Saturday, May 5, 2012

The Colonization of Pragmatism

This is what I'm talking about, The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy's article on "Pragmatism."  Not a single member of the pragmatist tradition is mentioned outside of the neopragmatist branch, and all those philosophies are analytic appropriating pragmatic themes.  Moreover, only the easily appropriated parts of classical pragmatism are mentioned in the "pragmatic themes," which really speaks to how analytic philosophy has appropriated pragmatism rather than what it is.  This is a regular topic of discussion at Society for the Advancement of American Philosophy meetings.

Rescher is named once in a citation in reference to the quest for certainty, and he is an admirable pragmatist-analytic bridge thinker.  Stuhr, Shook, and Margolis are mentioned in the bibliography, which is something, but Berstein, Hickman, Alexander, Gouinlock, Hildebrand, etc. are not.  What's the difference?  Mostly, power and popularity in analytic circles.

What's the problem?  A neoclassical pragmatist has to overcome numerous analytic preconceptions about what they do to explain anything, all while explaining why they might not be referencing Putnam and Brandom frequently.  Because they are not relevant to much contemporary work in neoclassical pragmatism!  They just happen to be the names that are known.  This creates an enormous intellectual, academic, and even employment barrier for Americanists.

What I think might be unique about pragmatism's situation is this.  Unlike other minority traditions, it has a lot of name-popularity with the majority traditions.  Continental, Asian, and various other philosophies are usually not popular as well as misunderstood.  This puts the Americanist or pragmatist in an usual position of presumedly being popular, but only if one conforms to the majority's view of who and what they should be.


  1. my experience has been that most analytic folks think that the worthwhile bits of pragmatism have been incorporated into their projects and that the left should be left to the historians. As the neopragmatists have pointed out they are unlikely to be won over by argument so you folks just need your own power bases, own institutional homes.

  2. DMF,

    Your experience is the common agreement voiced among those I know and publicly at SAAP meetings. The problem is, however, that recent topics such as the embodied mind, semiotics, computation, process metaphysics, etc. have been becoming big in analytic and continental, and pragmatism (and American more generally) has been working on those issues for over a century and thus has much to contribute. However, at least in analytic quarters, their notion of pragmatism has been reduced to what they appropriated from it, and thus there is an implicit or explicit denial that pragmatism was, is, and will be working in these fields. I have recently pushed back against some continental conversations in the blogosphere that try to reduce process to Whitehead, and thereby, intentionally or not, de-legitimizing pragmatist and Americanist discourse.

    We have been building power bases and institutional homes, and so has continental, for decades. I am just fighting part of that fight, all while amazed that I have to do so. The current threat is colonization writ large--that analytic programs hire "pragmatists" who are actually analytics who read pragmatism or who are neopragmatists (a different in degree really) and thereby further reduce the public conception of "pragmatism."

    The latest front of the "war" has been to bring pragmatism over-seas where it is having remarkable success in central and south American, the nordic countries, and China.

  3. DMF,

    A thought occurred to me. Without sufficient employment, pragmatists scholars are effectively silenced from the discourse. Hence, the pragmatist's problem is not just publishing in major journals--or any journal at all--but in landing employment to begin with. If "mainstream" philosophy doesn't recognize that scholarship, then it is even harder to become employed. You can probably seen where this is going.

    Now I'm going to say something controversial that I really shouldn't. One internal problem, in my view, is that the old guard pragmatists are so used to "power-building" that they are eating their own young. How? So many edited anthologies have the same 1-3 groups of scholars, and make it extraordinarily difficult for younger scholars to get published even in-house unless they ally with those groups. This phenomena is not new to contemporary philosophy, but the small pool makes things different. I've even heard this complaint from friendly analytic pragmatists for years. It makes coalition building extremely difficult.

    1. sadly it's been like that for a long time, even on the continental front most of my favorite writers are in language studies programs and not philosophy proper, and if you look at the blurbs on books and as you say edited works you see the same names over and over, the academy is quite inbred. the old adage about it not being what but who you know rings true and really gives some pause about the value of much of what is being taught these days in higher-ed. hope you catch a break.

  4. DMF,

    Many pragmatists scholars are PhDs in education, history, or American studies, or are logicians, or do like I do and dual/triple study multiple traditions in philosophy. In my case,it's continental (mostly history) with competence in Asian/World Humanities. I am fascinated by the Chinese uptake in Dewey, btw, per his democratic politics.

    Sadly, I don't blog much about anything other than what the local blogosphere is talking about, but I could blog about much more, particularly in history. I should do more pragmatism soon as I start working on my book again. Pragmatist theories of temporality, imagination, morality and aesthetics, etc.