The Return Of Pragmatism


Mead was a physiologist and psychologist, and his method was to apply a Darwinian model to those areas of inquiry. He explained physiological development in adaptive terms, as something that happens as a result of the interaction of the human being with its environment. He explained consciousness, including the sense of individual identity, in the same manner, as something that happens as a result of the interaction of the human being with other human beings. Even our innermost thoughts, in Mead’s view, are social. For we think, as we act, relationally; we talk to ourselves. “Inner consciousness,” as he put it, “is socially organized by the importation of the social organization of the outer world.” The field he developed was social psychology, and its influence on twentieth-century thought extends well beyond pragmatism.

It is common today to speak of a revival of pragmatism, a phenomenon usually dated from the publication of Richard Rorty’s Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature in 1979. The implication is that after Peirce, James, Holmes, Dewey, and Mead, pragmatism went into eclipse and that only in the last fifteen years has it re-emerged as a distinctively American style of thought with wide appeal. This notion is not entirely false. Pragmatism after Dewey did go into relative eclipse, and twentieth-century intellectuals have been more likely to identify themselves with other schools of thought—Marxism, psychoanalysis, existentialism, and structuralism—than to think of themselves as pragmatists.

But the notion that pragmatism was eclipsed by other schools of thought in the twentieth century is also a little misleading, and the reason is that it is part of the nature of pragmatism to decline the honor of becoming a “school of thought.” Pragmatists have always been wary of the danger that pragmatism will turn into a discipline, just another one of the things people “do.” James presented pragmatism, after all, not as a philosophy but as a way of doing philosophy. Pragmatism, in the most basic sense, is about how we think, not what we ought to think.

If we locate pragmatism within the broader picture of turn-of-the-century intellectual life, we can see it as a kind of knot in the tapestry, a pulling together of threads that reach into many other areas of thought, with many other consequences—threads that, running back into the nineteenth century, include the emergence of theories of cultural pluralism and political progressivism, the fascination with pure science and the logic of scientific inquiry, the development of probability theory as a means for coping with randomness and uncertainty, the spread of historicist approaches to the study of culture, the rapid assimilation of the Darwinian theory of evolution, and the Emersonian suspicion of institutional authority. None of these developments is “pragmatist,” but pragmatism was one of the places where they came into focus.


The threads that lead out of the pragmatist knot and into twentieth-century thought are as various as the threads that lead into it. Pragmatism served as a kind of philosophical tonic for many twentieth-century thinkers whom it would seem beside the point to call pragmatists. One of the most striking effects of the contemporary pragmatist revival is that a whole array of American (and non-American) writers has suddenly been placed in a new shared context. Cornel West, in The American Evasion of Philosophy (1990), uses pragmatism to show what people like James, W. E. B. Du Bois, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Lionel Trilling have in common, just as Rorty, in Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature and Consequences of Pragmatism (1982), uses pragmatism to show what people like Dewey, Martin Heidegger, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and Jacques Derrida have in common, and Richard Poirier, in Poetry and Pragmatism (1992), uses it to show what Emerson, Robert Frost, and Gertrude Stein have in common. A complete list of American writers who have acknowledged the stimulus of pragmatism would be varied and long and would include, besides those just named, Wallace Stevens, Learned Hand, Benjamin Cardozo, Kenneth Burke, Sidney Hook, C. Wright Mills, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., Tom Hayden, and Harold Bloom.

Of the various strands emerging from the pragmatism of James and Dewey, four in particular lead into the cluster of concerns that have helped revive interest in pragmatism. One is the development of theories of cultural pluralism in response to the xenophobia induced by the turn-of-the-century waves of immigration and exacerbated by America’s entry into the First World War. Three figures whose writing was seminal to this development were students of James and Dewey: Horace Kallen, whose essay “Democracy Versus the Melting Pot” (1915) is often cited as the founding document of cultural pluralism; Alain Locke, who delivered his groundbreaking series of lectures “Race Contacts and Interracial Relations” at Howard University in 1915 and 1916; and Randolph Bourne, whose essay “Trans-National America” appeared in 1916.