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The Return Of Pragmatism
WILLIAM JAMES’S EXHILARATING movement to sweep aside all philosophies is making a surprising comeback a century later
October 1997 | Volume 48, Issue 6
Pragmatism cannot help suggesting that the real work of the world is being done somewhere other than in philosoply departments.
Rorty thus proceeded to construct a kind of staircase out of analytic philosophy, made up of works that questioned a succession of fundamental tenets of the anlytic approach. If he had stopped there, however, it is unlikely that a pragmatist revival would have followed, for Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature is, technically, just a piece of professional philosophy. And merely showing the way out of the reigning philosophical paradigm left Rorty with no obvious paradigm within which to work next. Accepting the pragmatist analysis and seeing how it leads to different ways of conceiving of the traditional problems of analytic philosophy was a path chosen by one philosopher, Hilary Putnam, who has developed a philosophy he calls “pragmatic realism.” But it was not the path chosen by Rorty.
The alternative to operating within a paradigm is to rely on your genius, and although Rorty has not ceased to repeat his analytic argument about the poverty of professional philosophy, since professional philosophers have not ceased to criticize it, he turned, after the publication of Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature , to an unexpectedly imaginative engagement with literature, critical theory, political thought, and social commentary. He transformed himself, in short, from a philosopher into an intellectual. In this his model has clearly been Dewey. But Rorty is a far more exciting writer than Dewey, and his work has served for many people as a model for the kind of wide-ranging engagement with art, ideas, and public affairs that pragmatism might make possible.
As james discovered during his crisis of 1870, pragmatism can encourage us to trust our own judgments, without ever assuming them to be infallible—to have faith that if we do what is right, the metaphysics will take care of themselves. What pragmatism cannot do, though, is to explain where our judgments come from. The easy answer to that question today is to say that our decisions are determined by the cultural “rules” of the social group we happen to belong to. No doubt the cultural rules explain a great deal of what people do, but different individuals in the same group make different judgments—if they didn’t, there would be nothing that needed explaining—and in the end, as Holmes concluded, we can’t say in any determinate way how we make our choices. They seem to arise, in the end, out of the mysteries of personality, which are a scandal to theory. All we can say is that we seem to have, as naturally associated beings, a powerful social incentive to rationalize and justify the choices we make.
It is sometimes complained that pragmatism is a bootstrap theory—that it cannot tell us where we should want to go or how we can get there. The answer to this is that theory can never tell us where to go; only we can tell us where to go. Theories are just one of the ways we make sense of our need to get there. We wake up one morning and find ourselves in a new place, and then we build a ladder to explain how we got there. The pragmatist is the person who asks whether this is a good place to be. The nonpragmatist is the person who admires the ladder.