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Notes for a Sketch of a Pragmatist Offensive against Resentment

[Working Draft]


Panel on “Ressentiment & Pragmatism”

[John J. Stuhr, Noelle McAfee, & Vincent Colapietro]

2007 Annual Meeting of

Society for Advancement

of American Philosophy [SAAP]

March 8, 2007

Columbia, SC



Vincent Colapietro

Department of Philosophy

240 Sparks Building

The Pennsylvania State University

University Park, PA 16802




            At this time of the day,[1] it might be helpful to trot out the Trickster.  In the most recent issue of The New Yorker, Louis Menand opens his piece by observing:

‘The man is unfit to be President,’ Henry Kissinger said of Richard Nixon during the 1968 Presidential campaign.  Kissinger was a protégé and associate of Nelson Rockefeller.  Nixon’s chief competition for the Republican nomination, and he shared Rockefeller’s opinion: that Nixon was an opportunist without vision.  Kissinger was also a professor at Harvard, not a place where he was likely to rub up against a Nixon supporter.  And he was a Jew.  Nixon, of course, was a seething cauldron of ressentiment.  He hated Harvard professors; he loathed rich East Coast establishment types like Rockefeller; he was suspicious of Jews.  He despised these people because be believed that they despised him, but he could never leave them alone.  They were his motivation, his catnip. (p. 76)

            But let us turn to the words of another Harvard professor.  In his presidential address to the APA (“the Problem of Beauty”), Hugo Münsterberg posed this question: “ … is it merely the law of psychical contrasts which makes me think that there is one thing not less important than the center of our interests, namely, the center of our neglects?”  Perhaps it is better to speak of the spectrum of our neglects, than their center.  In any case, there frequently appears to someone or other some salient feature about the texture of human experience or about the drama of human engagement that has, maybe even understandably, been left out of account.  The reconstruction of philosophical query accordingly requires the recognition of this neglected feature, the recollection of this overlooked trait (cf. Santayana).  Consider here the somatic turn in contemporary discourse – a center of neglect became the focus of concern  Or consider Michel Foucault’s painstaking attention to the micropolitics of everyday life – herein we witness the same shift from periphery (or beyond) to center of interest.  Or, finally, consider the opening sentence of Justus Buchler’s Nature & Judgment: “Man is born in a state of natural debt, being antecedently committed to the execution or the furtherance of acts that will largely determine his individual existence” (p. 3).  The natural indebtedness of the human animal is a patent trait of the precarious adventure exemplified in any individual life.  In general, then, there is (to paraphrase Descartes) nothing so obvious as to be effectively denied by some philosopher, ordinarily through a perfunctory acknowledgment underwriting a theoretical occlusion.  The sound of such acknowledgment is recognizable enough (“Of course, of course, but nothing I have said precludes taking this into account”).  To which the appropriate rejoinder more often than not is: But if you did take this phenomenon into account, it would alter from top to bottom how you discuss the center of your interest.  “My philosophy is justified [Santayana notes]… by the facts before every man’s eyes; and no great wit is requisite to discover it [these facts], only (what is rarer than wit) candor and courage” (SAF, p. x).  But the matter is made especially difficult because we are, as Peirce notes, blind to our own blindnesses (CP 6.560).  Let us thus not neglect to consider the center or, better, the expansive range of our philosophical neglects – what we are not exploring, what we are not even considering.

            We are known as much as anything by our evasions and resistances, our occlusions and neglects, our silences and deafness, even just our reticence to speak about this or that topic.  Take the unknown number of civilians who have been killed, also those who have been maimed and injured, in Iraq.  The news about the news in this country is that these numbers are, for the most part, not news at all.  Anna Nicole Smith however is.

            Like representatives of virtually every other philosophical tradition, pragmatists characteristically ignore some of the most salient features of human experience, neglect some of the most telling aspects of our historical practices and, indeed, our personal lives.  Such is the judgment of Santayana, Buchler, and Cavell.  On this occasion, allow me simply to recall a text from Cavell, not about pragmatism generally but about Dewey specifically: While Dewey relentlessly combated the forms of moralism against which Cavell has pitted himself (and in doing so, Cavell takes Dewey to be an ally), Cavell’s confession is instructive: “… the world he was responding to and responding from missed the worlds I seemed mostly to live in, missing the heights of modernism in the arts, the depths of psychoanalytic discovery, the ravages of the century’s politics, the wild intelligence of American popular culture” (Conditions Handsome & Unhandsome, p. 13).  Please know that I recall this text as a pragmatist, as one who identifies more fully with the irrepressible vitality of the pragmatic tradition than any other intellectual inheritance. 

