Pragmatism Rides Again

The Promise of Pragmatism: Modernism and the Crisis of Knowledge and Authority

by John P. Diggins
University of Chicago Press, 515 pp., $29.95

You might imagine that the hero of The Promise of Pragmatism would be John Dewey the sturdy democrat, or William James the enemy of the cult of bigness and “the bitch goddess SUCCESS,” or even the mordant and self-destructive Charles Sanders Peirce—perhaps an unlikely hero, but the most inventive of American philosophers. All three, and especially Dewey, play a large part in advancing the book’s case; but it turns out the hero of John Diggins’s account of the intellectual, spiritual, and political yearnings of nineteenth and twentieth century America is that unsatisfied and unsatisfying character, the historian Henry Adams.

Adams’s complaints against the world get more attention, and are handled much more sympathetically, than William James’s determined cheerfulness or Dewey’s optimism “about things in general.”1 The book’s subtitle gives the game away: Modernism and the Crisis of Knowledge and Authority is Diggins’s subject, and the moral is that Adams’s anxieties cannot be assuaged by any of the reassurances that James and Dewey had to offer. Or, as Diggins nicely puts it: “Pragmatism advises us to try whatever promises to work…. Does pragmatism itself work?” The answer is less a resounding No than a raised eyebrow.

Professor Diggins is a sophisticated, fluent, and productive historian of ideas, whose earlier books have very much enlivened our understanding of intellectuals and their politics in the twentieth century; among them, Up From Communism offered a dry but not unfriendly account of the journey from far left to far right undertaken by Max Eastman, John Dos Passos, James Burnham, and others, while The Rise and Fall of the American Left provided a somewhat gloomier picture of some of the same landscape inspected from the perspective of the old question, Why is there no socialism in the United States? Rise and Fall seemed to suggest that one reason for the continuous failure to make any great impact on American politics suffered by every socialist movement was their failure to base themselves on a truly American philosophy—such as Dewey’s pragmatism. A number of the writers, publicists, philosophers, and activists who have appeared in Professor Diggins’s pages before appear in this new book, too, but there is little suggestion that any of them would have profited by embracing either Dewey or pragmatism.

Like several other of Diggins’s books, The Promise of Pragmatism is an exercise in intellectual biography. Particular chapters concentrate on particular writers and thinkers, but not so tidily that each arrives at the beginning of his chapter and leaves at the end. They come on the stage bearing quantities of intellectual baggage, and when they go, they leave much of it for their successors to stumble over; by the time we reach the concluding chapters of The Promise of Pragmatism the clutter is tremendous. What Diggins loses in clarity in the process, he gains in verisimilitude; “modernity” embraces a host of threats and promises, and no tolerably generous discussion of it and them is likely to be tidy.

Diggins is content with such a crowded stage because he has none of the historian’s professional fear of anachronism, and happily writes as though all his subjects habitually talked to each other in a transcendental Harvard Yard freed from the usual constraints of time, space, and linguistic habit. This is a style of intellectual history whose best-known practitioner is Isaiah Berlin, and it is rather disapproved of by the “Cambridge School,” otherwise known as “contextualist” historians of ideas. Diggins knows where his allegiances lie.

The contextualist wants to know the birth certificate of a text and the conscious intent of its author. The assumption is that the ideas of a given text are the constructions of the conditions that supposedly brought the text into being, and thus the “meaning” of ideas and their text may be reduced to a context that it is the historian’s obligation to establish. This work obviously sins against the contextualist’s commandments….

It does indeed.

To say that The Promise of Pragmatism turns out to be built around an argument between Henry Adams and John Dewey is thus a rather brutal summary. It is largely true, however; and to say so is not to slight Diggins’s chapters on Peirce, James, Walter Lippmann, and Oliver Wendell Holmes. For Adams and Dewey appear here, not only as themselves, but as the bearers of two utterly opposed views of the modern world. Adams speaks for all those who think (and perhaps even more strongly feel) that modern life is defined by its losses—agnosticism, the Darwinian discovery that we are wholly a part of the animal kingdom, the failing grip on our allegiances of our cultural and political traditions, and our equal failure to create a replacement for them. The German sociologist Max Weber famously described this as the process of “the disenchantment of the world”—the German Entzauberung perhaps more exactly catches the thought that the magic has gone out of the world.2 With the death of a magical universe and magical thinking, all we have to work with is natural science and rational calculation; but if these suffice to tell us how to achieve what we want, they can tell us nothing about what to want and achieve.

