Panel Proposal for: SAAP 2007 Annual Meeting in South Carolina


Panel Title:

“Counter-disciplinary Pragmatism: Philosophy and History”


Paper Titles for Blind Review:

“Historicism in Pragmatism: Lessons for Philosophy, Historiography, and Politics” – complete paper included for review (pp. 5-17 of this file)


“Pragmatism, Nihilism, and Democracy: What is Called Thinking at the End of Modernity?” – abstract included for review (pp. 18-19 of this file)


“The Enemies of Pragmatism” – abstract included for review (pp.20-22 of this file)


Panel Abstract for “Counter-disciplinary Pragmatism: Philosophy and History”:


This panel follows up on a number of recent, and not so recent, suggestions that pragmatism implies an interdisciplinary or even ‘counter-disciplinary’ approach to inquiry (see, for one recent example, John Stuhr’s Pragmatism, Postmodernism, and the Future of Philosophy).  In that spirit, this panel explores pragmatism as an intellectual tradition that is rooted in concerns, practices, and strategies that are simultaneously philosophical and historical.  This seems to be in keeping with the often-heard claim that pragmatism requires that we historicize traditional philosophical conceptions such as truth, experience, and morality.  Yet despite the frequency with which pragmatism’s historicism or historicity is pronounced, we hear very little on what this actually amounts to.  What does a pragmatist philosophy with a historical orientation look like?  What historiographical methodologies and strategies would such a pragmatism lend itself to?  The purpose of this panel is to stimulate further inquiry on these and related questions by bringing together thinkers who are pursuing pragmatism along lines that are simultaneously philosophical and historical.  To reflect this counter-disciplinary approach, our panel includes pragmatists working in the context of three different disciplinary backgrounds: one each from philosophy, history, and literary theory.

Our first paper, “Historicism in Pragmatism: Lessons for Philosophy, Historiography, and Politics”, explores certain theoretical issues surrounding the possibilities for a pragmatism that is simultaneously philosophical and historical.  This paper addresses what it means for pragmatist political philosophers to push their work in directions simultaneously philosophically abstract and historically concrete.  This leads in turn to a consideration of some important historiographical debates that have begun to shape up in recent pragmatist scholarship concerning a specifically pragmatist interpretation of American political history.  The paper concludes by situating these debates as taking place between three historical-philosophical camps: the participatory democratic politics typified by Robert Westbrook’s work, the reformist liberalism exemplified by Richard Rorty, and the cultural political pragmatism argued for by James Livingston.

Whereas our first paper is a call for a philosophical-historical pragmatism, our next two papers pick up this strategy and, in good pragmatist fashion, put it to work.

Our second paper, “Pragmatism, Nihilism, and Democracy: What is Called Thinking at the End of Modernity?”, places pragmatism in the context of ongoing debates concerning the philosophical status of the historical concept of ‘modernity’.  While pragmatism is often understood (by both adherents and detractors) to represent a new approach to traditional philosophical conceptions, the novelty of its philosophical style is rarely represented in historical terms.  This paper argues that key pragmatist themes (such as the dissolution of the modern subject) are best understood in the light of cultural currents increasingly prominent at the end of modernity (such as the universalization of the commodity form).  As such, it is argued, pragmatism better negotiates the end of modernity than do the typical celebrants of post-modernity, such as Nietzsche and Heidegger.

Our third paper, “The Enemies of Pragmatism”, considers the coherence of the very idea of a ‘pragmatist’ tradition in philosophy from the point of view of in-depth historical research concerning the role of philosophy periodicals in the first decade of the twentieth century.  This paper situates the emergence of pragmatism in the very concrete historical situation of professional philosophy and especially the increasingly prominent forum of the academic philosophy journal.  This is not to say that the periodical setting determined the central ideas of early pragmatism.  But it did help pragmatism appear as a radical and new movement.  This exemplifies how an interpretation of pragmatist philosophy in light of actual historical details can shed new light on the concerns and contexts which motivated the emergence of pragmatism.