            Please allow me to interject here a word about psychoanalysis.  In the church of the latter-day pragmatists, the writings of psychoanalysts tend to be anathema.[2]  These are certainly at or near the center of our neglects. Despite his deep misgivings about Freudian psychology (see, e.g., Perry, II, 122-23), James encouraged his physician and friend James Jackson Putnam to move in the direction of his inclination – to work toward winning a hearing for psychoanalysis in the US.  And Putnam, buoyed by the encouragement of his friend, proved to be crucial for the reception of Freud in this country.  In James’ mouth, pluralism meant – pluralism.  Please allow me to read from an earlier issue of The New Yorker. 

In 1909, the same summer Freud delivered the Clark University lectures, introducing psychoanalysis to the United States, he joined James Jackson Putnam, a Boston Brahmin physician, for a sojourn at his Adirondack’s retreat.  Prochnik [the author of Putnam Camp (Other Press, 2007)], who is Putnam’s great-grandson, shows how Putnam championed Freud’s method to an élite and suspicious group of American physicians.  At the same time, Putnam tried to convince Freud that therapy was incomplete without some metaphysical dimension. … [Prochnik’s] narrative is strongest when it depicts Freud outside his element – trying to play his first game of tetherball, struggling amid campers who hike, sing, and play dress-up games at dinner. (p. 91).[3]

So, let’s imagine Freud, who went to the barber every working day to have his beard and hair trimmed camping out in the Adirondacks, perhaps even in drag around the campfire.  When life simply hands one such material, better than most of what almost anyone of us could conjure in imagination, one ought to feel grateful!

            Pragmatists fail their own tradition when they fail to take into explicit, practical account such phenomena as tragedy and sexuality, racism and sexism,[4] digital media and the emerging arts flowing from the imaginative uses of these new technologies, the rancor so often on display in the academy and the resentment so evident throughout so much of our culture.  The American people appear to be an aggrieved lot.  Ours is, in Robert Hughes’ expression, a “culture of complaint.”  The complaints are in countless cases understandable and even justifiable, though the ethos resulting from such a deep-seated, far-reaching sense of injury feels to many of us much of the time to be an asylum of the neurotically thin-skinned and the fantastically self-important.  The culture of complaint seems, at least to me, to be such an asylum.

            I know no better antidote to this than taking a walk or making love, acquiring a physical skill or foreign language, listening to music or reading such authors as Russell Baker or Kurt Vonnegut, Ralph Ellison or Alice Walker.  I am certain you might have invaluable suggestions to add to this merely truncated list.  Pragmatism is in no small measure a philosophy born of James’ struggle to twist free from the melancholia robbing him of his vitality and, thereby, of nothing less than his life.  So he was especially preoccupied with “that metaphysical tedium vitae which is peculiar to reflective men” (WB, pp. 38-9).  As James to some extent exemplified in his life, reflection is as likely as not to ensnare us more tightly in the grip of tedium, ennui, and anomie.  What we most likely need is, hence, not so much the gospel of relaxation as that of alternative engagement, especially when our principal engagement is sustained reflection, reading, and writing.  Listen – or make music, without which life would be a mistake.  Read authors who know that “something permanently drastic and bitter always remains at the bottom of its [life’s] cup” (Pragmatism, p. 1410, but who also know that “When the cup is poured off … the possibility of what is poured off is sweet enough to accept.”  Read authors who celebrate not a begrudging acceptance of, but an expansive joy in, the transient and the ephemeral, the inexplicable contingencies and unanticipated confluences of our quotidian engagements.  Read novels, for as Milan Kundera asserts in his new book – The Curtain – the “novel alone could [has the power to] reveal the immense, mysterious power of the pointless” (p. 21).[5]

            In Man Without a Country, Vonnegut recalls:

When I got home from the Second World War, my Uncle Dan clapped me on the back, and he said, ‘You’re a man now.’  So I killed him.  Not really, but I certainly felt like doing it.

Dan, that was my bad uncle, who said a male can’t be a man unless he’d gone to war.

But I had a good uncle, my Uncle Alex.  He was my father’s kid brother, a childless graduate of Harvard who was an honest life-insurance salesman in Indianapolis.  He was well-read and wise.  And his principal complaint about other human beings was that they so seldom noticed it when they were happy.  So when we were drinking lemonade under an apple tree in the summer, say, and talking lazily about this and that, almost buzzing like honeybees, Uncle Alex would suddenly interrupt the agreeable blather to exclaim, ‘If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.’