Even better known than Weber’s sociological account of the process of disenchantment are the lines from Matthew Arnold’s “Stanzas from the Grande Chartreuse,” where we are depicted as:

Wandering between two worlds, one dead,
The other powerless to be born.

Rather cleverly, Diggins takes up Dewey’s defense of the modern world with the young Dewey’s commencement address at Smith College in 1890, an address devoted to the theme of the relationship between science and poetry. Arnold, said Dewey, had expressed all too accurately the feelings of “modern man.” Science had expelled God from Nature, and “Nature in ceasing to be divine, ceases to be human.” But Arnold’s subsequent response was all wrong. We could not take refuge in the poetic contemplation of lost happiness, as Arnold was too inclined to do. The onward march of science would not be slowed. The task of philosophy was to show that poetry and science were not enemies but potential allies, that the intellectual and moral crises of the modern world presented not only dangers but opportunities.

Dewey’s role in The Promise of Pragmatism is thus as the bearer of the news that the modern condition is more gain than loss, or, more exactly, as the bearer of the ambiguous news that things are not as bad as the lamenting conservative thinks, and that buried within the bad there is a greater good. For Dewey was anything but a “booster” either of the modern world in general or of his own United States in particular. He was, in his own way, quite as given to complaint as Henry Adams. What he did not do was complain at the Cosmos. Diggins says that “Dewey convinced himself that the problems of modernism were more apparent than real,” but that is slightly off-target. On the issue that dominates The Promise of Pragmatism, for instance, Dewey did not deny that many people felt the loss of traditional authority, whether this was religious, intellectual, or political. The felt experience of such a person as Henry Adams was something he understood and sympathized with. Its philosophical diagnosis was another matter.

There were innumerable “problems of modernism” whose reality Dewey insisted on. The conflict between the owners of business and industry and those they employed was modern and real; more important in Dewey’s own eyes was the alienation of both owners and workers from the whole productive process. During the early 1930s Dewey’s concerns about such matters seem close to those of the young Karl Marx, so much so, indeed, that it leaves one astonished that Sidney Hook, who reckoned himself a disciple of both Marx and Dewey, could never get Dewey to turn to Marx and discover these similarities. What Dewey argued was not that this discontent with our working lives was built on an illusion, but that it was a facet of the way in which society was at odds with itself.

For what defined our sort of society was that it had come into existence because human intelligence had been liberated; but these new, freer, relations and the productive energy they freed up had not yet been brought under the control of the intelligence that had created them. Work could be satisfying, and engrossing; the gulf between routine work and artistic creation could be closed; we could find personal satisfaction in work that we also found morally admirable—but only with a much more dramatic reorganization of the economically depressed United States than Roosevelt and the New Deal were likely to deliver.

Although the true contrast in Dewey’s thought does not lie between “real” and “apparent” problems, Diggins is right about the broad implications of such a contrast. What Dewey resisted was the idea that the modern world had entirely lost its moorings; even more strenuously he resisted the thought that what was needed was the recovery of one or another traditional understanding of the world, or the re-establishment of one or another traditional moral and spiritual authority. Dewey had an unshakable confidence in the self-sufficiency of everyday life. An admiring New Republic profile around the time of his eightieth birthday called Dewey “the Master of the Commonplace,” the philosopher who resisted the siren calls of the Transcendental and the Mysterious.

Dewey’s refusal to suffer metaphysical anguish drives Diggins to a long and infuriated footnote. Diggins quotes H. L. Mencken’s complaint that Dewey exhibited “the highest bearable sobriety”; but Diggins himself appears to find Dewey’s sobriety unbearable.

In its “method” one wishes for a little madness, for Captain Ahab the metaphysical seeker as well as Starbuck the practical navigator…. In Deweyan pragmatism there is no ecstasy, no Dionysian music, no charismatic illumination.

