William James, Pragmatism, and American Culture, by Deborah Whitehead

Pragmatism is a theory, or a philosophical school of thought, that had its moment of fame in the early 20th century before the rise of what came to be known as analytical philosophy. It is usually associated with the American philosophers Charles Sanders Peirce (1839–1914), William James (1842–1910), and John Dewey (1859–1952). Pragmatism later evolved into neo-pragmatism, perhaps most notably through Richard Rorty (1931–2007).

In her book, Deborah Whitehead refrains from defining pragmatism. Instead, she discusses a number of narratives of what pragmatism is or was, how it first developed, and what its advocates thought of it. As a shortcut to the core of pragmatism, I think of it as a theory of truth that ultimately boils down to the view that a claim is true if and only if it is useful.

It is noteworthy, or perhaps just funny, that the philosophical giant Bertrand Russell (1872–1970) dismissed pragmatism, interpreted by recent scholars of the history of pragmatism as claiming that ”what passes for true ’over there in America’ is philosophically inadequate as a conception of truth” (p. 44). In any case, having read Whitehead I must admit that my shortcut to pragmatism may be misleading.

Whitehead’s question is: ”How does a critical theoretical framework informed by philosophy, religious studies, gender studies and cultural studies help us think about pragmatism: what it means, what it signifies, how it is constituted in and through its undeniable engagement with American culture in the past and in the present?” (p. 6) The question is complex, and so are Whitehead’s answers to it, but I will try to make justice to her theory.

The term ”pragmatism” was first introduced in print in an 1898 lecture given by James, who attributed the notion to Peirce. Peirce did not know whether he did in fact coin the term—Did I? Maybe I did—but later chose to use ”pragmaticism” instead; a term ”ugly enough to be safe from kidnappers” (p. 35).

Anyway, Whitehead makes it clear that the two philosophers did not share one theory:

”The key difference between Peirce’s and James’s formulations of the [pragmatist] maxim was that Peirce conceived of pragmatism as primarily a logical principle of inquiry to determine meaning and clarity, whereas James sought to broaden its application to encompass a general philosophical outlook” (p. 28). Whitehead’s focus is on James, who wrote that ”[t]here can be no difference which doesn’t make a difference—no difference in abstract truth which does not express itself in a difference of concrete fact” (ibid).

James attributed the antecedents of pragmatism to the British empiricists, particularly Locke, Berkeley, Hume, and Mill, ”who first introduced the custom of interpreting the meaning of conceptions by asking what difference they make for life” (p. 28). He also called his philosophical worldview ”radical empiricism” (p. 31).

Whitehead analyzes how religion, gender, and nation ”are embedded in pragmatist narratives” (p. 58). She argues that gender and nation should be seen as key elements in James’s rhetorical construction of pragmatism (p. 137).

When introducing pragmatism, James expressed its ”Americanness” by connecting it to ”the foundational myths of America: Columbus, explorers, the singularly sublime American landscape, and hardy Europeans making trails and homes for themselves in the vast wilderness and becoming Americans in the process” (p. 69).

In his 1898 lecture, James spoke optimistically about westward expansion in two interconnected senses; the birth and growth of philosophy departments in California, and the taking of native lands (p. 71). But he opposed American imperialism—”Damn great empires!” (p. 82)—and presented pragmatism as the American philosophy of the future that bridges past and present, and signals ”a friendly trail in a vast and wild landscape” (p. 66).

To me, a novice, Whitehead’s analysis seems robust. However, I am more skeptical to her analysis of pragmatism and gender. I don’t understand what it achieves.

On the one hand, James describes pragmatism in gendered terms, speaking of ”her” as a ”mediator;” a, supposedly, female characteristic (p. 83). On the other, he does not seem committed to essentialism about genders, but treats gender as fluid and unstable (p. 98).

Whitehead sees James as ”attempting to occupy a kind of middle position between Victorian sentimentalist conservatism and the liberal feminism of John Stuart and Harriet Taylor Mill” (p. 91). He was against policies that would stunt a person’s capacity for moral growth, and opposed restrictions on women’s access to education and politics (p. 87). But, his sexism can be seen ”not only as obvious but pervasive” (p. 85); women are often cursed with ”a relative deficiency of intellect” (p. 106).

Rather than being enlightened by the analysis of pragmatism and gender as interconnected, I am confused. But that might of course be the reader’s fault, and not the author’s.

Whitehead also devotes one chapter to ”the revival of pragmatism,” in which she discusses Rorty and various conversations about pragmatism in recent feminist philosophy. The discussion is interesting, but does not convince me that there is a ”revival” of pragmatism to speak of.

To conclude, the book is informative, but I still have the feeling that I do not fully grasp what pragmatism is. In Whitehead’s defense, I think that her book is aimed at a narrow audience, and not to us with a general interest in the history of modern philosophy.

I have one final opinion that cannot be left unexpressed; the typesetting of the book is just terrible. The book is only 179 pages, but with a reasonable (or; readable) word/page ratio and with margins that allow for comments it would have been at least 250 pages. Someone at Indiana University Press deserves to drink lukewarm coffee for a month.

Whitehead, D. (2015). William James, Pragmatism, and American Culture. Indiana University Press.