SAAP 2007

Panel Submission

Number of Participants: 3


Panel Title:

Ideas and Ideals of America in the Thought of Stanley Cavell, Richard Rorty and Hannah Arendt


Titles for Individual Papers:

1. Stanley Cavell’s Romantic Redemption of American Philosophy and the Idea of



2. Richard Rorty on the American Dream and the Civic Religion of Democracy


3. Electrifying Democracy: The Importance of Imagination for Whitman and Arendt






























Panel Abstract

Ideas and Ideals of America in the Thought of Stanley Cavell, Richard Rorty and Hannah Arendt


One of the hallmarks of the American philosophical tradition has been its members’ interest in the self-reflexive question of what precisely it means to be a thinker in America or an American philosopher.  Put otherwise, though the members of this tradition were certainly interested in world events (one thinks for example of John Dewey’s wide-ranging interest in such events, from American politics and education reform to Trotsky’s trial in Mexico and events in far-flung China), these philosophers took an active interest in what it meant to be a member of this American philosophical tradition as well.  The three philosophers investigated by this panel extend the terms of the question to include asking whether or not philosophy in America exists, or is rather an extension of various European trends, be they from the Continent or the British Isles.  In short, just as James, Dewey, Mead and the other members of this tradition once did, those of us who inherit this tradition must face the self-referential question of whether American philosophy (and by extension, American philosophers) exist at all.

This panel focuses upon a closely related question as well:  If there can be said to be a tradition of philosophy in America, what various ideas of “America” animate this tradition?  For example, does the term designate a possibility or a regulative ideal to be achieved or at least strived for, and, if so, what are the implications of conceiving of America in such terms?    Two of the papers in this panel (“Stanley Cavell’s Romantic Redemption of American Philosophy and the Idea of America” and “Richard Rorty on the American Dream and the Civic Religion of Democracy”) propose to investigate the answers to this question in thinkers commonly thought of as Neo-Pragmatists. Although Cavell and Rorty draw their inspiration from the Classical American tradition, they diverge from it in notable ways as well.  Their relationship to the tradition of American philosophy is as ambivalent as their ideas of America are novel: Recognizable, to be sure, but certainly not self-evident.  Broaching this second question (concerning the meaning of the ideas and ideals of America in these three thinkers) forces us to confront the first (concerning the question of whether there is a sort of philosophy that is distinctively American, and what precisely unites the members of this tradition).

The third paper in the panel (“Electrifying Democracy: The Importance of Imagination for Whitman and Arendt”) discusses the thought of Hannah Arendt who, while not commonly associated with the tradition of pragmatism and American philosophy, is nonetheless an American philosopher, in the sense that her mature thought was written in the United States and often inspired by an attempt to make sense of what she understood as the idea of America. Like Cavell and Rorty, Arendt stands in an ambiguous relationship to the American philosophical tradition, for she made significant contributions to American social and political thought without identifying herself with pragmatism. Indeed, Arendt is particularly interesting to consider alongside Cavell and Rorty, not only because of her status as a Continental “outsider” with intimate knowledge of America and American thought, but also because her thought highlights the extent to which coming to terms with the idea of America is a social and political task concerned with understanding the nature of, and perhaps also prescribing standards for, authority, liberty and democracy. For this reason, this panel seeks to address the complex relationship between the idea and ideal of America, American philosophy, and American socio-political life in order to understand how these phenomena influence one another in the thought of those ostensibly considered “American” philosophers.









