Paper #1 (complete version):


Historicism in Pragmatism:
Lessons for Philosophy, Historiography, and Politics



It is generally acknowledged that pragmatists are committed to the historicist way of thinking.  This means that pragmatists understand things as historically situated and temporally conditioned.  This point can be understood in terms of pragmatism’s approach to traditional philosophical themes: pragmatists theorize concepts such as truth and meaning in ways that prioritize historical context in our ascriptions of truth and interpretations of meaning.  This point can also be understood from a more sociological perspective: pragmatists are often described as attempting to reconstruct philosophy in light of evolutionary theory’s emphasis upon contingency and change and this results in a thoroughgoing philosophical historicism.

A third way of putting the point that pragmatism is a form of historicism is to focus attention on the characteristic temperament which pervades pragmatist reflection on political, social, and individual issues: I am referring to the meliorism at the heart of the pragmatist way of thinking.  A melioristic focus on progress is central for all of the thinkers generally acknowledged as pragmatists.  It is exhibited in Peirce’s concept of evolutionary love, in James’s constant attention to the meliorating effect of strenuous efforts, and in Dewey’s central concept of growth—and if we extend the pragmatist canon outward in either direction we also discern meliorism, for example in Rorty’s neopragmatist vision of a culture of hope or in certain protopragmatist images of Emerson’s such as his description of experience as a series of expanding concentric circles.  In each case, meliorism implies a commitment to temporal progress and, therefore, a variety of historicism.  The meliorist project of improving our situation on the basis of possibilities extant within it can only take place by considering where one finds oneself, how one got there, and where one can go from there.  Meliorism, in other words, means taking historicity seriously.

Historicism is in these ways a central element in the pragmatist temperament.  Yet despite these obvious ways in which pragmatism lends itself to a historicist way of thinking, this aspect of pragmatism is rarely given much attention by commentators.  From the pragmatist perspective, such lack of attention can hardly be dismissed as benign—for it means that pragmatists are not focusing their efforts on developing a central aspect of their own philosophy.  This may lead to negative consequences both in terms of underdevelopment of the potentialities inherent in historicism and in terms of misconstruing the kinds of philosophical and cultural criticism fluid with the wider pragmatist vision.

I here explore exactly what it means for pragmatism to take historicism seriously.  I approach this topic from two angles.  I first explicate exactly what pragmatism historicism amounts to—what pragmatist historicism is and what it does.  I focus this angle by explicating pragmatist historicism in terms of what I will call transitionalism.  Transitionalism emphasizes that we always find ourselves in the midst of historical and temporal transitions—we are in continuous flow.  Following this explication of pragmatist historicism, I second turn to some consequences.  Concerning the implications of transitionalism for political philosophy and cultural criticism, I argue that pragmatists should approach such inquiry in a manner at once philosophically deep and historically engaged.  Pragmatists can no longer be philosophers alone nor historians alone.  We must, if we are to engage with the crisis problems of our times, be both philosophers and historians.  I consider in this section three exemplars of political and cultural reflection which embody the historicism I find essential to the pragmatist way of thinking.


Historicism or Transitionalism in Pragmatism

In claiming pragmatism as a kind of historicism, my idea is that pragmatism locates each of its central concepts (practice, inquiry, experience, etc.) as transitional processes.  Experience is not a thing, it is an event or a process.  Experience happens, takes place, is temporally shot through.  Experience is not a presence with its own substantial identity—it is rather wholly constituted by its relations to past and future.  As one commentator puts it, for pragmatism, “the present is not present.”[1]  Seemingly obscure, this view can rather straightforwardly be understood as the very plausible claim that historicity is essential to experience: experience is an affair of transitions, a stream “made of an alternation of flights and perchings.”[2]  James vividly described the historicity of human experience thus:: “Life is in the transitions as much as in the terms connected; often, indeed, it seems to be there more emphatically, as if our spurts and sallies forward were the real firing-line of the battle, were like the thin line of flame advancing across the dry autumnal field which the farmer proceeds to burn.  In this line we live prospectively as well as retrospectively.  It is ‘of’ the past, inasmuch as it comes expressly as the past's continuation; it is ‘of’ the future in so far as the future, when it comes, will have continued it.”[3]  We are, James suggested, constantly unstilled, ever in motion, always streaming.

