an expression of the view under consideration. In Peirce’s brief 1893 article “Immortality in the Light of Synechism”, we find a comment that is fairly representative of his scattered remarks on the subject. Referring to his doctrine of continuity (synechism), he writes that “…synechism recognizes that the carnal consciousness is but a small part of the man…”, and that “…there is, in the second place, the social consciousness, by which a man’s spirit is embodied in others, and which continues to live and breathe and have its being very much longer than superficial observers think.” (EP 2.3) That is, we can speak of a “survival” of the self through what Peirce is here calling the social consciousness by virtue of which one’s spirit lives on.

Yet we can readily recognize that there are those who would dismiss such an understanding of immortality as being a kind of shabby substitute for “the real thing.” Of course, such a response would not be surprising, for a continued existence in the sense, as Peirce has said, of spirit as embodied in others, might well be thought of as simply amounting to a kind of mere residue. Indeed, this seems to be the case with regard to a former personal consciousness, and this is in large part, I think, why such a form of immortality, that is, immortality as embodiment in others, has for many people fairly dubious importance. That is, immortality, if there is such a thing, is most often conceived of as a subjective affair, and, accordingly, a functional or social immortality, by itself, may not appear to amount to much to much at all. (This is, it has been observed, why Woody Allen once remarked that he does not want immortality by virtue of his work, but, rather, that “I want to achieve immortality by not dying.”) Yet such consideration should not preclude us from considering more closely a view of death according to which there is an alternative model of immortality to some ongoing personal consciousness. Also, the view of death sketched here, that if a functional or naturalistic immortality, will only strike one as shabby or “thin” if one conceives of the self in Cartesian fashion as wholly atomistic or individuated, that is, as opposed to its being contextual and relational. Naturalism is suggestive of a quite different kind of self.

We shall look at such issues of the self in further detail, but only after having attempted to gain a historical, philosophical sense of the classical American naturalism on which this project rests. We are then in a better position from which to consider the pragmatic value of belief in the functional immortality I have mentioned, that is, from which to consider its practical consequences and the general extent to which such a view is satisfying. This is in the spirit of understanding philosophy’s proper role as one of being relevant to life. As for the job immediately at hand, it is, in short, one of addressing our lived mortality by way of the issue of immortality, with the problem ultimately being one of whether or not we can live satisfactory lives without any certain knowledge of personal survival of death and without much likelihood of our even being remembered as individuals for very long beyond our current existence.





[1] See, for instance, the following: Donald Morse, “Pragmatism and the Tragic Sense of Life,” in Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society, Fall 2001, 37 (4), pp. 555-572; Victor Kestenbaum, The Grace and the Severity of the Ideal: John Dewey and the Transcendent (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002); William J. Gavin, “Contexts Vibrant and Contexts Souring in Dewey’s Philosophy,” in In Dewey’s Wake: Unfinished Work of Pragmatic Reconstruction, ed. William J. Gavin (Albany: SUNY Press, 2003).

[2] West, Cornell. The American Evasion of Philosophy.

                (Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1989) p. 70

[3] Bettelheim, Bruno. The Informed Heart: Autonomy in a Mass Age.

            (Glencoe: The Free Press, 1960), 6, 8


[4] Colapietro, Vincent. Notes for a Sketch of a Pragmatist Offensive against Resentment.

                Quoted from the SAAP 07’ online program,

[5] Raymond D. Boisvert, “The Nemesis of Necessity: Tragedy’s Challenge to Deweyan Pragmatism,” in Dewey Reconfigured: Essays on Deweyan Pragmatism, eds. Casey Haskins and David I. Seiple (Albany: SUNY Press, 1999), p. 163.

[6] Donald Morse, “Pragmatism and the Tragic Sense of Life,” in Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society, Fall 2001, 37 (4), pp. 555-572.

[7] Victor Kestenbaum, The Grace and the Severity of the Ideal: John Dewey and the Transcendent (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002).

[8] William J. Gavin, “Contexts Vibrant and Contexts Souring in Dewey’s Philosophy,” in In Dewey’s Wake: Unfinished Work of Pragmatic Reconstruction, ed. William J. Gavin (Albany: SUNY Press, 2003).

[9] John Dewey, A Common Faith, New Haven: Yale University Press (1960), p. 24.

[10] John Dewey, Experience and Nature in The Later Works of John Dewey 1925-1953, Volume I, Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press (1988), edited by Jo Ann Boydston, p. 45.

[11] John Dewey, Art as Experience, p. 41.

[12] Ibid., pp. 299-301.