EDST 580—Entry 3: The Pragmatic Movement in American Philosophy
A micro-review of Charles Morris’s Pragmatic Movement in American Philosophy (1970)
An important goal of this course of readings in progressive educational philosophy is to come to a completer sense of how pragmatism has been viewed over the course of the 20th century and into the present in the 21st century. The book that I want to mention briefly today is an interesting overview of the work of four philosophers—John Dewey, George Mead, Charles Peirce and William James.
Morris opens his history of American pragmatism, to my delight, with a quote from Wallace Stevens’ late work, the poem, “An Ordinary Evening in New Haven,” thus:
The poem is the cry of its occasion.
So, being a fan of Stevens—especially his later more philosophical poetry, like the one quoted from his book The Auroras of Autumn (1950), from way back— this had me hook, line and sinker. But actually the analogy Morris draws here with pragmatist philosophy falls unfortunately flat.
Morris wants to say that for pragmatists, philosophy is necessarily “the voice of its occasion.” It is definitely an interesting starting point for his synopsis of these four pragmatist voices. However, the political philosophy of Dewey and Peirce isn’t always exactly poetry springing like the northern lights out of an imaginative expression of the sublime.
In other words, I think Morris uses this poetic introduction to highlight the centrality of empiricism to the pragmatists’ philosophical program. Morris makes much of these four pragmatists’ empiricism—rooted as it was for many of them (at least the 3 out of 4 of those he selected) were professional scientists before they became known as philosophers. Likewise, I suppose, Morris’s nod to Wallace Stevens is significant insofar as Morris is very concerned with the more language- and meaning-centric aspects of pragmatism—what he calls the “pragmatic semiotic” after Peirce. To be honest, I was mostly unaware of this analytic and linguistic turn to pragmatism, specifically found in Perice’s writings. Interestingly, Peirce as a chemist, had become increasingly interested in communicating his experimental results with utmost clarity. But of course, chemistry at the turn of the 20th century was becoming an increasingly complex enterprise. So, Perice search for clarity, in Morris’ account, led him eventually to formulate what has become known as the pragmatist maxim. Basically: the meaning of an event is the sum of observable effects of the event.
All interesting stuff. But actually not particularly useful to historiography of progressivism in higher education, except to say that apparently, in the 1970s, if Morris’s book is any indicator, interest in pragmatism was pretty limited to its contributions to analytical philosophy and much less so its contributions to political philosophy. Of course, all of this would begin to change in the late 70s and 80s when Richard Rorty and others began to revive interest in other aspects of pragmatism.
I am tempted to skip ahead in my readings before I leave Vancouver for Japan and all of my library books behind. I have a few of these late-20th century pragmatist revival works, which I’m going to either have to make copies of or hurry up and read this week. So, perhaps that is what I will do. Stay tuned for some Rorty in the next few days. Plus, I want to swing back around to Dewey’s My Pedagogic Creed (1897), which should round out my look at the 1st wave of American pragmatism for now, and free me up to address the consequences all of this philosophy has had in higher education curriculum.