For all those we have to turn to H. L. Mencken’s hero Nietzsche not to the reliable and reasonable Dewey.

If Professor Diggins was writing as a philosopher one might wish to fight him on his claim. Dewey was not an ecstatic writer, but he never denied the importance of ecstatic experiences and what produces them. It was just that he was in the business of explaining their place in human existence, not in the business of producing ecstatic experiences himself. The analysis of a Beethoven quartet does not move the reader in the way the quartet itself moves the listener, and is none the worse for it; Dewey’s philosophical aesthetics are not to be confused with the paintings of Matisse and Cézanne that he admired. Explaining the place of ecstasy in human existence is not itself an ecstatic undertaking.

But Diggins isn’t writing philosophy. He is exploring a sensation that has certainly animated philosophers, novelists, and poets since time immemorial, and one that has taken a particular shape in the past hundred years or so. This is the sensation that human existence is a matter of walking a tightrope over the abyss. The natures of both the tightrope and the abyss are disputable, but the characteristic thought is that the abyss represents the ultimate meaninglessness of a world that cares nothing for human hopes and aspirations, and the ultimate nature of which is necessarily shrouded in mystery.

The tightrope may be constituted by habit, by a determined refusal to look down and see the void beneath our feet, or even by the entire intellectual, spiritual, and cultural resources of our society. The modern terror is the conviction that if we stop we fall off, and if we look for the anchors at either end of the rope we see that it is suspended from nothing. Dewey’s offense was to say that there is no abyss. He had too great a respect for life as actually experienced by the Romantic poets and for the anguish actually suffered by those who had lost their faith to say that they were just silly or merely mistaken; but in response to the question, “Is the Universe friendly to mankind?” Dewey readily answered Yes.

My sympathies fall somewhere between Dewey and Diggins; I am not readily seized either with a consciousness of the abyss or with a conviction that the universe is on my side. Still, Diggins is surely with the majority in thinking that Dewey’s insistence on the adequacy of the matter-of-fact world won’t entirely do. Whatever the deeper meaning may be of the fact that 94 percent of Americans profess a belief in God, its most obvious meaning is that few people believe there is no mystery to existence. That raises the questions that Diggins pursues in much of The Promise of Pragmatism—what vision of the world can have authority over us, how do we come by such a vision, what does it tell us—that there is order and purpose to life, or that we live in what is ultimately a howling wilderness?

On Diggins’s account of his odyssey, Henry Adams started looking for an answer after the obvious answer had been rejected. The obvious answer is that we live in a world governed by divine providence, and that the understanding of the purposes of providence is offered by scripture, by revelation, by individual religious intuition, and by traditions of our church; the ethics and politics of that world are then inscribed in natural law and the teachings of the church, and all else follows.

The underlying premise of The Promise of Pragmatism is that during the nineteenth century, reflective and educated persons found it increasingly impossible to swallow that answer. Diggins’s book starts, historically speaking, at that disillusioning moment. The Education of Henry Adams is such an important item in Diggins’s dramatic rendition of American cultural history just because it is, among much else, an account of the way the Puritan culture of New England had lost credibility. This was not only, and perhaps not most importantly, a theological or credal matter, for it implicated the authority of the governing class of which Adams’s own family had been such distinguished members, as well as their claim to social and moral distinction.

In spite of his origins, Henry Adams was not anxious for political power; it is easy to believe that he would have been emotionally as well as intellectually content if his historical studies had shown that some wholly credible, non-providential process required the Adamses and their kind to step aside in favor of some acceptable replacement. His unhappiness was that neither history nor science revealed any order beneath the flux of events. The secular history of the United States—Adams spent the whole of the 1880s writing his nine-volume History of the United States of America during the Administrations of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison—turned out, for him, to be a tale of sound and fury signifying almost nothing. He began writing his monumental history intending, and expecting, to impress “a moral on the national mind, which is now almost a void.” Rather soon, he began to think that the leading figures of Jeffersonian Republicanism “appear like mere grasshoppers kicking and gesticulating on the middle of the Mississippi River.”