Paper Abstracts

Stanley Cavell’s Romantic Redemption of American Philosophy and the Idea of



Stanley Cavell’s relationship to American philosophy, and especially the strain of American philosophy known as Classical American Philosophy, is a complex affair.  This is fortuitous to those of us who are readers of Cavell, because it serves as a reminder that the place of American philosophy and the American philosopher in American life is never (and has never been) simple.  But this paper does not propose to redeem the tradition of Classical American Philosophy that begins with Peirce and ends with Dewey from Cavell’s critique.[1]  Nor does it seek to redeem the tradition of Classical American philosophy that begins with the Puritans and ends with Cavell, Rorty, or someone else.  Instead, what I propose to do is to show how Cavell raises the question of the uncomfortable role of American philosophy in American cultural life, and thereby redeems us by discomfiting his readers, some of whom identify themselves as American philosophers (or at least as Americans and as philosophers).  Along with thinkers as intellectually diverse as Heidegger and Emerson, Cavell holds that to affirm oneself, one must reject prevailing cultural norms.  Cavell is fond of citing Emerson’s passage “Every word they say chagrins us.”  Philosophers and artists serve to provide alternatives to the status quo.   According to Cavell, each philosopher must make him or herself exemplary; this one of the many lessons Cavell learns from his reading of Thoreau, among others.[2]  The only way to do this is to appropriate the particular tradition within one is working and make it one’s own—the philosopher must both appropriate and expropriate the tradition of philosophy in order to create something qualitatively new (something easier said than done).    In other words, in Cavell’s eyes, the work of the philosopher is closely akin to the creative work of the artist.  Contrary to Kant (for whom the term artistic genius was a tautology) and certainly contrary to Plato, Cavell wishes to demonstrate, like the Romantics before him, the conspiracy between philosophy and art.  This is the outlook of what Cavell terms moral perfectionism: In making art (or producing philosophy or criticism, which are all species of the same thing), the philosopher or artist makes of herself a work of art.

Each philosopher must make the tradition within which she works her own.  This means that philosophy is always in need of redemption, or, at least, philosophers always see philosophy as in some sense in need of redemption.  There are two ways that this redemptive conception manifests itself in the history of philosophy: the first, shared by philosophers as disparate in outlook as Descartes and Heidegger, is to show how philosophy has lost its way in order to be save the philosophical tradition from itself and hence redeem it.  In the case of Descartes, this means starting anew on a firm foundation, and in the case of Heidegger, it means recovering or redeeming something thought irredeemable.  Descartes and Heidegger, in very different ways, both seek to redeem the very tradition of philosophy.  The other way this redemptive motif manifests itself is through the idea of philosophy itself as somehow therapeutic—that philosophy can save us from ourselves.  Cavell, following Emerson, cites this as a move from our current selves to our better, more perfect (though certainly never absolutely perfect) selves.   Notice that these two conceptions of redemption are by no means mutually exclusive—one might argue, for example, that Heidegger seeks to redeem the tradition for therapeutic purposes; indeed, Cavell draws on Heidegger’s thought for his articulation of the moral perfectionist outlook.  It is this latter conception of philosophy as therapeutic that permits Cavell to draw together what initially appear to be very strange bedfellows--Wittgenstein and Heidegger along with Emerson and Thoreau--in order to show the relevance of what he calls in Conditions Handsome and Unhandsome the tradition of moral perfectionism.  Philosophy is on this view an exercise in recovery and repetition.  Of course, as Heraclitus and Kierkegaard, along with Cavell, each make clear, this exercise in repetition cannot be mechanical if it is to be therapeutic—if it is to have moral significance, then this exercise must be something more than mere rote repetition or (more properly) recollection—a repetition that, in Kierkegaard’s sense, points forward as a reflective ideal of what one could be rather than backward into the past.[3]

But what does all of this have to do with America and the idea of America?  Moreover, and more specifically, how can this idea of redemption as a reflective and therapeutic ideal have any relevance for us—for academic philosophers today?  Surely Cavell’s thought cannot redeem American philosophy?  Cavell’s line of questioning presupposes either that academic philosophy today is in need of saving, or that it can be redeemed, and neither proposition is self-evidently true.  Regardless of one’s personal point of view concerning the state of academic philosophy today, it is clear that Cavell shares the opinion that philosophy today is in need of saving, and that it indeed can be saved, if we return to a forgotten tradition of American thought.   As Richard Eldridge points out, the prevailing view of philosophy against which Cavell struggles is the predominate view that philosophy must be essentially value neutral and naturalistic, a view inherited largely from mid-twentieth century analytic philosophy.[4]  This is a profound betrayal of the transformative ideals that animated Western philosophy since its beginning in ancient Greece. 

