Title:     PRAGMATISM WITH RESSENTIMENT

Type:    Panel

Abstracts:  Overview and abstract for each of three papers (all anonymous)

 


 

Overview of Panel:  Pragmatism with Ressentiment (598 words)

Description

Pragmatism and ressentiment:  This might appear to be a recipe for a very, very short presentation because there is no sustained treatment of ressentiment and its significance for self, politics and society, and education by any major pragmatist thinker.  Our panel seeks to remedy this fact. 

As such, its stance is constructive and original.  It is worth distinguishing this focus from three other possibilities not embraced.  First, the panel won’t take a speculative stance:  We won’t suggest what various pragmatists might or would or should have said about ressentiment.  Second, we won’t take a primarily expository stance:  We won’t summarize views of European thinkers who wrote at length about ressentiment.  Third, our aim isn’t ultimately theoretical:  Our goal isn’t to find a place for ressentiment in theory but to pay attention to the realities of ressentiment, overlooked by pragmatists, so as to frame fuller and more practical accounts of self, politics and society, and education.  

For present purposes, understand ressentiment as hostile frustration a)directed toward other persons who are identified as its causes, b)generated by experience of weakness and inferiority and emotions such as envy, jealousy, and resentment, and c)productive of a set of values or system of morals that justifies attack against those persons who cause frustration and denies one’s own weakness and inferiority.  Despite its avowed attention to affective dimensions of experience, its refusal to separate thought and feeling, and its concerns with roadblocks to genuine inquiry, pragmatism has provided no account of ressentiment.  Why?  Do pragmatists believe there is no such thing as ressentiment?  Do they think it unimportant or without significant consequence?  Do they think that scientific ways of fixing belief or experimental patterns of inquiry or democratic forms of community life or education understood as growth render it harmless?  We supply a genealogy of absence, and then address the consequences of taking ressentiment seriously for pragmatic understandings of self, society and politics, and education. 

Role of each paper in the panel:

The first panelist, drawing on psychoanalysis and continental philosophy, provides an account of subjectivity in light of the experience of ressentiment.  Habit and disposition are central to this account, and this paper sets forth an analysis of the affective structures of the self.  Central also are notions of actual and perceived vulnerability and power.  This paper concludes with the political implications of its account of subjectivity, supplying the starting point for the second paper and ressentiment in the context of deliberation and democratic theory.  Noting the central role of Dewey’s philosophy for theories of deliberative democracy, the second panelist explores how this philosophy is modified by making central the social reality of ressentiment among persons and groups of persons.  It also explores the ways in which practices of ressentiment impact the meaning and possibilities for democracy itself—particularly deliberative or participatory democracy.  The links between democracy and education provide the transition to the third paper, an examination of higher education, the discipline of philosophy, and the production of ressentiment among pragmatists.  The third panelist identifies concrete mechanisms within higher education that simultaneously create ressentiment and, at the same time, undercut genuine self-reflection and self-examination necessary for distinguishing philosophy as a job or career from philosophy as love of wisdom. 

Relevance to American philosophy and wider issues:

We:  draw explicitly on the work of major American pragmatists such as Peirce, James, Dewey, and Mead; addresses large issues about self, society, and education central not only to the pragmatic philosophical tradition but also to the contemporary world; and seek to identify, analyze, and address  a large blind spot in this tradition and SAAP.

 

Abstract for Panelist 1—The Self, Pragmatism, and Ressentiment (752 words)

At the general, programmatic level, pragmatist accounts of subjectivity and mind are marked by their integration of the affective, conative, and cognitive aspects of experience and conduct.  In particular, pragmatism accords a central place to human emotions, insistence upon conceiving emotions in somatic, social, and semiotic terms. 

