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What Is Pragmatism?

In Arts & Letters, Humanities, liberal arts, Philosophy, Pragmatism, Western Philosophy on February 28, 2018 at 6:45 am

Pragmatism is difficult to define because it refers to a wide-ranging philosophical tradition.  Figures with little in common, such as W. E. B. Du Bois, Isaac Levi, Reinhold Niebuhr, and George Herbert Mead, have been associated with pragmatism.

C.S. Peirce is credited as the wellspring of pragmatism, in part because he used the term “pragmatism” to refer to his writings and teachings. Yet when his friend William James began identifying as a pragmatist, Peirce sought to rename his mode of thinking “pragmaticism” to distinguish his ideas from James’s.

More recently, Richard Rorty garnered a reputation as a pragmatist despite his deep misgivings about Peirce. James himself claimed to have learned pragmatism from reading John Stuart Mill. He called pragmatism a new name for old ways of thinking. Pragmatism, in this sense, has no fixed origin and is not confined to a single philosophical discipline attributable to any one thinker. It is, rather, a plastic concept describing an instrumental approach to solving concrete problems.

Descriptions of pragmatism are fluid and wide-ranging because of its various iterations by multiple thinkers with disparate interests and backgrounds. Pragmatism is nevertheless identifiable by certain features and qualities.

Pragmatists tend to avoid claims to unqualified certainty or universalism; they resist abstractions, closed schools of thought, and dogma that purport to have all the answers. They are searchers and seekers, never comfortable that the knowledge they have attained is complete or comprehensive.

Pragmatists seek to generate inquiry by systematically and intentionally testing ideas in the material world through practical application and sustained observation, by modifying or adapting ideas when errors are found, by subjecting ideas to a community of minds for verification (rather than leaving them to individuals in isolation), and by examining the habits and tendencies of nature and behavior for recurring, lasting themes or traits. Although pragmatists tend to be tolerant of views that have not been discounted, or open to ideas that have not been disproven, they are also prudently skeptical of ideas that have not won out in the course of history, i.e., that are unrepresented in custom or tradition.

Pragmatism is neither liberal nor conservative in the political sense, but represents a mode of knowing and understanding based on lived experience and confirmed hypotheses. Pragmatism is a constantly modified methodology for acquiring knowledge; it’s not a doctrine. It looks to ascertainable outcomes and proven results as indicia of the truth and workability of ideas.


Richard Posner is a Monster

In Academia, Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Books, History, Humanities, Jurisprudence, Law, Legal Education & Pedagogy, liberal arts, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., Pragmatism, Scholarship, Writing on January 11, 2017 at 6:45 am

Allen Mendenhall

This review originally appeared here in the Los Angeles Review of Books.

William Domnarski is probably right when he writes that Richard Posner, like his hero Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., “seemed destined for a literary life.” Holmes modeled himself on Emerson; he was the class poet at Harvard and earned his reputation as a thoughtful if controversial man of letters who could write with panache.

Posner, who majored in English at Yale, modeled himself on Holmes. “Holmes,” Posner declared in a missive, “is the greatest jurist, at least of modern times, because the sum of his ideas, metaphors, decisions, dissents, and other contributions exceeds the sum of contributions of any other jurist of modern times.” Posner’s writing similarly stands out for its flair and confidence.

Both men extended their influence beyond their legal opinions and have contributed to philosophy, becoming provocative historical figures in their own right. Posner has correctly invoked Holmes as a pragmatist, even if Holmes avoided the designation and referred to William James’s pragmatism as an “amusing humbug.” A member of the short-lived Cambridge Metaphysical Club that birthed pragmatism in the 1870s — and which also included James and C. S. Peirce — Holmes at least imbibed the pragmatism that was, so to speak, in the Boston air. Posner’s pragmatism, however, is only tangentially related to the thinking of Peirce and James, and so one hesitates to call it pragmatism at all.

In a move that must irritate University of Miami professor, Peirce supporter, and Richard Rorty critic Susan Haack, Posner distinguishes his variety of pragmatism — what he calls “everyday pragmatism” — from philosophical pragmatism. His thesis is most pronounced in his book Law, Pragmatism, and Democracy(2005). The quotidian pragmatism that inheres in the law is, in his view, practical and forward-looking and based on “reasonableness.”