This was a constant theme of James’s career which found its earliest and clearest expression in his famous chapter on “The Stream of Thought” in the Principles of Psychology.  The key idea which James’s metaphor of the stream unleashed was that of the consciousness’s continuous change.  Consciousness, our very being itself, ever assumes two notable characteristics: it is in constant change[4] and it is continuous[5].  Thought, like a stream, “flows”.  This means that the present does not constitute a presence so much as a focal point for experience’s constant retrospective and prospective dartings: “The knowledge of some other part of the stream, past or future, near or remote, is always mixed in with our knowledge of the present thing… These lingerings of old objects, these incomings of new, are the germs of memory and expectation, the retrospective and the prospective sense of time.  They give that continuity to consciousness without which it could not be called a stream.”[6]

Once one starts looking for this transitionalism elsewhere in James’s writings, it begins to appear everywhere, almost as a kind of unstated master theme of his work.  It appears in the subtitle of his Pragmatism as well as in the account of truth set forth in its pages: “[Truth] marries old opinion to new fact so as ever to show a minimum of jolt, a maximum of continuity.”[7]  It later turns out to be a key element of his radical empiricism as explicated in the preface to The Meaning of Truth: “the parts of experience hold together from next to next by relations that are themselves parts of experience.”[8]  In sketching a metaphysics in A Pluralistic Universe, James wrote of a “distributed and strung-along and flowing sort of reality which finite beings swim in… and by reality here I mean reality where things happen, all temporal reality without exception.”[9]  In speaking on some of life’s ideals in his Talks to Students, James noted that “there must be novelty in an ideal,” which he explains in terms of evolving our moral universe from older into newer forms.[10]  A particularly insightful example of James’s transitionalism occurs in his “The Moral Equivalent of War” where he argues that we ought to move from an older moral ideal of violent militarism toward a newer moral ideal of peaceful militarism.[11]  This can be contrasted to less historically-attuned calls for replacing violence with peace.  Such demands offer little in the way of concrete strategies since they present no third term which performs the temporal integration of the other two terms.  James’s alternative is valuable precisely because it offers a way of actually transitioning from violence to peace by way of reforming the mediating impulse of militarism.  James does not simply tell us where we should end up, but rather he shows us how to get from here to there—this is clearly the more pragmatic approach.

Transitionalism was also a central element in Dewey’s thinking.  Of life itself Dewey wrote that it is “a thing of histories, each with its own plot, its own inception and movement towards its close.”[12]  For the sake of brevity, I will here locate historicism in only two aspects of Dewey’s thought, though these are arguably the centermost elements in his overall philosophical vision: ethics and logic.

In his Ethics, Dewey wrote that “at each point there is a distinction between an old, an accomplished self, and a new and moving self, between the static and the dynamic self.”  Elsewhere he claimed in similar meliorist spirit that “[m]orals means growth of conduct in meaning.”[13]  Dewey in this way located morality as a process which consists in moving from a past problem to a future resolution.  In taking a more general view of inquiry in his Essays in Experimental Logic, Dewey claimed that “a philosophical discussion of the distinctions and relations which figure most largely in logical theories depends upon a proper placing of them in their temporal context.”  Thus thought itself is for Dewey historical insofar as it “comes between a temporally prior situation… and a later situation, which has been constituted out of the first situation by means of acting on the findings of reflective inquiry.”[14]  All inquiry (ethical, artistic, scientific) was for Dewey a transitional affair—a matter of moving an organism out of a problematic environment into a more stable situation.  Time and time again, growth plays the leading role in Dewey’s presentation of his own pragmatism.

I mentioned above that transitionalism seems to be an unstated master theme of pragmatism.  But as I have shown, it was stated, and over and over again by both James and Dewey.  Thus it is James’s and Dewey’s commentators, rather than James and Dewey themselves, who neglected the transitionalist dialectic between old and new—recurrence and variance—that is central to the pragmatist way of thinking.  There are, however, a few important exceptions.  Attention to pragmatist transitionalism is best exemplified in the work of pragmatist literary critics such as Richard Poirier (1987) and Jonathan Levin (1999) and pragmatist historians such and David Hollinger (1981).  Hollinger, for example, acutely observes that “[n]othing is more essential to an understanding of James than recognition of his commitment to the critical revision of existing traditions.”[15]  Hollinger here states an essential aspect of pragmatism with powerful succinctness: pragmatist transitionalism consists in the revision of past performance toward future melioration.  While pragmatist philosophers have largely generally neglected this central idea of pragmatism, two notable exceptions include John McDermott and John Stuhr.  Stuhr sees pragmatism as “a philosophy that takes moral orders to be temporal relations, that takes moral arrangements, directions, and rankings to be temporal matters.”[16]  And McDermott decisively claims that for pragmatism “[t]he manifestations of living occur in time.”[17]


