Sunday, August 14, 2011

The Tradition of American Pragmatism: The Lay of the Land

This began as a recommendation for Adam of Knowledge Ecology.  I have decided to make a longer, more general  explanation of the lay of the land of John Dewey scholarship.  This is not meant to be comprehensive, although eventually I plan for it to be so.  I am speaking to a number of factors, including sociological and political ones.

There are three sub-traditions of "American pragmatism" that all fall under the umbrella of "American philosophy."  "American philosophy" is meant to include any philosophic though native to the United States, or arguably, the Americas.  It includes many subjects and thinkers, such as John Edwards or Jane Addams.  The reason I mention this is because pragmatism situates itself within its history, e.g., does not strongly distinguish between "doing history" and "doing contemporary," which is an outlook common to continental philosophy but not to stereotypical analytic philosophy.

The three subtraditions of American pragmatism are classical, neoclassical, and neopragmatism.  Classical pragmatism is the study of historic texts of the founding figures and the resultant historical commentaries.  Neoclassical pragmatism, a term coined by Larry Hickman I believe, includes classical pragmatism but aims to continue the historic projects into contemporary philosophy.  In practice, its a fluid distinction, but is useful to mention because some believe that contemporary pragmatists are just historians, which is not true.  Many neoclassicals are also pluralists, myself included, and frequently are scholars of analytic, continental, and Asian philosophy.  A number of well-regarded scholars either do not hold a degree in philosophy or reside in other departments, especially education, politics, and psychology; the field strongly tends towards interdisciplinarity.    Finally, there is neopragmatism, which has several branches inclusive of Quine, Putnam, Davidson, Rorty, West, Haack, etc.  In short, neopragmatists adopt a few theories from classical pragmatism, especially its theory of truth and politics, and apply them to issues in analytic philosophy.  Neoclassicals and neopragmatists share little in common, and there has been a rift for decades that has been the subject of much internal discussion.  Part of the rift is due to the term "pragmatism" becoming publicly associated with whatever neopragmatism does.  Hence, I usually get many shocked looks when explaining my work to analytic philosophers, because what I say is so counter-intuitive to what they think "pragmatism" is.  In conclusion, there are many who identify with pragmatism for whom these labels are not helpful; I am merely identifying the mainstream lines of published scholarship.  Peirceans, for instance, are most likely not to be well-served by these distinctions in my view.

Within neoclassical pragmatism, there are many lines of scholarship.  I will name a few functional divisions.  First, scholarship tends to divide on whether one emphasizes the aesthetic dimension (Alexander et al) or "instrumentalist/theory of inquiry" dimension, which amounts to which texts they emphasize, i.e., Experience and Nature & Art as Experience vs. Logic: the Theory of Inquiry.  Scholarship divides again depending upon one's "pluralism," i.e., whether one is also a scholar of continental, analytic, Asian, or of other non-philosophy fields.  There are strong trends among those who pair pragmatism with continental vs. with analytic.  Pragmatists, recently as a matter of employment necessity, study more than pragmatism.

17 comments:

  1. Thanks for the link, Leon. For the rest of my readers, he linked me from After Nature. Leon is an example of one of the scholars that is probably not well served by the "tradition labels." That part of the discussion is meant as a general guide.

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  2. There is a strand of neo-pragmatism in Rorty/West/Fish that would see say instrumentalism and aesthetics as coming together under something like rhetoric (Not so far from Stengers/Haraway and which opens the field of potentially useful resources to whatever can be fashioned to work, make a difference), which if one literally fleshes it out a bit by bringing in various related fields on embodiment starts to undermine these either/ors which is pretty classical, no? This of course is just my take on things and so not part of the institutional layout of the land.
    -dmf

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  3. Dmf,

    Yes, I am aware of that strand, and Rorty was the first pragmatist that I read as an undergrad. I still think he's 95% right, and the part in dispute is mostly academic.

    These are not meant to be either/or's but helpful distinctions. Moreover, as I said in the beginning, I'm also mapping the institutional, sociological, etc. strata that have much less to do with philosophy per se and more to do with politics, etc. I know the neopragmatic strains less well, but there's old-school Quine and Putnam, Rorty/West/Fish/etc., and the new school Quine and Putnam crowd that go far with the theory of truth and meaning. That is such a miniscule part of the classical tradition, whereas the Rorty-strain borrows a lot more education, politics, sociology, culture, etc., but not the metaphysics, phenomenology, or Peirce that is the the other great contribution to the field.

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  4. yes I get the sociological angle of the post thus my note about the perhaps idiosyncratic nature of my view, I do think tho that much of the internal/institutionalized politics within pragmatist camps is broadly reflective of unnecessary/unpragmatist divisions in thinking versus specialized labor.
    Where I think we differ as pragmatists and so might see different solutions to avoiding such either ors is that I would expand Rorty's radical behavioralism to include enactivist/neurophenomenological type works, but would leave aside metaphysics/Peirce in favor of expanding Rorty's kuhnian reading of Davidson on metaphors, which brings us pretty close to Shaviro's latest take on, revision of, Kant/Hegel, and keeps in mind all of Cavell's fallibalism and avoids the continental tendency to sublime grammar.

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