So I do the same thing now, and so do my kids and grandkids.  And I urge you to please notice when you are happy …

            Resentment involves the inability to acknowledge one’s happiness, for what one has is so much less than what one deserves.  Despite my criticisms above, there is much in pragmatism that enables us to understand the core of resentment or, more accurately, one or several strands within the complex weave of this family-resemblance notion.  What I am especially interested in highlighting are the nature and depth of the injury felt by the person who is resentful.  The emotional intensity of this particular reaction attitude is also worth underscoring (P. F. Strawson).  In the chapter on “Instincts” in his Principles,  James notes:

In many respects man is the most ruthlessly ferocious of beasts.  As with gregarious animals, ‘two souls,’ as Faust says, ‘dwell within his breast,’ the one of sociability and helpfulness, the other of jealousy and antagonism to his mates.  Though in a general way he cannot live without them, yet, as regards certain individuals, it often falls out that cannot live with them either.  Constrained to be a member of a tribe, he still has a right to decide, as far as in him lies, of which members the tribe shall consist.  Killing off a few obnoxious ones may often better the chances of those that remain.  And killing off a neighboring tribe from whom no good thing comes, but only competition, may materially better the lot of the whole tribe.  Hence the gory cradle, the bellum omnium contra omnes, in which our ace was reared; hence the fickleness of human ties. The ease with which the foe of yesterday becomes the ally of to-day, the friend of to-day the enemy of tomorrow; hence the fact that we, the lineal representatives of the successful enactors of one scene of slaughter after another, must, whatever more pacific virtues we may also possess, still carry about with us, ready at any moment to burst into flame, the smouldering and sinister traits of character by means of which they lived through so many massacres, harming others, but themselves unharmed [?!?].  [Section on “pugnacity; anger; resentment”: Harvard edition, 1028-29; Dover edition, volume II, 409-10]

            Earlier in the Principles James invites us to think of “the paradox of the man shamed to death because he is only the second pugilist or the second oarsman in the world.  That he is able to beat the whole population of the globe minus one is nothing; he has ‘pitted’ himself to beat that one, and as long as he doesn’t do that nothing else counts.  He is to his own regard as if he were not, indeed he is not” (p. 296).  From this I infer that the phenomenon of resentment entails a logic of annihilation.  Another passage from the Principles, from this same section on the self, helps us to bring this into focus:

All narrow people intrench their Me, they retract it, – from the region of what they cannot securely possess.  People who don’t resemble them, people over whom they [can] gain no influence, are people on whose existence, however meritorious it may intrinsically be, they will look with chill negation, if not with positive hatred.  Who will not be mine I will exclude from existence altogether; that is, as far as I can make it so, such people will be as if they were not.  Thus may a certain absolutely and definiteness in the outline of my Me console for the smallness of its contents. (p. 298).

My hope is that, in the discussion, we will have time to draw out some of the implications of these texts for explaining what I am calling the logic of annihilation.

            Our sense of worth is one thing, our sense of our own importance quite another (cf. Peirce).[6]  As difficult as it is in practice to disentangle our sense of worth from our sense of our importance, it is necessary.[7]  You are worthy of this world, worthy of more love than you will ever receive, more recognition than you will ever win, more rapturous music than you will ever hear, music that will throw you in the air with the same joyful abandonment and force as a good uncle or aunt did when you were a toddler.  In the way I am using these terms, worth is largely a function of our status as inheritors and trustees, whereas importance is that which underwrites a peculiar form of human vulnerability, the susceptibility to feeling injured by the words, actions, and (perhaps above all) indifference of others, injured in such a way as to feel nothing less than annihilated.  Concerning one’s worth, we must ask: Am I faithful to that with which I have been entrusted?  Am I imaginatively appropriating and simply cherishing with due measure the transformative inheritances by which I have come to be and yet continue to become?  Concerning one’s importance, very different questions are consuming (often questions having others as their focus, but defense of the self against forces of annihilation as their objective) – Who does he think he is?!?

            The capacity to bear loss and injury – not merely to bear but to carry on gracefully – points to topics too large and numerous even to note here, let alone to discuss, not least of all mourning and melancholia, forbearance and a reconciliation with the actual conditions of our finite existence (Cavell; Lachs).  Our inability to bear our pains and injuries gracefully is arguably a measure of our illness or weakness; conversely, about ability in this regard a sign of our strength and health.  In the words of James Hinton, as quoted by James in “The Sentiment of Rationality,”

That our pains our, as they are, unendurable, awful, overwhelming, crushing, not to be borne save in misery and dump impatience, which utter exhaustion alone makes patient, – that our pains are unendurable, means not that they are too great, but that we are sick.  We have [in such circumstances] not got our proper life.

