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Pragmatism's Advantage: American and European Philosophy at the End of the Twentieth Century

Pragmatism's Advantage: American and European Philosophy at the End of the Twentieth Century

by Joseph Margolis

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This book addresses the rift between major philosophical factions in the United States, which the author describes as a "philosophically becalmed" three-legged creature made up of analytic philosophy, continental philosophy, and pragmatism. Joseph Margolis offers a modified pragmatism as the best way out of this stalemate. Whether he is examining Heidegger or


This book addresses the rift between major philosophical factions in the United States, which the author describes as a "philosophically becalmed" three-legged creature made up of analytic philosophy, continental philosophy, and pragmatism. Joseph Margolis offers a modified pragmatism as the best way out of this stalemate. Whether he is examining Heidegger or rethinking the foibles of Dewey, Rorty, and Peirce, much of nineteenth- and twentieth-century Western philosophy comes into play as Margolis presents his history of philosophy's evolution and defends his views. He does not, however, mean for philosophy to turn to the pragmatism of yore or even to its revival in the 1970s. Rather, he finds in recent approaches to pragmatism a middle ground between analytic philosophy's scientism (and its disinterest in analyzing human nature)and continental philosophy's reliance on attributing transcendental powers to mere mortals.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Pragmatism's Advantage is original and stimulating, polemical without being aggressive. The scholarship that went into this work is altogether excellent, indeed, sovereign. Margolis has a precise and nuanced knowledge of the subject matter and is familiar with materials from many different philosophical traditions. The argument is clear, technical yet accessible, and permeated by a keen and humane wit." —Robert Innis, University of Massachusetts
University of Buffalo - J.R. Shook
"A leading voice for 40 years, Margolis explains how pragmatism works as well as anyone, and he expertly exposes core philosophical issues at the intersections of pragmatism, analytic philosophy, and Continental philosophy."
Kenneth Stikkers
"As the culmination of his work of the past 25 years, this is Joseph Margolis's most ambitious, most sweeping, most important, and best work. It is also the most cogent effort since Richard Rorty's Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature to establish /rapprochement/ among the analytic, continental, and pragmatist traditions in Western philosophy."

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Pragmatism's Advantage

American and European Philosophy at the End of the Twentieth Century

By Joseph Margolis


Copyright © 2010 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8047-7371-3


Pragmatism's Advantage

WHAT I MEAN BY "PRAGMATISM'S ADVANTAGE" I shall draw out slowly from the enormous scatter of contemporary Eurocentric philosophy. (These first words will hardly be enough.) What I have in mind is as much an invention as a discovery. I'm speaking of the need to find a unity of purpose where the academy doubts one can be found but would like to believe it can be eked out nevertheless. Thus, in this first pass, perhaps something of the stakes involved, something of an underlying problematic, the principal players, economies tested and intended will make their presence and history known legibly enough. I've fitted a simple armature to the details of what follows—for the sake of sheer manageability. I identify the principal philosophical movements of our day—that is, a three-legged contest between pragmatists, analysts, and continentals, and I expect that pragmatism's advantage will become increasingly explicit within the terms of that familiar simplification.

Some will regard this as a terrible distortion pure and simple. I view it, rather, as an innocent economy the benefits of which may be rightly judged at the end of the account—though it will surely gain plausibility and force as the analysis unfolds. The separate movements are genuine enough in terms of the perceived loyalties of their current champions; but their true natures, given in terms of implied convictions and related uniformities of thought, remain too simple to be trusted at face value. I don't believe, however, that the actual arguments I advance need distort our final reckoning. On the contrary, their validity should confirm the good sense of yielding to what may prove to be more than a passing convenience. In fact, the simplification is already pretty well adopted by the philosophical community and is easily rectified wherever needed. In the process, I hope it will become clear that the agon favored is itself a lightly displaced proxy for a deeper reflection on philosophy's future. You will have to be the judge of it.

