I have long been skeptical of the notion that pragmatism not only prefigured postmodernism, but was a more radical antiepistemology than even the most nihilistic of postmodern expressions. To me, there always seemed something quite modern in the pragmatic project, especially as enunciated by John Dewey and William James. I wrote the following in support of this claim in the first chapter of my book Education and the Cold War (p. 13):
On the one hand, Dewey believed that “truth” was relative to time, place and social situation. On the other hand, Dewey could not entirely divorce his epistemology, however relativist, from an ethical and moral philosophy. He wanted to mediate the divide between the science of the secular world and the values that should direct human conduct. For him, the search for such a successful arbitration was “the deepest problem of modern life.” (John Dewey, “Social Science and Social Control,” The New Republic, July 29, 1931, pp. 276-77.) Although Dewey understood that human standards – how humans defined their goals and needs – were dynamic in that they were socially constructed through context and experience, standards were nevertheless necessary and “good,” especially when created via the experience of democracy. This was Dewey’s epistemological justification for democracy, and one of the reasons why Dewey’s philosophy has so often been linked to political democracy. (See John Dewey, The Quest for Certainty: A Study of the Relation of Knowledge and Action [New York: Minton, Balch, 1929], especially chapter 10 on “the construction of the good.”)
In a beautifully written review of a new William James collection—The Heart of William James, edited by Robert Richardson—Marilynne Robinson implicitly echoes my skepticism, or rather, gives reason to doubt that William James was a postmodernist in waiting. On the one hand, Robinson dutifully explains how James put to rest several of the reigning dualisms of the day, which of course hints at the cultural and discursive turns to come. For James, there was no separation between mind and body. Consciousness was a thing unto itself, perhaps not material, but definitely real or reality forming. She writes of James: “His ‘pragmatism,’ his insistence that ideas are meaningful not for their internal logic or coherence but in the ways they are reflected in behavior, secures a central place for thought within phenomenal reality by underscoring its effects. For better or worse, subjectively and therefore objectively, ideas shape the world.”
But Robinson also makes a keen observation that, for me, separates James from later postmodernists in the ways that he insisted upon human exceptionalism. James, in other words, was no post-humanist. Far from it, James accentuated those things that made humans unique. Humans have consciousness. Humans think. And human thoughts shape the world of humanity, making it very different from animal life.
Robinson implies that avoiding or denying human exceptionalism is an escape from responsibility. She reads James as a rebuttal to specious post-humanist claims. “On no grounds whatsoever, our chastened worldview is taken to require the exclusion from philosophic thought of the humans self as experience.” This seems to me about right, not only as an appropriate way to think about James, but also as an indictment of post-humanism. But is a return to pragmatism, to modern ways of thinking, really as easy as it sounds?