Some unimaginable hardships however are not infrequently borne with exemplary grace, while the slightest of slights can be incessantly protested and forever remembered. 

            The Jamesian question (the “really vital question”) – “What is this world going to be?  What is life eventually going to make itself?” (Pragmatism, p. 62) – can take an extremely circumspect form, Is human life worth perpetuating?  Vonnegut recalls in Man Without a Country a letter in which his advice was sought: his correspondent wrote, “I’d love to know your thoughts for a woman of 43 who is finally going to have a child but is wary of bringing a new life into such a frightening world” (p. 106).  His initial impulse is no less worth recalling here than his eventual reply: “Don’t do it!  I wanted to tell her.  It could be another George W. Bush or Lucrezia Borgia.  The kid would be lucky enough to be born into a society in which even poor people are overweight but unlucky to be in one without a national health plan or decent public education for most, where lethal injection and warfare are forms of entertainment …” (p. 106).  This is however not what he did say in response to her.  Rather (in Vonnegut’s own words), “I replied that what made being alive almost worthwhile for me, besides music, was [were] all the saints I met, who could be anywhere.  By saints I meant people who behaved decently in a strikingly indecent society” (p. 106).  I feel almost disposed to quibble with his qualification “almost worthwhile,” but then I have not been a prisoner of war in Dresden when it was fired bombed and, after miraculously surviving, was not required to bury countless bodies and, when my captors realized the task was too enormous, to burn the rotting bodies, many of them already burnt beyond recognition.

            And there are saints and our gratitude must extend to them.  I for one count Vonnegut among my saints.  Indeed, is it possible to overestimate the human significance of cosmically insignificant figures who practically prove themselves to be exemplars of celebration as much as of decency, who practically prove the worth of their ideals and their worthiness in the advocacy of these ideals in virtually imperceptible acts and gestures, unnoticed heroism and forbearance?

            Among the possibilities revealed in their lives is one bearing directly on the topic at hand.  For what their lives can show as a possibility is this: A cultivated, gracious indifference to the searingly focused, intensely passionate “indifference” (i.e., hatred) of those whose sense of injury prompts them to annihilate those gracious individuals.  Our refusal to be injured by those whose lives are daily consumed with an intensely (better: insanely) felt sense of their own injuries – especially by those whose sense of injury prompts them to “look with chill negation, if not with positive hate,” upon us – appears to be the most noble course.  An abiding sense of irreparable injury can all too quickly make of the self a black hole in which everything whatsoever is sucked into the vortex of a voracious resentment so powerful as to deprive the resentful individual of the possibility of savoring, even momentarily, success or joy.

            Yesterday, Richard Shusterman recalled Dewey’s warning regarding the poison of the prefix -self.  “Many good words get spoiled,” Dewey notes in Human Nature & Conduct, “when the word self is prefixed to them” (MW 14: 96; emphasis added).  But consider the different valences sounded in self-critical and self-important.  Therapy might be characterized as a corrective form of intimacy (Merkin 2000).[8]  In turn, philosophy (especially for those who are committed to the ongoing reconstruction of human practices, institutions, and indeed habits) might be characterized as a corrective form of query or, more narrowly, inquiry.  But, for many of us, not only must philosophy be therapeutic but also therapy must be philosophical.  What better test case for the therapeutic power of a psychoanalytically informed approach to pragmatic reconstruction could there be than the offensive against resentment?




Bernstein, Richard J.  1998.  Freud & the Legacy of Moses.  Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.


Buchler, Justus.  1955.  Nature & Judgment.  NY: Columbia University Press.


Cavell, Stanley.  1990.  Conditions Handsome & Unhandsome.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press.


Colapietro, Vincent.  1995.  “Notes for a Sketch of a Peircean Theory of the Unconscious.”  Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society, 31, 3, 482-506.


________________.  2000.  “Further Consequences of a Singular Capacity.”  In Peirce, Semiotics, & Psychoanalysis, ed. John Muller & Joseph Brent (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press), 136-58.


________________.  2006.  “Pragmatism & Psychoanalysis – C. S. Peirce as a Mediating Figure.”  Cognitio, 7, 2, 189-205.


Dewey, John.  Human Nature & Conduct.  The Middle Works of John Dewey, volume 14.  Carbondale, IL: SIU Press.  Cited as MW 14.


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Hughes, Robert.  1994.  The Culture of Complaint.  NY: Warner Books.


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_____________.  The Will to Believe & Other Essays in Popular Philosophy


_____________.  Pragmatism & The Meaning of Truth. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.


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Kramer, Peter D.  2002.  “Adirondack Couch” {Review of George Prochnik’s Putnam Camp: Sigmund Freud, James Jackson Putnam, & the Purpose of American Psychology].  NY Times Book Review (December 24), 17.