Historicizing Pragmatist Political Philosophy and Cultural Criticism

So what does the historicism or transitionalism at the heart of pragmatism mean for the kinds of political and cultural critical reflection in which most pragmatist intellectuals are engaged?  Pragmatism first of all suggests that political philosophy and cultural criticism must engage politics and culture in explicitly practical terms.  And since pragmatism understands political and cultural practices as historical processes, this results in a commitment to historical research as a central component of philosophical reconstruction.  In order that pragmatist philosophy may ‘critically revise existing traditions,’ we must work to explicate these traditions from the point of view of a pragmatist historiography.  At the same time, the historical research conducted under the banner of pragmatism must be based in a historiography resonant with the central themes of pragmatist philosophy.[18]

Pragmatist philosophy and pragmatist historiography should thus reciprocally inform one another.  This bidirectional commitment is, from the point of view of contemporary research agendas, counter-disciplinary.  But this should not count against it.

Much of the best contemporary political and cultural philosophy written under the pragmatist canopy draws rather freely from work in both disciplines of philosophy and history.  This work is thus not itself narrowly philosophical or narrowly historical.  It is, rather, both: philosophical-historical.  Of those books written from the pragmatist perspective over the last few decades seeking to engage the actual political and cultural practices that constitute the central problematics of our times, the best are often those that explicitly work on the actual histories of these practices in an effort to discern where we might take them in the future.  These are philosophically-deep and historically-attuned texts that attempt to put pragmatism to work in contemporary political and cultural contexts.  This is not to say that the more narrowly philosophical work in pragmatist political philosophy is of little or no use.  It is simply to say that the work that is most useful is that which best engages with our political practices in terms that are both philosophically abstract and historically specific.  This approach, I have here argued, follows quite naturally from the historicism that is central to pragmatist though.

I would like to conclude by briefly highlighting three camps of contemporary pragmatist scholarship written in the philosophical-historical vein.  This will be useful in at least two ways.  It will first enable me to provide a few exemplars for what I have been praising as a kind of pragmatist political and cultural criticism that takes seriously pragmatism’s historicist bent.  It will second enable me to provide a much-needed frame for some of the cultural-political and historiographical debates that have been shaping up in pragmatist scholarship over the past few years.  These are the three camps:

First, there are those who tend to associate a pragmatist politics with some form of a participatory democracy, usually recalling elements from late-nineteenth century Populism, early-twentieth century Progressivism, and the late-twentieth century new social movements.  The best exemplar for this approach is Robert Westbrook, who argues for this reading of pragmatist politics in his John Dewey and American Democracy (1991) and Democratic Hope (2005).  Another representative of this approach is James Kloppenberg, whose well-known book Uncertain Victory (1986) located pragmatist epistemology and political philosophy in a historical milieu inflected with both American and European traditions of thought.  Westbrook and Kloppenberg sketch the brand of Deweyan participatory democracy which most contemporary pragmatist political theorists defend—this is a kind of far left radical politics that is still pragmatic enough to know that it has to work with the system rather than around it.

Second, there are those who associate pragmatist politics with a straightforward brand of liberal democracy which usually emphasizes elements of Old Left labor and class politics from the early part of the twentieth century without casting all that much doubt on the Cold War politics which the New Left participatory democrats are usually very skeptical of.  The best exemplar here is Richard Rorty, who explicitly defends this approach in his Achieving Our Country (1998) though its broader edifice is fairly well apparent in his earlier Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (1989).  It is also possible to place Louis Menand’s work here, insofar as his The Metaphysical Club (2001) follows Rorty’s lead in locating pragmatism as an expression of pride in certain quintessential events in American history.  Whereas Rorty sees pragmatism as vindicating the kind of liberal democracy won during the New Deal era, Menand locates pragmatism as a vindication of the political triumphs of the Civil War era.  As such, Rorty and Menand sketch two closely-related conceptions of democracy both of which resonate with much recent work in mainstream liberal theory.

