2009 SAAP Paper Submission


Theorizing Black Feminist Pragmatism: Thoughts on The Practice and Purpose of Philosophy as Envisioned by Black Feminists and John Dewey


Abstract: In seeking new avenues for black feminist democracy theory, I suspect that a thorough encounter with the thought of John Dewey, especially his ideas on democracy, subjectivity and the task of theory, would be a great supplement to the work already being carried out. In what follows, I intend to incite interest in such projects by briefly considering recent feminist and African American male scholarship on Dewey and suggesting that black feminists concerns offer different insight into pragmatic methods because of their emphasis on experience that is both raced and gendered.


I. Introduction

The occasion of this inquiry into pragmatism, is a concern about the use and ends of philosophy as a tool in the realization of an inclusive American democracy which would not level difference and dissent but would encourage social justice and cooperation. Recognizing no essential divide between theory and practice, a search for a methodology through which to think about democracy and the moral claims those of us interested in feminism and critical race theory must make against our current ways of thinking and practicing democracy for the goods of equality and freedom, pragmatism emerges as a possible partner in the struggle. Yet, theorizing black feminism in relation to pragmatism is in a nascent stage. There is a growing tradition of acquaintance in the pragmatist theories of leading African American intellectuals, but considerably less work on the pragmatists has been done by those of us who use black feminism as our lens of critical engagement. That is not to say that many black feminism have not taken up the term pragmatism to name their endeavors, rather, it is to say that few black feminist projects concerning the works of the classical  American pragmatists – Peirce, James, Dewey, and Mead, have emerged. 

In seeking new avenues for black feminist democracy theory, I suspect that a thorough encounter with the thought of John Dewey, especially his ideas on democracy, subjectivity and the task of theory, would be a great supplement to the work already being carried out. In what follows, I intend to incite interest in such projects by briefly considering recent feminist and African American male scholarship on Dewey and suggesting that black feminists concerns offer different insight into pragmatic methods because of their emphasis on experience that is both raced and gendered. It is not my intent to discount any of the prior feminist or African American male work on the pragmatists, rather my goal, in keeping with what Dewey states to be the etymological meaning of philosophy, is to open up other avenues in philosophy as “a form of desire, of effort at action – a love, namely of wisdom.”[1]

It is precisely Dewey’s concerns with the ends of philosophy and democracy that make him an apposite resource for black feminist thought, because what is characteristic of much black feminist thought is a preoccupation with the future in spite of, or perhaps because of the philosophical backlash against utopian thought. Even though she does not cite explicit lines of interaction with Dewey, the self avowed Black feminist pragmatist I consider in the most detail, Patricia Hill Collins, could have written the continued definition of philosophy Dewey gives in his lecture on “Philosophy and Democracy” cited above. Collins and others have expressed the desires of what their works would be and do in much the same way Dewey writes about the original meaning of philosophy:

A philosophy which was conscious of its own business and province would then perceive that it is an intellectualized wish, an aspiration subjected to rational discriminations and tests, a social hope reduced to a working program of action, a prophecy of the future, but one disciplined by serious thought and knowledge.[2]


Theory as social hope is an identifying marker of black feminism. Moreover, Dewey’s investment in the ideal of democracy which is sensitive to both the needs of community and individual offers avenues for black feminist interpretation that may bare great fruit.        


II. Feminists Re-interpreting Dewey


In the introduction and her contribution to the volume “Feminist Interpretations of John Dewey,” Charlene Haddock Seigfried sets out to trace and recount the sites of interaction of feminism with Dewey.[3] She emphasizes the “mutual interest and influence,” at play in the development of American pragmatism and feminism. The volume itself is one of the many where feminists have attempted to “re-interpret the cannon” in light of their own efforts at theory. What makes the case of Dewey as canonical figure interesting in relation to feminism, is that Dewey’s thinking about so-called “women’s issues” and relationship to early women thinkers and practioners, such as Jane Addams and Ella Flagg Young and his wife, was both complex and intentional. Unlike many of his predecessors and counterparts, Dewey believed that philosophy was not the purview of men and that women’s experiences could have something to offer both theoretically and practically to further democracy.

Dewey insisted that one of the aims of philosophy was “to construct democratic institutions.”[4]  Coupled with his views on the associational nature of individuals and the transactional nature of subjectivity, Dewey’s thought serves as a rich resource for feminist interpretation. In particular, Seigfried writes that Dewey on experience is useful for feminist praxis. Feminist epistemological and political theories about the importance of social position, gendered standpoints and context in the production of knowledge and the practices of democracy share common ground with Dewey.

