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Pragmatism: Key Resources (April 2013): Classical Pragmatists

By John R. Shook and Tibor Solymosi

Classical Pragmatists

Major classical pragmatists of the period from 1880 to 1940—in roughly chronological order, Charles Peirce, William James, Josiah Royce, John Dewey, Jane Addams, George Mead, and C. I. Lewis—have enjoyed scholarly scrutiny during the past two decades.  Peirce, the founder of pragmatism, was the greatest scientific mind combined with original philosophical genius since Descartes, and applications of his fertile thought have not ceased since his death in 1914.  Lara Trout’s The Politics of Survival: Peirce, Affectivity, and Social Criticism demonstrates the vitality of Peirce’s thought for the communal realm of social action, and Mats Bergman’s Peirce’s Philosophy of Communication has a similar utility for cross-disciplinary work on meaning, mind, and language.  A sophisticated exegesis of the technicalities of Peirce’s semiotics has been assembled by T. L. Short in Peirce’s Theory of Signs.  Another reliable study of Peirce’s pragmatist theory of intelligence and scientific method is Elizabeth Cooke’s Peirce’s Pragmatic Theory of Inquiry.  The most notable work in almost two decades on Peirce’s speculative religious thought is Anette Ejsing’s Theology of Anticipation: A Constructive Study of C. S. Peirce.  The confluence of Peirce’s metaphysics with A. N. Whitehead’s process philosophy has also remained influential; readers should consult Process Pragmatism, edited by Guy Debrock.  Peirce may be the most intimidating of the classical pragmatists, but Cheryl Misak has edited a volume of impressively clear essays in The Cambridge Companion to Peirce.

The renewed interest in James, the Harvard philosopher and psychologist until 1910, has now approached the level of Dewey’s renaissance during the 1980s and 1990s.  James especially has regained the esteem of scholars of religion and cognitive scientists (covered in later sections).  Discerning expositions of this multifaceted thinker, profitable for generalists and specialists alike, include Michael Slater’s William James on Ethics and Faith; James Pawelski’s The Dynamic Individualism of William James; and Francesca Bordogna’s William James at the Boundaries: Philosophy, Science, and the Geography of Knowledge.  Also worthy of mention is Russell Goodman’s Wittgenstein and William James, which capably compares two kindred spirits and their contributions to analytic philosophy.  An unapologetic discourse on some of James’s most radical and least accepted views, his radical empiricism, and his humanity-based understanding of truth is Finnish philosopher Sami Pihlström’s The Trail of the Human Serpent Is over Everything: Jamesian Perspectives on Mind, World, and Religion.  James’s comrade at Harvard, Josiah Royce, must not be forgotten—fortunately, we have Frank Oppenheim’s study, Reverence for the Relations of Life: Re-imagining Pragmatism via Josiah Royce’s Interactions with Peirce, James, and Dewey.  James’s other close ally, F. C. S. Schiller at Oxford, has been anthologized in F. C. S. Schiller on Pragmatism and Humanism: Selected Writings, 1891-1939, edited by John Shook and Hugh McDonald.  The Reception of Pragmatism in France and the Rise of Roman Catholic Modernism, 1890-1914, edited by David Schultenover, offers chapters covering both James’s provocations in conservative France and boldly French versions of pragmatism in response.  Italy’s Giovanni Vailati forged an original kind of pragmatism from Peirce and James, and his pre-World War I articles are now translated as Logic and Pragmatism: Selected Essays, edited by Claudia Arrighi et al.