However, in the writings of even the most psychologically astute pragmatists, the more or less characteristic lack of detailed accounts of specific emotions, save for the most basic or rudimentary ones (e.g., fear, anger, and doubt), stands in marked contrast to the more extensive, developed, and probing depictions of a wide array of human emotions, including such unfaltering, tangled ones as envy and ressentiment, offered by phenomenologists, psychoanalysts, and postmodernists.  Of course, William James and other pragmatists did not entirely overlook such emotions as envy and ressentiment, but they did tend not to make them as central to their understanding of experience and conduct as, for example, did Nietzsche, Freud, Heidegger, Scheler, Sartre, Klein, and a host of other European authors, British as well as Continental. 

Part of the explanation of this fact might be that, to a greater extent than we often realize, the pragmatists were the progeny of Emerson,--even those pragmatists such as Peirce who took themselves to diverge most sharply from his thought.  Unquestionably, their commitment to self-affirmation carried with it a commitment to self-interrogation, but the forms of self-affirmation in democratic community dominant here also worked against the searing, relentless spirit of rank, power, and self-examination evident in, say, Nietzsche or Sartre, Foucault or Derrida.  Indeed, there appears to be from a pragmatist perspective something unseemly and unhealthy in becoming so utterly preoccupied with the base, ignoble motives allegedly animating human beings in their everyday lives.  Whereas Freud harshly judged most humans to be “trash,” the robust affirmation

of human potentiality at the center of pragmatism inclined James, Dewey, Mead and others to interpret humanity more charitably and favorably.

            In addition to considering why resentment and envy has so far played so

slight and marginal a role in pragmatist accounts of human endeavor, I will sketch a thoroughly pragmatist account of human subjectivity in which some of the more base, ignoble, and unflattering emotions occupy a more central place than they have been given in even the most sophisticated treatments found in the writings of the pragmatists.  In particular, I will draw some crucial insights from the psychoanalytic theorist Melanie Klein, focusing on her explication of ressentiment, resentment, and envy, to articulate a more nuanced understanding of some pervasive constellations of human affectivity in contemporary life beyond anything available in the writings of either the classical pragmatists or their various offspring. 

While the concept of habit will be central to this account of subjectivity, the protean and promiscuous disposition to take offense or­ to feel slighted or even negated by, for example, the merited success or good luck of others ­ will be examined in a manner closer to that of Nietzsche and Freud than that of James and Dewey.  The pragmatic importance of such an undertaking should be obvious.  We cannot make

sense of our political lives, including the characteristically petty politics of academic life, unless we take seriously the base, ignoble motivations of agents (including ourselves) whose self-understanding is always, to some degree (often to a fantastic degree) self-deceitful.  That is, we can make sense of politics, especially in its distinctively contemporary forms, only if we accord ressentiment and envy a more central place than the one given to these emotions by the classical pragmatists.  This requires a dispositional account of these affective structures--moreover, a dispositional account in which the

somatic, social, and semiotic facets of dispositions are at once distinguished and integrated. 

Very often the politics of today is, overwhelmingly, the politics of

ressentiment, ironically, the ressentiment of those who are often in relatively invulnerable positions.  Indeed, individuals enjoying a remarkable measure of comfort and security feel threatened by and resentful toward not only many others enjoying the same benefits but also many of those severely disadvantaged.  (Contrast here the resentment toward the “welfare mother” ripping off the system and the multi-millionaire CEO really ripping off the system in a big way.)  Hence. the advancement of American philosophy calls for a less flattering, more exacting, and more detailed account of the actual motives of contemporary actors, an account inclusive of what Nietzsche identified as ressentiment and his offspring have taken as their intellectual, moral, and political responsibility to interrogate, than anything achieved by American thinkers to date.

 

Abstract for Panelist 2—Democracy, Pragmatism, and Ressentiment (803 words)

Deliberative democratic theory holds out the hope that a people, or peoples, if you like, can talk and reason together well enough to work out their differences and arrive at policy directions that would be amenable to all involved.

This hope is not shared by all.

