EDST 580—Entry 8: Richard Rorty on Pragmatism and Feminism

A reading of Rorty (1990) Pragmatism & Feminism.  The 1990 Tanner Lecture on Human Values, Delivered at the University of Michigan.

For this post, I will return to the work of Richard Rorty, the philosopher who seems to have been mostly responsible for the revival in interest in pragmatism and the work of John Dewey in the latter decades of the 20th century.  I selected this piece in an effort to further investigate the relevance of pragmatist theory to social justice aims.  And while this piece is not specifically about a theory of education, the recommendations Rorty makes vis-à-vis feminist politics could easily enough be translated into the realm of the politics of education, in part because many of the points he makes in this lecture on feminism stem from larger claims about social justice and how it is (re-) conceptualized.  And so, after a little bit of exposition, I will use this post to think through how Rorty’s bigger pragmatist social justice claims might be applied in the context of education.

In this lecture, Rorty draws on several feminist theorists and activists, starting with and centering on Catherine MacKinnon, but including many others including Frye, Lovibond, and Rich.  As I saw before in the essays of Rorty’s I read previously for this course, his major axe to grind is with universalism—those thinkers (be they on the left or the right of the political spectrum), who, “assume, with Kant, that all the logical space necessary for moral deliberation is now available” (p. 3).  Rorty sees MacKinnon’s work on the side of “historicists like G.W.F. Hegel and John Dewey” who Rorty reads as saying that “moral progress depends upon expanding this space”(p. 4).  Rorty explains that MacKinnon’s criticism of a 1990 sex-discrimination law is based on her rejection of the current linguistic and practical treatment of women within the logical space already prepared for them by the patriarchy.  The law doesn’t know how to treat women as women.  And Rorty’s starting point is here, in MacKinnon’s refusal to be confined by a misogynist moral space.  As Rorty notes, MacKinnon “sees feminists as needing to alter the data of moral theory rather than needing to formulate principles which fit preexistent data better” (p. 5).  In Rorty’s view, this runs contrary to the typical universalist point of view.

Universalist thinkers, Rorty argues typically believe that moral judgements are validated by something out there in the world—a set of norms or laws or scriptures perhaps.  Historicists, (including Deweyan pragmatists) know that humanity is the sum of its shared practices through time.  And so, in a certain sense, the nature of humanity is to remain mysterious, since presumably human practices will continue to change until the last person dies.  The trick, then is not to get bogged down in thinking about those practices which humanity has actualized so far  Sure, misogyny exists, but that’s no reason to privilege it over social practices we have yet to imagine yet.  Substitute misogyny for any historical social practice in that last sentence, and you get, according to Rorty, pragmatist ethics in a nutshell.

Although Rorty admits that whatever importance a philosophy like pragmatism may have will always be eclipsed by politics in a given historical moment, he still argues that pragmatist philosophy might be useful to feminist politics thus:  “Pragmatism redescribes both intellectual and moral progress by substituting metaphors of evolutionary development for metaphors of progressively less distorted perception” (p. 8).  Rorty extends this progressive development concept back into evolutionary history, and notes the similarities in the functions of biological genes and cultural memes as units of meaning (citing Dawkins and Dennett).  But, the key here, lest pragmatism be taken as backsliding towards a sort of social Darwinism, is that “no gene or meme is closer to the purpose of evolution or to the nature of humanity than any other—for evolution has no purpose and humanity no nature” (p. 9).  For Dewey, and Rorty and pragmatists, misogyny is not an intrinsic evil.  Rather it is a “rejected good, rejected on the basis of the greater good which feminism is presently making imaginable” (p. 10).  The ethics of pragmatism is a creative, imaginative force constantly pushing outward against the confines of history and culture.  And insofar as a feminist politics is an instance of such imagination, it is aligned with pragmatist ethics.

