Stuart Davis, Egg Beater

The Philosophy of American Pragmatism: an Introduction

Instructor: Michael Stevenson
BISR Central
68 Jay Street
Brooklyn, NY 11201

Is there an American way of philosophizing? However entrepreneurial or materialist the United States seems to be, the development of philosophical pragmatism seems a straightforward rebuke to Alexis de Tocqueville’s claim that “Americans have no philosophic school of their own … there is no country less interested in philosophy.” Yet, what kind of philosophy is pragmatism? What does it mean to judge a theory or proposition wholly by its practical effects? Does pragmatism offer justification for ignoring the abstract and speculative systems advanced across centuries of European philosophy?

This class will survey the history of pragmatist thought—from its late-19th century development by thinkers such as C.S. Peirce, William James, and John Dewey, to its resurgence in the works of Richard Rorty. We will consider its roots in anti-idealism and the irony of its trajectory in the 20th century: its eclipse by so-called “analytic philosophy”, followed by its triumphant return by century’s end as one the latter’s most viable forms, exercising profound influence well beyond academic philosophy—in law, education, social and political thought. In particular, we’ll be interested in assessing the common conception and frequent claim that pragmatism embodies in philosophical form something like the uniquely “American spirit.” How does pragmatism differ from other, more “European” movements interested in overturning traditional conceptions of rationality and truth—romanticism or existentialism, for instance? Does pragmatism represent a positive development of the liberal tradition in its reconceptualization of and support for the values of democracy, science and technology? Or does it represent rather a uniquely American ideological justification of entrepreneurship and market society? What can pragmatism—with its spirit of social hope and optimism—offer us in this precarious historical moment? Readings will be drawn from pragmatists old and new, including figures like Peirce, James, Dewey, and Rorty.

Course Schedule

Wednesday, 6:30-9:30pm
June 05 — June 26, 2019
4 weeks


Registration Open

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