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Let’s Be Pragmatic!

by Rick Lewis

Sebastian shaded his face with his copy of Language, Truth and Logic and trailed his fingers idly in the cool water alongside the punt, listening to the murmur of the river and the russell of the reids. Charles was propelling the vessel calmly along a broad stretch of the Cherwell past ancient colleges and green lawns, pausing, as they approached ‘ye olde locke’, to ayer some thoughts.

“So what sort of philosophy are they doing in the colonies these days?”

“What, you mean Bermuda?”

“No, clot – I mean America,” said Charles, looking ryled.

“Heaven knows,” said Sebastian, “I wish Philosophy Now would do an issue on it... Perhaps we should suggest it to them.”

• • •

And that, my friends, isn’t how we came to produce a special issue on American Pragmatism. In fact, the idea was conceived in Michigan, in the fertile brain of Raymond Pfeiffer. Pfeiffer went on to edit the issue you are now holding, ably aided and abetted by Cornelis de Waal.

One big change in English-language philosophy in the 20th century was that its centre of gravity shifted from Oxford to the United States. This is perhaps hardly surprising given the vast number of philosophers working in the US, and the very modest number working in Britain. But the analytic approach to philosophy brewed in Oxford and Cambridge took America by storm. American philosophers such as Willard Quine and Donald Davidson (see obituary here) took such ideas and extended and transformed them.

But all this rather eclipsed a home-grown and very fruitful variety of American philosophy known as Pragmatism. This school of thought began in the late 19th century and its leading figures were Peirce (pronounced, for some reason, ‘Purse’), Dewey (who was not, as you might have thought, one of Donald Duck’s nephews, along with Hughie and Louie) and William James (brother of the novelist Henry James). And to answer the question on the cover, Pragmatism not only still lives today but is on fine, provocative form in the work of such thinkers as Hilary Putnam and Richard Rorty, who is interviewed here. Pragmatism is very widely applicable, and in these pages you can read about Pragmatic approaches to knowledge, consciousness, aesthetics and – very much to the point these days – politics. Countless Americans today are wrestling with the political problems generated by terror and the response to terror, and Pragmatists are in the thick of those struggles. But for more about Pragmatism, see Raymond Pfeiffer’s own introduction on here.

One reason for the shift I mentioned earlier was that the American Philosophical Association, a combination of learned society and trade union, helped make philosophy a more prominent part of academic life in the US than in Britain. The Brits are belatedly attempting to copy this strategy, with the launch in the last few months of a British Philosophical Association rather obviously modelled on the APA. We have given one of its organisers, David Evans, some space (here) to report on the toddler’s progress. But why should this interest Philosophy Now readers? Evans explains that one purpose of the association is to strengthen the academic philosophy community in Britain, for instance by opposing department closures. He argues that a strong academic philosophy culture provides a core around which a wider community of non-professional philosophers and amateur scholars can cluster. No doubt this is true, but so far membership of the new association is only open to university philosophy lecturers and those studying for PhDs, which makes the BPA look like yet another step in the ‘professionalisation’ of the subject. Most of the great philosophers of the past didn’t teach in universities; Mill didn’t, nor Hume, nor Descartes or Confucius or Socrates or Spinoza. Even today, the best non-professional philosophers easily stand comparison with most of those occupying teaching posts – and are often better writers, too! So let’s not let anyone kid us that only university-based philosophy is ‘real’ philosophy. The aims of the BPA are admirable and we wish it the best of luck, but its name is misleading – it should either be open to all or else rename itself ‘the British Philosophy Lecturers Association’.

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