Third, there are those who are attempting to push pragmatist politics in new directions by taking very seriously the quintessentially pragmatist thought that democracy at its best will pervade all of our major political and cultural practices.  This view is generally more comfortable than the other two approaches with discerning ways in which our current cultural practices can be seen as harboring an immense democratic potential.  In contrast to Rorty’s style of liberal democratic theory, this view takes cultural politics very seriously.  In contrast to Westbrook’s expression of participatory democratic theory, this view takes corporate capitalism as a potential source of democratic practice.  For this third camp, corporate capitalism and identity politics go hand in hand insofar as they have accompanied one another in actual historical experience in the twentieth century and beyond.  This camp certainly does not hold that the current cultural configuration of corporate capitalism and identity politics is already the paragon of democracy, but it does argue that the pragmatist frame encourages us to accept corporate capitalist and identity political practices as two synergistic origins which could together lead to the expansion of the democratic way of life.  This third view has fewer adherents than the other two amongst pragmatist political theorists, but it is nevertheless an increasingly viable option for political and cultural critics who take pragmatism seriously.  The leading exemplar of this approach is James Livingston, whose Pragmatism and the Political Economy of Cultural Revolution (1994) and Pragmatism, Feminism, and Democracy (2001) lay out this view with both historical acuity and philosophical depth.

It is not my intention here to settle the incipient debates developing amongst the adherents of these three camps.  My hope has only been to briefly sketch what I understand to be these three major approaches in contemporary pragmatist political and cultural criticism.  What importantly separates these three approaches from much other contemporary work done under the banner of pragmatist cultural-political theory is that these three camps of theorists all explicitly take seriously pragmatism’s historicism.  As such, they offer a more practically-engaged criticism of current cultural configurations than does other work which remains at levels of philosophical abstraction too high to gain any traction in the real world of contemporary problem situations.  These three camps of pragmatists best embody the kind of historical sensitivity we see on display in the cultural-political engagements of the two thinkers who I take to be the best representatives of how pragmatism can be put to work in the service of the American experiment: William James and John Dewey.

While it is true that James and Dewey would not always recognize themselves in the works of Westbrook, Rorty, and Livingston, neither would they expect to.  What they would expect is a careful devotion to criticism that is simultaneously philosophically-reflective and historically-situated.  This follows from melioristic pragmatism as James and Dewey developed it.  It is this devotion which enables pragmatism, almost uniquely amongst modern intellectual temperaments, to focus both philosophy and history on our possibilities for growth, conceived as the transition from problematic past conditions to better future situations.





Appleby, Joyce, Hunt, Lynn, and Jacob, Margaret. 1994. Telling the Truth About History. W. W. Norton, 1995.

Dewey, John. 1934. Art as Experience in Dewey, Later Works Volume 10. Southern Illinois University.

Dewey, John. 1932.  Ethics, second edition in Dewey, Later Works Volume 7. Southern Illinois University.

Dewey, John. 1922. Human Nature and Conduct in Dewey, Middle Works Volume 14. Southern Illinois University.

Dewey, John. 1916. “Introduction” to Essays in Experimental Logic. Dover, 2004.

Gavin, William. 1992. William James and the Reinstatement of the Vague. Temple University, 1992.

Hickman, Larry. 1992. John Dewey’s Pragmatic Technology. Indiana University, 1992.

Hollinger, David. 1981. “William James and the Culture of Inquiry” in Hollinger, In the American Province. Johns Hopkins, 1989.

James, William. 1890. The Principles of Psychology. Dover 1950.

James, William. 1899b. “What Makes a Life Significant?” in James 1977.

James, William. 1904. “A World of Pure Experience” in James 1977.

James, William. 1907.  Pragmatism in James 1975.

James, William. 1909a. The Meaning of Truth in James 1975.

James, William. 1909b. A Pluralistic Universe in James 1977.

James, William. 1910. “The Moral Equivalent of War” in James 1977.

James, William. 1975. Pragmatism and The Meaning of Truth. Harvard University Press, 1975.

James, William. 1977. William James: A Comprehensive Edition. John J. McDermott (ed.). University of Chicago, 1977.