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Lachs, John.  2005.  “Stoic Pragmatism.”  JSP, 19, 2, 95-106.


Malcolm, Janet.  1982.  Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession.  NY: Vintage Books.


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Merkin, Daphne.  2000.  “If These walls Could Talk.”  NY Times Book Review (June 25), 4.


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Myers, Gerald E.  1990.  “James & Freud.”  The Journal of Philosophy, LXXXVII, 11, 593-99.


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___________.  1995.  “Freud, Philosophy, & Interpretation.”  In The Philosophy of Paul Ricoeur, ed. Lewis Hahn.  La Salle, IL: Open Court Press.


Strawson, P. F.


Freedom and Resentment.  Sullivan, Shannon W.  2006.  Revealing Whiteness: The Unconscious Habits of Racial Privilege.  Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.


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[1] The panel was scheduled on Friday in the later afternoon.

[2] Over thirty years ago, John J. McDermott noted: “incredibly, he [Dewey] never wrote a serious study of the implications of the thought of Freud” (1976, p. 147, note 44).  McDermott’s own work however is informed by psychoanalytic discourse and insights.  A brilliant engagement with the psychoanalytic tradition on the part of a thinker deeply rooted in pragmatism is John E. Smith’s dialogue with Paul Ricoeur (“Freud, Philosophy, and Interpretation”).  Another equally important such engagement is Richard J. Bernstein’s Freud & the Legacy of Moses (1998).

[3] Janet Malcolm writes: “When Freud was invited to Clark University, in Worcester, Massachusetts, in 1909, he gave a lecture series that was an excited celebration of the new science of psychoanalysis.  A radiance and a buoyancy run through the Clark lectures (Freud reconstructed them from memory – they had been given extemporaneously – and published them shortly after his return to Vienna), which were to fade from the later accounts of the same events. … These lectures remain the most concise and lucid account in and out of Freud’s writings of the birth of psychoanalysis; nowhere is the complicated story more effortlessly told” (10-11).

[4] It is significant that the most useful pragmatic approach to racism – Shannon W. Sullivan’s Revealing Whiteness (2006) – is a psychoanalytically informed approach.

[5] “The everyday.  It is,” Kundera notes, “not merely ennui, pointlessness, repetition, triviality; it is beauty as well; for example the magical charms of atmospheres, a thing everyone has felt in his own life: a strain of music heard faintly from the next apartment; the wind rattling the windowpane; the monotonous voice of a professor that a lovesick girl hears without registering; these trivial circumstances stamp some personal event with an inimitable singularity that dates it and makes it unforgettable” (p. 20).  The power of the novel and, more generally, literature to reveal these and countless other such features of the quotidian make novels and literature indispensable to any approach to philosophy that aspires to be concrete.  Recall here James’ own insistence near the outset of Some Problems of Philosophy is worth recallingOf philosophy he writes here: “Her manners may change as she successfully develops.  The thin and noble abstractions may give way to more solid and real constructions, when the materials and methods for making such constructions shall be more and more securely ascertained.  In the end philosophers may get into as close contact as realistic novelists with the facts of life” (1979, 19).  But this will result only if philosophers avail themselves of the power of such novelists to reveal the pointless, the ephemeral, the transient, and countless other features of our everyday life.

[6] “Among vitally important truths there is one which I verily believe – and which men of infinitely deeper insight than mine have believed [e.g., Confucius, Buddha, and Jesus] – to be solely supremely important.  It is that vitally important facts are of al truths the veriest trifles.  For the only vitally important matter is my concern, business, and duty – or yours.  Now you and I – what are we?  Mere cells of the social organism.  Our deepest sentiment pronounces the verdict of our own insignificance” (CP 1.673).  “There are,” Peirce in another context notes, “those who believe in their own existence, because its opposite is inconceivable; yet the most balsamic of all sweets of all sweet philosophy is the illusion that personal existence [the self as a being separate from others and history] is an illusion and a practical joke” (CP 4.68).  To be liberated from this illusion is also to be freed from the weight a sense of one’s importance.  Cf. Varieties of Religious Experience.

[7] In the discussion, Brendan Hogan insightfully inquired about the relevance of narcissism to the topic at hand.  I intend my conception of importance to encompass that of narcissism in its more technical, psychological sense, but not to be reducible to that of narcissism.

[8] Daphne Merkin suggests: “Everything [in the therapeutic situation] … hangs on the two people who sit behind a closed door, engaged in a corrective version of intimacy” (p. 4).