The Return Of Pragmatism


A third strand that has recently re-emerged from early pragmatist thought involves the educational philosophy developed around the turn of the century by John Dewey. That philosophy—the theory that children “learn by doing”—established itself long ago in the field of early-childhood education, but until the 1980s its relevance to undergraduate education seemed remote. Then, in an essay titled “Toward Pragmatic Liberal Education” in 1995, the historian Bruce A. Kimball argued that trends in undergraduate education since the 1960s reflect a move toward a pragmatic educational philosophy. For a century American higher education was dominated by the model of knowledge that obtains in research universities, where learning is split up among separate scholarly disciplines, or departments; where the emphasis is on “knowledge for its own sake”; where a distinction between “facts” and “values” is rigorously observed; and where education is divorced from practical affairs. Kimball maintained that in smaller liberal arts colleges across the country, educators have been quietly abandoning the research model and have been adopting curricula in which learning is oriented toward values, toward citizenship, toward the recognition of cultural diversity, and toward the Deweyan virtue of “doing.” This new model stresses “general education”—that is, education designed for all students, rather than for future specialists in an academic field of inquiry—and “liberal education”—the education of temperament and sensibility. Whether the educators responsible for this shift in the paradigm of the college experience ever thought of themselves as pragmatists, it is clear that the developments Kimball traced are consistent with the pragmatic, particularly the Deweyan, tradition, and that if this movement ever becomes coherent and self-conscious enough to acquire a philosophical label, “pragmatist” is the obvious choice.

The final strand connecting turn-of-the-century pragmatism with its late-twentieth-century avatar may seem the most obvious, but it is in fact the oddest. This is the strand that runs through philosophy itself. James and Dewey regarded themselves as philosophers, but it is not hard to see how their dismissal of the traditional problems of philosophy made them seem, to many professional philosophers, enemies of the discipline. Pragmatism is antiformalist; it represents a principle of endless assault on every tendency to erect contingent knowledge into a formal system. To the extent that philosophy is an effort to erect what we know about how we know into a formal system, pragmatism cannot help acting the role of termite—under-mining foundations, collapsing distinctions, deflating abstractions, suggesting that the real work of the world is being done somewhere other than in philosophy departments.

In spite of this, James and Dewey not only regarded themselves as philosophers but were, in their day, builders of philosophy departments—James at Harvard and Dewey at Chicago and then Columbia. Thus there has been, ever since James’s lecture “Philosophical Conceptions and Practical Results” in 1898, a tradition of professional pragmatist philosophy, begun by students and colleagues of James and Dewey and running into the present.

Yet this line of philosophical pragmatists is not the line that connects James with Rorty and the contemporary pragmatist revival. That line runs, paradoxically, through the philosophical tradition that is usually regarded as the antagonist of pragmatism and as the tradition that won the battle for the control of modern philosophy departments: analytic philosophy. Analytic philosophy is an overbroad term that embraces a number of philosophical movements since the time of Bertrand Russell, including logical atomism, logical positivism, and the philosophy of language. The differences among these movements are, of course, important to their practitioners, but from the point of view of pragmatism, the notion they all share is that there is a distinctively philosophical method of analysis that can be used to get to the bottom of problems about mind, knowledge, meaning, truth, and so on.

This is the tradition in which Rorty found himself working when he first began teaching philosophy, after getting his degree from Yale. And although Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature can seem, from one point of view, an all-out attack on analytic philosophy, it was actually intended as the culmination of the whole tradition. “The aim of the book,” Rorty explains, “is to undermine the reader’s confidence in ’the mind’ as something about which one should have a ‘philosophical’ view, in ‘knowledge’ as something about which there ought to be a ‘theory’ and which has ‘foundations,’ and in ‘philosophy’ as it has been conceived since Kant.” But, he continued, this argument was “parasitic upon the constructive efforts of the very analytic philosophers whose frame of reference I am trying to put into question. … I hope to convince the reader that … analytic philosophy … needs to be carried a few steps further. These additional steps will, I think, put us into a position to criticize the very notion of ‘analytic philosophy,’ and indeed of ‘philosophy’ itself.”