“Pragmatism, Public Philosophy, and the More Deeply Democratic Future”

 

 

A B S T R A C T

 

     While continuing to engage in dialogues with both analytic and continental philosophers, contemporary pragmatists in the classical American stream must develop an inclusive, effective, three-part “public philosophy.”  Like Peirce, James, and Dewey, we must challenge prematurely settled logics and ontologies to make room for better intellectual tools.  We must combine arguments and empirical evidence with our own kinds of phenomenology and story-telling to address a “critique of critiques” to philosophers and other scholars who employ unwarranted truth-claims and outdated research platforms.  Finally, as agents of a more deeply democratic future, pragmatists also must direct energies to active service as Deweyan “liaison officers” within collaborative inquiries that include thinkers from many disciplines and a wide public of diverse cultural backgrounds, interests, and capabilities; in these contents, their philosophical work includes advancing guiding ideals, spurring social hopes, interpreting diverse participants to one another, and proposing transformation strategies for reconstructing or creatively adjusting to problem-situations we now experience.

 

“Pragmatism, Public Philosophy, and the More Deeply Democratic Future”

 

 

     Like Richard Rorty before he declared himself a neo-pragmatist literary critic and “strong poet,” many contemporary analytic philosophers think of philosophy as a highly technical scholarly field in which logic and ontology are settled, well-established tools for clarifying arguments about propositions.  Philosophy so understood is thought to make progress (if this is possible) slowly and incrementally when philosophers use these tools, often in combination with research findings from the sciences, to score points against other philosophers’ arguments and to advance alternative propositions that do not seem vulnerable to the same critique or to earlier critiques in a continuing, closed-link chain of papers written by philosophers for philosophers about the views of philosophers.  In contrast, many continental philosophers think of the work of philosophy as description and critique of ways in which natural languages and the social practices they empower (or unconsciously assume) work to suggest or to limit new associations of ideas as these arise in our experience of living and in the play of our imaginations.  Like Judith Butler before she gave up on meta-theory, they often focus their critiques and preferred alternatives on other philosophers’ language, as well as on institutions, linguistic practices, and modes of interaction that block the free play of individual imagination or create obstacles to the experienced freedom of social groups.  Instead of tightly framed arguments, continental philosophers may advance their critiques and counter-visions as narratives expressed in poetic language, including in their intended audience intellectuals among the reading public as well as other continental philosophers and scholars of similar sensibilities in other fields.

     My proposal here is that, while continuing to engage in dialogues with both analytic and continental philosophers, contemporary pragmatists in the classical American stream must develop an inclusive, effective, three-part “public philosophy.”  Like Peirce, James, and Dewey, we must challenge prematurely settled logics and ontologies to make room for better intellectual tools.  We must combine arguments and empirical evidence with our own kinds of phenomenology and story-telling to address a “critique of critiques” to philosophers and other scholars who employ unwarranted truth-claims and outdated research platforms.  Finally, as agents of a more deeply democratic future, pragmatists also must direct energies to active service as Deweyan “liaison officers” within collaborative inquiries that include thinkers from many disciplines and a wide public of diverse cultural backgrounds, interests, and capabilities; in these contents, their philosophical work includes advancing the guiding ideals, spurring social hopes, interpreting diverse participants to one another, and proposing transformation strategies for reconstructing or creatively adjusting to the problem-situations we now experience.

     To some of my fellow pragmatists, this framing of the work of philosophy will seem obvious and nothing new; to other pragmatists, however, as well as to many members of the analytic and continental camps, it crosses a line Richard Rorty traced between what belongs to philosophy proper and what belongs to the life of a responsible citizen in a democracy. On August 17, 2004, at meetings in San Francisco of the American Sociological Association focusing on the theme of “Public Sociology,” Richard Rorty and Judith Butler spoke as members of a panel on “Theoretical Cultures Across the Disciplines.” Framing their remarks in relation to the vision for sociology’s “public” future that was shared by the society’s president as well as the conference’s organizers and its keynote speakers, Rorty and Butler suggested that philosophy has no public role to play in the twenty-first century.  Butler began her remarks by saying, “I don’t actually engage in a meta-discourse on theory,” though she immediately acknowledged that “theoretical assumptions are always in play – they’re found everywhere – though they are difficult to treat as a specific phenomenon.”  Rorty explained that he and Butler had begun their careers as philosophers, but had relocated to other disciplines because, in America and in other English-speaking countries during the twentieth century, philosophy as an academic discipline had tried to model itself on the sciences, instead of recognizing itself as one of the humanities.  However, he argued, to be a science, philosophy would require a consensus about what is important, worth doing, respectable.  Philosophy lacks such a consensus, Rorty rightly noted; this means, he suggested, that it is actually more like literary criticism.

