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Pragmatism: Key Resources (April 2013): Moral, Social, and Political Aspects

By John R. Shook and Tibor Solymosi

Moral, Social, and Political Aspects

The pragmatist demand that all modes of intelligence receive naturalistic treatment does not stop short of thinking about meaning, value, and morality.  Mark Johnson’s The Meaning of the Body: Aesthetics of Human Understanding is among the most significant pragmatist manifestos of this decade.  Similarly informed by the cognitive sciences and neurosciences is William Casebeer’s Natural Ethical Facts: Evolution, Connectionism, and Moral Cognition.  Patricia Churchland’s Braintrust, already mentioned, follows these lines as well, and Eric Racine’s Pragmatic Neuroethics: Improving Treatment and Understanding of the Mind-Brain sets a new standard for understanding the implications of the brain sciences for comprehending the modes of social and moral cognition permitting autonomy, agency, and responsibility.  Todd Lekan’s Making Morality directly reinvigorates ethical theory; Lekan’s pragmatist mentor, James Wallace, recently published Norms and Practices as well.  Some pragmatists in medical ethics include Jonathan Moreno, author of Is There an Ethicist in the House?: On the Cutting Edge of Bioethics; Glenn McGee, whose edited Pragmatic Bioethics is now in its second edition; and D. Micah Hester, author of End-of-Life Care and Pragmatic Decision Making.

Not surprisingly, pragmatist thought pursues many ethical and public policy questions.  Questions of political economy and economic theory are explored in Elias Khalil’s edited Dewey, Pragmatism, and Economic Methodology.  Sandra Rosenthal and Rogene Buchholz offer the best single volume on ethical aspects of business in Rethinking Business Ethics: A Pragmatic Approach.  Deweyan Eric Thomas Weber contributes Morality, Leadership and Public Policy.  Environmental policy has held pragmatists’ attention for decades.  Ben Minteer’s The Landscape of Reform: Civic Pragmatism and Environmental Thought in America and Refounding Environmental Ethics: Pragmatism, Principle, and Practice help shape the conversations at the intersections of pragmatism, environmental policy, and animal rights.  Andrew Light is also a leader here; see his work, coedited with Erin McKenna, Animal Pragmatism: Rethinking Human-Nonhuman Relationships.  Another notable work is Hugh McDonald’s John Dewey and Environmental Philosophy.

Pragmatism’s impact on social, political, and legal theory cannot be underestimated.  Frederic Kellogg recounts legal pragmatism’s rise in the early twentieth century in Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., Legal Theory, and Judicial Restraint.  Sidney Hook inherited from Dewey the midcentury charge of prodemocratic and anticommunist pragmatism; see Sidney Hook on Pragmatism, Democracy, and Freedom: The Essential Essays, edited by Robert Talisse and Robert Tempio.  Until neo-Kantian John Rawls’s contributions, progressive liberalism was framed largely by pragmatist ideals.  Jürgen Habermas’s blend of critical theory and social pragmatism further invigorated late-twentieth-century debates, and the renaissance of Deweyan thought could not have been more timely.  Navigating these tumultuous waters with due appreciation for pragmatism is Eric MacGilvray’s Reconstructing Public Reason and Henry Richardson’s Democratic Autonomy.  Favorable receptions of Habermas’s general views on society and democracy can be found in Habermas and Pragmatism, edited by Mitchell Aboulafia, Myra Bookman, and Cathy Kemp.  Larry Hickman’s Philosophical Tools for Technological Culture: Putting Pragmatism to Work approaches the broad cultural issues at stake from the Deweyan perspective.  Additional scholars with penetrating and accurate expositions of Deweyan positions are William Caspary, author of Dewey on Democracy; Robert Westbrook, who wrote Democratic Hope: Pragmatism and the Politics of Truth; Judith Green, with Pragmatism and Social Hope: Deepening Democracy in Global Contexts; and Melvin Rogers, author of The Undiscovered Dewey: Religion, Morality, and the Ethos of Democracy.

Rorty’s powerful influence was unavoidable for these and many more theorists, of course, culminating with his Philosophy and Social Hope and his later essays collected in Philosophy as Cultural Politics.  Among the numerous books about Rorty’s social and political theory are Christopher Voparil’s Richard Rorty: Politics and Vision and Neil Gascoigne’s Richard Rorty: Liberalism, Irony and the Ends of Philosophy.  Colin Koopman’s masterful analysis in Pragmatism as Transition: Historicity and Hope in James, Dewey, and Rorty is now garnering deserved attention.  Additional political thinkers working with a broad framework of pragmatist themes must be mentioned.  Robert Talisse prefers Peircean epistemic calculations to Deweyan ethical grounds in his A Pragmatist Philosophy of Democracy: Communities of Inquiry.  Jack Knight and James Johnson apply political science in The Priority of Democracy: Political Consequences of Pragmatism.  Richard Posner’s provocative kind of legal pragmatism finds voice in his Law, Pragmatism, and Democracy.  James Bohman carries pragmatist political theory across cultural and international boundaries in Democracy across Borders: From Dêmos to Dêmoi.  Jeffrey Stout’s Democracy and Tradition defends a broadly Deweyan stance ensuring inclusivity of all values, religious ones among them.  Roberto Unger’s visions of human liberation and participatory democracy are condensed in The Self Awakened: Pragmatism Unbound.  One of Unger’s students at Harvard Law School was Barack Obama.  Obama’s presidency has been characterized as pragmatic in several senses; pragmatist scholar James Kloppenberg explores the possibilities in Reading Obama: Dreams, Hope, and the American Political Tradition.

Harvard also nourished philosopher, religious scholar, and public intellectual Cornel West for a time.  West’s explosive combination of prophetic Christianity, Marxist socialism, and pragmatism cannot be reduced to any simplistic formula.  One must approach West for oneself, and The Cornel West Reader is a good place to begin before plunging into his many books.  George Yancy edited a volume of incisive commentary, Cornel West: A Critical Reader.  Monographs about West include Mark David Wood’s Cornel West and the Politics of Prophetic Pragmatism, Rosemary Cowan’s Cornel West: The Politics of Redemption, and Clarence Sholé Johnson’s Cornel West and Philosophy: The Quest for Social Justice.  While West was at Princeton, his younger colleague Eddie Glaude published an indispensable work, In a Shade of Blue: Pragmatism and the Politics of Black America.  Explorations of pragmatism and race also can be found in Pragmatism and the Problem of Race, edited by Bill Lawson and Donald Koch.

Feminist theory and pragmatism also have mutually enriched each other’s philosophies.  A senior voice has long been Charlene Haddock Seigfried; she has kept Jane Addams in print, edited Feminist Interpretations of John Dewey, and helped inspire the next generation of pragmatic feminists.  Examples include Shannon Sullivan, author of Living across and through Skins: Transactional Bodies, Pragmatism, and Feminism; Sharyn Clough, who wrote Beyond Epistemology: A Pragmatist Approach to Feminist Science Studies; Erin McKenna, who contributed The Task of Utopia: A Pragmatist and Feminist Perspective; and Alexandra Shuford, author of Feminist Epistemology and American Pragmatism: Dewey and Quine.  Maurice Hamington undertakes an expansive project in Embodied Care: Jane Addams, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and Feminist Ethics.  Hamington and Celia Bardwell-Jones recently edited Contemporary Feminist Pragmatism.

Works Cited