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Pragmatism: Key Resources (April 2013): Contemporary Pragmatists

By John R. Shook and Tibor Solymosi

Contemporary Pragmatists

Quine’s career in philosophy at Harvard from the 1930s to the 1990s exemplifies how a pragmatist-style respect for science inspires reconciliations of philosophy with the naturalistic worldview.  Dewey’s behavioristic approach to intelligence and his antipathy to rationalistic devices such as the analytic-synthetic dichotomy were translated by logical techniques of analytic philosophy mastered by Quine.  Useful guides to Quine include Lewis Hahn and Paul Schillp’s edited The Philosophy of W. V. Quine, now in a second, expanded edition; Roger Gibson Jr.’s edited The Cambridge Companion to Quine; and Hans-Johann Glock’s Quine and Davidson on Language, Thought, and Reality.  Several of Quine’s students, including Donald Davidson and Daniel Dennett—and many of their own students after them—developed noticeably pragmatist themes in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s.  Several chapters of The Philosophy of Donald Davidson, edited by Lewis Hahn, address pragmatist issues.  Joining the conversation was Richard Rorty, an admirer of both Dewey and the “linguistic turn” analytic philosophy.  Rorty’s death in 2007 has not slowed the pace of writing about his controversial “neo-pragmatism,” as it was labeled.  Reliable guides to Rorty’s primary views include The Philosophy of Richard Rorty, edited by Randall Auxier and Lewis Hahn; Richard Rorty, edited by Charles Guignon and David Hiley; Neil Gross’s Richard Rorty: The Making of an American Philosopher; Alan Malachowski’s Richard Rorty; and James Tartaglia’s Routledge Philosophy Guidebook to Rorty and the Mirror of Nature.  In this last volume, the section on social and political theory addresses Rorty’s work in those fields.  Robert Brandom, Rorty’s student at Princeton, edited Rorty and His Critics and composed his own pragmatist contributions, notably Making It Explicit; Between Saying and Doing: Towards an Analytic Pragmatism; and Perspectives on Pragmatism: Classical, Recent, and Contemporary.

Joining Quine at Harvard to add to the conversation was Hilary Putnam, and the Rorty-Davidson-Putnam neopragmatism debate reached a crescendo.  Davidson declined to be called a pragmatist, but Putnam embraced and advanced pragmatism during the 1980s and 1990s further than anyone since Dewey.  Putnam’s student James Conant, now professor at Chicago, coedited Hilary Putnam: Pragmatism and Realism with Urszula ZegleĊ„.  Yemina Ben-Menahem’s edited Hilary Putnam is a welcome survey of Putnam’s diverse ways of applying pragmatism to central philosophical issues such as truth, realism, knowledge, representationalism, and the self.  Putnam’s recently published final collection of writings, Philosophy in an Age of Science, is edited by Mario De Caro and David Macarthur.  Although Wilfrid Sellars, son of noted philosophical naturalist Roy Wood Sellars, did not adopt the pragmatist label for himself, some of his students at Pittsburgh did.  These include, most notably, Paul Churchland and more recently his wife, Patricia Churchland, who espouses some pragmatist views as well.  Exemplifying the pragmatist stance that evolutionary biology and cognitive science cannot be ignored by philosophical psychology, the Churchlands challenged analytic philosophy’s armchair intuitions about language, mind, and knowledge.  Their “neurophilosophy” has been recently expressed in Paul Churchland’s Neurophilosophy at Work and Patricia Churchland’s Braintrust: What Neuroscience Tells Us about Morality.  Daniel Dennett’s contentious relationship with analytic philosophy, and his preference for pragmatist-leaning views on agency, intelligence, and consciousness, can be found in any of his writings; a notable example is Freedom Evolves.

Distanced even further from analytic philosophy’s hegemony have been the Columbia University pragmatic naturalists.  Dewey’s thought is embodied in three prominent graduates from the 1940s and 1950s: Morton White, Paul Kurtz, and Joseph Margolis.  White’s book A Philosophy of Culture: The Scope of Holistic Pragmatism brings together pragmatist reflections from his four decades as a professor at Harvard.  Kurtz led the secular and humanist movement until his recent death; his many books are mostly in print, and a selection of core writings is gathered by Nathan Bupp as Meaning and Value in a Secular Age.  Margolis’s central pragmatist work may be Pragmatism without Foundations: Reconciling Realism and Relativism, now in its second edition.  His trilogy of recent books—Reinventing Pragmatism, The Unraveling of Scientism, and Pragmatism’s Advantage—is required reading for tracking the convoluted paths and intersections among all the post-Kantian and post-Hegelian options across pragmatism, analytic philosophy, and Continental philosophy.  Columbia University’s John Dewey Professor of Philosophy is presently Philip Kitcher, another Princeton graduate, who defends pragmatist stances on science, democracy, and ethics.  His recent book The Ethical Project brings together his views on morality’s natural basis, experimental ethical inquiry, and the challenges of modernity.

The convulsions and controversies aroused by the neopragmatism debates and the eruption of pragmatism among those familiar with the sciences continues to receive study, as a successive generation of philosophers sustain the momentum.  Volumes that survey the contemporary scene include New Pragmatists, edited by Cheryl Misak; Alan Malachowski’s The New Pragmatism; David Hildebrand’s Beyond Realism and Antirealism: John Dewey and the Neopragmatists; and The Pragmatic Turn in Philosophy, edited by William Egginton and Mike Sandbothe.  Perennial philosophical questions about the range and reliability of human knowledge, and whether a realistic stance about the world is sufficiently warranted, continue to engage pragmatist thinkers.  Books for philosophers include Huw Price’s Naturalism without Mirrors; Ronald Giere’s Scientific Perspectivism; Patrick Baert’s Philosophy of the Social Sciences: Towards Pragmatism; and Joseph Margolis’s Culture and Cultural Entities: Toward a New Unity of Science, now in its second edition.  On narrower issues about knowledge and truth, see Barry Allen’s Truth in Philosophy; David Boersema’s Pragmatism and Reference; Nicholas Rescher’s Epistemic Pragmatism and Other Studies in the Theory of Knowledge; and Susan Haack’s Evidence and Inquiry: A Pragmatist Reconstruction of Epistemology, available in a second, expanded edition.  Pragmatist books offering widely accessible understandings of learning, inquiry, and logical argument include Stephen Toulmin’s The Uses of Argument; Elizabeth Minnich’s Transforming Knowledge, now in its second edition; and Douglas Walton’s Informal Logic: A Pragmatic Approach, also available as a second edition.

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