I’ll end this portion of my exposition of Rorty’s speech by pointing to his section on Adrienne Rich.  I first learned about Rich through her powerful autobiographical poetry (i.e. “Diving into the Wreck”), and I was intrigued by her lesbian separatism at first for its utter novelty.  I was still in high school when I was exposed to this idea.  But returning to lesbian separatism through Rorty’s pragmatist ethics lens, I have a much fuller appreciation for what Rich was doing by enacting such a radical politics.  When I was 18 I vaguely understood that rich was “pushing the envelope” so to speak.  But pragmatism, as Rorty has described it in this essay gives a much thicker description of “pushing the envelope.”  It goes beyond the predictions (however accurate or inaccurate) of radicalism to a utopianism.  Rorty concludes powerfully:

Pragmatists cannot be radicals, in this sense, but they can be utopians.  They do not see philosophy as providing instruments for radical surgery, or microscopes which make precise diagnosis possible.  Philosophy’s function is rather to clear the road for prophets and poets, to make intellectual life a bit simpler and safer for those who have visions of new communities.

Although I said, I would use the remainder of this essay to relate Rorty’s general point about the relationship between philosophy and politics (theory and practice), I think I’m going to hold off on that in this entry.  Pinar basically takes this up in his 2005 paper, criticising curriculum studies as a discipline.  Indeed he cites Rorty in a couple of places in that paper.  So, rather than repeat myself (and Pinar and Rorty), I will turn to the question of pragmatist philosophy informing utopian educational practice in my next blog post—the final post for this course.



EDST 580—Entry 6: Radicalizing Progressivism in Education, Part I: Randolph Bourne

Snelgrove (2008)Society, Education, and War: John Dewey and his student Randolph Bourne.

Randolph Bourne, from Wikipedia.

One of the persistent questions I have run into regarding the suitability of a progressivist ideology to education in the present day has been that of its radicalism.  Naturally, as I addressed in my last entry regarding the reading from Waks (2013), it is not sufficient to simply recycle the progressivism of the early 20th century, to re-brand it and plunk it down in present-day schools.  The radical work that John Dewey and others were doing a century ago would not even hold up as progressivism in education today, let alone radical progressivism.  And luckily, Dewey and the other scholars and practitioners of progressivism in education were prescient enough to realize that.  In other words, progressivism can never be an end in itself, but only a means to some other educational end.  Still, this instrumentalism (Sidney Hook’s coinage for the philosophy behind progressivism in education) is insufficient as well.  In a future blog entry I shall take a closer look at a specific critique of instrumentalism.  But today I want to look at a couple of ways that I think progressivism ought to be updated in order to remain a useful set of ideas in the 21st century.  I like to think of this updating as a radicalization—progress for progressivism, if you will.  And my entry point this time will be the history of John Dewey’s relationship with one of his students, Randolph Bourne.

David Snelgrove, of the University of Central Oklahoma, in his 2008 article, “Society, Education and War” gives a detailed look at the relationship between John Dewey and his one-time student at Columbia University, Randolph Bourne.  As Snelgrove notes in the first sentence of his article, Bourne took a different position on the United States entry into World War I than his professor.  Bourne’s position was a pacifist position.  And though his relationship with his beloved teacher became fraught with conflict, Dewey ultimately admitted that Bourne had been right.  Yet, tragically, Bourne died during the influenza epidemic shortly after the War and was never able to make amends with Dewey, who he apparently retained the utmost respect for despite their differing politics.

Bourne’s relationship with Dewey has all the makings of a great Hollywood screenplay.  Bourne, who was deformed from birth due to misuse of a forceps, was a precocious genius, and wrote brilliantly and prolifically throughout his tragically short life.  Only after failing to receive financial aid to Yale and struggling for half a decade in New York City was he admitted to Columbia (on a full scholarship), where he had at least one class with Dewey, who became his mentor.

Bourne was well known in New York activist circles, and at first he uniformly praised pragmatism—the philosophical underpinnings of progressivism in education.  But more than Dewey, I think Bourne understood the dangers of allowing pragmatism (and thus progressivism) to harden into a useless system of dogmas.  So, even when Dewey came out in favor of War, Bourne knew that the right thing to do and what pragmatist and progressivist ideology demanded of him was NOT that he fall in line behind his mentor, but challenge what he saw as a flawed line of thought.  And challenge it he did.

In a series of essays collected as The Radical Will Bourne argued that Dewey’s argument for entry into WWI so as to position the United States to be able to set the terms of the peace, was pragmatism in its weakest form—pragmatism as a mere instrument.  In his essay, “Twilight of Idols,” Bourne questioned, “How could the pragmatist mind accept war without more violent protest?” (qtd. in Snelgrove, p.155).  And as I mentioned above, even Dewey ultimately admitted that Bourne was right.  But I want to argue briefly here, that Dewey’s mistake was not simply a mistake of mere instrumentalism.  His judgement was clearly clouded by his latent Nationalism—or Americanism as he more likely would have understood it.

