Paper Title:  Feminist Prophetic Pragmatism

Type:  Traditional Paper submission


Feminist Prophetic Pragmatism

Cornel West describes prophetic pragmatism as “pragmatism at its best because it promotes a critical temper and democratic faith without making criticism a fetish or democracy an idol.”  West constructs prophetic pragmatism as the integration of social criticism found in the prophecy tradition of Judaism and Christianity with the critical questioning found in the American philosophical tradition.  West, however, lacks a consistent consideration of gender in his genealogy of American philosophy and in his construction of prophetic pragmatism.  This paper speculates as to the impact of feminist analysis, particularly the work of Jane Addams, on the concept of prophetic pragmatism.


Feminist Prophetic Pragmatism

            Cornel West describes prophetic pragmatism as “pragmatism at its best because it promotes a critical temper and democratic faith without making criticism a fetish or democracy an idol.”[i]  West constructs prophetic pragmatism as the integration of social criticism found in the prophecy tradition of Judaism and Christianity with the critical questioning found in the American philosophical tradition.  For West, philosophy is “a circumscribed quest for wisdom that puts forward new interpretations of the world based on past traditions in order to promote existential sustenance and political relevance.”[ii]  West’s claims have been appropriately scrutinized and challenged.  Dwayne Alexander Tunstall raises concerns that West’s version of pragmatism is too tied to a religious tradition.[iii]  In the most comprehensive critique of prophetic pragmatism, Mark David Wood makes a compelling argument that West’s work is not as revolutionary as one might think or as West believes: “Prophetic pragmatism, one of the most fully elaborated and progressive expressions of post-Marxist politics in the present era, appeals to academicians, politicians, and business leaders precisely because it poses no series threat to the class of individuals who control and appropriate the lion’s share of the Earth’s resources and humanity’s collectively generated wealth.”[iv]  The purpose of this paper is neither to endorse nor further critique West’s prophetic pragmatism but rather to speculate as to the impact of feminist analysis on this concept.  In other words, is feminist prophetic pragmatism a useful notion or corrective to existing formulations?  This project is motivated by three observations:

1)      West lacks consideration of gender in his American genealogy of philosophy and he is inconsistent in taking account of gender in his application of prophetic pragmatism.  West missed an opportunity when he did not recognize a feminist strain of prophetic pragmatism in the work of Jane Addams who was in fact a better model for West’s ideals than Dewey.

2)      Present day popular criticisms of religion by Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and others, while rationally compelling, tend to be psychologically thin in their lack of mechanisms for engaging religious constituencies.  Perhaps not coincidently, this public round of religious criticism does not include many feminist voices.

3)      Radical feminists such as Fanny Wright, Mary Daly, and Sonia Johnson, long ago eschewed organized religious traditions as so steeped in patriarchy as to be unredeemable.  By contrast, Christian feminists attempt to hold strongly to dual identities that may provoke internal reforms but are unlikely to radically transform institutions and their power structures.  Feminist prophetic pragmatism may provide feminism with the intellectual space for those who wish to engage the tradition while maintain a critical distance from it.

Given the time and space allowed, I will only address the first observation above.  I begin with a few definitions.


Delineating Feminist Prophetic Pragmatism

            By referring to prophetic pragmatism as feminist, I am integrating a contemporary understanding of feminism as it is used in feminist analysis.  Perhaps it appears that I am being obtuse, but the constitution of feminist analysis has evolved in contemporary scholarship.  Although the significance of socially constructed notions of gender remains at the heart of feminist analysis, postmodern concerns over categories, coupled with sensitivity to avoiding essentialist claims have led to an expansive understanding of feminist analysis to include a robust sense of identity formation.  Seldom does contemporary scholarly feminist analyses not include investigation of race, class, and sexual orientation implications as well.  Feminist analysis has become synonymous with a lens of social justice that focuses on oppressive social hierarchies.  As bell hooks describes, “The foundation of future feminist struggle must be solidly based on a recognition of the need to eradicate the underlying cultural basis and causes of sexism and other forms of group oppression.”[v]  Similarly, in Charlene Haddock Seigfried’s definitive work on the subject of feminism and pragmatism, she describes how “feminism can help to identify the hidden assumptions of pragmatist analyses and to demonstrate the crucial difference between merely acknowledging other perspectives and coming to terms with the consequences of such recognition.”[vi]  Note that while Seigfried acknowledges the centrality of women’s experience for feminist analysis, she quickly extrapolates the implication of that knowledge to other perspectives.  Feminist prophetic pragmatism makes the nature of the social inquiry explicit in its concern for how power is wielded between people of varying standpoints.