Initial experience sets the problems for Dewey's pragmatism and a reconstructed experience warrants our intellectual judgments. Because concrete experience is so central, experimental inquiry rather than formal logic is the appropriate method for pragmatist philosophers, and because the goal of inquiry is the transformation of a presently troubling or oppressive situation to a better, more emancipatory one, social and political issues are implicated in all the areas of philosophy. Social reconstruction arises from the interactive nature of theory and practice and is guided by the inclusion and empowerment of those neglected or abused by the current structures of power.[5]


Seigfried et all go on to mine Dewey’s corpus in relation to those experiences and theories that relate to feminism. For those feminists, Dewey becomes a springboard for conceptualizing emancipatory education, science and theories of self. They are encouraged by the Dewey who said, “But when women who are not mere students of other persons’ philosophy set out to write it, we cannot conceive that it will be the same in viewpoint or tenor as that composed from the standpoint of the different masculine experience of things.”[6]

Many feminist works start with some form of justification of feminism as philosophical lens. Although Dewey saw women thinkers as potentially important to the practice of philosophy and the inclusion of women as an important goal of democracy, philosophical thinking about both method and political practice has not universally followed his lead. Feminists do not need Dewey to help in their assertions of the validity and importance of their work, but find in his work a powerful ally in the construction of theory. Just as the largely white, American feminists cited in Seigfried’s volume follow Dewey’s emphasis on experience and use their experience as the starting point for their theories of democracy and social transformation, black feminists have had an enduring commitment to the utility of experience for theory.

            In the legacy of Sojourner Truth’s 1851, “Ar’n’t I A Woman?” speech which underscored the divergent experiences of black women oppressed under slavery and their white sufferagette counterparts, Black feminists have continually asserted that black women’s experiences have implications for social justice and are standpoints where knowledge is created. Also, in the legacy of Truth, black feminists along with other feminists of color and from different countries have contrasted their experiences with white U.S. feminist concerns to reveal sometimes divergent social realities and possibilities. Black feminist standpoint theorists have produced important works of epistemology, feminist methodology and critical legal theory.[7]

In a direct appeal to the importance of experience and inclusivity, black feminist bell hooks contributes to the critique of first and second wave feminisms and their inattention to race and difference with her early work on marginality. hooks, like Dewey before her, resists any easy plan of assimilation of minorities into mainstream culture (or in hooks’ case, the assimilation of black women into mainstream feminism) that ignored the rich, diversity of human experience. hooks offers that the marginality black people inhabit in a culture with a history of oppression based on race and class and continued through institutions has opened up spaces of resistance to prejudicial practice as a response.

If feminist standpoint theory has emerged as one of the greatest contributions of women to epistemology, then Patricia Hill Collin’s investigations of intersectionality have grounded those feminist theories in a rich tradition of black feminist practice and the contemporary practice of sociology. Collins contends that “ as an historically oppressed group, U.S. Black women have produced social thought designed to oppose oppression.”[8]  Social justice is not merely a priority for Black feminist thought, but the reason for theory in the first place. Like Dewey, Collins does not condone a science for the sake of science and uses her social science in the service of political justice. Aligning black feminist thought with the thought of other women from historically oppressed groups, Collins asserts,

Social theories expressed by women emerging from these diverse groups typically do not arise from the rarified atmosphere of their imaginations. Instead, social theories reflect women’s efforts to come to terms with lived experiences within intersecting oppressions of race, class, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, nation, and religion.[9]


Collins demonstrates the socially minded social science Dewey believed to be possible and desirable.

When Seigfried forecasts into the future about possible ways feminists could engage Dewey, she briefly nods to the fact that “As current feminist scholarship continues to open new perspectives in global, anticolonialist theories of democracy as a logical extension of its emphasis on the inseparability of gender, race, ethnicity, class, and sexual orientation, the times seem ripe for a broader reassessment of Dewey’s theory of democracy.”[10] I take Seigfried’s brief estimation as a challenge and contend that imaging just how Dewey’s notions of social cooperation and democracy could be enriched by black feminist standpoint theory is work left to be done.