Snelgrove’s article, brilliantly dissects a series of lectures Dewey delivered on the eve of the United States entry into World War I at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill.  This series of lectures is collected in Dewey’s middle works as “German Philosophy and Politics.”  And it is an interesting piece of writing indeed.  I have downloaded it, and plan to read it soon, as it looks like it may shed some light on Dewey’s eschewal of Marxism along with German idealism in general, especially as that idealism related to German nationalism as Dewey saw it.  But rather than rejecting nationalism overall as one of the destructive, evil forces driving Europe and the U.S. into war, Dewey, as Snelgrove describes it, retreats to a competing nationalism.  Dewey imagined that America as a nation, with its mythos of rationality and liberty would somehow be able to induce the other nations of Europe to create a more just peace.  But in fact, this was not the case, and as history showed, the First World War quickly gave way to the rise of Fascism and World War II.

It is baffling to me how Dewey was able to put so much stock in Americanism above all other nations.  This commitment to America’s exceptionality among other nations, is a deep flaw in Dewey’s thought which comes out even in his discussion of the philosophy of education.  As Snelgrove notes, the bulk of Dewey’s longer tracts on the philosophy of education were published around the time of the First World War.  So, it is not a stretch to say that for Dewey “democracy and education” really meant “American democracy and education.”  It is difficult to express my disappointment at Dewey’s persistent mistake thus.  Why was such a well-travelled guy so tied to the superiority of the nation of his birth?  Why wasn’t the arbitrariness of Americanism more obvious?  Perhaps for Dewey it became so after 1945.  But by that time, I’m afraid that the damage to progressivism had been done, and the onset of the Cold War ensured that pragmatism and progressivism in education could have no place in a world politics based on the fear of a nuclear catastrophe.  It is easy to see in the 21st century that Americanism was never a good idea.  Thankfully the Cold War has passed; but it has been replaced by a sort of global police surveillance state.  The good news is that since the evils of Americanism are all the more evident now, it should be easier than ever for teachers to detach their progressivism from the nationalism which has distorted it for nearly a century.  And so hopefully, in the spirit of Randolph Bourne, we can continue to struggle against such broken dogmas as nationalism and further radicalize progressivism in education.


Bourne has a ghost,/ a tiny twisted unscared ghost in a black cloak/hopping along the grimy old brick and brownstone streets/ still left in downtown New York,/ crying out in a shrill soundless giggle;/ War is the health of the state.          John Dos Passos, 1919 quoted in Snelgrove, 2008

EDST 580—Entry 3: Richard Rorty’s Pedagogic Creed?

A look at Rorty’s Consequences of Pragmatism (1982) alongside Dewey’s My Pedagogic Creed (1897).

Apologies in advance.  This blog entry will suffer from a lack of specific references to the texts I mention since I am composing this on an airplane flying at 872km/h at an altitude of over 10,000m!  My library books have probably all made it back to their stacks by now (save one, which I forgot at my home in Vancouver and was forced to entrust to a housemate to return).  In any case, I’d like to use this blog post to think through what Richard Rorty’s pedagogic creed might look like, or indeed whether he would have one at all.  And in so doing, I am interested in taking a look at how Rorty’s in some ways more robustly analytical late-20th century pragmatism, benefiting as it has from a paradigm shift away from the logical positivist moment mid-century, which was the demise of late 19th-century pragmatism.

John Dewey’s classic, My Pedagogic Creed (1897) is a sparely written, energetic call to action, and one of Dewey’s earliest complete formulations of his philosophy of education.  It reads like a political manifesto.  And in many ways it was just that, since the major subtext of Dewey’s Pedagogic Creed is an argument for the deeper philosophical understanding of a social and thus political phenomenon—namely education.  My Pedagogic Creed is a statement of a younger, “early” Dewey, the Dewey of the Laboratory School at the University of Chicago and comrade of Jane Addams, founder of Hull House.  In it Dewey gives voice to a burgeoning philosophy, still very much colored by strong religious sentiment.  This is Dewey the activist at his most authentic stage, much freer of the confines of the academy, but also much more idealistic in the technical sense of Dewey’s affinity for Hegelian dialectics.  This is a John Dewey less concerned with his reputation as a philosopher, and much more excited about the possibilities held by cognitive psychology and evolutionary biology than in many of his later works, which take a much more “metaphysical” turn.

