Commentary Magazine

The Promise of Pragmatism, by John Patrick Diggins

An American Philosophy

The Promise of Pragmatism: Modernism and the Crisis of Knowledge and Authority.
by John Patrick Diggins.
University of Chicago Press. 515 pp. $29.95.

Pragmatism and politics—for most people this phrase states a natural enough connection. Politics, after all, is the “art of the possible,” involving the necessity of practical compromise, and in this common sense of the word, all politicians are pragmatists.

But pragmatism is also the name given to America’s only homegrown philosophical movement, which encompasses figures like William James, Charles Sanders Peirce, George Herbert Mead, John Dewey, and, in our own day, Richard Rorty. Once upon a time, pragmatism in this sense was also intimately associated with politics. Indeed, in the early part of this century, the philosophical pragmatism of John Dewey was the leading non-Marxist theoretical inspiration for legions of liberals and progressives. Having been in eclipse since World War II, pragmatism has been much talked about recently as the basis for a rejuvenated liberalism.

What is pragmatism as a philosophy? The short answer is that pragmatism aims to break away from the perceived need, inherited through more than two millennia of metaphysics starting at least with Plato, to establish foundations or a priori rationales for action. In the eyes of pragmatists, the whole history of philosophy represents one long effort to establish “universals”—indelible, pure truths that do not vary with time or place. For the action-oriented pragmatists, this effort is fruitless and futile; the proper contribution of philosophy should be, rather, to construct a rationale for acting without worrying about whether one’s actions are properly “justified” or “grounded” in predetermined notions of what is right and true.

As for what pragmatism as a philosophy has to say to politics, that is not entirely clear. For proponents, it can be a radical call to action, breaking down perceived barriers to communal participation through democratizing the means of “knowing,” and thus avoiding reliance on authoritarian elites. For skeptics, it may be just an elaborate rationalization for ignoring truth and history in order to grab the present moment unreflectively.



The historian John Patrick Diggins grapples with these issues in The Promise of Pragmatism, an extraordinarily ambitious work of both analysis and synthesis. Diggins explores here the attraction of the pragmatist viewpoint earlier in the century and asks whether it can be successfully revived to lead us into a new world of democratic politics. Diggins’s own perspective is a bit elusive, but it is safe to say that he is skeptical—both on the question of whether pragmatism in its original form was a promising political philosophy and on the prospect that “neopragmatism” will amount to anything more than a fancy rhetorical dress for old, unresolved tensions.

Diggins’s book is rewarding in its thoughtfulness and its nuanced presentation of ideas, yet can also be maddeningly difficult and unwieldy. No ordinary intellectual history, it consists largely of extended essays on central figures, whose thinking is “interrogated” by the thought of others through the ages. Thus, James, Dewey, and Rorty are made to match wits with, for instance, Henry Adams, Max Weber, Thorstein Veblen, Reinhold Niebuhr, Charles Beard, and Friedrich Nietzsche, as if they could all shuttle back and forth in some intellectual time machine. As illuminating as these “dialogues” can be, a reader easily becomes disoriented, left without either a narrative or a conceptual compass.

Weaving through the shifting conversations goes a story something like the following. Intellectuals in the late-19th century faced a crisis of modernity. Thanks to the evolutionary theories of Darwin, human history had come to seem bereft of a meaningful pattern, at the mercy of pure contingency. The sense of primal authority that came with religion had been exhausted. How, then, was one to find a justification to act?

For the new pragmatists, authority and the dead weight of history could be as much a drag on the human spirit as an anchor of certainty. What they proposed instead was to relish the living flux of human consciousness and, without forgoing idealism, to explore the world’s novelties with the “can-do” spirit of the experimental scientist.

The prototype here was William James (1842-1910), son of a wealthy, oddball amateur theologian and brother to the great novelist, Henry. James began his studies in physiology and the nascent field of experimental psychology before turning to philosophical speculation. Influenced both by his own study of consciousness and by the eccentric polymath genius Charles Sanders Peirce, the most fertile philosophical mind of 19th-century America, James formulated the keynote of the new philosophy that he and Peirce called “pragmatism” in two related ideas: “radical empiricism” and the “will to believe.”