If statesmen were no more in control of their fate than grasshoppers were in control of the Mississippi, history could not be the record of human intelligence mastering events. If human reason could do so little, history could not be a reasonable process. It might, for all that, be intelligible. Hegel and Marx had both claimed to see an order in human history, but one that operated “behind the backs” of human beings. This seems to have been one of the few philosophies of history that Adams did not play with before rejecting it. In The Education of Henry Adams, he regretted that Harvard College had not taught him Das Kapital when he was an under-graduate in 1859—even by Adams’s exigent standards a harsh complaint, since Das Kapital wasn’t published until 1867—but Adams looked to science rather than the dialectic to provide a coherent and orderly account of social and political change.

But, as Diggins explains in a whirlwind tour of Adams’s encounter with the new physics, this was the culminating disenchantment. Adams got it into his head that the process of entropy, whereby energy tends to be spread evenly throughout the universe, meant that everything was rushing toward a state of disunity and disorder, randomness and inexplicability. He swung from a belief in determinism to the belief that nature was almost mischievously unpredictable. The search for a theory of history that would make the modern world intelligible and manageable had run into a wall.

Adams’s despair at the moral and intellectual disorder of his own society seems, even in Diggins’s sympathetic rendering, too willful to amount to a contribution to social and political criticism, however engaging we might find the spectacle of Adams’s mental and emotional turmoil. Adams, as William James complained, made a life out of being dissatisfied, and the objects of his dissatisfaction were just too various to be taken entirely seriously. Adams’s unhappiness at the decay of standards of statesmanship between President Washington and President Grant—“alone evidence to upset Darwin”—was not likely to be assuaged by a new view of physics or the philosophy of history. So Dewey’s insistence that the world is not cosmically deranged addressed only one of the many anxieties that Adams ventilated. One might well believe that nothing Dewey said would reassure Adams, but it would not be absurd to see in that fact evidence of Adams’s insatiable appetite for anguish rather than a failure of Dewey’s philosophy.

Diggins does not quite suggest that the test of Dewey’s merits should be his likely success in consoling Adams’s doubts. He sees well enough that Dewey’s claim was that in a more satisfying society than late nineteenth-century America, metaphysical torment would not be answered, but would die out. Indeed, Diggins sees, though perhaps less clearly, that Dewey had a good deal more than that in mind as well. There was a utopian strain in Dewey’s thinking that suggested that in a society where work satisfied our artistic as well as our moral needs, and where the emotional ties of community were reinforced rather than weakened by economics, a modern and non-puritanical religiosity would develop. We should see the world as a friendly place because it would have become a friendly place.

This is still not to answer metaphysical anguish on its own terms; it is the diversion of metaphysical and religious anxieties into social and political reform. Diggins’s complaint is not that this is illicit. Nor is it that because Deweyan pragmatism has no ear for Dionysian dance music it cannot address the needs of the anguished. Diggins’s most straightforward complaint is that pragmatism was unimpressive as a guide to political action. This is a well-aimed blow. If pragmatism tells us that the cure for metaphysical anguish is successful social and political action, it had better have something useful to say about politics.

Neither Peirce nor James had much to say about politics. Dewey did. Diggins argues that what Dewey had to say was generally inept. Consider, as Diggins does, Dewey’s attitude to the two world wars. In the first, he moved, like his colleagues at The New Republic, from the view that the United States should remain neutral but not inactive, to the view that the war was an opportunity to spread democracy, to give the United States itself a stronger sense of national purpose, and to teach the holders of property a lesson in the need to subordinate the rights of owners to the needs of the nation. Among other benefits, the war could bring a league of nations, and the rule of international law. Dewey defended these views against the private criticism of his old friend and colleague Jane Addams, and the very bitter and very public criticisms of his former student and disciple Randolph Bourne. He did so in no very experimental spirit, contriving among other things to shut up Randolph Bourne by persuading the editors of The New Republic to close their pages to him, and getting the owners of The Dial to throw Bourne off the editorial board. Disillusioned by the peace-making process, and the Versailles Treaty that emerged from it, Dewey shortly afterward became an isolationist. He concluded that the effect of foreign wars on the United States was disastrous; free speech was destroyed, nativism was fostered, and the American government became indistinguishable from the authoritarian governments against which it was fighting.