PRAGMATISM'S REVIVAL, even its persistence, continues to baffle explanation, as in a way its history always has. It was deemed exhausted by the end of the 1940s and 1950s but was unexpectedly revived in the 1970s, though its principal champions, Richard Rorty and Hilary Putnam, prominent members of the American philosophical community, faded rather quickly by the end of the century. Yet now, still close to the beginning of the new century, its prospects seem startlingly improved, as if something of special promise had been discovered or rediscovered apart from the energies of its classic figures and its "second-wave" enthusiasts (that is, its accidental vivifiers).

It was originally a parochial success, though it did gain adherents abroad; and it began to attract a wider Eurocentric interest in its short second life, despite a distinctly poor showing at home. We may even speculate about a third career. For pragmatism has begun, possibly for the first time in its history, to be seriously treated as a distinct alternative to—more than an alternative, perhaps a connective tissue spanning the great divide between—analytic and continental philosophy. At any rate, it now counts as a distinctly strong constellation of doctrines and strategies potentially capable of contesting the hegemonies of the day—within both the English-language analytic movement of the last half of the twentieth century and the trailing forces of the Cartesian, Kantian, Husserlian, and Heideggerian movements of late continental Europe. It would not be unreasonable to say that pragmatism's promise at the present time is a function, in part, of the fatigue of its principal competitors and of the economy and fluency with which, without betraying its own conviction, it coopts the principal strengths that remain attractive among the many movements of Eurocentric philosophy. (I use the term "Eurocentric" to range over all the currents of mainstream European philosophy and, in particular, worldwide, all those currents—notably, the Anglo-American—that derive in important ways from the transformative work spanning Kant and Hegel, which, in my opinion, marks the period of "modern" modern philosophy.)

Rightly perceived, pragmatism's best feature lies with its post-Kantian ancestry coupled with its opposition to the extreme forms of analytic scientism with which it has shared a gathering sense of conceptual rigor. It forms, for that reason, a natural bridge between analytic and continental philosophy, for rigor is not inherently scientistic—not bound, say, to reductive materialism or the extensionalist regimentation of the language of science. None of the three movements mentioned (hardly unified within themselves) is separately likely to overtake its own limitations or incorporate the best work of the others in a compelling way. Still, within its own conceptual space, pragmatism favors a constructive (or constructivist) realism drawn from post-Kantian resources in as spare a way as possible, freed from every form of cognitive, rational, and practical privilege, opposed to imagined necessities of thought and reality, committed to the continuities of animal nature and human culture, confined to the existential and historical contingencies of the human condition, and open in principle to plural, partial, perspectived, provisional, even nonconverging ways of understanding what may be judged valid in any and every sort of factual and normative regard. (I shall come back to the meaning of "constructivism.")

There may be a touch of reportorial distortion in going beyond these clichés; but, in risking that much, it would not be unreasonable to say that pragmatists believe that analysts are likely to favor scientism and that continentals are likely to exceed the bounds of naturalism, and both tendencies are more extreme or extravagant than their policies require. In this fairly obvious sense, pragmatism's strength rests with the possibility of a rapprochement by way of the corrections mentioned. It could never have claimed such an advantage earlier had not the main efforts of analytic and continental philosophy persisted too long, in turn, in their own most vulnerable commitments. Pragmatism has delayed as well, of course, but it seems poised now for a larger venture.

Improbable though it may seem, the most confident analysts have lost touch with an essential thread of the transformative history of late eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Critical and post-Critical philosophy. It was still easily discerned in the late-Kantian reflections of the earliest phase of logical positivism and allied currents, but it dwindled and all but disappeared by the time it went transatlantic. By the end of the last century, for instance, in the work of John McDowell and Hilary Putnam, analytic philosophy pointedly discovered the need to recover what it had so cavalierly ignored, but it now lacked a surefooted command of the deep import of any such effort. The pragmatists and continentals never lost sight of the original critique: without venturing any appraisals for the moment, you will find its continuing influence easily enough in Peirce, John Dewey, C. I. Lewis, Husserl, Heidegger, and Cassirer, among others. The narrative wanted requires its effective recovery (and adjustment) well beyond Rorty and Wilfrid Sellars, for instance. It is in fact essential in regaining any effective rapprochement within the Eurocentric world. It depends quite precisely on coming to terms, one way or another, with the essential lesson that joins the transformative and matched contributions of Kant and Hegel: that is, it depends on tethering the distinct inquiries of any contemporary Eurocentric movements to just this uniquely orienting source. McDowell and Putnam, for instance, reclaim Kant, but Hegel almost not at all; pragmatism, however, makes no sense under any such restriction.

