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…

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