It’s not always clear how this mode of pragmatism intersects with, or diverges from, the so-called traditional or classical pragmatism, though it differs markedly — and refreshingly — from what Haack labeled “vulgar Rortyism,” that Frenchified variety of structuralism that dispensed with truth as a meaningful category of discourse.


One suspects, given his outsized ego, that Posner delights in having placed his stamp on legal pragmatism, thereby forcing perplexed students in philosophy departments to come to terms with his ideas and square them with not only Peirce and James but also John Dewey, George Herbert Mead, and W. V. Quine.

Posner’s self-importance can be charming or off-putting. You might see him as an erudite, spirited dandy playing the part of flamboyant intellectual; or, more cruelly, as a bitter sophist bent on celebrating his own idiosyncratic views and maliciously dismissing his opponents with callous words and harsh indictments. Certainly his gratuitous rhetorical attacks on the late Antonin Scalia warrant this latter take.

And yet the man speaks with a high, soft voice; loves and spoils his cat; and spends most of his time reading and writing. It’s hard to condemn such things.

Posner is on record as having fancied himself as not just equal to, but more intelligent than, Learned Hand and Henry Friendly — two giants of American law — because he considered himself more informed about economics. This is surprising, chiefly because his self-assessment occurred before he became a judge.

As a judge, Domnarski tells us, “he could seek to persuade his new judicial colleagues to follow him, so as to further shape the law as he saw it — in his own image.” He continues to shape everything, it seems, in his own image, including, perhaps, Domnarski’s biography, which he read both in draft form and as a final manuscript.

One wonders how heavily he edited his own biography — how much latitude he enjoyed in fashioning his story. He sat for interviews and emailed with Domnarski, which wouldn’t be unusual or improper had he not been a primary source of his own legend, as he certainly appears to have been. As a young man, Posner exercised his authority as president of Harvard Law Review to include certain content over the objections of his peers. Might he have done this with his biographer?


Posner, an only child, is used to promoting himself, and his acquaintances at different stages of his life often note his arrogance. As early as high school, he would say “the Poze knows,” and called himself “the mighty one,” writing in yearbooks that he “welcomes you as a High Priest of Posner Worship.” You can write this off as playful, but you can’t write off the fact that he cites himself in cases more than any other judge — though not by name, Domnarski points out, as if to acquit him of unseemly motivations.

An editor of a peer-reviewed journal once complained that Posner had cited himself too often in a paper, to which Posner rejoined that self-citation was necessary because he had produced most of the relevant literature on the subject. “The Poze knows,” the footnotes might have read. Another time an exasperated Posner wrote to editors at Cambridge University Press, “Don’t you know who I am?” — the same remark that landed Henry Louis Gates Jr. in hot water under different circumstances.

Although Domnarski connected with over 200 people to piece together this book, Posner’s personal opinion of himself seems to control the narrative and crowd out contrary valuations that critics may have offered. It’s not that Posner’s accomplishments and reputation are unearned. He’s worked hard to become perhaps the best-known and most prolific federal circuit judge in our nation’s history, and his talents and learning are unquestionable and impressive. The person who emerges in these pages is exceptional at what he does, but difficult to like. He graduated first in his class at Harvard Law School but was not popular. He remains good with ideas — just not with people. He’d rather disseminate brilliant theories than keep them to himself, even when they’re in bad taste or poor form. Whether that’s a virtue or vice depends upon one’s priority for manners and decorum.


Posner’s most remarkable and admirable quality, it seems to me, is his ability — even willingness — to accept constructive criticism in stride. He doesn’t take evaluations of his work personally, and he invites opposition to fine-tune and improve his ideas. He instructs his clerks to criticize his draft opinions line by line so that he can perfect his rationale. “[W]e should want” and “insist upon,” he wrote to a colleague, “challenge and criticism; the rougher the better; for one of the great dangers of achieving eminence is that people are afraid to criticize you and then you end up inhabiting a fool’s paradise.”