      Rorty reduced the theoretical issues about the possibility of a public philosophy to questions of democratic voice and its absence, and then shifted into a reverie about a better time in philosophy, before the field was professionalized in the late nineteenth century by what William James called “the Ph.D. octopus”  (James 1906).  Now, as in that pre-professional era, Rorty suggested, philosophers should not aim to contribute to knowledge, but instead should try, like “Mr. Chips,” to hand down to the next generation the best that has been said in the past in order to produce “more sweetness and light.”  Perhaps a few iconoclastic “geniuses” or “gurus” will periodically change the subject and style of philosophy for new generations of graduate students, he modestly proposed, but they will not discover any truths or advance knowledge in the process.

     Rising from the audience, I called upon both Rorty and Butler to rethink their claim about a public role for philosophy, especially in light of Rorty’s effective invitation to intellectuals across the disciplines to re-engage as leaders in the crucial project of “achieving our country.”

I suggested that they should accept the responsibilities and opportunities that their international fame as philosophers had given them to foster a broad, inter-cultural, democratic public process of reflection and inquiry about the causes of our current global problem-situation and about the kinds of transformations that would allow diverse citizen-thinkers to voice social hopes and work together to fulfill them.  Butler responded fiercely: “No one has spoken out more than Richard Rorty on the terrible events of our times – he has published Op Ed pieces in newspapers throughout Europe – as have I, though we tend to publish in different places – and he also publishes in The New York Times.  Of course, there may be another question about who gets published in these places.”  Rorty himself replied, “I tend to separate my voice as a philosopher from my voice as a citizen – I don’t think I have anything important to say as a philosopher.”  He added later, in conversation with me, “No one listens to me, anyway.” When I pointed out to him that his platform to speak as a world-citizen grew out of his prominence as a philosopher and an insider-critic, and that other philosophers as well as a wide audience of citizen-thinkers have read and found inspiration in his Achieving Our County (1998), Rorty thought for a moment and then replied that perhaps he had separated his two voices too much. 

     Several aspects of our contemporary academic and social context may have led Rorty and others to draw this line between philosophy and democratic citizenship.  Our academic work is judged and our careers typically are tracked individualistically: collaborative papers and community projects count for little if they count at all in assessing even the quantity of our work; how many books and blind-reviewed periodicals we have published is the key determinant of whether we are thought to merit tenure and promotion through the ranks; whether these contribute to the public’s intellectual development and understanding of issues in the democratic participatory and deliberative process is not even on the radar screen.  In addition, our colleges and universities make many corporate demands on our time, each of which can be a source harm to our job security if we are thought to be insufficiently capable and enthusiastic in fulfilling them: in addition to teaching our students, these tasks include advising them, supporting their campus activities, and writing letters on their behalf; attending many department meetings with our colleagues, in addition to helping to hire them, evaluating them, and writing letters on their behalf; fulfilling various other administrative and committee functions; giving, commenting on, and attending talks on our own and others’ work to our own academic community; editing and serving as referees for journals and book publishers; organizing and attending philosophical meetings, including some to which we go because we are expected to as well as some we enjoy very much.  Very different demands on our time may be even more important to us personally, although most of us find it very difficult to give these the time and care they deserve in light of the extensive requirements of keeping and advancing in our jobs, and thereby paying the bills; these include our families, our civic and religious commitments, the practical requirements of daily living and home care, active involvement in the arts or sports, participating attentively in the passing of nature’s seasons, and meeting the challenges of healthy living while sustaining a long commute.  Given the near-impossibility of fulfilling all of these demands, or keeping even the most important ones in balance, or even remembering what they all are, it is hardly surprising that many philosophers would resist what might seem to be a call to add even more to their list.  Ought implies can, we all would agree, and its unfeasibility would be the end of my proposal – if that were the real meaning of this three-part call to pursue a pragmatist public philosophy.

