U.S. Intellectual History Blog

What Makes William James Modern?

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?

6 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. Andrew,

    Do you see post-humanism as necessary for postmodernism just a sufficient condition? In other words, are all postmodernists always post-humanists, or is it just the case that post-humanists are always postmodern? I ask because this could affect your theorizing about the cultural wars in some potentially negative ways.

    Otherwise, I agree with you that pragmatists were nearly always humanists. Their epistemology, taken to extremes, may have allowed for nihilism, but that wasn’t their intent. This is why I see pragmatism as a philosophy that is also a tool (i.e. instrumental)–and I think that James, Peirce, Dewey, etc. saw it this way. That’s not to say that philosophy on the whole acts as a tool, or that there weren’t variations among the pragmatists). Rather, this particular philosophy became more of a tool to humans by avoiding seemingly impractical issues (i.e. metaphysics). James, then, like his co-conspirators, wanted philosophy to be useful in opposition to the late 19th-century idealists. The pragmatists never intended on leaving behind the humans that were central to Progressivism.

    – TL

  2. Tim, I’m not really sure how you think the relationship between postmodernism and post-humanism might affect how I theorize the culture wars. If you could elaborate on that point I would appreciate it. I’m not sure all postmodernists are necessarily post-humanist, in part because both are such slippery categories. But I think the tendency is there. And I think it’s this tendency that lead so many modern liberals, whose political theory was grounded in human agency, to recoil at the implications of the postmodernist obliteration of the human, individual self. Ironically, the modernist liberal accentuation of language and thought–best expressed by pragmatists like James–laid the ground for post-humanism. This is why someone like Christopher Lasch always focused his scathing critical lens on liberalism. Not because he was a political conservative–far from it. Rather, because he thought liberalism sowed the seeds of its own (post-humanist) destruction. Of course, going back to the original point I made in this post, to say as much does not also mean that pragmatism fully anticipated or even perfected postmodernism. The screw was turned a few more times.

  3. Andrew,

    I apologize if I was unclear. Your comment, however, moved to my point about theorizing when you said the following:

    “I’m not sure all postmodernists are necessarily post-humanist, in part because both are such slippery categories. But I think the tendency is there. And I think it’s this tendency that lead so many modern liberals, whose political theory was grounded in human agency, to recoil at the implications of the postmodernist obliteration of the human, individual self.”

    This is precisely what I was getting at. It seems—correct me if I’m wrong—that your concern is how, or whether or not, postmodernism caused post-humanism—whether postmodernism caused an inability to think centrally about the human condition (or problems that centrally focus on improving the human condition). I think that paradigm and that problem are related, but not one-for-one. This is why I posed the necessary-sufficient passage above.

    You are also concerned about whether liberalism caused postmodernism. I’m not so sure the former caused the latter. But your noting the “accentuation of language and thought” gets to the transition displacement period.

    I don’t see the move to language theory by academic liberals in the 1960s as a ~purposed central outgrowth~ of liberalism in general. I would say that is precisely where ~thinking~ in general—the best kind that focused on humanism, whether liberal or not—derailed. But that thinking doesn’t have to be coupled with the great mid-century American liberal project (the one that held humanism before it, and combined some degree of statist planning with free enterprise—the Hobsbawmiam golden age synthesis). So I suppose I disagree with Lasch (which book or article?)in blaming the derailment of that project on liberalism.

    The derailments in thinking caused by postmodernism shouldn’t be blamed on liberalism ~just because~ liberalism was the great political-intellectual project that preceded the move to language theorizing (the bedrock of postmodernism). That would constitute a post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy. Sometimes a paradigm simply displaces the one before without having grown out of it strictly.

    Now I’m not prepared right here to say ~exactly~ what caused the rise of language theory in the United States (I suppose we’d have to Euro continental—back to Wittgenstein, de Saussure, and others). But I feel sure in saying that mid-century liberalism didn’t ~cause~ post-humanism via language theory.

    But, all this aside, I agree that pragmatism is far-removed from this derailing. Because it’s far-removed from the 1960s postmodern project, I believe that’s why Rorty and others were comfortable returning to pragmatism as something that could support “good” liberalism and humanism. And all of this assumes that you privilege humanism the same way I am here?

    – TL

  4. Two more things:

    1. I apologize if my comments are hijacking this post.
    2. I should say that my concern in these comments ultimately deals with how we categorize postmodern thinkers (i.e. which show some ability to engage the human condition—hold on to some humanism).

    – TL

  5. Andrew: I don’t think you’ve answered your own question. Rather, you’ve told us why Dewey was a modern and James was not postmodern. As a prelude to writing a book, I am in the process of defining modernism in Progressive-Era visual and written social criticism. A strong statement of why William James is a modern would be of great interest.

  6. Dear Kate:

    Robinson introduces her review essay (line above) as follows: “William James was born in 1842 and died in 1910. His contemporary, the philosopher George Santayana, said James ‘represented the true America, and represented in a measure the whole ultramodern, radical world.’ He continues to be strikingly radical, and modern as well, though the richness of his vision creates a modernity that is as sunlight to moonlight, to borrow a phrase of his, compared with the wised-up and rather disheartened worldview we associate with this term.”

    I realize this is not a definition, or strong statement, which you’re unlikely to get from me here, because it’s not an easy proposition. On the one hand, I think James is in fact different from Dewey in that he had remnants of the premodern or traditional desire for ardor in life, which he believed would fight against the dreaded desiccation. James wanted people to live life with as much vigor as if they were soldiers headed into battle–even though he was hardly pro-war. This goes against the cynical grain of postmodernism, of course, but it also probably goes against the grain of the non-emotional rational side of pragmatism evidenced by Dewey. So James is a tough one to figure out. I would say that he maintained that it was desirable if not possible to seek out total understandings of the world, which is definitely modern, especially as compared to the postmodern death of grand narratives or end of history. James in this sense believed in human progress, a modern conception if ever there was one, although he was far less hopeful or optimistic than most of the dough-faced progressives on this count, which is why Lasch used James in True and Only Heaven to represent an anti-progressive framework, wrongly I think. Perhaps the best I can do for you is point you in the direction of other scholars. Check out James Kloppenberg’s article, “Pragmatism: An Old Name for Some New Ways of Thinking,” which appeared in The Journal of American History in 1996. By way of arguing that several neo-pragmatists had co-opted the name pragmatism to make postmodernist claims that ran counter to the intentions of the original pragmatists, Professor Kloppenberg nicely demonstrates the modern of pragmatism, including James. Good luck!

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