Posner has referred to himself as a “monster,” a characterization he’s also reserved for Wagner, Tolstoy, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, Proust, Kafka, and Michelangelo. The term thus seems like an odd form of self-approbation rather than regret or self-loathing. It accords with his grand notion that he is “a Promethean intellectual hero,” not just some federal judge who happens to be well read.

Posner remains “a writer first and a lawyer second.” He’s correct that, as he told one correspondent, “the modern practice of law does not offer a great deal of scope for the poetic imagination.” Law schools have divided faculty into fields and sub-fields, and specialists in different areas of practice are increasingly unable to speak to one another in a common idiom or with shared vocabularies. Posner studied at Yale under Cleanth Brooks, who directed Posner’s research on William Butler Yeats, so he knows a thing or two about the poetic imagination and memorable expression.

But maybe the law is not about poetic imagination. Maybe it requires a prosaic and mechanical mind that can dispassionately and without fanfare adjudge the soundness of legal arguments presented by the parties to a case. If so, Posner may have been better suited for a different profession, one he would have loved and within which he could have more appropriately flaunted his creativity. Being an English professor, though, would’ve been out of the question; he dismisses much of what English literature departments regard as scholarship as “bullshit.” He uses the same word to describe work in the legal professoriate, of which he was once a seminal figure. By age 30, in fact, he had achieved the rank of full professor at the University of Chicago Law School. He cultivated the image of an iconoclastic rabble-rouser willing to subject all human activity to cost-benefit analysis. He popularized the law-and-economics movement and eagerly imparted that economic efficiency supplied the right methodology for describing and delineating common-law judging, which involved practical resolutions to concrete problems. The doctrinaire Posner of this period drifted far from the Communist roots of his mother. More recently, though, he’s alleged that capitalism is a failure and moved decidedly to the left on key issues.

Perhaps because of his haughtiness, the law can seem boring and routine without him. There’s something to be said for the color and liveliness he brings to his office, and for his belief that “the law really is a very limited field for a person of literary bent.” Domnarski’s treatment may seem deferential, but it doesn’t cover up Posner’s naked, sometimes brutal honesty. Posner is willing to say what others aren’t, and able to say it more eloquently.

If, as Domnarski avers, Posner considers the average lawyer to be like Bartleby or Ivan Ilych — fancifully tragic figures — then he must disdain or pity those lawyers who come before him in the courtroom and submit their briefs for his relentless scrutiny. The 1987 Almanac of the Federal Judiciary states that lawyers who argued before Posner found him to be “arrogant, impatient, dogmatic,” and “opinionated,” and that he “dominates arguments” and “cross-examines lawyers as if they were 1-Ls in a Socratic exchange with a professor.” The man is important, no doubt, but never learned how to play nicely.

Ever the Darwinian, Posner has suggested that great books prove their merit over time in the competition of the marketplace; perhaps his reputation will too.

Pragmatists Versus Agrarians?

In America, American History, Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Books, Conservatism, Emerson, History, Humanities, Liberalism, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Nineteenth-Century America, Philosophy, Politics, Pragmatism, Southern History, Southern Literature, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy, Writing on June 19, 2013 at 8:45 am

Allen Mendenhall

This review originally appeared here at The University Bookman.

John J. Langdale’s Superfluous Southerners paints a magnificent portrait of Southern conservatism and the Southern Agrarians, and it will become recognized as an outstanding contribution to the field of Southern Studies. It charts an accurate and compelling narrative regarding Southern, Agrarian conservatism during the twentieth century, but it erroneously conflates Northern liberalism with pragmatism, muddying an otherwise immaculate study.