At the beginning of the new century, Eurocentric philosophy (both analytic and continental) maintains its technical competence in every sector of inquiry in which it invests its energies—but it is plainly played out by now. It is philosophically becalmed, no doubt afloat, but bound for no particular port of importance beyond what its best progenitors had originally identified. Very nearly all of these large programs are known to be seriously defective, though their inertia remains impressive. Contemporary "pre-Kantians" or "Cartesians," for instance (if you allow these terms), continue more or less to ignore the import of the original seventeenth- and eighteenth-century aporiai (effectively exposed in the interval spanning Kant and Hegel) within their own most up-to-date efforts; nearly the whole of late analytic philosophy may be counted among their self-appointed victims: notably, W. V. Quine and Donald Davidson and such familiar representatives of recent analytic scientism as Daniel Dennett and Paul Churchland. I give the whole of contemporary Eurocentric philosophy scope enough, therefore, in a somewhat unfettered way, in order to get clear, initially, about its largest pretensions; once it is formulated, however, I impose more sober constraints on its prospects and ambitions.

Kant and the post-Kantians posit a more than merely human cognizing competence, examining which they and their advocates discover (to no one's surprise) transcendental powers that they cannot confirm within the limits of actual human reflection: Jürgen Habermas and Karl-Otto Apel afford more than enough evidence (regarding reason in practical affairs) to show that the dream of such a mythical resource has easily survived two hundred years of disbelief.

Habermas, for instance, unlike Apel, has never been able to decide whether "reason" is a determinate natural faculty or a transcendental faculty; whereas the better claim denies that it is a determinate faculty of any kind: its mention (that is, the point of mentioning reason) merely collects a would-be formal feature of what we call thinking viewed as the muster of argumentative rules beyond (but including) deduction, regardless of whether it addresses theoretical or practical questions. Habermas has always been uneasy about admitting any allegiance to the a priori powers of Reason; but increasingly, in more recent years, he shows (in admitting the vagaries of natural reason) an uncertainty as well about the possibility of securing the reliable universality he needs. He is caught, therefore, in a dilemma of his own devising; for the prospects of an objective universalism, whether in practical or theoretical matters, whether normative or factual, cannot be freed from consensual contingencies: in effect, cannot be secured by any ready means confined empirically or by reference to historical experience.

Kant effectively demonstrates in the first Critique that the very idea of a "natural faculty of reason" cannot rightly claim the cognitively privileged or universalist powers Kant's rationalist predecessors regard as a confirmed entitlement; and of course, Hegel's insistence on the historied nature of reason (Vernunft), which, in finite time, cannot assign more than a provisional and inherently horizoned interpretation of any sensorily grounded understanding of our apparent experience of the world (Verstand), completely undermines any assurances, empirical or transcendental, that exceed the provisionality of what we may consensually construct (in our own time) as a workable conjecture about the way the world is.

Add to this the Darwinian evidence (as well as can be surmised) that Homo sapiens, as an animal species, seems to have been uniquely endowed biologically among the primates but never exceeded the primate forms of intelligence until the species (very possibly, earlier species of Homo as well) began to build on the incipience of true language, somewhere on the human side of the primate divide, which shows no promising beginning anywhere else in the primate world (and indeed, no biological gifts to begin to account for it) like that of the unique, species-specific interest on the part of human infants in entering into and sustaining complex forms of play and prelinguistic communication with the adults of the species, whom, in contrast to the higher apes, they seem to recognize for the purpose.