III. Prophetic Pragmatism and Visionary Pragmatisms

            If black feminist engagement with pragmatism has yet to take its explicit form, a body of literature which centers the critical race theory of African American men and the classical American pragmatists continues to grow, mostly due to the work of Cornel West.  West, a student of Richard Rorty, whose ironic pragmatism diverged significantly from Dewey’s conceptions of social intelligence and democracy, names his brand of theory prophetic pragmatism. Mining resources from African American literature, the theoretical works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Alain Locke and W.E.B. Du Bois, and black American church experiences, West’s prophetic pragmatism is a rich theory of social criticism but in my estimation lacks the practical yet, visionary possibilities that black feminist pragmatists have called for and that a thorough engagement with Dewey could occasion.

            West describes prophetic pragmatism as a theory that is both romantic and tragic. It differs from classical pragmatism, according to West, because Dewey and his predecessors had no sense of the tragic which motivates and mediates our practices and social hopes.[11] West accuses Dewey in particular of not understanding the constitutive character of human suffering. And perhaps West is right, we can see Dewey as too hopeful about the radical possibilities of social cooperation and intelligence without tempering that hope with considerations of the systemic oppression that seems nearly insurmountable in our society. In spite of his admonition that “Prophetic pragmatism worships at no ideological alters,” West’s prophetic pragmatism relies not only on concept of evil but also a notion of utopia derived from Christianity that makes it a transcendental philosophy of the sort that Deweyan pragmatism is necessarily opposed.

While tempering the “utopian impulses” of his pragmatism with Marxism, West nonetheless requires a charisma and belief in a messianic call to arms for the transformation of thinking and society. Instead of seeing the meaning of life as something which arises out of our experiences and thoughts about our experience as Dewey did, West sees much of life and suffering as absurd and follows Kierkegaard to the Christian faith as a way to transcend the realities of experience. Dewey contended that the distinctive marker of pragmatism was a denial of this very move. In his ideas about the relationship of faith to the emergence of science and its methods that would be important to his own philosophy, Dewey asserted, “Faith in its newer sense signifies that experience itself is the sole ultimate authority.”[12]

 West routinely interrogates the Christian roots of his progressive philosophy and politics, along with liberation theologians, he concedes that the support of many dominations is to be found in the interpretation of Christian religious texts. But West and the liberation theologians contend that it is exactly in recognizing the creative power humanity has within regard to the interpretation and creation of religious doctrine that avenues for deepening emancipatory democracy can be revealed.[13] Yet even viewing West’s prophetic pragmatism as constructivist on some grounds, does not remove the fact that West can only think to sustain the struggle through his belief in the transcendent.

Black feminist thinkers, on the other hand, have posited positive visions for the advancement of democracy and theory by centering black women’s experiences without the same sort of transcendentalism found in West.  In their 1993 book, Theorizing Black Feminisms: The Visionary Pragmatism of Black Women, Stanley James and Abena Busia introduce the term “visionary pragmatism,” to catalogue a set of practices and theories by black feminists.  Although they do not reference Dewey, the praxis of which they speak, aligns itself more closely to Dewey’s pragmatism than West’s.

Black feminists are simultaneously envisioning incremental changes and radical transformations not only within Black communities but throughout the broader society as well. Ultimately, the humanistic visionary pragmatism of theorizing by Black Feminist seeks the establishment of just societies where human rights are implemented with respect and dignity even as the world’s resources are equitably distributed in ways that encourage individual autonomy and development.


Patricia Hill Collins takes up this term from James and Busia [14] in her Fighting Words: Black Women and the Search for Justice in her discussion of the efforts of Black women in the community in which she grew up. These women attempted to instill in her hopes for a better future while preparing her for a hostile world that would not easily be changed. While many of the women she describes used the black church as a place for organizing the community and its agendas, the women believed in the possibility of social hope that saw the road to justice and equality as an on-going process which involved the deliberation about moral ends, practical tactics, the use of available resources and the revision of plans.  She writes,

The notion of visionary pragmatism more closely approximates a creative tension symbolized by an ongoing journey. Arriving at some predetermined destination remains less important that struggling for some ethical end. Thus, although Black women’s visionary pragmatism points to a vision, it doesn’t prescribe a fixed end point of a universal truth. One never arrives but constantly strives. At the same time, by stressing the pragmatic, it reveals how current actions are part of some larger, more meaningful struggle. Domination succeeds by cutting people off from one another. Actions bring people in touch with the humanity of other struggles by demonstrating that truthful and ethical visions for community cannot be separated from pragmatic struggles on their behalf.[15]


Collins formulation of visionary pragmatism has many points of convergence with Dewey.  Dewey believed that the purpose of philosophy was to consider the moral dimensions of our strivings. The use of science, social science and politics was to be measured in regards to the increase of human flourishing.