Langdale sets up a false dichotomy as his foundational premise: progressive, Northern pragmatists versus traditionalist, Southern conservatives. From this premise, he draws several conclusions: that Southern conservatism offers a revealing context for examining the gradual demise of traditional humanism in America; that Northern pragmatism, which ushered in modernity in America, was an impediment to traditional humanism; that “pragmatic liberalism” (his term) was Gnostic insofar as it viewed humanity as perfectible; that the man of letters archetype finds support in Southern conservatism; that Southern conservatives eschewed ideology while Northern liberals used it to present society as constantly ameliorating; that Southern conservatives celebrated “superfluity” in order to preserve canons and traditions; that allegedly superfluous ways of living were, in the minds of Southern conservatives, essential to cultural stability; that Agrarianism arose as a response to the New Humanism; and that superfluous Southerners, so deemed, refined and revised established values for new generations.

In short, his argument is that Southern conservatives believed their errand was to defend and reanimate a disintegrating past. This belief is expressed in discussion of the work of six prominent Southern men of letters spanning two generations: John Crowe Ransom, Donald Davidson, Allen Tate, Cleanth Brooks, Richard Weaver, and M. E. Bradford.

Langdale ably demonstrates how the Southern Agrarians mounted an effective and tireless rhetorical battle against organized counterforces, worried that scientific and industrial progress would replace traditional faith in the unknown and mysterious, and fused poetry and politics to summon forth an ethos of Romanticism and chivalry. He sketches the lines of thought connecting the earliest Agrarians to such later Southerners as Weaver and Bradford. He is so meticulous in his treatment of Southern conservatives that it is surprising the degree to which he neglects the constructive and decent aspects of pragmatism.

Careful to show that “Agrarianism, far from a monolithic movement, had always been as varied as the men who devised it,” he does not exercise the same fastidiousness and impartiality towards the pragmatists, who are branded with derogatory labels throughout the book even though their ideas are never explained in detail. The result is a series of avoidable errors.

First, what Langdale treats as a monolithic antithesis to Southern conservatism is actually a multifaceted philosophy marked by only occasional agreement among its practitioners. C. S. Peirce was the founder of pragmatism, followed by William James, yet Peirce considered James’s pragmatism so distinct from his own that he renamed his philosophy “pragmaticism.” John Dewey reworked James’s pragmatism until his own version retained few similarities with James’s or Peirce’s. Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. never identified himself as a pragmatist, and his jurisprudence is readily distinguishable from the philosophy of Peirce, James, and Dewey. Each of these men had nuanced interpretations of pragmatism that are difficult to harmonize with each other, let alone view as a bloc against Southern, traditionalist conservatism.

Second, the Southern Agrarians espoused ideas that were generally widespread among Southerners, embedded in Southern culture, and reflective of Southern attitudes. By contrast, pragmatism was an academic enterprise rejected by most Northern intellectuals and completely out of the purview of the average Northern citizen. Pragmatism was nowhere near representative of Northern thinking, especially not in the political or economic realm, and it is hyperbolic to suggest, as Langdale does, that pragmatism influenced the intellectual climate in the North to the extent that traditionalist conservatism influenced the intellectual climate in the South.

Third, the pragmatism of Peirce and James is not about sociopolitical or socioeconomic advancement. It is a methodology, a process of scientific inquiry. It does not address conservatism per se or liberalism per se. It can lead one to either conservative or liberal outcomes, although the earliest pragmatists rarely applied it to politics as such. It is, accordingly, a vehicle to an end, not an end itself. Peirce and James viewed it as a technique to ferret out the truth of an idea by subjecting concrete data to rigorous analysis based on statistical probability, sustained experimentation, and trial and error. Although James occasionally undertook to discuss political subjects, he did not treat pragmatism as the realization of political fantasy. Pragmatism, properly understood, can be used to validate a political idea, but does not comprise one.

The Southern Agrarians may have privileged poetic supernaturalism over scientific inquiry; it does not follow, however, that pragmatists like Peirce and James evinced theories with overt or intended political consequences aimed at Southerners or traditionalists or, for that matter, Northern liberals. Rather than regional conflict or identity, the pragmatists were concerned with fine-tuning what they believed to be loose methods of science and epistemology and metaphysics. They identified with epistemic traditions of Western philosophy but wanted to distill them to their core, knowing full well that humans could not perfect philosophy, only tweak it to become comprehensible and meaningful for a given moment. On the other hand, the Southern Agrarians were also concerned with epistemology and metaphysics, but their concern was invariably colored by regional associations, their rhetoric inflected with political overtones. Both Southern Agrarians and pragmatists attempted to conserve the most profitable and essential elements of Western philosophy; opinions about what those elements were differed from thinker to thinker.