Habermas's problem is precisely the same one that confronted John Rawls, when Rawls found himself obliged to rechristen his own theory of justice as a form of liberal ideology. Pragmatism in the American vein eschews any and every strict or assured form of necessity, of which the so-called Kantian pragmatisms of Apel, Habermas, and Rawls cannot afford to be deprived. There is no way to draw universally necessary conditions from contingent or historical experience except by pretensions of cognitive privilege: after Kant, quite often, this is managed by aprioristic pretensions (that is, by versions of transcendentalism). Habermas fails because his venture is plainly self-defeating—broken backed, I would say. Apel does not fail for Habermas's reasons because, of course, he embraces transcendentalism quite willingly. The Anglo-American analysts largely fail because, in the latter half of the twentieth century, they were never seriously tempted by Kantian apriorism (favoring Hume instead) and because, not being thus tempted, they denied themselves the resources of the contingent and historicized successors of transcendentalism as well. That suggests, also, why the pragmatists "escaped" and what the contemporary Eurocentric contest signifies.

It's worth mentioning that both Hume and Kant, the eighteenth-century champions of empiricism and transcendentalism, are remarkably weak in their treatment of the human self. Hume, famously, cannot find any simple idea of the self in the entire empiricist repertory, and Kant seems to have thought of the ich that is the presumed custodian and source of the apriorist system of categories as a sort of default concession. But disputes about the right analysis of the self are precisely what distinguish in the most pointed way what separates the pragmatists, the analysts, and the continentals in our own time.

Moreover, though I can only hint at the argument here, to admit the Darwinian discovery to the effect that the evolution of Homo sapiens was a very long process that brought the species to the point of exploiting an entirely different form of evolution—the evolution of language and culture, which, on the best evidence, cannot itself be explained in terms suited to the mature forms of neo-Darwinism (that is, of natural selection united with the forms of genetic explanation)—threatens the validity of analytic scientism (reductionism, particularly) and continental extranaturalism at the same time and for the same reasons. What is most extraordinary here is that, in principle, Kant's transcendental Reason, Hegel's Absolute Geist, Heidegger's Dasein, and Husserl's Transcendental Ego are open to potentially fatal challenge for very nearly the same reasons. It's true that neither Kant nor Hegel could have considered the import of Darwinian evolution, but that cuts no ice now.

Hegel, incomparably the best of the post-Kantians, who sought to bring Kant's abstract cognizing Subject back to the unavoidable contingencies of the quotidian world, could not quite keep his own effective Subject from swelling beyond any merely mortal ich—in a way that threatened to encompass the whole of humanity, the whole of history, Geist, Reason, even (through a sort of Spinozistic exuberance) the Trinity, within the compass of his singular Subject. The telltale clue that challenges the entire Hegelian tradition rests with the assured sense of a kind of subjective continuity of thought and experience that no merely human agent could possibly confirm—the so-called identity of the finite and the infinite, the transient and the absolute, the contingent and the necessary, the subjective and the objective: that is precisely what figures like Friedrich Nietzsche and Michel Foucault effectively challenged, and figures like Karl Marx and Jean-Paul Sartre manfully tried to render in naturalistic terms.

At his best, Hegel (unlike Kant) introduces a mythic or heuristic Subject to facilitate his deliberate constructions, but two hundred years have failed to yield much in the way of leaner assumptions. Indeed, Hegel may not have been well served by his own progeny. For a great many admiring commentators find it unlikely that Hegel did not subscribe to a collective Subject—a Geist—somehow more real than any human subject could be, though Phenomenology, the linchpin of Hegel's extraordinary effort, as well as other texts, gives us more than ample reason to view Geist as a convenient nominalization of its own, a device for managing predicative complexities abstracted and idealized from the thought and life of aggregates of humans who share a common history. If Hegel opposed the reading just sketched, then so much the worse for him. (In any event, this suggests the kind of inventive liberty pragmatism would require if it were ever to recover the deeper promise of its second wave.)


Excerpted from Pragmatism's Advantage by Joseph Margolis. Copyright © 2010 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission of STANFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Joseph Margolis is Laura H. Carnell Professor of Philosophy at Temple University. He is the author of more than thirty books, including the recent Arts and the Definition of the Human (Stanford, 2008).

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