Flash forward nearly more than 80 years to Richard Rorty and the historical moment of the publication of his 1981 collection of essays on philosophy, Consequences of Pragmatism (1982).  The philosophical landscape of the 1980s was, as Rorty indicates in the introduction to his book, very different from that of the 1890s.  And in a historical account of this span that includes most of the 20th century, Rorty characterizes the ensuing changes as the gradual decline of Hans Reichenbach’s logical positivism to a much less certain moment when the dual forces of “analytic” and “continental” philosophy are squaring off for an attempt at dominance.  This state of affairs is much more familiar in the present day.  And I think Rorty would argue that there is still a lot of uncertainty about how philosophy will proceed, when it is still so divided into camps of thinkers whose philosophical writing is either more like mathematics or more like literature.

Of course, as Rorty notes, there have been exceptions to this bifurcation trend.  Rorty mentions John Rawls work in ethics as a specific example of a philosopher whose work continues to be incredibly influential, but which doesn’t fit neatly into either camp.  And the question remains:  where does pragmatism fit into this scheme.  Rorty’s argument seems to be that pragmatism is much more like post-structuralism than logical positivism, especially with regard to the question of truth.  Specifically, Rorty as a pragmatist takes up Dewey and Peirce’s insistence that truth is contingent, and only has meaning in terms of strings of observed effects.  He also mentions, in one essay, a kind of existentialist leaning which he observes among the early 20th century pragmatists.  This link between Dewey and Sartre is one that came up at the 2012 AERA conference in a session I attended.  It’s definitely worth further investigation, but honestly I don’t really understand it very well right now.

So, the question is then: based on Rorty’s “updated” pragmatism, what might his pedagogic creed look like if he were to write one?  Or leaving Rorty out of it for a moment, I might pose the question this way:  Is 21st century pragmatism still relevant to the philosophy of education?  And if it is then how so?

Here is the main way that I think it is.  Pragmatism is specifically relevant to the philosophy of education and thus progressive educational practice in its conception of the possible aims of education.  Colleges and universities nowadays, with the demands they make of students, teachers and other university workers have lost sight of (if they ever had sight of it in the first place) how knowledge is created and how it changes over time and in the minds of different individuals.  Colleges and universities, dominated as they are by conservative political ideologies are much more interested in treating knowledge like a material commodity in various ways—from the way students are tested, to the way teachers are required to publish.  Underlying the conservatism of present-day colleges is a demand that knowledge (i.e. truth) be stable.  If progress in any domain of human endeavor, whether in terms of social justice, or science or what have you, is still a desirable goal, then universities (and I’m using the blanket term here to signal those individual actors who actually control the levers of power in these institutions) will have to abandon the conception of knowledge as stabile, or truth as anything other than negotiated subjectivities.

Rorty’s pragmatism is a philosophy, which is utterly free of the positivism, which defined so much of 20th century thought.  I think that Dewey was perhaps too much in thrall of the technological advances that marked his life in the United States—from flight to mass communication to nuclear fission—to ever distance himself completely from the desire to make his philosophy of education more scientific.  And as a consequence, I think what began as progressivism in institutions of higher education has slowly deformed over the course of the 20th century into a system where technological advances (new “instruments,” to use Sidney Hook’s term) are allowed to stand in for learning.  In short, I think that if progressivism is to be revived in higher education, it will be through a revolution in the way colleges and universities treat knowledge.

The change I am imagining here, which might be described by my own contemporary pragmatist pedagogic creed, needs to take place both at deep structural levels (like on the level of colleges are governed), and at the surface (like in the course of individual human interactions between teachers, students, administrators, etc.).  Instead of the dominant pattern of bureaucratic higher education administration, modeled as it has been after industrial capitalism, universities should be much more willing to operate in sustainable fashion with a greater good than just its bottom line.  Instead of the relentless drive towards specialization, students should be encouraged to take more holistic approaches to their educations, free from the coercion that the rapidly inflating cost burden of that education has wrought in the United States and Canada.  And professors and other researchers should be free to write and teach how and what they believe most deserves to be written and taught, without fear of reprisal, but with sensitivity to the needs and desires of their students.