It is shared readily by many analytic philosophers (those analysts who are willing, anyway, to dally with values), since analytic philosophers generally accept that there is an objective and shared world that can be accessed and evaluated with language.  However, it is not generally shared or accepted by continental philosophers who harbor a long suspicion, heralded by the masters of suspicion (Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud), that all is rarely what it seems to be, that history is made behind the backs of men, that power is too often wielded out of ressentiment rather than strength, and that what we say may be largely influenced by what we are unwilling and unable to acknowledge.

As a result, there is no easy fit between continental philosophy and most deliberative democratic theory. Those who have been willing to venture there, such as Jürgen Habermas, share more of the analytic frame of mind than they do of the continental, even though they are heirs of Marx and to a certain extent Freud.  But they, at least Habermas, are no heirs of Nietzsche and his account of ressentiment.

There is something about the Nietzschean suspicion of power, reason, and truth that makes for a tortuous view of deliberative democratic theory and its cousins (e.g., Rawls’s late work on international theory and the laws of peoples). That Nietzsche is suspicious of democracy – for upholding the common mentality and meager aspirations of the herd – is the least of the problem. The greater problem, again, is that in a Nietzschean view what we say, and what we say is reasonable -- our very postulation of reason and truth -- is often a will to power gone astray out of weak and malignant motivations steeped in ressentiment.  In their explorations into democracy, post-Nietzscheans are more likely to turn to an agonistic view of politics, what Chantal Mouffe and others call “radical democracy,” brought on by Schmitt, rather than by any kind of deliberative hope. Radical democrats think that any kind of consensus achieved through talking is the end of democracy, not the beginning of it. One might even say that the continental left’s antipathy to deliberative theory is its own longstanding ressentiment at the linguistic turn in political theory and practice and at the resurgence of democratic ideals that aim toward consensus rather than valuing supposedly irreconcilable differences.

The odd, often missing, figure in all this is Dewey, and the odd, also often missing, philosophy more largely is pragmatism.  The most mainstream of analytic philosophers of deliberation will never mention John Dewey, though Dewey’s entire body of work lends itself to this kind of collective learning and working out through communication what we as a people want to be. The more interesting philosophers of deliberative democratic theory will turn to Dewey often. And as for pragmatism at large, one should recall Habermas’s reliance on Mead for his notion of individuation and how one begins to converse with others in the first place.  In light of this background, in my contribution to this panel, I will trace the resources that deliberative theory has found in pragmatism, and I will inquire into why and how it is that pragmatism avoids the continental left’s ressentiment toward any hope in deliberative talk. But in the main, the central question I will address is this:  Should pragmatism hold out hope in deliberation when the Nietscheans may well be right that ressentiment clouds and dogs all deliberative encounters and all political arrangements?

Given that the Deweyans and pragmatists more broadly don’t share the faith of most analytical philosophers in the objective reality of the world, or at least of a world given ready-made and waiting prior to human interpretation, the Deweyans share the continentals’ suspicion of language as a mere tool for accessing the real.  How far does this resemblance continue, and how does this resemblance augur for a non-analytic philosophy of deliberative democracy.  Have Dewey and other pragmatists simply finessed the problem of ressentiment’s power to skew deliberative talk? Or are there resources in pragmatism that actually help a deliberating people acknowledge and work through ressentiment and its causes and consequences, in some kind of marriage of Freudian “working through” and pragmatic problem solving?  If pragmatism has been too naïve in its hope in the “winged words” of conversation and their ability for a people to find new direction, might it still have resources to work through the question properly?  In the final sections of my presentation, I develop positive responses to these pressing questions for pragmatic theory and democratic practice. 

 

Abstract for Panelist 3—Education, Pragmatism, and Ressentiment (793 words)

            In Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche writes “’I don’t like him.’—Why?—‘I am not equal to him.’—Has any human being answered that way?”  To read the pragmatists is to be led to the conclusion that no one ever has answered that way.  Yet, to be today a professor of philosophy—to teach and research and do service work in a college or university, to deal with students, colleagues, administrators, editors, and scholarly association officers, to note rankings of institutions, rankings within institutions, and the ranks and pay of colleagues—must lead one to the conclusion that human beings frequently answer in just the way to which Nietzsche calls our attention. 