Once he adopted this view, Dewey never abandoned it, even after World War II broke out in September 1939. Before the war, he had said that his view was “Whatever Happens—Keep Out,” and he did not change his mind. He was not an extremist in his isolationism. He did not say, “a plague on all their houses”; and he was sure that the United States ought to give all assistance short of war to the democracies fighting Hitler. He approved of Roosevelt’s policy of Lend-Lease, and thought the United States ought to give Britain and the Commonwealth whatever financial and material help they asked for. But he remained fixated on the disappointments of World War I until the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor made his view irrelevant.

Pearl Harbor provided the most brutal possible demonstration of pragmatism’s political bankruptcy. As ill luck would have it, Dewey was booked to address a meeting at the Cooper Union on the evening of December 7, 1941, on “Lessons from the War in Philosophy.” Diggins makes much of this occasion, describing Dewey as “pale and tense,” “the hands trembling, sweat beads streaming down his forehead and misting the upper part of his glasses,” as he confessed that philosophy had nothing to say about the war. What strikes the reader of Dewey’s Collected Works is not the anguish of Dewey’s extempore remarks, but their extreme flatness. “Philosophy,” said Dewey, “intellectual operations, in general, are likely to come after events. This is a sort of ex post facto enterprise and very often by the time philosophy is formed, events have changed so much there isn’t much for ideas to lay hold of.”

As a confession that philosophers are not in the business of military planning, and cannot say as much as social scientists about the factual results of war and the politics of war, Dewey’s observation is harmless enough. As a response to Pearl Harbor, it fails to rise to the moment. In Diggins’s book, it is fatal to the pretensions of pragmatism. Pragmatism encourages us to adopt those ideas and attitudes that “work.” When asked what they are, the pragmatist can only say that he will be able to tell us after the event. As one of Dewey’s friendlier critics had said about Dewey’s political philosophy three years earlier, he wanted to know what to think, but all Dewey would tell him was how to think.

This might not have mattered so much if there had not been such a contrast between, on the one hand, Dewey’s relentless insistence on the importance of thinking about the future and, on the other, the way he was himself trapped by the past. In 1939 he was trapped by the belief that World War II must turn out exactly like World War I, but one might argue that even in the sphere of education, the subject he made so much his own, Dewey’s defense of progressive education was locked into the defense of the spontaneity of children against the regimentation common in turn-of-the-century classrooms, and that it was silent on the question of what more was needed thirty and forty years later.

One might retort that the merits of pragmatism as a philosophy are not exhausted by Dewey’s successes and failures as an activist. This would miss the point, however. Diggins’s cast of historians, theologians, activists, journalists, and professors were not interested in the philosophical plausibility of pragmatism as a theory of the human mind, personal identity, truth, and the rest. A critic such as Reinhold Neibuhr, who found Dewey’s optimism intolerably complacent, was convinced that nobody could take life seriously who did not have a strong sense of Original Sin. A critic such as Walter Lippmann had the same sensation: Dewey’s incantatory appeals for more democracy ran headlong into the brute facts of public ignorance and indifference; and Dewey’s urging his readers to create “the Great Community” was a feeble response to repeated demonstrations that the task was beyond us.

Diggins’s account of these arguments is engrossing, in part because he has such a good eye for the complicated interplay of mind and temperament, and brings out so well the flavor of all these ideas as well as their intrinsic plausibility or lack of it. But Diggins is a very present-centered historian, and these are battles of many years ago. It is almost fifty years since Lionel Trilling complained that when his students were exhorted to look into the abyss, they good-naturedly complied and saw there only a subject of academic curiosity—thereby failing, as Trilling thought, to engage with much of modern literature.