For Cavell, philosophy’s need for redemption stems from the Romantic interpretation of Kant, who conceived of the individual as straddled between two worlds, that of Reason and the Understanding.  Of course, as a consequence of this straddling modern humans are at home neither in the unfettered realm of reason nor in the law-governed realm of the scientific understanding, and nineteenth and twentieth century philosophy is in large measure an attempt to either acknowledge or rectify the fact of this homelessness.  Cavell reads American thinkers in this vein, especially those writers whose reputation he most seeks to redeem, Emerson and Thoreau.   Cavell sees Emerson and Cavell as responding to this all-too-human plight pointed out by Kant.  

Cavell’s attempt to redeem American philosophy is thus inseparable from his readings of the Romantics, and the Romantic motifs that Cavell finds animating the work of Emerson and Thoreau.  Foremost among these Romantic motifs is the idea that the world can be made anew, i.e. that transfiguration or even redemption is possible.  The possibility of transfiguring of one’s individual relationship to oneself and to the world is the Romantic motivation that Cavell finds in Emerson and Thoreau.  This becomes clear in the following passage. Cavell is discussing a review of Emerson’s work by a scholar who found that Emerson’s work no longer spoke to him at the age of fifty in the way it did when he was a younger (and perhaps more idealistic) man:


But I think I now by now what the man of fifty finds distasteful that made the boy of sixteen or seventeen ecstatic.  It is an idea that Emerson and any romantic would be lost without, that the world could be—or could have been so remade, or I in it, that I could wholly desire it, as it would be, or I in it.  In time the idea is apt to become maddening if kept green (certainly it makes one’s grown-up acquaintances impatient), a continuous rebuke to the way we live, compared to which, or in reaction to which, a settled despair of the world, or cynicism, is luxurious.[5]              


One thing especially frustrating about Cavell is that he refrains from prescribing what one ought to do once one rebukes the present state of the world, for there is no prescribed rule or telos to guide an individual’s conduct.  However, this marks the relationship between Cavell and Romanticism all the more strongly, for if what individuals are to become (and what, by extension or implication, American society is to become) can never be a closed question.  If one can always become otherwise, then the future is always open.  This links Cavell’s Romanticism with the idea of America, for one still prevalent idea or myth of America is the idea of America as a place of boundless opportunity and pure possibility.   Individuals are open questions and the future itself is an open question.  America was once (and perhaps still is) a land thought to be boundless, like the individuals inhabiting it.  Like the Kantian genius or the Romantic manifestation of this figure, what one will be can never be discovered according to rules; it must be made sui generis. 

Cavell finds that individuals are implicated in American society, but they also implicate it.  This is the reason for his continuous exploration of the Rousseauian and Kantian conceptions of individual autonomy as a condition of social unity: the social contract theory of Rousseau and Kant differs from that of Hobbes and Locke in seeing the agent not just as an agent of self-interested desire, but above all as an agent of reason.  It is through reason that ‘I’ consent to make myself a part of a ‘we.’  Furthermore, this is the reason that Emerson can serve as a representative American thinker despite the fact that he is forgotten or (more accurately, according to Cavell) repressed by the American culture at large.  Indeed, it is precisely because thinkers such as Emerson and Thoreau are repressed that they can serve as representative American thinkers, representative of our better selves, what we might yet become if we can but remember the origins of American thought in the very thought that “everything they say chagrins us,” the thought that I must choose whether or not to consent to present conditions, and if I choose not to do so, I must proceed without the consolation of any predetermined ideal.  Cavell leaves us with the idea of the self intertwined with the idea of America, neither given but both unsettled, tasks whose outcome can not be preordained. 