It is worthwhile to recount the implications of the use of the term prophetic as well.  Because of its religious connotation, prophesy is a notion that may raise flags of concern among an audience of philosophers.  Recall, however, that a prophet in ancient society was not a fortuneteller, but a radical social critic.  The prophets described in the Hebrew Scriptures, although religious, stood outside the social power structures and were often reviled by political and religious leaders because they challenged the trajectory of society if the status quo remained unchanged.[vii]  West constructs prophetic pragmatism as a philosophical position that he wishes to closely identify with.  He also introduces the notion of prophecy to distinguish his form of pragmatism from that of Dewey.  In ways that most philosophers have not, West adopts a popular activist role that goes beyond Dewey’s vision of engagement. As a popular speaker, rap artist, and frequent television and radio guest, West has effectively used the media to get his social message across.  For West, engaging in private philosophical discourse over abstract disputes is an evasion of the philosopher’s responsibility to spur meaningful social dialogue.

According to West, in Dewey’s work, “pragmatism achieves intellectual maturity, historical scope, and political engagement.”[viii]  Despite West’s high regard for Dewey, he is critical of Dewey’s actions on a number of fronts.  West finds one incident in Dewey’s life particularly telling.  In the 1890’s Dewey had the opportunity to edit Thought News, a unique blend of philosophy and journalism that Dewey hoped would shake up the staid world of academic philosophy with social and political commentary.  However, faced with criticism and perceived threats to his career, Dewey removed himself from the project, and the Thought News never came into being.  West interprets this as a turning point in Dewey’s life: “From then on, Dewey practiced professional caution and political reticence.  He remained deeply engaged in civic offers, but shunned controversy.”[ix]  For West, Dewey fails to fully occupy a public prophetic role, and instead embraces middle class values and concerns.

West also critiques Dewey for parochial thinking: “The major problem with Dewey’s project is that his cultural transformation envisions a future Emersonian and democratic way of life that has the flavor of small-scale, homogenous communities.”[x]  West wants Dewey to break out of a middle class mindset, and come to terms with broader frameworks such as socialism.  West is baffled as to why Dewey’s political philosophy did not more fully account for Marxist ideas.[xi] 

Ultimately, prophecy is such a high radical ideal, that even West cannot live up to the standard personally or intellectually (and perhaps no one can).  Clarence Shole Johnson describes West as “both proponent and practitioner of prophetic pragmatism, [who] envisions himself a modern-day prophet, comparable to the biblical prophets, advocating on behalf of ‘the wretched of the earth.’”[xii]  However, West is a Princeton professor and thus, despite his strong social criticisms, he stands within a hierarchy of institutional power and enjoys the privileges that it brings in a manner ancient prophets did not.

Adding the qualifiers “feminist” and “prophetic” to pragmatism can perhaps be described as recognition of contextual emphasis.  Classical pragmatism has the potential and often fomented feminist and prophetic qualities but the philosophical pull toward categorical and abstract claims is strong potentially making these qualifiers useful correctives.  However, “feminist” is not a term that West uses often and so I return to the implication of the omission of gender from prophetic pragmatism by investigating the work of Jane Addams.


Addams: The White Female Cornel West?

            Richard Bernstein describes West as, “a black John Dewey, in the sense that Dewey was a serious thinker who spoke to the issues of the day—a model that has been sorely missing from the American scene.”[xiii]  Since Jane Addams used the media even more effectively than Dewey—writing regular articles for women’s journals as well as scholarly journals, writing popular as well as serious books, being highly sought after as a public speaker—perhaps Addams was a white female Cornel West.  Although I make this comparison with tongue in cheek, given that such evaluations are relatively meaningless, I do so to raise the idea that West ignores a figure that is much closer to his prophetic pragmatist ideal than Dewey and perhaps closer than West himself: Jane Addams. 

West’s The American Evasion of Philosophy: A Genealogy of Pragmatism only refers to Addams in passing, and she is not one of the dozen key figures mentioned in the genealogy.  Although West acknowledges Alice Chipman’s (Dewey’s first wife) role in developing Dewey’s social consciousness[xiv], Addams is referred to as a “bourgeois progressive” who exemplifies Dewey’s turn away from radical social reform.[xv]  Thorough examination reveals that Addams fits West’s definition as a prophetic American pragmatist more than Dewey.  Addams does not respond to institutional academic colleagues, and therefore is able to maintain a critical perspective and experiential integrity.  Like West, Addams addresses a wide audience while provoking significant discussions of social import.  She writes about women’s elective franchise, international peace, labor relations, prostitution, and the needs of young people without the fetters of university norms.  Addams couches socially provocative ideas in an ameliorative approach such that is widely accessible.  For example, Addams had much exposure to socialism through Florence Kelley and many of the speakers at Hull House.  Addams never embraces socialism because she objects to the determinism of endless class antagonism. Nevertheless, she favors socialist analysis.  Overall, Addams adopts West’s call for prophetic pragmatist philosophers to be action and future oriented.  Furthermore, Addams takes up the position of prophetic outsider further than West does.  For example, when she becomes dissatisfied with the direction of institutional education, she severs Hull House’s ties with the University of Chicago.  It is unfortunate that West has heretofore ignored her work.