So why has Diggins embroiled himself so deeply in these struggles? The answer is that pragmatism has made a comeback. Diggins alludes to, but does not discuss at any length, its revived philosophical appeal. Nor, more surprisingly, does he have much to say about its appeal to recent writers of a “communitarian” stripe—although the success of Robert Bellah and his collaborators’ Habits of the Heart and The Good Society is a striking testimony to the American hankering after community, and President and Mrs. Clinton’s readiness to talk of the “politics of meaning” echoes the religious overtones of Dewey’s defense of American democracy. What Diggins is most interested in is Richard Rorty’s “neo-pragmatism.” Rorty is probably the best-known philosopher in the United States; the merits of his work divide not only philosophers, but literary and political theorists as well. Rorty says that his intellectual allegiances are Deweyan, but his literary talents are those of William James.

Like Dewey, but even more energetically than he, Rorty preaches the self-sufficiency of the everyday world. This does not mean that Rorty is an ardent secularist and a critic of American tastes in religion. When Rorty sticks up for American life as it is lived, he would include the religious rhetoric by which Americans make sense of their lives and encourage themselves in their ambitions. What Rorty has borrowed from Dewey is the conviction that it is not the job of philosophers to go around grading people’s beliefs according to their respectability as literal accounts of the world; it thus seems to follow that religious rhetoric is fine when it serves benign purposes, pernicious when it incites hatred. The peculiarity of Rorty’s views is the way he splices together an enthusiasm for a suitably edited version of Dewey with an enthusiasm for the heroes of literary postmodernism.

Postmodernism is a label that embraces multitudes, but two ideas especially relevant here are its skepticism about the amount of control that a writer exercises over his or her work, and a sharp sense of the fragility of personal identity. These interact, of course. The idea that each of us is a single Self consorts naturally with the idea that we tell stories, advance theories, and interact with others from one particular viewpoint. Skepticism about such a picture of our identities consorts naturally with the thought that we are at the mercy of the stories we tell, as much as they are at our mercy. It also consorts naturally with an inclination to emphasize just how accidental it is that we hold the views we do, live where we do, and have the loyalties we do.

And it is hardly surprising that the air is full of talk about texts and discourse, for they have in a manner of speaking usurped the place that authors and speakers used to monopolize. “Post-modernist politics,” however, may be of almost any imaginable kind, practically speaking, though it must be strikingly unillusioned, theoretically speaking.3 Rorty’s double allegiance comes with some striking gains and losses. It usefully detaches intellectual radicalism from political radicalism: Rorty combines his liking for Nietzsche, Foucault, Derrida, and their disciples with an unabashed American patriotism. Less usefully, Dewey’s most distinctive views are silently thrown out.

Rorty’s liberalism rests on the assumption that we can sharply separate our private selves and their demands from our public, citizen-like selves. Dewey’s liberalism was to be a matter of personal fulfillment in a community that embodied in its public life our deepest individual convictions. Rorty thinks that the great liberal virtue is irony—an unbothered and amused understanding of the gap between our public commitments and our private inclinations that allows a tolerant society to continue in being. Dewey would hardly have understood the thought.

Diggins is warily admiring of Rorty’s rhetorical flair, but offers some acute criticisms of his whole enterprise. The simplest is the harshest. Rorty insists that liberal democratic politics needs no philosophical foundations, only our acceptance of the edifying narrative of American history—the great Fourth of July story of a nation dedicated to liberty and equality, to open opportunity and individual fulfillment. That is, Rorty thinks political argument does not and cannot proceed by first establishing ultimate moral and political principles, and then deducing their consequences for public policy, legislation, and the like. Philosophers only provide rhetorical support for what we mind about already, rather than the philosophical bedrock on which the political system must be built if it is not to totter and collapse. Even the most highly regarded work of the past thirty years, John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice, a book that appears to do exactly what Rorty says we do not do, and a book that Rorty greatly admires, must be read, in his view, as an encouragement to go on doing what American small-d democrats do.

