C. Wright Mills and the Pragmatists

Sociology and Pragmatism: The Higher Learning in America

by C. Wright Mills, edited with an Introduction by Irving Louis Horowitz
Paine-Whitman, 475 pp., $7.95

The greater part of this book, which contains among other things a version of C. Wright Mills’s doctoral dissertation, is worth reading. It has the benefit of two revisions: one, doubtless to its advantage, by its author, the other by its editor. It should be said in his defense that Professor Horowitz lacks the full courage of his intrusions. For instance he informs us in his Preface that “the title of the dissertation, A Sociological Account of Pragmatism, has been changed to Sociology and Pragmatism: A Study in American Higher Learning.” That this is not the title he has actually given the book, anyone but Professor Horowitz can see. A minor point. In extenuation of this (or that) alteration, the following has occurred to Professor Horowitz: “This is not only a commercially more viable title, but better reflects Mills’s main concern in the dissertation, the professionalization of philosophic education in the United States, and also his enormous indebtedness to the work of Thorstein Veblen.” Characteristic, and not so minor. My guess is that, under its original title, the book would have sold like hot-cakes, real higher learning and all; as it is it will undoubtedly have to be remaindered before the year is out. Mills’s indebtedness to Veblen is genuine, but it is not much in evidence here. Nor is the book’s chief concern with the professionalization of philosophical education. What it is concerned with, when Mills finally gets down to business, is the development, under various pressures, of the pragmatic tendencies in the writings of Charles Sanders Peirce, William James, and John Dewey.

My advice to the reader is to leaf lightly through Professor Horowitz’s Introduction on “The Intellectual Genesis of C. Wright Mills.” The same goes for the first four chapters of Mills’s text: they are stupefying. In Chapter Five, however, things begin to pisk up. Indeed my impression is that only in this chapter, when some philosophical ideas come into view for the first time, and he can forget his puerile statistics, his desultory attempt to classify the types of men who went into philosophy in the nineteenth century, and his derivative remarks upon the rise of the secular American university, does Mills’s own mind really awaken from its sociological slumber. Chapter Five is concerned with the “Biographical Composition” of “The Metaphysical Club,” a “knot of young men,” at whose meetings during the early 1870s in Cambridge the name as well as the fundamental doctrine of pragmatism were conceived. By any standards the group was an extraordinary one; in addition to Peirce its members included (among others) his friend William James, the younger Oliver Wendell Holmes, Chauncy Wright, John Fiske, the historian, and F. E. Abbot, a brilliant free-lance “religionist” and occasional pastor. Of these “half-defiant,” semi-agnostical, supposedly anti-metaphysicians, “Wright, James and I,” as Peirce proudly says, “were men of science.” In one way or another, however, all of them were preoccupied with the implications of Darwin’s grand evolutionary …

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Aiken on Mills April 22, 1965