     However, this is a call not for more work, but rather for more publicly valuable academic work in better balance and richer connection with other aspects of our lives within our shared social situation.  There is no good enough reason to make the individualistic assessments of our colleges and universities the measure of what it means to good enough philosophy, much less to join Rorty and Butler in conceding such a key matter to the judgments of the analytic philosophical mainstream and its semi-respectable continental alternative.  Even the argument that such concessions are necessary if one is to gain and to keep a job in philosophy are inadequate, as well as shockingly similar in structure and existential weight to those of union members who organize to preserve outmoded jobs, and to those of lumberjacks who resist limits on cutting old growth forests that are home to spotted owls and other rare species.  Our colleges and universities originate from and play crucial roles in that part of society that contemporary sociologist Jeffrey Alexander calls “the civil sphere.” Therefore, the philosophical profession, like other academic professions, should measure itself and be measured by others on the basis of what it contributes there; both our aspirations and our assessments of our individual contributions to our profession should be framed against its larger public purpose. 

     Fair assessments of our profession are not easy and direct, nor is the value of a philosopher’s public contributions always evident in the short run; remember Socrates and many of his eventually influential inheritors. Nonetheless, framing what we do in terms of larger public purposes already leads us to step away from esoteric, self-enclosed, and self-referential philosophical practices toward the project of developing a set of good stories about how our work matters for others in ways that will enhance our shared future, without any presupposition that all of us must tell the same story or even fully understand all the good ones.  Instead of an unfeasible and undesirable demand that each of us must do everything, my proposal affirms the value of a continuing division of philosophical labor within an overlapping and interlinked set of cooperative philosophical projects that make their promise of eventual public fruitfulness their ultimate test.  It suggests that our the larger philosophical projects to which we contribute should include stories of how these overlaps, linkages, and future contributions are expected to emerge, and that each of us should be able to tell such a story about the potential public value of the philosophical work we as individuals choose to do.

     There is a different kind of objection that some may raise against this proposal: that academic freedom is a necessary part of our human freedom, as well as a hard-won protection against short-sighted popular thinking, bias, demigoguery, and witch-hunting.  Thus, some may argue against any such test of serving public purposes and in favor of allowing the philosophical profession to serve as the judge of its own merit as well as that of its members, with the expectation that such judgments should be definitive for our colleges and universities, and strongly defended by them.  May I suggest that as terrible as has been the price some philosophers have paid for speaking their minds, and important as academic freedom is for both backward-looking and forward-looking reasons, it has never meant the right to a favorable assessment from all of one’s colleagues of whatever one chooses to write, teach, and do in public settings.  Nor has it meant that we can expect our academic institutions to agree that our departments should receive funding for whatever projects we choose to pursue, and that the students at our schools should be required to take whatever courses we choose to teach.  Instead, we have always needed to explain and justify our work to other philosophers, to our colleges and universities, to our students, to our families and friends, and to ourselves.  What I propose here is that adequate explanations, though not all of the same kind, must include some ultimate reference to advancing valuable public purposes – a goal in which we, like other professions, can succeed or fail, and to which we sometimes contribute by being wrong.

      A third kind of objection to erasing Rorty’s line between the work of philosophy and the work of democratic citizenship, which is widely shared among philosophers of all camps, was expressed in Rorty’s categorization of Jane Addams as a social worker in Achieving Our Country, rather than as a philosopher.  Coming from Rorty, who valued social activism, as had his parents and grandparents before him, this may count as praise rather than criticism.  Addams worked actively and effectively to improve the situation of poor immigrants to Chicago slums; she helped to legitimize union organizing; she wrote interesting and influential books; and she eventually won the Nobel Peace Prize, though she was called unpatriotic for opposing World War I and the demands of her activist leadership nearly destroyed her health.  All of these public contributions are praiseworthy, as Rorty suggests, and yet all are explicitly linked to her contributions to philosophy, as pragmatist philosophers during her own time recognized.  Shortly after her Democracy and Social Ethics (1902) was published, William James wrote to her to say that it was the best work “we” pragmatist philosophers have produced.  John Dewey quoted from it in a key chapter in the Ethics, Revised Edition (1932) that he wrote with James Hayden Tufts, crediting Adams for deeply influencing his way of thinking about ethics.  It is true that Addams, like Rorty, wrote for a wider audience than academic philosophers alone, and her philosophical method, like his (and William James’s) often includes narratives and often quotes other thinkers, including those with and on behalf of whom she worked in projects of social transformation that changed the lives of all involved.  Sometimes her line of philosophical argument is entirely implicit within her organization of these narratives and quotations.  But this does not make her work non-philosophical; rather, as Charlene Haddock Seigfried and other contemporary pragmatist feminists have argued, it makes her a model of a new, more deeply democratic way of doing philosophy, both on the page and in life.