For two generations, the supreme pragmatist was John Dewey, the Columbia University philosophy professor who spent a lifetime advocating progressive reforms in education, labor, civil rights and liberties, and countless more social causes until his death in 1952.  Multidisciplinary treatments of Dewey’s continued relevance are gathered in The Cambridge Companion to Dewey, edited by Molly Cochran; Dewey’s Enduring Impact: Essays on America’s Philosopher, edited by John Shook and Paul Kurtz; John Dewey between Pragmatism and Constructivism, edited by Larry Hickman, Stefan Neubert, and Kersten Reich; and John Dewey and Continental Philosophy, edited by Paul Fairfield.  More introductory, but hardly cursory, explanations of Dewey’s naturalistic and scientific worldview are Jerome Popp’s Evolution’s First Philosopher: John Dewey and the Continuity of Nature, and Thomas Dalton’s Becoming John Dewey: Dilemmas of a Philosopher and Naturalist.  Larry Hickman, the director of the Center for Dewey Studies at Southern Illinois University, has assembled an accessible set of chapters explaining Deweyan philosophy for application in almost any discipline in his Pragmatism as Post-postmodernism: Lessons from John Dewey.  Advanced treatises on Dewey’s experimental and humanistic ethics are Stephen Carden’s Virtue Ethics: Dewey and MacIntyre, Steven Fesmire’s John Dewey and Moral Imagination: Pragmatism in Ethics, and Gregory Pappas’s John Dewey’s Ethics: Democracy as Experience.  John Shook and James Good’s John Dewey’s Philosophy of Spirit, with the 1897 Lecture on Hegel examines Dewey’s commitment to transmuting the ethical idealism of religion into the democratic ethos of a secular nation.  The engine of democracy for Dewey is education in the methods of inquiry, both scientific and social, permitting the flourishing of active citizens.  Paul Fairfield’s Education after Dewey, Jim Garrison’s Dewey and Eros: Wisdom and Desire in the Art of Teaching, and Stephen Fishman and Lucille McCarthy’s John Dewey and the Challenge of Classroom Practice deliver inspirational and practical classroom activities illustrating Deweyan educational methodology.  Additional works involving Dewey’s social theory and political thought receive due mention in later sections on those topics.

A brilliant thinker and activist in her own right, Jane Addams is becoming better appreciated by intellectual historians, scholars of pacifism, and pragmatist-minded social theorists.  Exemplary studies include Maurice Hamington’s The Social Philosophy of Jane Addams; Louise Knight’s Citizen: Jane Addams and the Struggle for Democracy; Katherine Joslin’s Jane Addams: A Writer’s Life; and Jane Addams and the Practice of Democracy, edited by Marilyn Fischer, Carol Nackenoff, and Wendy Chmielewski.  To read Addams herself, consult The Jane Addams Reader, edited by Jean Bethke Elshtain, and volumes of The Selected Papers of Jane Addams, edited by Mary Lynn McCree Bryan, Barbara Bair, and Maree de Angury.  The brilliant philosopher and social theorist Alain Locke, of Howard University, can be rediscovered in Leonard Harris and Charles Molesworth’s Alain L. Locke: Biography of a Philosopher.  Locke’s writings are collected in The Philosophy of Alain Locke: Harlem Renaissance and Beyond, edited by Harris.  Rudolph Cain’s Alain Leroy Locke: Race, Culture, and the Education of African American Adults also should be consulted.

Two philosophers deeply influenced by James and Dewey, G. H. Mead at Chicago and C. I. Lewis at Harvard, sustained pragmatism’s impact while behaviorism and analytic philosophy came to dominate after 1930.  Work on Mead is categorized with social theory below.  Lewis was a transitional figure who set the stage for post-World War II pragmatists, many of them imbibing pragmatism as his students.  Murray Murphey, among the greatest intellectual historians of American thought, gave us his final work, the magisterial volume titled C. I. Lewis: The Last Great Pragmatist.  Sandra Rosenthal’s shorter book, C. I. Lewis in Focus, is similarly the culmination of a fine career working with pragmatism.  Lewis taught several of the next generation’s leaders in naturalist and pragmatist modes of thought, including W. V. Quine and Nelson Goodman.  Goodman’s student Israel Scheffler returned to Harvard as a professor and produced several pragmatist books, including Worlds of Truth: A Philosophy of Knowledge.

Works Cited