requiem for certainty

Where is all the pragmatist historiography?

with one comment

It’s a truism to anyone who has bothered to think even just a little bit about it that philosophical pragmatism is thoroughly invested in locating ideas, practices, activities, and judgments in their historical context. Here is one way to think about this. A key pragmatist commitment is to contextualism (in a generic sense) according to which we can discern the meaning of an idea only by tracing out its effects in the context in which it operates including importantly its historical and temporal (but also its cultural, geographical, etc.) contexts.

One can see this historical contextualism quite clearly across the full range of pragmatisms from Deweyan classicopragmatism to Rortyan neopragmatism. Many of the best books in the pragmatist canon are best read as intellectual histories which do they work they do by ably putting certain philosophical themes into the historical streams in which they flowed. I am thinking of Dewey’s Quest for Certainty or Rorty’s Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (and there are countless other works by Mead, Addams, Du Bois, &c.).

If historical contextualism is so central to pragmatism, however, one would have expected pragmatists to have turned their attention to the philosophy of history or what some of us like to call historiography. Yet there is surprisingly little work in this area. Dewey wrote almost nothing sustained on the topic (cf. a few pages in the 1938 Logic). Rorty wrote an article in 1984 (cf. the Philosophy in History volume he co-edited). Harvard intellectual historian James Kloppenberg has a nice piece on this in Metaphilosophy in 2004. Rutgers intellectual historian James Livingston (cf. his blog) gives some sustained attention to broader meta- questions impacting these issues in his 2001 Pragmatism, Feminism, and Democracy.

This is all great work, but none of it represents a full-fledged pragmatist historiography. This is not a criticism of this work, because that is not its goal.

I find this curious. Nobody seems to have attempted to fully work out the ramifications of pragmatism for historiography. Where is that work? Where is all the pragmatist historiography? Where should someone like myself who is preparing some material on this topic go fishing around next? And, assuming I am correct in hunch that though there may be some more work in this area I have yet to find there is not much of it, why has all the pragmatist historiography gone missing? Why didn’t Dewey or Rorty or anyone else write a paper called “The Theory of History”? (Or did they and I am missing it?)

So far the best resource I have found is work by the mid-century pragmatist (some deny him this label) John Herman Randall, Jr., specifically his 1958 Nature and Historical Experience and 1963 How Philosophy Uses Its Past. I am working through it so more to report soon.

This topic has been of some interest to me for awhile so please comment or email with any thoughts. I have an article entitled “Historicism in Pragmatism” forthcoming in Metaphilosophy which addresses these issues from a general perspective but does not develop a detailed pragmatist historiography. I am also working on a second piece on John Herman Randall and pragmatist historiography in connection with an upcoming event I helped co-organize.

My hunch (unsurprising to anyone who knows me): the pragmatists here have a great deal to learn from the genealogists: pragmatist historiography ought to look like a history of problematization: go Dewey+Foucault!

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Written by Colin Koopman

October 9, 2009 at 8:04 am

One Response

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  1. I have been checking out many of your posts and i must say pretty clever stuff. I will surely bookmark your blog.

    Catrice Alvord

    January 23, 2016 at 12:39 pm


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