     In San Francisco, neither Richard Rorty nor Judith Butler answered my question about why and how public philosophers might serve as Socratic midwives to a wider public conversation of citizen-thinkers that is reflective, reconstructive, and more deeply democratic.  However, we might ask ourselves, if we take their advice and devote our careers solely to “strong poetry” and literary criticism in order to break out of an endless process of writing papers for and about other philosophers, and if we give up on noticing, analyzing, critically challenging, and proposing alternatives to others’ theoretical assumptions across the disciplines and in the conduct of our national and international life, would everyone be better off?  Would scholars in other disciplines take up this work?  Would “experienced democracies” find better ways of empowering citizens’ “democratic voice,” or would they rely even more on opinion polling and periodic voting? Would the “powers that be” devote more energy to empowering the poor, the culturally marginalized, refugees, and immigrants, without the demands of reading philosophy, or would they instead feel more free to fight ill-conceived and falsely justified wars while eroding hard-won civil rights and environmental protections, and advancing the process of anti-democratic forms of economic globalization? Would they listen more carefully to “persuasive rhetoric”?

     Given what seem to be obvious answers to these questions, I suggest that it is time for us to take our professional heads out of the sand, to remember the examples of some of our pragmatist forebears, and to rethink the proper work of philosophy in terms of still-valuable and new projects, as well as associated skills and re-sharpened tools that, through our collaborations with others, would allow us to focus our individual efforts on those aspects of our shared field through which we can best contribute our gifts to the larger public purposes our profession should serve.  For some of us pragmatists, this would mean challenging prematurely settled logics and ontologies to make room for better ones, which we may actively work to develop.  For some of us, this would mean combining arguments and empirical evidence with our own kinds of phenomenology and story-telling to address a “critique of critiques” to our fellow philosophers and to scholars in other disciplines who employ unwarranted truth-claims and who pursue outdated research platforms, perhaps relying on philosophical errors, old and new. Both of these are still-necessary kinds of philosophical work to which Peirce, James, Dewey, and other great pragmatist philosophers, classical and contemporary, have made important contributions. 

    However, some of us pragmatist philosophers also must and will feel called, as did Jane Addams, to undertake projects that require more direct public involvement – to contribute our philosophical skills and energies to active service as Deweyan “liaison officers” within collaborative inquiries that are deeply democratic, not only in their ultimate goals but also in their processes, including thinkers from many relevant disciplines and a wide public of diverse cultural backgrounds, interests, and capabilities, because we regard all of these participants as having necessary things to teach and to learn from one another if the inquiry is to succeed.  In this third kind of philosophical role, pragmatist philosophers will work to clarify, to test, to re-imagine, and thus to advance the ideals on which we rely to guide our collaborative inquiries.  We will spur on the kind of motivating social hope that Richard Rorty rightly recognized that democratic change-making requires by drawing helpful inspirations from our traditions, pointing out the opportunities as well as the challenges in our present problem-situations, and helping to create modes of cooperation that allow many to share in the experience of making a difference. Instead of making the false assumption of coalitional unity as a prerequisite for working together against which Judith Butler has warned us, we will help to interpret diverse participants to one another by listening carefully, doing our homework about their cultures and disciplinary approaches, gaining their trust over time, and thereby earning the role of honest broker that effective transformative coalitions need.  Finally, drawing on others’ contributions that we have learned to understand and to trust through such processes, as well as on earlier models and our own synthetic imaginations, we will propose specific transformation strategies for reconstructing or creatively adjusting to problem-situations we now experience, recognizing that sometimes the change we need to make is in our institutions and practices, sometimes it’s in our knowledge base, and sometimes it’s`in ourselves and our ways of relating to others.