It is clear that the addition of visionary as a modifier to the term pragmatism by black feminists is not a disclaimer against pragmatist projects such as those proposed by Dewey, rather visionary was chosen as a response to the growing dominance of postmodern political theories that revolved around individual differences and eschewed any sense of the common or the future. For both the black feminist pragmatism and Dewey, community is integral to progressive democratic politics.  And for both, the choices and aspirations of the individual are not theorized in opposition to society rather there is a symbiosis between individual and society that must be taken into account.  For both, the future is something to be pondered and set as a goal for today in our theories and in our practices. The future emerges as a process and not as an end in unrealistic utopia or supernatural salvation.

IV. The Challenge of Theory

Patricia Hill Collins raises three questions as challenges to any critical social theory that I see as guides to future black feminist pragmatism. 

First, does this social theory speak the truth to people about the reality of their lives?.. Does this social theory equip people to resist oppression? Is this social theory functional as a tool for social change?...Does this critical social theory move people to struggle? For oppressed groups, this question concerns how effectively critical social theory provides moral authority to struggles for self definition and self-determination. [16]


This approach is about initiating change. Its goal is to speak to people, with people, not about people. As a sociologist in her works Collins could end with the categorization of the social practices on the black family, the work experiences of black women and the organization of black women’s groups after collecting the appropriate data. Instead Collins focuses on what theory can and should do, not on what it might simply uncover or state. Dewey believed that through the revision of old ideas by access to new experiences, we could increase our knowledge and could resist the stagnation so commonly found in philosophical (and scientific) problems. [17] In the character of Deweyan pragmatism, black feminist social theory has the potential to create scholarship that would enrich the lives of us all through the investigation of the lived experiences of black women and propositions concerning how we might achieve deeper democracy.

            Dewey ends “The Need for a Recovery of Philosophy,” with a charge to avoid the danger of complacency in philosophy and I find take this challenge as a place to begin black feminist engagement with Dewey.

All peoples at all times have been narrowly realistic in practice and have then employed idealization to cover up in sentiment and theory their brutalities. But never, perhaps, has the tendency been so dangerous and so tempting as with ourselves. Faith in the power of intelligence to imagine a future which is the projection of the desirable in the present, and to invent the instrumentalities of its realization, is our salvation. And it is a faith which must be nurtured and made articulate: surely a sufficiently large task for our philosophy. [18]



[1] John Dewey. “Philosophy and Democracy (1919).” The Essential Dewey. Volume 1. Hickman and Alexander, editors. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998. p. 72.

[2] Ibid, p. 72.

[3] Charlane Haddock Seigfried, editor. Feminist Interpretations of John Dewey. University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2002.

[4] Dewey, “Philosophy and Democracy,” p. 75.

[5] Seigfried. Feminist Interpretations of John Dewey. pp. 17.

[6] Dewey. “Philosophy and Democracy,” p. 73. 

[7] Cf. Patricia Hill Collins. Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment. 2nd edition. New York: Routledge, 2000. bell hooks. Yearning: Race, Gender and Cultural Politics. Boston: South End Press, 1990. Patricia Williams. The Alchemy of Race and Rights: diary of a law professor. Harvard University Press, 1991. Kimberlee Crenshaw. "Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color." Stanford Law Review 43 (1991): 1241, 1258.

[8] Collins. Black Feminist Thought, p. 9.

[9] Ibid, p. 9.

[10] Seigfried. Feminist Interpretations of John Dewey, 19.

[11] Cf. Cornel West. “On Prophetic Pragmatism,” in The Cornel West Reader. New York: Civitas Books, 1999. pp. 149-173.

[12] Dewey. “What I Believe,” in The Essential Dewey, p. 22

[13] Cf. Mark David Wood. Cornel West and the Politics of Prophetic Pragmatism. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2000. Especially chapter one, “The Christian-Marxist Dialogue and the End of Liberation Theology.”

[14] James, Stanley and Abena P.A. Busia, editors. Theorizing Black Feminisms: The Visionary Pragmatism of Black Women. London: Routledge, 1993, p. 3.

[15] Patricia Hill Collins. Fighting Words: Black Feminist Thought and the Fight for Social Justice. Minneapolis: University of Minneapolis Press, 1998. p. 189-190.

[16] Collins, Fighting Words, 198-199.

[17] John Dewey. “The Need for a Recovery of Philosophy.” The Essential Dewey. Volume One. Hickman and Alexander, editors. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998. Pp. 46-70.

[18] Ibid, p.69.