Richard Rorty on the American Dream and the Civic Religion of Democracy


            For Richard Rorty, the American Dream is the ultimate ideal of utopian democracy that ought to inspire, guide and regulate social, political, and philosophical progress. This paper examines Rorty’s notion of the American Dream as an organizing principle that unites his conceptions of pragmatism, democracy and religion into a uniquely anti-essentialist brand of idealism. The first goal of the paper is to show how Rorty’s notion of the American Dream unites his thinking of pragmatism, democracy and religion. The task here is to argue that the American Dream for Rorty is ultimately a religious one, that of the “civic religion” of democracy. The paper’s second goal is to critique the philosophy of religion that emerges from Rorty’s reflection on the American Dream. Here the task is to insist upon a need for a notion of pragmatic transcendence in Rorty’s philosophy of religion, and also to argue that Rorty’s notion of the American Dream is capable of uniting the public realm of liberal politics as well as the private realm of solitary religion and self-creation, realms which Rorty insists must remain entirely distinct from one another.

            In Rorty’s estimation, the American dream is that of “the first cooperative commonwealth, the first classless society….in which income and wealth are equitably distributed, and in which the government ensures equality of opportunity as well as individual liberty.”[6] In this way, Rorty identifies the American Dream with a radical, utopian form of democracy that many, including Rorty, believe was best formulated philosophically by John Dewey. Rorty understands this American dream as an ideal inherited from the past, as is evident when he writes, “The whole point of America was that it was going to be the world’s first classless society.”[7]  However, this past dream, according to Rorty, was always oriented towards the future, indeed, towards a utopian and absolute future that serves as the ultimate ideal for the present. Thus, Rorty writes that we must think of the American Dream in terms of apocalypse and eschatology, as a future ideal that is always yet to be achieved.[8] 

            It may surprise some to hear an anti-essentialist and anti-foundationalist such as Rorty adopting and recommending utopian ideals. However, as Rorty himself insists, moral idealism is not wholly dependent upon moral universalism, and pragmatism is not only compatible with, but also leads necessarily to, a vision of utopian democracy.[9]  This is because, according to Rorty, pragmatism abandons the quest for Truth in order to devote itself entirely to social and political concerns. In other words, pragmatism insists upon the radical primacy of the practical over the theoretical, so that, in Rorty’s estimation, genuine resolutions to metaphysical disputes “can only be political.”[10] 

Pragmatism is political not only because it is thoroughly practical but also, and perhaps more importantly, because in Rorty’s interpretation it shares with the fundamental principle of American democracy the rejection of any ultimate political authority beyond human cooperation and consensus.[11] According to Rorty, pragmatism is the only philosophy that dares to ask what might America “all by itself, and by its own lights, make of itself.”[12] In this way, Rorty sees in pragmatism a profound commitment to and vision of American autonomy, according to which America discovers for itself the rules by which it will live. According to Rorty, pragmatism places hope for “a casteless and classless America in the place traditionally occupied by knowledge of the will of God.”[13] Furthermore, pragmatism wishes to replace “shared knowledge of what is already real (God, Truth, etc.) with social hope for what might become real.”[14] Pragmatism urges us, says Rorty, to “look forward rather than upward: to contrast a possible human future with the human past and present;” it insists that American’s “essence is our existence, and our existence is in the future.”[15] Thus, for Rorty, pragmatism’s commitment to contingency, finitude and historicity is best suited for the sort of radically non-hierarchical, one might even say anarchical, vision of freedom and democracy that Rorty believes is our uniquely liberal American political inheritance.

            Rorty’s interpretation of pragmatism as an anti-essentialist idealism appears to insist that only secular atheism is compatible with utopian democracy. In other words, Rorty appears to argue that establishing and maintaining a genuine democracy requires that we wholly reject religion and religious forms of life. However, Rorty denies this conclusion and insists that democracy is itself a form of religion, what Rorty calls the “American civic religion” whose founding prophets are Whitman and Dewey and for which “utopian America” is the ultimate concern and “the unconditional object of desire.”[16] Rorty counts himself among the followers of this uniquely American religion. For instance, he writes the following:


My sense of the holy, insofar as I have one, is bound up with the hope that someday, any millennium now, my remote descendents will live in a global civilization in which love is pretty much the only law. In such a society, communication would be domination-free, class and caste would be unknown, hierarchy would be a matter of temporary pragmatic convenience, and power would be entirely at the disposal of the free agreement of a literate and well-educated electorate.[17]