Kloppenberg, James. 1986. Uncertain Victory. Oxford University, 1986.

Kloppenberg, James. 2004. “Pragmatism and the Practice of History” in Metaphilosophy 35, 1/2, Jan., 2004.

Levin, Jonathan. 1999. The Poetics of Transition. Duke University, 1999.

Livingston, James. 1994. Pragmatism and the Political Economy of Cultural Revolution, 1850-1940. University of North Carolina, 1997.

Livingston, James. 2001. Pragmatism, Feminism, and Democracy. Routledge, 2001.

McDermott, John J.. 1976. The Culture of Experience. Waveland Press, 1987.

Menand, Louis. 2001. The Metaphysical Club. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2001.

Poirier, Richard. 1987. The Renewal of Literature. Random House, 1987.

Rorty, Richard. 1998. Achieving Our Country. Harvard University, 1998.

Rorty, Richard. 1989. Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity. Cambridge University, 1989.

Stuhr, John. 1997. Genealogical Pragmatism. SUNY Press, 1997.

Westbrook, Robert. 1991. John Dewey and American Democracy. Cornell University, 1993.

Westbrook, Robert. 2005. Democratic Hope. Cornell University, 2005.




Paper #2 (abstract):


Pragmatism, Nihilism, and Democracy: What is Called Thinking at the End of Modernity?


This paper is the first draft of an essay bound for a forthcoming centenary volume on William James’s Pragmatism.  It is a variation on themes introduced in my two books on pragmatism and developed in Gianni Vattimo’s End of Modernity (1988).  Using Vattimo as my foil, I will argue that William James and John Dewey are better guides to the end of modernity than Friedrich Nietzsche and Martin Heidegger, who still reign as the court poets of the linguistic turn.  I will claim that because the pragmatists do not abstain from the universalization of the commodity form—that is, from “objectification,” reification, exchange value, modern credit, etc.—and do not indulge an idealization of artisanal labor, they are more useful philosophers for own time—the time of “globalization”—than Nietzsche or Heidegger, and for that matter, Horkheimer, Adorno, or Habermas.

They are more useful, I will suggest, because their language, their thinking, is saturated with the symptoms of modernity’s end: the end of metaphysics, the end of humanism (the self as prior to semiotics), the end of transcendence as the property of truth, the death of God, and so on.  The “credit system” that animates the pragmatist account of truth is the proximate cause of these implied endings, I will argue, and is the best evidence of the pragmatists’ acceptance of reification.  

I begin by rehearsing the adjournment of modern subjectivity accomplished in James’s essays on radical empiricism.  Then I enlist Jose Ortega y Gasset, a close reader of Heidegger, to ask why that accomplishment has not been adequately acknowledged—which is to ask why Heidegger’s version of the end of modernity has kept its philosophical accreditation, even in view of his residual romanticism (for example, in “The Question Concerning Technology,” where he rehabilitates poiesis), and even with interpreters as attentive as Ortega and Vattimo and, for that matter, Dreyfus.  At this stage of the argument, the critics of pragmatism (among them Ortega, Heidegger, and Horkheimer), who invariably emphasize that metaphors of money, commerce, and credit disfigure the discourse of James and Dewey, turn state’s evidence and make my case for pragmatism as the language par excellence of modernity’s end. 

In concluding, I will claim that these metaphors, and the nihilistic discourse we call pragmatism, are the intellectual resources we need to escape the pathos of authenticity, and to address, accordingly, the universalization of the commodity form as both an impediment to and a condition of democracy.  In sum: in the absence of a pragmatist attitude toward reification, globalization can mean only capitalism, penury, and antithesis.  In the presence of pragmatism, its meanings multiply.