            Accordingly, I begin with the hypothesis that ressentiment is commonplace in higher education and in the discipline and profession of philosophy more specifically.  My goal in this presentation is to illuminate a)central causes and b)central consequences of ressentiment among philosophers in contemporary colleges and universities.  Before doing this, I offer a description of the phenomena of ressentiment, stressing the interplay between emotional and behavioral components but paying principal attention to the system of values that renders superiority evil and inferiority good.  (In this context I connect the notion of ressentiment to the concept of “passive bullying” now familiar in  psychological, sociological, and educational literature—a connection to the social sciences in the spirit of pragmatists such as Dewey and Mead).

The central causes of ressentiment are many, of course, and the following outlined list is incomplete.  (This list, however, results from an extensive and ongoing empirical study.)  First, the difficult entry job market in philosophy may produce frustration and hostility, but it is eclipsed in this regard by the reality that the great majority of persons employed perceive themselves as employed at institutions inferior in quality to their own graduate institutions—as working at institutions experienced as beneath them in rank.  Second, though employed beneath themselves as they perceive it, the great majority of professional philosophers experience little opportunity for advancement other than tenure and promotion at their current institution or one similar in perceived quality and rank—experience only the option to exhaust their careers where they are and where they increasingly expect others to assess them as belonging.  Third, at the same time, the great majority of professional philosophers experience some other persons whom they believe to be no more than their equal in ability as nonetheless much more than their equal in professional terms that include rank of institution, salary and benefits (including leaves, teaching loads, assistants), and endowment support.  Fourth, most professional philosophers experience many of the few opportunities for professional advance as beyond their control—as being, for example, in the hands of unpredictable editors and publishers, deans and department heads who set their teaching loads and salaries and travel budgets, and barbarian students who evaluate their teaching.  Fifth, the great majority of professional philosophers experience their professional life as taking place in an institution little attuned to their own values and ways of life—institutions more like businesses than communities of scholars, institutions concerned more with professional knowledge than with wisdom, and institutions that support their football teams better than their philosophy departments.  This leads to the sixth cause of ressentiment among professional philosophers:  They experience their professional capacities devalued by their own larger society and under-paid in comparison to professionals with comparable formal educations in most other fields.  There is a seventh factor at work for pragmatists:  Pragmatism and American philosophy are still more at the margins of professional philosophy than at its core; to do American philosophy is to be at the margins of a field that is itself increasingly at the margins of university resources and self-identity, as well as popular demand.  To paraphrase one study conclusion:  Here is the poster-child for ressentiment:  To paraphrase one study conclusion:  Here is the poster-child for ressentiment:  A middle (or early-middle) aged associate or full professor at a second or third tier state school or regional private college whose work is not viewed as highly influential or cutting-edge or central, and who reasonably can look forward to a decade or two more of the same—all while a few professional colleagues at more elite institutions, as well as many administrators, seem to have escaped this fate—and all the while able through e-mail and conferences to constitute organizations and associations through which their ressentiment-filled professional discipline operates.

From a philosophical standpoint, the problem with such a system is its self-deception, a problem particularly ironic for a field rooted in counsel such as “know thyself” and “the unexamined life is not worth living.”  From a more immediately practical standpoint, the problematic consequences of such a system are many (I detail them in the paper); collectively they define the unpragmatic character of this system of values—that is, its inability even to correctly identify ressentiment as a problem—in part precisely because it relies on a pragmatic logic of inquiry that allows individuals marked by ressentiment to experience their problems as anything but themselves.  I conclude by addressing this problem as a case-study for analysis of the extent to which pragmatism’s seemingly cheery experiential orientation allows for a sufficiently philosophically critical perspective on experiences such as ressentiment, envy, passive bullying, and self-deception.