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I. Dewey and James
II. Life and Career
III. Reconstructing Philosophy
IV. Educational Reform
V. Social Theory and Politics
VI. Critiques of Pragmatism
|VI. Critiques of Pragmatism|
Randolph Bourne was the first of a series of leftist critics, beginning at the time of World War I and continuing up to our own time, who have argued that pragmatism has functioned as a kind of apology for the status quo in the United States; that it fails to offer significant moral and political resistance to the existing set of social and institutional relations. For Bourne and his followers, pragmatism came up short when it came time to articulate new values and new ideals in response to that system. Pragmatism, in its insistence on the practical cash value of ideas, had reduced ideas to mere expediency.
Professor Blake discusses objections to pragmatism.
Among philosophers committed to a realist or objectivist conception of truth, James and Dewey remain suspect for their belief that truths are provisional tools used to solve particular problems thrown up by life. For philosophers committed to the proposition that knowledge needs to be tested against some objective truth, that truths need to be grounded in some foundation of certain knowledge, James and Dewey remain figures whose work deserves condemnation, because it seems to such philosophers to give license to a kind of make-believe, where virtually every idea is warranted, or every expedient idea is warranted.
Beyond such philosophical criticisms, criticisms have come from other circles. Catholic thinkers and conservative religious thinkers more generally responded to the rise of pragmatism by arguing that its critique of universal truths, its critique of dogmatism was a kind of dogmatism in its own right, and bore the traces of a deep anti-Catholicism and secularism. For such thinkers, pragmatism opened the door to moral nihilism of the sort that James had identified with Nietzsche, to a kind of relativism, to a deeply dangerous, "anything goes" approach to the world.
On the left, starting with the years 1910–19, and particularly during World War I, a reaction against pragmatism set in among some of its most ardent believers, who felt that the doctrine came up short at moments of great political and international military crisis. This is not the time to talk about the debate surrounding World War I, a debate in which Dewey figured so prominently, but it's fair to say that his student and follower, Randolph Bourne, the brilliant cultural critic and Columbia graduate who had studied with Dewey, was the first of a whole series of radical critics of pragmatism who argued that pragmatists, in their insistence that what is true is what works, had essentially paralyzed the imagination; they had disabled the creativity of human beings in the face of an unjust order. Sometimes, Bourne and other leftist critics argued, what is true is what doesn't work, what stands at odds with the existing state of affairs, and one must stay loyal to that truth in the face of a hostile environment.
Content excerpted from Intellectual and Cultural History of the United States, 1890-1945: Pragmatism and Its Critics, with Casey Nelson Blake.