How exactly to realize all of these goals and dreams I have for re-making 21st century higher education in the image of a progressivism that is largely absent now, is an open question.  And it is a question that I hope I never lose sight of as a professional teacher.  I have a hunch that an anarchist politics, coupled with cosmopolitan world-view informing our ethics, are two more pieces of the puzzle that on first glance seem to fit nicely with the epistemological demands of pragmatism.  Perhaps the existentialist piece, which I alluded to above, will fit in somehow as well.  One thing is clear: Rorty was nowhere near as interested in actual educational practice as Dewey was.  But his more analytically robust, unapologetic pragmatism is already a starting point for the fashioning of my own pedagogic creed.


So, this is getting posted a little late, even though I wrote it about a week ago on the plane to Japan.  I’m still figuring out when I’m going to be able to make time for the readings I plan to do for the rest of this course.  I plan to continue at some point this week with a review of an by Gert Biesta and Siebern Miedema article about the international dimensions of progressivism, specifically in Europe.

I’ve been a little self-conscious of my readings thus far avoiding specifically education-relevant discussion.  But hopefully, that will change as I begin to get more into the social history of progressivism rather than the philosophical underpinnings of it, which is what I feel like I’ve been (mostly accidentally) concentrating on lately.

Meanwhile, my week-old son, newly arrived from the hospital is a constant distraction as well as a constant motivation and inspiration for this work.

EDST 580—Entry 2: The Metaphysics of Pragmatism

A reading of The Metaphysics of Pragmatism by Sidney Hook (1927).

File:Sidney Hook.jpg

Photo of Sidney Hook from Wikimedia Commons.

I completed this reading with a 1927 hard copy published by The Open Court Publishing Company (Chicago & London); although it should be in the public domain by now, so it would not surprise me to be able to find a reproduction of this relatively short (144pp.) book online. I shall post a link to the ebook here if I am able to find one. But I’ll also quote fairly liberally from the text in my analysis in case web access to the book is ultimately restricted.

I first became aware of Sidney Hook by way of Westbrook’s 1992 intellectual history of John Dewey’s career, John Dewey and American Democracy. Westbrook presents Hook as one of many intellectual foils for Dewey. Westbrook’s list of Dewey expanders and detractors includes figures as variously renowned and obscure as Randolph Bourne, Dewey’s student, who opposed the United State’s entry into WWI even as Dewey threw his support behind President Woodrow Wilson, and William James, who was among those Philosophers who wooed Dewey to pragmatism from his early Hegelian idealist days.

Sidney Hook was a student of John Dewey’s at Columbia. Dewey wrote an interesting forward to Hook’s Metaphysics, which anticipates Thomas Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962). Dewey is deferential to the synthesis that the young Hook has wrought between the old guard of “classical philosophy” and the burgeoning pragmatism, which Hook calls “instrumentalism.” In fact, the first third of the book is dedicated to an explanation of the meaning of “the instrument,” and the specific implications of what Hook latches onto as the central metaphor of pragmatism

Pragmatism is, of course, derived from the Greek word for ‘action.’ But Hook, by re-naming it “instrumentalism” emphasizes a different (possibly reciprocal) aspect of human action—namely the “how” of it. Generally speaking, pragmatism proceeds by means of instruments. But going further still, Hook argues that the existence of instruments in the world offers clues to the structure of the world. In his chapter, “The Metaphysics of the Instrument,” Hook demonstrates convincingly that instruments always carry meaning, that they exist either a) in reference to some object, b) for some domain-specific application or c) in respect and because of its form, arrangement or structure.


These references generate a number of relations highly interesting for philosophical analysis. They show that nature instrumentalized is nature, so to speak, grown or brought to self-consciousness (p.19).

He clarifies further:

An instrument is a monument to a felt lack in existence. But it is more. It is a promise of its eventual check and elimination.

This preliminary definition or movement towards (i.e. zur, in German) a definition of the instrument as a category of phenomenon is a very interesting post-structural move for Hook to be making. In this case Hook is sticking close to the letter of Dewey’s conception of aims (for instance in Democracy and Education). Dewey admits as much in the final paragraphs of his introduction to Hook actually:

It is possible for a reader by means of rigid definition of the terms of “metaphysics” and “pragmatism,” laid down inflexibly in advance, to hide his mind from the enlightenment which this book can convey… (p.5)

This is Dewey at his best in my opinion. It is also Dewey at his most post-structural, especially as he pushes his readers towards a metaphysics of pragmatism sous rature (under erasure) or as Jacques Derrida might have it, Dewey’s and Hook’s is a metaphysics of pragmatism.