Addams is also an interesting figure to consider in regard to prophetic pragmatism in the manner in which she negotiates her social philosophy with religion.  Addams creates a unique intellectual space where she is prophet to society and religious institutions.  Her unique brand of Christian humanism is not dismissive of religious faith but neither does she settle for the status quo.  She challenges religious institutions with feminist concerns such as women in public life and sex education.

In a 1901 article, “The College Woman and Christianity,” Addams crafts a critique and new vision of Christianity while skirting issues of theology.  Addams claims that college-educated women can devote themselves to the work of Christianity, but she defines Christianity strictly in terms of social work.  She begins by stating that Christianity must adapt to social circumstances.  If it fails to do so, “it will suffer, rightly or wrongly, an eclipse in favor of a theory, doctrine, or a social life which shall exhibit sufficient energy to deal adequately with the social situation.”[xvi] 

Ever careful to walk the fine line between confrontation and antagonism, Addams defends Christianity while continuing to prod:  “We are not willing to admit that Christianity showed a loss of power of adaptation, which is the unfailing symptom of decadence.”[xvii]  Addams suggests that Christian humanism grounded in social activism has much to offer college women.  According to Addams, academic life can become fixated on preparation rather than action; promote alienation between the college educated and those not college educated; and it can produce graduates who are too concerned with reflection and not “ready to act.”  Addams concludes the article by praising Jesus who “alone of all great teachers made a masterly combination of method, aim and source of motive power.”[xviii]  Addams’s praise does not contain any attribution of divinity, but notably couches Jesus as a social activist.

            Addams’s critique of religion, although never dismissive, becomes more severe over the course of her career.  In 1909, and again in 1911, Addams demonstrates her ability to identify with Christianity while simultaneously undermining it.  Addams writes “The Reaction of Modern Life Upon Religious Education” and “Religious Education and Contemporary Social Conditions” in The Journal of the Religious Education Association.  In these articles, Addams is not afraid to label the Christian church as a “failure” in regard to inspiring young people, and adjusting to face modern social problems.[xix]  Addams reiterates the moral mandate of the Christian Churches to address social problems if they are to remain viable social institutions.  Addams claimed, “There are several reasons why life at this moment should have seemed more real outside of that which we call the religious world, than it did within it.”[xx]  Addams chides the churches for failing to combat poverty and oppressive working conditions:  “The church apparently felt no lure in the hideously uncouth factories in which men sometimes worked twelve hours a day for seven days in the week until they were utterly brutalized by fatigue; nor in the unsanitary tenements so crowded that the mere decencies of life were often impossible; nor in the raw towns of newly arrived immigrants where the standard of life was pushed below that of their European poverty unmitigated either by natural beauty or social resources.”[xxi]  With autobiographical resonance, Addams accuses religious educators of alienating “ardent young people” who are smitten with a social impulse, but find no satisfactory outlet in Christian theology and practices.  Addams views the Christian churches overly concerned with individual salvation at the expense of social progress. Addams makes it clear that she is not beholden to any denominational doctrine: “The particular faith from which we preach is not important” as long as the message included social morality.  She continues, “Conduct is the supreme and efficient test of religious validity.”[xxii]  Addams repeats the suggestion that religious institutions must evolve: “To convince thousands of young people of the validity of religion, the church must go out to meet them both willing to take their point of view, and to understand social methods.”[xxiii]  Addams demands of religion what she demands of democratic citizenship: sympathetic understanding and the flexibility to adjust to social conditions.  For Addams, a rigid dogmatism of individual salvation is not merely wrongheaded, it indicated a moral failure to respond to contemporary needs.  Although leaving the door open to the empowering potential of humanistic religion, Addams makes no concession to Christian theology.  In these articles, Addams fails to mention God or the divinity of Jesus while addressing Christianity.  Addams enlists her hero, Abraham Lincoln, as a role mode for her view that religious conviction should be grounded in social morality.  She claims that Lincoln was no “religious individualist,” but, like Addams, “he saw the promise of religion, not for one man, but in the broad reaches of national affairs and in the establishment of social justice.”[xxiv]  Because Lincoln is the quintessential American, Addams is hinting that a socially grounded religiosity is part of the American tradition.

            If the purpose of Christianity, as Addams writing indicated, is to bring about social progress through communal understanding and action, or sympathetic knowledge, then Hull House is a form of civic church.  The work done at Hull House, gives its secular ministers, the residents, a meaningful vocation and a sense that they are participating in a transcendent endeavor: creating a dynamic social organism.  This work represents a “realized eschatology”—endeavoring to make heaven on earth.  The neighborhood around Hull House never achieves anyone’s image of heaven, but there is a sense of hope restored to many.  To make this possible, Addams not only works to bring about positive change in the here and now, but as manifested in her writing, she imagines a better future.