Diggins sides with Rorty’s critics, who have complained that the edifying narrative is neither credible in itself nor sufficiently widely believed to provide all the political sustenance we need. The reason why there is so much argument over first principles, and why so many people are disquieted by Rorty’s casual dismissal of philosophical (and other) ways of grounding first principles is precisely that we do not agree on an edifying narrative. I am inclined to think that Richard Rorty has trapped himself by an unfortunate phrase, and that something more plausible than what his critics attack can be made of what he says. Talk of an “edifying narrative” irresistibly suggests something historical, retrospective, and backward-looking; it invites quarrels about who enslaved whom, whose country this used to be, and whom the people now in charge are entitled to let in and keep out, and so endlessly on. My suspicion is that Rorty in fact has a more forward-looking understanding of the American project; it is less a matter of what we did than a generous appreciation of what we can do that he has in mind. That still makes him a good-natured liberal rather than a fire-eating radical, but it doesn’t impute to him a thoroughly Pollyanna-ish view of the current, acrimonious state of public opinion.

Still, Diggins plainly prefers the irony of the Founding Fathers to Richard Rorty’s. Their unillusioned understanding of the frailty of human nature and the inevitability of the contamination of high ideals by grubby interests was rooted in political life. They had a rhetoric, but they had a tough understanding of the interests they needed to satisfy if their rhetoric was to make sense. They constructed their own edifying narrative of their break with Britain and the new political world they would make, but they minded about its truth. If they were pragmatists, it was not philosophical pragmatism that they accepted, but a concern with institutional craftsmanship, something that Diggins plainly finds a lot more attractive than anything in the contemporary academy. What the attentive reader may wonder is where this leaves Henry Adams. Are we to conclude that the republic has fared better than Adams thought? Or that we are cosmically adrift, but politically not too badly off? Or that Dewey’s injunction to reform social life and let the cosmos take care of itself is, after all, good advice, and the irony merely that the Founders followed it and Dewey did not? Diggins doesn’t say.

It would be mean-spirited to complain, but there is a deeper point here. Diggins is so depressed by the ineptness of Dewey’s practical interventions in politics that he misjudges the radicalism of Dewey’s theoretical politics. Dewey thought that Americans were chronically dissatisfied because they lived in an unorganized society in which they were supposed to have resources—both moral and psychological—they did not in fact possess. “Rugged individualists,” Dewey said, tended to become “ragged individualists.” This is true today. The irrationality of much of American public opinion with regard to crime, health care, foreign policy, and much else is viewed by the rest of the civilized world with astonishment; its roots cannot lie in some peculiar intellectual disability—Americans are globally renowned for their acuteness in everyday affairs.

Where the roots do lie it is hard to say, but it is a plausible guess that the chaotic state of American politics has much to do with it. In the absence of consistent political leadership, in the face of an electoral politics that encourages character assassination, in the face of a congressional politics that degenerates too easily into the trading of favors, and in the face of the incursion of any number of religious allegiances, there are few forces making for intellectual and emotional discipline—in politics, that is, as distinct from economic life—and there are few reasons to believe that we live in a coherent and predictable world. Americans are simultaneously hard-headed where hard-headedness pays off and given to magical thinking elsewhere, and one often feels that they might as well be, seeing how little effect nonmagical thinking has in American politics. Diggins isn’t, I think, willing enough to acknowledge that this is the reality of the political system that the Founders contrived and that Dewey complained of.

The Promise of Pragmatism is densely written, and too often written in the sort of telegraphese with which professors talk to each other in seminars and at conferences. This makes it hard to summarize, and sometimes hard to follow but does not diminish the pleasure of reading it. The book’s allusiveness and Diggins’s entire absence of inhibition about dragging in anyone and everyone from Plato to Habermas leave one intermittently breathless, but the final sensation is one of elation—rather like having been to a dinner party with some unusually strenuous guests. There are many worse ways of writing intellectual history, and few more illuminating—though several more direct—ways of writing about our own anxieties.

  1. 1

    In 1917, Dewey wrote to a correspondent, “I am a tremendous optimist about things in general, but a pessimist about everything in particular.”

  2. 2

    Weber describes this process and the accompanying process of “rationalization” in several places, but most famously in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.

  3. 3

    This is a point made several times over, and against his own followers, by Professor Stanley Fish in his recent There’s No Such Thing as Free Speech (Oxford University Press, 1993); all the weight in the title falls on “thing,” so allowing Fish to argue (what many of us never doubted) that arguments over free speech are arguments about who can say what to whom and under what conditions, not attempts to discover whether a certain kind of behavior is that thing called speech and therefore “free.”