Hook is definitely most comfortable with the pragmatism of Dewey and Peirce, which he says is more concerned with the social and political world, as opposed to the “personal and consolatory” pragmatism of Schiller or the “nominalistic” pragmatism of James. I frankly have not read enough of these other philosophers to know what Hook means with these epithets. But the political kernel of Dewey’s pragmatism is clearly what Hook is most comfortable with and wants to build from with his metaphysics and the new category, instrumentalism.

Another interesting tangent that appears to link pragmatism (as instrumentalism) with other later-20th century developments in Marxist critical theory is the centrality of language and social construction of meaning (=language) and its study (=linguistics, or semiotics more specifically). This is an area of great interest for me. And an area that I devoted some measure of previous study to as an undergraduate linguistics major.

In particular, Husserl’s claims about how meaning is structured, comes to mind. But also, Chompsky’s theory of a universal grammar, and even Vygotsky’s understanding of the social development of language, come to mind reading Hook’s introduction to the metaphysics of the instrument. Hook writes:

Without instruments there can be no objectified meanings… it follows that the existence of certain structural lineaments which condition the possibility and presence of instruments, condition therefore a range of meanings. Where instruments are inapplicable or useless, there meanings can never be found (p.23).

It seems like Hook might be making a reductio ad absurdum argument here, because I can’t think of a counter-instance of a situation in which meaning is present without instrument.

And Hook’s definition of instrument, as I referenced earlier, is tied directly to its symbolic valence or meaning.

Simply put, “Every tool, appliance or artifice recites a lesson on the nature of the world” (p.24). This maxim of instrumentalism, also interestingly operates in parallel to what I’ve heard called in a documentary on WWII code decryption technology, “the first law of cryptology,” that is: every code has its cipher. It’s also another way of looking at the problem Hook glosses elsewhere as the tautological or necessarily circular nature of any system of knowledge.

This also harkens back to Dewey’s and others’ criticisms of logical positivism, which was in vogue in the first half of the 20th century. But in contrast to positivism’s impossible quest for certainty, Hook writes,

The instrument marks a point at which human interest intersects the natural continuity of the historical process, converting the even flow and existent brutality of natural ends into multiply-implicative foci of rational enterprise. Endings that are natural and causal become ends that are rational and informed (p.26).

Further, Hook explains: “Not only does the instrument pre-suppose continuity, it manifests in its own history a continuity. Having a growth, it has a genealogy too” (ibid.). And most critically:

Instrumentalities can never become transmuted into irrecoverable certainties, for their effective application depends upon definite objective environmental traits as well as upon the passing needs and purposes of those who live and react [interesting choice of words] in that environment (p.30).

For Hook as well as Dewey, all knowledge is contingent, dependent on the experience of the subject, the conditions of the object, and the dialectical (or at least reciprocal—Dewey stayed far away from this Hegelian designation, but Hook, seems less timid if still a little hesitant to provide this bridge between the worlds of Marx and Dewey) relationship between subject and object (or subject and environment). Thus:

Every instrumental operation, whether it be scientific or artistic, industrial or personal, implies an order to which it owes its existence and an order in virtue to which its ends are realized. The instrument enables us, by utilizing these natural processes, arrangements and termini which antecede and provoke its existence, to create new ends which they suggest and sometimes compel; and to regard in moments of exuberance, the mechanics of transformation as the magic of mind” (p.38).

This is how Hook ends his preliminary discussion of the metaphysics of the instrument. The next chapter comprises an extended discussion of an important particular case of instrumentality: mind. Hook’s consideration of mind—that specific instrumentality which pragmatist philosophers (especially Dewey among them, for whom psychology was of prime importance) have come to ascribe to the dialectic of human subjectivity, is important in its treatment of thought as a phenomenon “that goes on among [objective] things and events” (p.48).