Not wishing to saddle public schools with all the work, in a 1912 article, Addams boldly challenges religious organizations to engage in sex education: “If it is clear that youth is ensnared because of its ignorance of the most fundamental facts of life, then it is the duty of the Church to promote public instruction for girls and lads which shall dignify sex knowledge and free it from all indecency.”[xxv]  This statement is striking given that some religious institutions are reluctant to engage in sex education one hundred years later.  Note the positive tone Addams desires for sex education.  Although her own upbringing made discussion of sexuality uncomfortable, and her same-sex identification is repressed by society, Addams advocates widespread and positive sex education for young adults.

Feminist prophetic pragmatism seems to best capture Addams’s position.  She is not a Christian feminist because she completely eschews Christian theology in favor of a progressive humanistic interpretation of Christianity.  She is not a radical feminist who condemns and dismisses Christianity.  Addams employs a feminism that resembles contemporary understanding in its valuing of women’s experience and inclusiveness of many identities.



            American pragmatism has rich and supple intellectual tools that help explain its current popularity.  Like any intellectual project, American philosophers must resist a temptation to view narrowly defined methods as more important than the quest for wisdom that benefits society.  Charlene Haddock Seigfried called for passion and compassion in her contribution to the APA’s Philosophy in America at the Turn of the Century: “What today’s philosophers need to recover from the original pragmatists is their radical criticism of academic philosophy, specifically, their rejection of a tradition of detached analysis and internal criticism as definitive of philosophy proper.”[xxvi]  Recent attempts to qualify pragmatism such as Scott Pratt’s Native Pragmatism, Erin McKenna and Andrew Light’s Animal Pragmatism, West’s “prophetic pragmatism” and Seigfried’s Pragmatism and Feminism are important efforts at regrounding American philosophy in the experiences of the society that gave birth to this form of inquiry.  The naming of intellectual space such as “feminist prophetic pragmatism” is not as important as the impulse it defines to push American philosophy to address underserved and undervalued people and ideas.



[i] Cornel West, “The Limits of Neopragmatism” in Cornel West, The Cornel West Reader (New York: Basic Civitas Books, 1999), 186.

[ii] Cornel West, The American Evasion of Philosophy: A Genealogy of Pragmatism (Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1989), 230.

[iii] Dwayne Alexander Tunstall, “Cornel West’s Non-Deweyan Prophetic Pragmatism.” Paper presented at the 2007 meeting of the Society for the Advancement of American Philosophy, Charleston, South Carolina.

[iv] Mark David Wood, Cornel West and the Politics of Prophetic Pragmatism (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2000), 185.

[v] bell hooks, Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center (Boston: South End Press, 2000), 33.

[vi] Charlene Haddock Seigfried, Pragmatism and Feminism: Reweaving the Social Fabric (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), 10.

[vii] Michael Walzer, Interpretation and Social Criticism (Cambridge: Harvard University Press).  Ancient prophetic tradition was actually quite diverse, complicated by the existence of “professional” prophets and “political” prophets, some of which did not have social justice as a guiding purpose.  Bernhard W. Anderson, Understanding the Old Testament 4th ed. (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1987), 247-279.  For the purposes of the discussion in this paper, we will leave unchallenged the assertion that the prophetic tradition was one of social criticism.

[viii] West, The American Evasion of Philosophy, 6.

[ix] Ibid., 83.

[x] Ibid., 106.

[xi] Ibid., 107-110.

[xii] Clarence Shole Johnson, Cornel West and Philosophy (New York: Routledge, 2003), 19.

[xiii] Anderson, “The Public Intellectual,” 40.

[xiv] West, The American Evasion of Philosophy, 78-79.

[xv] Ibid., 84.

[xvi] Addams, “The College Woman and Christianity,” 1852.

[xvii] Ibid.

[xviii] Ibid., 1855.

[xix] Addams, “The Reaction of Modern Life Upon Religious Education,” 23.

[xx] Addams, “Religious Education and Contemporary Social Conditions,” 197.

[xxi] Ibid., 198.

[xxii] Addams, “The Reaction of Modern Life Upon Religious Education,” 26.

[xxiii] Addams, “Religious Education and Contemporary Social Conditions,” 203.

[xxiv] Addams, “The Reaction of Modern Life Upon Religious Education,” 29.

[xxv] Addams, “A Challenge to the Contemporary Church,” 198.

[xxvi] Charlene Haddock Seigfried, “Has Passion A Place in Philosophy?” in Philosophy in America at the Turn of the Century, APA Centennial Supplement, Journal of Philosophical Research (Charlottesville, VA: Philosophy Documentation Center, 2003), 49.