Fourth, Langdale’s caricature (for that is what it is) of pragmatism at times resembles a mode of thought that is alien to pragmatism. For instance, he claims that “pragmatism is a distinctly American incarnation of the historical compulsion to the utopian and of what philosopher Eric Voegelin described as the ancient tradition of ‘gnosticism.’” Nothing, however, is more fundamental to pragmatism than the rejection of utopianism or Gnosticism. That rejection is so widely recognized that even Merriam-Webster lists “pragmatism” as an antonym for “utopian.”

Pragmatism is against teleology and dogma; it takes as its starting point observable realities rather than intangible, impractical abstractions and ideals. What Langdale describes is more like Marxism: a messianic ideology with a sprawling, utopian teleology regarding the supposedly inevitable progress of humankind.

Given that pragmatism is central to his thesis, it is telling that Langdale never takes the time to define it, explain the numerous differences between leading pragmatists, or analyze any landmark pragmatist texts. The effect is disappointing.

Landgale’s approach to “superfluity” makes Superfluous Southerners the inverse of Richard Poirier’s 1992 Poetry and Pragmatism: whereas Langdale relates “superfluity” to Southern men of letters who conserve what the modern era has ticketed as superfluous, Poirier relates “superfluity” to Emerson and his literary posterity in Robert Frost, Gertrude Stein, Wallace Stevens, T. S. Eliot, William Carlos Williams, and Ezra Pound. Both notions of superfluity contemplate the preservation of perennial virtues and literary forms; one, however, condemns pragmatism while the other applauds it.

For both Langdale and Poirier, “superfluity” is good. It is not a term of denunciation as it is usually taken to be. Langdale cites Hungarian sociologist Karl Mannheim to link “superfluity” to traditionalists who transform and adapt ideas to “the new stage of social and mental development,” thus keeping “alive a ‘strand’ of social development which would otherwise have become extinct.”

Poirier also links superfluity to an effort to maintain past ideas. His notion of “superfluity,” though, refers to the rhetorical excesses and exaggerated style that Emerson flaunted to draw attention to precedents that have proven wise and important. By reenergizing old ideas with creative and exhilarating language, Emerson secured their significance for a new era. In this respect, Emerson is, in Poirier’s words, “radically conservative.”

Who is right? Langdale or Poirier? Langdale seeks to reserve superfluity for the province of Southern, traditionalist conservatives. Does this mean that Poirier is wrong? And if Poirier is right, does not Langdale’s binary opposition collapse into itself?

These questions notwithstanding, it is strange that Langdale would accuse the Emersonian pragmatic tradition of opposing that which, according to Poirier, it represents. Although it would be wrong to call Emerson a political conservative, he cannot be said to lack a reverence for history. A better, more conservative criticism of Emerson—which Langdale mentions in his introduction—would involve Emerson’s transcendentalism that promoted a belief in innate human goodness. Such idealism flies in the face of Southern traditionalism, which generally abides by the Augustinian doctrine of innate human depravity and the political postures appertaining thereto.

What Langdale attributes to pragmatism is in fact a bane to most pragmatists. A basic tenet of pragmatism, for instance, is human fallibilism, which is in keeping with the doctrine of innate human depravity and which Peirce numbers as among his reasons for supporting the scientific method. Peirce’s position is that one human mind is imperfect and cannot by itself reach trustworthy conclusions; therefore, all ideas must be filtered through the logic and experimentation of a community of thinkers; a lasting and uniform consensus is necessary to verify the validity of any given hypothesis. This is, of course, anathema to the transcendentalist’s conviction that society corrupts the inherent power and goodness of the individual genius.