Rorty adds that such a radically democratic society would be a mystery, in the sense of the word that is often invoked by religious traditions in order to mark the limits of rational theology. Here we should remember that Rorty also considers utopian democracy to be eschatological and apocalyptic, for it is an ideal that resides in an absolute future. The status of Rorty’s utopian vision therefore calls into question his strict commitment to the atheistic immanence of human society. For by insisting that democracy is still always yet to arrive, hasn’t Rorty introduced a notion of transcendence into his religion of atheistic pragmatism? Certainly it would be a notion of immanent transcendence, insofar as ideals admit of actualization in the real world, but any such transcendence would seem to pose a challenge to Rorty’s conception of pragmatism, according to which humanity alone is the ultimate authority. Rorty’s conception of the American Dream would seem then to require two revisions of his philosophy of religion: first, the adoption of a pragmatic notion of transcendence, of the sort one finds in Dewey’s notion of God as the unity of ideal ends, in order to better make sense of the reality of ultimate ideals and their impact on human action; and, second, the rethinking of atheistic humanism in order to accommodate a notion of transcendence that requires understanding the human being in terms of a relationship between hope and ideality.   

            In general, Rorty’s conception of democracy as a public, civic religion is at odds with his view that religion should remain entirely in the private sphere of individual solitude. For instance, even while calling for a Jamesian philosophy of religion that treats “being religious as a habit of action,”[18] Rorty is careful to insist that the most important task for such a philosophy is to reinforce the distinction between the public and the private, where the public is devoted to the avoidance of suffering and pain, and the private is the realm of self-creation.[19] Surely, however, a civic religion cannot be understood as wholly private. Rorty could perhaps then draw a distinction between kinds of religion and religious experience, based on the distinction between the public and the private, but is such a split, indeed, a gulf, really one that we ought to find desirable, much less necessary? In fact, the notion of a civic religion, such as democracy, can go a long ways towards uniting the public and the private, the communal and the solitary. Such was, in fact, the principal purpose behind Dewey’s notion of a “common faith,” which Dewey believed unites the private solitude of faith with the public realm of community.[20] This paper insists that Rorty’s notion of the American Dream is an ideal vision of what it would mean to unite the public and private spheres in one civic religion, and that Rorty should therefore abandon a strict distinction between public liberalism and private self-creation.







Electrifying Democracy: The Importance of Imagination for Whitman and Arendt



            The aim of this paper is to demonstrate that a fruitful connection can be made between the unlikely figures of Walt Whitman and Hannah Arendt.  Both, standing as spectators to the American experiment in democracy, have provided insight, criticism, as well as expressed hope in respect to the national political scene. During the period following the Civil War Whitman witnessed firsthand the greed, corruption and inequality infesting the government.  Arendt’s thought even more poignantly delves into the social and political nature of American life.  Consequently, looking anew at Whitman’s and Arendt’s concern with governmental practices and their interest with democracy provides a timely reflection on our own contemporary state of affairs.  Moreover, the shared notions of individuality and imagination that revolve around their conception of democracy allows Whitman’s presence to be placed in a more contemporary philosophical setting in addition to revealing Arendt as having resonance with not only what might be considered classical American thought, but a common ideal of America itself.

            There are two primary aspects that become prominent through this investigation of Whitman and Arendt, the first being an understanding of their vision of democracy, the second- larger in scope yet connected to the former- is the value and role the imagination possesses or might yet play in the world.  The first aspect is the individualism inherent in Whitman’s conception of democracy and this notion of individualism coincides with the emphasis Arendt placed on the individual being essential in political life.  For Arendt and Whitman the integrity and dignity afforded a human being is conditioned on the recognition of individuality. This view is striking in comparison to the racial, gender and class biases that problematize the American ideal and America in actuality.  Moreover, the achievement of individuality and subsequently the status of true citizen are directly related to the lack of interference by the government.  The moral potential within each person ultimately can only be realized by that person alone.  But even if the government were not to hamper the realization of this potentiality through moral legislation and explicit hypocrisy what might be the condition for the possibility of recognition of the individual?  In raising this question the importance of not only the poetic voice but being able to hear it takes on significance and allows the transition to the second aspect.  The ability to not only speak poetically but listen to the poetic voice reveals a dimension of human existence often obscured, but necessary for the recognition and demonstration of individuality- imagination.