For James, the human mind actively reconstitutes perceptions, mixing and matching impressions of the objective world in its own creative synthesis: we are all artists in consciousness, remaking the world in the very act of encountering it. As a corollary, James felt that if we only embraced the “will to believe”—that is, acknowledged the plastic, creative power of our own minds—we could learn to control the world to good ends.



An inspirational and civic-minded intellectual, James was not a political philosopher in the sense of one who translated his ideas into a framework for public action. It was left to John Dewey (1859-1952) to expand on some of those ideas and link them to a forceful communitarian ethic. Like James, Dewey began with the primal fact of the mind’s freedom; but he built on James’s “radical empiricism” in his concept of “experience,” a catchall expression for the way human consciousness changes the world in the act of trying to understand it.

Dewey’s stress on the immediacy of experience led him to a militant rejection of history as a guide to action. History, he thought, was just the record of contingent events past and told us nothing about how to act in the present; this we could only know by acting. For Diggins, this conception of knowledge through experience courted a paradox that came back to haunt Dewey when he gave advice about political challenges in the real world. For if one cannot know until one acts, then one must approach every moment of decision with a certain willful blindness.

Politically, what rang the death knell for Dewey was his advice that the United States stay out of the war with Hitler on the grounds that fighting it would hamper the march of social progress at home. As Diggins wryly observes, Dewey here ignored his own command to ignore history, interpreting the social repressiveness that had overtaken America during an earlier conflict, World War I, as a sign that war should be avoided at all cost. In any case, the move alienated Dewey from his liberal and radical friends, who saw him as betraying the “popular front” against fascism, and it marked the beginning of the end of his influence.



As Diggins notes, pragmatism’s fortunes generally declined by the 1950’s. Within the academic discipline of philosophy, it was overshadowed by the rise of language-oriented philosophy—the tradition of Bertrand Russell, G.E. Moore, and Ludwig Wittgenstein—which took over American philosophy with a vengeance. But then came Richard Rorty, at first an epigone of the linguistic school, who shucked off its influence and called for a renewal of public-spirited philosophy that would once again address the big social and political issues. In the 1970’s Rorty began his assault on the philosophical establishment through a revival of Dewey.

Rorty has used Dewey’s ideas to reinforce his own belief that philosophy goes badly astray when it seeks some indefeasible definition of truth. But whereas Dewey looked to science as an escape from the constraints of authority and history, for Rorty science is part of the problem.

Modern philosophy, he writes, is in thrall to a model of knowledge derived from scientific realism—the doctrine that from well-grounded empirical observations one can build up a rock-solid picture of reality. Rorty proposes instead that the most philosophy can aim for are provisional statements, suggestive fictions: philosophers are, or should be, more like novelists, aspiring only to a certain local coherence of texture and rhetorical power, with no pretense to offering a “true” description of the world.

Politically, this vision coincides with a noncoercive communitarian ethic, in which no one is bound by a rigidly enforced set of conditions concerning morals or politics. In Rorty’s view, we Americans are likely to achieve solidarity if we refrain from imposing upon our statements the requirement that they satisfy predefined criteria of truth.

Diggins finds Rorty’s emphasis on rhetoric and noncoercive conversation to be a rather flaccid substitute for Dewey’s stress on action. Watering down Dewey’s ideas in order to make them more palatable to the “postmodernist” temper, Rorty merely reformulates the currently fashionable attitude that we cannot know history other than as a congeries of self-serving myths, and thus should not take seriously any positive assertions about the world. For Diggins, Rorty is altogether too content to reduce politics to talk. Unlike Dewey’s, his liberalism is essentially negative, attempting to free up “conversation” about social ills rather than committing itself to a program of action or even principles.



So where does Diggins himself stand? Like the curmudgeon historian Henry Adams, with whom he seems to identify too closely for his own health, Diggins is caught between a spiritual longing for that old-time religion—in his case, the “religion” of the early progressives and cultural radicals—and a modern, Rorty-like skepticism that finds all assertions questionable. Like Dewey (and Rorty), he seems to yearn for a new communal spirit in our political culture; yet he is too respectful of the Founders’ jaundiced view of unchecked human passion to accept communitarianism as a new form of liberal political philosophy.

In short, Diggins is caught in the dilemma of modern liberalism, to whose tortured legacy he has devoted many commendably candid and erudite books, this one among them.

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