Langdale’s restricted view of pragmatism might have to do with unreliable secondary sources. He cites, of all people, Herbert Croly for the proposition that, in Croly’s words, “democracy cannot be disentangled from an aspiration toward human perfectibility.” The connection between Croly and pragmatism seems to be that Croly was a student of James, but so was the politically and methodologically conservative C. I. Lewis. And let us not forget that the inimitable Jacques Barzun, who excoriated James’s disciples for exploiting and misreading pragmatism, wrote an entire book—A Stroll with William James—which he tagged as “the record of an intellectual debt.”

Pragmatism is a chronic target for conservatives who haven’t read much pragmatism. Frank Purcell has written in Taki’s Magazine about “conservatives who break into hives at the mere mention of pragmatism.” Classical pragmatists are denominated as forerunners of progressivism despite having little in common with progressives. The chief reason for this is the legacy of John Dewey and Richard Rorty, both proud progressives and, nominally at least, pragmatists.

Dewey, behind James, is arguably the most recognizable pragmatist, and it is his reputation, as championed by Rorty, that has done the most to generate negative stereotypes and misplaced generalizations about pragmatism. Conservatives are right to disapprove of Dewey’s theories of educational reform and social democracy, yet he is just one pragmatist among many, and there are important differences between his ideas and the ideas of other pragmatists.

In fact, the classical pragmatists have much to offer conservatives, and conservatives—even the Southern Agrarians—have supported ideas that are compatible with pragmatism, if not outright pragmatic. Burkean instrumentalism, committed to gradualism and wary of ideological extremes, is itself a precursor to social forms of pragmatism, although it bears repeating that social theories do not necessarily entail political action.

Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind traces philosophical continuities and thus provides clarifying substance to the pragmatist notion that ideas evolve over time and in response to changing technologies and social circumstances, while always retaining what is focal or fundamental to their composition. The original subtitle of that book was “From Burke to Santayana,” and it is remarkable, is it not, that both Burke and Santayana are pragmatists in their own way? Santayana was plugged into the pragmatist network, having worked alongside James and Josiah Royce, and he authored one of the liveliest expressions of pragmatism ever written: The Life of Reason. Although Santayana snubbed the label, general consensus maintains that he was a pragmatist. It is also striking that Kirk places John Randolph of Roanoke and John C. Calhoun, both Southern conservatives, between these pragmatists on his map of conservative thought. There is, in that respect, an implication that pragmatism complements traditionalism.

Langdale relies on Menand’s outline of pragmatism and appears to mimic Menand’s approach to intellectual history. It is as though Langdale had hoped to write the conservative, Southern companion to The Metaphysical Club. He does not succeed because his representation of pragmatism is indelibly stamped by the ideas of Rorty, who repackaged pragmatism in postmodern lexica. Moreover, Langdale’s failure or refusal to describe standing differences between the classical pragmatists and neo-pragmatists means that his book is subject to the same critique that Susan Haack brought against Menand.

Haack lambasted Menand for sullying the reputation of the classical pragmatists by associating pragmatism with nascent Rortyianism—“vulgar Rortyianism,” in her words. Langdale seems guilty of this same supposition. By pitting pragmatism against Southern conservatism, he implies that Southern conservatism rejects, among other features, the application of mathematics to the scientific method, the analysis of probabilities derived from data sampling and experimentation, and the prediction of outcomes in light of statistical inferences. The problem is that the Agrarians did not oppose these things, although their focus on preserving the literary and cultural traditions of the South led them to express their views through poetry and story rather than as philosophy. But there is nothing in these methods of pragmatism (as opposed to the uses some later pragmatists may have put to them) that is antithetical to Southern Agrarianism.

Superfluous Southerners is at its best when it sticks to its Southern subjects and does not undertake comparative analyses of intellectual schools. It is at its worst when it resorts to incorrect and provocative phrases about “the gnostic hubris of pragmatists” or “the gnostic spirit of American pragmatic liberalism.” Most of its chapters do a remarkable job teasing out distinctions between its Southern conservative subjects and narrating history about the Southern Agrarians’ relationship to modernity, commitment to language and literature, and role as custodians of a fading heritage. Unfortunately, his book confounds the already ramified philosophy known as pragmatism, and at the expense of the Southern traditionalism that he and I admire.

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