But the most important segment of this chapter is a brief discussion of the ethics of the instrument that starts on page 57. Hook writes:

All social reform whether undertaken in the name of god, social engineering or revolution presupposes a belief in the instrumental character of social institutions. Reorganization is easiest and most effective when the direction of the change is in line with the natural unfolding and growth of institutional forces [~hegemony?]. An examination of the instrumentalities of economic production for example, suggests to collectivists [~socialists?] a revision and extension of the social ends of current distribution. These readings in terms of economic forces and resultants distinguish them from the Utopians [yet another name for a 1920s political faction I am unfamiliar with], who like the poor, are always with us and in the eyes of those who pride themselves on their social realism, attempt to transform things nearer their hearts’ desire by the incantation of democratic shibboleths and by philanthropic exhortation rather than by class organization and struggle (p.61).

So, Hook, here is getting on board with Dewey’s conception of pragmatism as political philosophy. But this section also sounds a certain note of criticism of Dewey, especially perhaps his hawkishness a decade earlier during WWI. Dewey’s magic word was always “democracy.” So, perhaps Hook’s barb (no pun intended) here may actually be aimed at least in part at the older generation of pragmatist philosophers.

He continues,

Another example from collectivist theory to show how the desire to widen the interest of a political or social instrument may lead to its abolition, is illustrated in the conception of the state. The state regarded as the executive committee of the ruling class, capitalist or proletarian, will in Engel’s phrase ‘wither away’ when economic classes are abolished and will be replaced by more voluntary forms of organization. So long, then, as ethics pays attention to ways and means, instruments and agencies, it is intimately linked with social philosophy. “Although instruments have often been the means of man’s enslavement, construed as they appear in their social setting they breathe a promise that they will make him free” (ibid.).

Hook, who was avowedly a socialist (or collectivist perhaps) himself, according to Westbrook could not have anticipated the deformed bureaucratic state that would emerge out of Stalinism.

So, it is best perhaps to excuse his faith in Engels’ words as an instrument of revolution, just as Dewey’s earlier exhortations about democracy should be considered as at least in some respects detached from the political realities and contemporaneous rhetoric of the United States as an instrument of “democracy” and its attendant ideologies. Hook’s beliefs about socialism were well informed to say the least, but I think he would argue in retrospect, that his beliefs as well as the realities they were connected to were all contingent.

In other words, whether instrumentalism as a philosophy or any other political philosophy as an instrument sets you free or enslaves you just depends. It depends on you, your beliefs, the environment where you’re doing your believing in, and all of the other things and people which you and your philosophy interact with in that environment. “What then,” Hook wonders in the ensuing chapter, “is certainty in inference?” Hook’s answer on page 87 is this:

The only response that can be made is that certainty is the knowledge that the guiding principles which we have followed in the past, implicitly or not, have given us conclusions about the way in which things hang or hold together that have been verified by experience.”

Hook points to James’ assertion in The Meaning of Truth that “Pragmatism or pluralism has to fall back on a certain ultimate hardihood, a certain willingness to live without assurances or guarantees… on possibilities that are not certainties” (James p.229, quoted in Hook p.87).

Hook concludes this third chapter on what he calls the “leading principles” of instrumentalism by paraphrasing Alfred North Whitehead, another pragmatist philosopher whose Aims of Education I read for this class in week one:

Our knowledge of the structure or order of nature has been born in a shock, strengthened by a guess, and fixed through a habit. The logic of demonstration is the logic of discovery grown cold” (quoted in Hook p.88).

In this way logic itself can become a kind of metaphysics (ibid. p.93). Clarifying, Hook continues:

The metaphysical implication of the pragmatic-realist logic of leading principles is an open universe in which there is an element of radical indetermination, in which physical constants are limits of variation and physical laws summations and prognostications of physical flux” (ibid.).

So, for Hook, Dewey and the other pragmatist-instrumentalists, even hard science demands capitulation to uncertainty. All knowledge is necessarily socially constructed. And so:

A social movement, therefore, must be based not only on a social ideal, although that is a sine qua non, but upon a body of social knowledge. Not only is it true that the world can not be remade in its entirety, it can not even be completely re-thought or re-imagined. If this be questioned, I challenge anyone to see in his mind’s eye a color never beheld in experience before” (pp.99-100).

Hook’s position is not completely skeptical of knowledge, but demands a more comprehensive understanding of its sources and structures.

A fourth chapter here goes into what Hook calls “categorical analysis,” which on first blush appears to be a kind of phenomenology by another name perhaps. This is probably the least important chapter for my understanding of Hook’s philosophy. It is also the most tentative and unresolved.

