The Return Of Pragmatism

WILLIAM JAMES’S EXHILARATING movement to sweep aside all philosophies is making a surprising comeback a century later

In ordinary speech, pragmatism connotes practicality, commonsense, feet on the ground—virtues Americans like to think of as specifically American virtues. One thing the term does not connote is philosophical speculation. When we say someone is pragmatic, we are usually implying that he or she is not given to abstract rumination. But pragmatism is also the name of a particular type of philosophy. It was first introduced publicly nearly a hundred years ago, in 1898, by William James, and for several decades arguments over it dominated American philosophy.Read more »

The Hazards Of American Individualism

A distinguished scholar of American literature discusses why, after a career of study and reflection, he believes that Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman are bad for you

Quentin Anderson, Julian Clarence Levy Professor in the Humanities Emeritus at Columbia University, argues in his best-known book, The Imperial Self: An Essay in American Literary and Cultural History , that the writings of three of our most representatively American authors, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman, and Henry James, embody a distinctly American grand refusal of history and social roles.Read more »

Facing Death

Our ancestors look gravely and steadily upon things that we cannot

In the course of this lethal century, death has been rendered increasingly abstract—a choreographed plunge on the television screen, the punch of a red button in a bomber or a computer game, a statistic in a column of print. The constant flicker of electronic sounds and images that surround us constitutes a mental environment as insulating as the buzzing belief systems of animism, Islam, or medieval Christianity.Read more »

Too Many Philosophers

When Winifred Smith Rieber confidently agreed to paint a group portrait of America’s five pre-eminent philosophers, she had no idea it would be all but impossible even to get them to stay in the same room with one another.

Mother was off again, this time to New England to paint the Harvard philosophy department—all five of its members, and on a single canvas. Mother had known the Harvard philosophers before, but only slightly, when my father had studied under them during his graduate years.Read more »

America: Experiment or Destiny?

Nearly two centuries after Crèvecoeur propounded his notorious question—“What then is the American, this new man?”—Vine Deloria, Jr., an American Indian writing in the Bicentennial year on the subject “The North Americans” for Crisis , a magazine directed to American blacks, concluded: “No one really knows at the present time what America really is.” Surely few observers were more entitled to wonder at the continuing mystery than those who could accurately claim the designation Original American.Read more »

S•x Education

“Your body is a temple,” our ancestors told their pubescent youngsters. ‘Now go take a cold bath”

Standards of propriety were lofty indeed

Something called delicacy overtook Americans soon after our successful Revolution. Like an incoming tide, it flowed all over the nineteenth century, reaching its high-water mark about a hundred years ago. From that point it slowly receded, leaving behind rock pools of what came to be identified as prudery.Read more »

Bringing Up Baby

“What a sacred office is that of the parent!” exclaimed an anonymous contributor to The Parent’s Magazine in December, 1840. By 1915, he went on, the population of the United States should reach 156,000,000, and “what an influence when [the parent] may mould the character ofthat distant day and ofthat multitudinous population! … What destiny temporal and eternal awaits it depends upon parents now upon the stage.Read more »

Good Lord, Grandpa It All Came True

Ideas change. A thigh thought massive in 1970 was another era’s ideal, and the pinups presented here never failed to draw admiring looks from gentlemen of the 1890’s, along with a chuckle or two at the presumption of these career-minded girls. Read more »