            The imagination is highly significant for Whitman and Arendt, exhibiting crucial traits associated with being American in addition to being human.  Put more succinctly the imagination provides the basis for being moral and it was this that was to be a shining example to the world according to Whitman.  And for Arendt, the imagination was that which was so severely lacking in the twentieth century- evidenced by the dehumanization of totalitarianism.  However, in either case the imagination offers alternative perspectives, generating appreciation for other individuals along with creating possibilities from which to actively break from unthinking conformity.  Though neither Whitman nor Arendt developed a systematic political philosophy they voiced a desire for the cultivation of truly self-reliant individuals capable of inspiring the rest of humankind from the artistry of their lives.  As long as Whitman’s past warning “against the prevailing delusion that the establishment of free political institutions, and plentiful intellectual smartness, with general good order, physical plenty, industry… do, of themselves, determine and yield to our experiment of democracy the fruitage of success” remains apt there will be a need for individuals to electrify the political realm with imagination. 







[1] Individuals interested in the possibility of redeeming Pragmatism in particular from Cavell’s critique should consult this essay by Russell B. Goodman, “Cavell and American Philosophy,” Contending with Stanley Cavell, ed. Russell B. Goodman (Oxford: Oxford University Press), 100-117 as well as Richard Eldridge, “Cavell on American Philosophy and the Idea of America,” Contemporary Philosophy in Focus: Stanley Cavell.  Ed. Richard Eldridge (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 172-189. 

[2] Thoreau is among the thinkers that Cavell identifies as moral perfectionists.  His partial list of authors whose work includes moral perfectionist motifs includes Plato, Aristotle, Rousseau, Heidegger, and Freud

[3] Søren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling and Repetition.  Trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983).  For a lucid exposition of this idea, see James Risser’s discussion of the Kierkegaardian concept of repetition as an existential category (especially as it relates to Gadamer’s hermeneutics) in his Hermeneutics and the Voice of the Other: Re-Reading Gadamer’s Philosophical  Hermeneutics (NY: State University of New York Press, 1997), 33-40.

[4] Richard Eldridge, “Cavell on American Philosophy and the Idea of America,” op. cit., 174-175.  According to Eldridge, the American Pragmatist emphasis on an idea’s “cash value” as a criterion of its truth marks the members of this tradition as part of this trend of value-free inquiry in academic philosophy (here, Eldridge would agree with thinkers like Bertrand Russell who ridiculed Pragmatism on precisely these grounds).   

[5] Stanley Cavell, “Emerson, Coleridge, Kant,” Emersonian Etudes (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003), 68. 

[6] Richard Rorty, Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century America (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998), p. 8.

[7] Richard Rorty, Philosophy and Social Hope (New York: Penguin Books, 1999), p. 259.

[8] Richard Rorty, Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century America, p. 16.

[9] Ibid., p. 35.

[10] Ibid., p. 35.

[11] Ibid., p. 29.

[12] Ibid., p. 16.

[13] Ibid., p. 18.

[14] Ibid., p. 18.

[15] Ibid., p. 22.

[16] Ibid., p. 18.

[17] Richard Rorty, “Anti-clericalism and Atheism,” in The Future of Religion, edited by Santiago Zabala (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005), p. 40.

[18] Richard Rorty, Philosophy and Social Hope, p. 148.

[19] This view is most fully expressed in Rorty’s book Contingency, Irony, Solidarity (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989). See especially Chapter 4, entitled “Private Irony and Liberal Hope.”

[20] John Dewey, A Common Faith (New York: Yale University Press, 1960).