But in his concluding chapter, “Of Human Freedom,” Hook speaks to a phenomenon that I have previously identified elsewhere as being of central importance to Dewey’s pragmatism and the project of progressivism in education more broadly. Hook begins by paraphrasing Augustine who wrote of the concept of time that, “If no one asks me what it is I know: If I wish to explain it to one that asketh, I know not” (referencing Augustine’s Confessions XI, xiv). Hook goes on to note decisively that freedom is not a question of psychology, seemingly deflecting some potential criticism from a proto-behaviorist readership.

Rather, Hook makes an interesting move, referencing Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, where Aristotle parses the possible limitations to freedom as 1) the physical compulsion of some external force, or 2) ignorance of the circumstances in which an act is performed. If I’m not mistaken, Dewey makes reference to these limits to freedom in his 1938 lecture that became the book, Experience and Education, which I have analyzed elsewhere for a different course in the “Ignorance Log” portion of this blog.

Again, if I’m not mistaken, both Dewey and Hook want to emphasize this second possible limitation on freedom. Hook writes:

Knowledge, then, of ourselves and of the world without is the key to freedom for it tells us what we are and that we can be no other than what we are. Freedom is the consequence of this knowledge revealed and attested to by our everyday activities” (p.140).

Here Hook with Hegel makes a leap to Adam in Eden, who arguably was not completely free until he ate the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.

Finally, Hook concludes:

Although human freedom depends upon a natural order, the natural order does not determine or confer upon itself significance. That is to say, the values which arise in the possession and exercise of freedom can never be derived from the order of the domain in which that freedom is a fact.

So, in similar fashion to the way in which knowledge systems are necessarily tautological, Hook notes that freedom’s existence is its own kind of a self-completing circle.

Just as Thomas Jefferson and the other founders of the political entity that became the United States of America recognized when they wrote that “certain inalienable rights” had been conferred upon all people by God, Hook seems to be saying that freedom is never completely “man-made.” More to the point, it is a similar move to the Audre Lorde epigram that became Arendt’s book title: The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” I’m misquoting or misattributing that somehow I’m sure. But above, all, Hook’s conclusion with the possibility of freedom is true not only to his forebears’ pragmatism, but I think also pushes the envelope on their interpretations. His phenomenology of instruments—if it can be called that— is ingenious. I think I ultimately have to agree with Westbrook’s characterization of Hook’s oeuvre—at least in the case of his Metaphysics—holds true. instrumentalism is a welcome bridge between pragmatism and its underlying dialecticism.


Look for another (probably shorter) entry later on this week, on Dewey and Peirce /pers/ and the social and political directions they took pragmatism (or pragmaticism).



De-centering facts, de-centering the past de-centering epistemology: Carl L. Becker, pragmatism & the proto-postmodernism of historiography

Fisher Review 1 Becker

A micro-review I wrote for one of my History Classes this term, which I am particularly proud of.

I don’t think I do a very good job of explaining Pragmatism or the Pragmatist version of Experience here.  But, if you’re interested, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy is a good place to get more in depth.  The following is from section 4.3, “The pragmatist conception of experience.”

Dewey’s account of experience contributes an additional twist. Like Peirce, he thought that experience was ‘full of inference’. Experience is a process through which we interact with our surroundings, obtaining information that helps us to meet our needs. What we experience is shaped by our habits of expectation and there is no basis for extracting from this complex process the kind of ‘thin given’ beloved of sense datum theorists. We experience all sorts of objects, events and processes, and we should not follow philosophers who seek to impose a distinction between the thin uninterpreted data of experience and the inferential processes which lead us to interpret what we experience as books, people and so on. The dichotomy between the passive given of experience and the rich results of our active conceptualization is not supported by our experience. It is yet another of the philosophers’ distortions.


Here is a link to the original Becker publication.  This is an important document of a thinker ahead of his time.  He apparently wrote a history of the founding of Cornell, which took the form of a series of lectures and which might be an interesting context for my Black Mountain project.

Becker Western Pol. Quart. 1955.

Generating Truth from Fiction

“wisdom of the [literary] novel … the fascinating imaginative realm where no one owns the truth and everyone has the right to be understood” Milan Kundera, quoted by Richard Rorty in the April 1994 University of Chicago Magazine, p. 23.

via Generating Truth from Fiction.