Paper #3 (abstract):


The Enemies of Pragmatism

For those students exposed to pragmatism in the customary way, in survey courses in modern philosophy or American intellectual history, it is easy to overlook one of the functional and diverting aspects of its early development.  Apart from Charles Sanders Peirce’s programmatic essays from the 1870s, the most common assigned texts date from the first decade of the twentieth century—William James’s Pragmatism (1907) and The Meaning of Truth (1909), essays by John Dewey on knowledge and psychology, Peirce’s “What Pragmatism Is” (1905), and, maybe, a piece by F. C. S. Schiller on “humanism.”  In these works we find the central themes of meaning, method, reality, and truth expounded at length in various ways and styles, for instance, Peirce’s eccentric mix of semiotics and realism vs. Schiller’s confrontational insistence on the human element in the most reflective inquiries.  Philosophy teachers can mine these materials for provocative ideas and formulations, intellectual historians might link Dewey’s cognitive psychology to the spread of evolutionary thinking, or James’s “cash-value” approach to ideas to Gilded Age mores.  Literary theorists can cite Peirce on interpretation as an anticipation of post-structuralist theory.

These are important connections rightly included in the study of pragmatism in its formative phase.  But in many prominent statements of the time, especially during the prolific years 1903-08, the pragmatists addressed more immediate influences, arguments, and adversaries.  The texts they responded to included those originating not only many years earlier, but just a few months or weeks before.  The antagonists included not only famed figures of ancient and modern thought, but contemporary professors minor in their own time and forgotten today.  And the full context of the pragmatists’ expositions comprised not only highlights of philosophy through the ages, but also a local, unfolding, and piecemeal setting: the philosophy periodicals circa 1905.

Indeed, the role of the periodicals in the development of pragmatism was crucial.  Of more or less recent creation and open to several schools of thought, they provided James, his allies, and their critics an ongoing forum in which to explain, denounce, analyze, and confute the meaning and implications of the movement.  They even helped pragmatism consolidate as a movement, as a concerted endeavor emphasizing its own newness and drawing battle lines in the philosophical community.  They contained full-length articles, reviews of books and notices of articles in other journals, plus critical discussions in a point/counterpoint mode.  They hosted meticulous examinations of minute aspects of the philosophy, sometimes running in successive issues a critique of one element in pragmatism, then a response to the critique, then a response to the response.  For five years or so, the journals Mind, The Philosophical Review (hereafter PR), and The Journal of Philosophy, Psychology, and Scientific Methods (founded 1904; hereafter JP) offered something about pragmatism in almost every number, a remarkable fact given that JP was a bi-weekly and PR a bi-monthly (Mind was a quarterly).  (Several other periodicals weighed in on pragmatism, such as The Monist and Psychological Review, but with much less frequency.)  Some of the most adamant and belittling objections to pragmatism went into their pages.  Moreover, some of the most justifying and combative rejoinders by the pragmatists appeared there as well, demonstrating that the pragmatists respected the authority of the journals and understood that the criticisms demanded a reply in the same venue.

 The opening sentence of James's “Humanism and Truth” nicely captures the instigating strategies of the editors: “Receiving from the Editor of Mind an advance proof of Mr. Bradley’s article on ‘Truth and Practice,’ I understand this as a hint to me to join in the controversy over ‘Pragmatism’ which seems to have seriously begun.”

Because the contents of the collections had already passed through or, in some cases, were called forth by the editors, contributors, and readers of the journals, by the time of their publication in book form, their significance in philosophical circles had already begun to play out.  This is not to say that the periodical setting actually determined the central ideas and arguments of early pragmatism.  But it did help pragmatism appear as a radical and new movement.  The successive entries on pragmatism selected certain areas as needing clarification and charted directions of further argument.  Respondents isolated points of contention and James and others had to reply.

In this paper, I shall recount the story of these exchanges.  The point will be to reconstruct the professional/institutional setting of the journals and how it influenced the development of early pragmatism.






[1] Gavin 1992, 87

[2] James 1890, I.243

[3] James 1904, 212-3

[4] James 1890, I.229ff.

[5] James 1890, I.237ff.

[6] James 1890, I.606

[7] James 1907, 35

[8] James 1909a, 7

[9] James 1909b, 558

[10] James 1899b, 656

[11] James 1910

[12] Dewey 1934, 43

[13] Dewey 1932, 306 and 1922, 194

[14] Dewey 1916, 1, 18; cf. Hickman 1992, 31-2.

[15] Hollinger 1981, 20

[16] Stuhr 1997, 178

[17] McDermott 1976, 102

[18] Recent work by Kloppenberg (2004) and Appleby, Hunt, and Jacob (1994) offer invaluable reflections on what a historiography informed by pragmatism looks like.  I consider this issue at greater length in a longer version of this paper.