Friday, May 24, 2013

Pragmatism as Enlightened Romanticism

1. Phil 101 — Romanticism and religion; 2. Romantic roots, not scientific — Brandom and the second Enlightenment; 3. Rationalism as reasons-for — Irrationalism — Emerson, polychromatic mother of us all; 4. James on religion, meet Rorty's romanticism — Dewey on religion, meet Hawthorne on romance — America's most powerful indigenous thinkers of the 19th century are not taught in American philosophy departments

1.     Philosophy 101, and undergraduate programs in philosophy generally, still largely teach the history of philosophy as being about Platonism vs. Aristotelianism and then, for some reason a thousand years later, Rationalism vs. Empiricism, before being transcended by Kant who then bequeaths 20th century philosophy its central problems about the relationship between language and world, fact and value, analytic and synthetic.  For students who take such classes, reading James’s distinction, in the first chapter of Pragmatism, between “tough-minded” and “tender-minded” onto the history of philosophy doesn’t make a lot of sense.  Despite James explicitly aligning Rationalism with the tender and Empiricism with the tough, it’s hard for us on the other side of theoretical physics to understand what the relationship is between “abstract principle” and being a “man of feeling.”

This is because Philosophy Departments still, by and large, do not know how to handle religion.  Almost all Philosophy Departments feel it is their duty to teach the arguments, but regard religion, by and large, as a fallen foe.  And this makes it difficult to breathe life into the animating commitments that made 19th-century philosophy the intellectual inheritor of the much-vaunted war between Religion and Science.  And until Philosophy Departments learn how to write Romanticism into their pedagogical histories, they won’t be able to tell a very good story at all about how we get from Kant to Frege and Russell (the leapfrog they’d rather like to make).

2.     The weird wedding of James’s sensible distinction in temperament to the venerable distinction of pre-Kantian tradition is a function of the weird place pragmatism has in the history of philosophy, one the classical pragmatists did not wholly understand.  For on the whole, it has been the wont of pragmatism’s receivers through most of the 20th-century to think of pragmatism as primarily leaning toward science and the tough-minded.  This changed somewhat as generations of intellectuals at the end of the 20th-century became familiar with pragmatism from its most well-known, and infamous, espouser: Richard Rorty.  Rorty, for better or worse, is known as the primary force behind the resurgence in attention to pragmatism.  And beginning in essays like “Nineteenth-Century Idealism and Twentieth-Century Textualism” (in Consequences of Pragmatism) through Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity to late essays like the handily titled “Pragmatism and Romanticism” (in Philosophy as Cultural Politics), Rorty has tried his best to emphasize the romantic roots of pragmatism while minimizing its roots in reflection on science (best defined in pieces like “Method, Social Science, and Social Hope” (in CP) and “Pragmatism without Method” in Objectivity, Relativism, and Truth).

It is against this backdrop that Robert Brandom provides an invaluable service to our understanding of pragmatism by reframing pragmatism as a “second Enlightenment” in his “Classical American Pragmatism: The Pragmatist Enlightenment—and Its Problematic Semantics” (in his Perspectives on Pragmatism).  Brandom sees the pragmatists as inheriting empiricism via a Darwinian understanding of the holistic relationship between organism and environment and a statistical understanding of modal necessity.  This primes them for throwing off the remnants of Platonism that Rorty so admires, but makes them susceptible to attack because of the unacceptable “instrumentalist” interpretations of, specifically, their theory of truth.  This instrumentalism is the identification of truth with success.  This Thrasymachean interpretation of truth—making it a mere power play—is heinous to any self-respecting philosopher, and it was anathema to the pragmatists as well.  As Brandom puts it, the trouble with pragmatism’s articulation of a semantics is that they rarely moved beyond, in isolating the meaning of a belief, looking downstream to the consequences of that belief.  Doing so, however, is one of pragmatism’s principle contributions in overturning the equally lopsided semantics of empiricism, which only looks upstream to the circumstances of belief.

3.     What makes pragmatism part of a second Enlightenment is in part its congeniality to a re-injection of—of all things—rationalism.  This is Brandom’s unique contribution to pragmatism.  Brandom has not only worked to undue Rorty’s emphasis on romanticism, but also his sense of Kant as a bête noire.  Nobody talks about the rationalism of pre-Kantian philosophy as worth a hoot, whereas empiricism is still seriously touted as a respectable ancestor.  Brandom, however, identifies a specific angle of thought begun in rationalism (specifically Leibniz and Spinoza) that is exploited and transformed in Kant and Hegel’s idealism—this he calls “inferentialism.” [1] The great modifier to empiricism that must occur is not simply in taking seriously consequences of belief, but also taking seriously two species of circumstances for belief.  Empiricism identifies one: the origin of belief in a perceptual state.  However, rationalism identifies a different one: the reason for belief in an inferential chain.  For Brandom, a successful theory of how language works must combine the insights of empiricism, rationalism, and pragmatism, and it is to the merit of pragmatism that it is able to do so with very little tinkering to its core platforms.

Pragmatism is a second Enlightenment because it extends two central tenets of Enlightenment thought: the naturalism birthed by the flowering of science and a distinctive apotheosis of reason.  It is for this reason that Brandom denies Romanticism any significant role in the composition of pragmatism as a philosophical movement.  He concedes that Romanticism performs many of the anti-Platonistic gestures that pragmatism wields as well against the pre-Kantian Enlightenment, but that its irrationalism is beyond the pale: “though the two movements of thought share an antipathy to Enlightenment intellectualism, pragmatism does not recoil into the rejection of reason, into the privileging of feeling over thought, intuition over experience, or of art over science” (PP 41).

My principal suggestion is that Brandom is just wrong.  Or rather, Brandom is here expressing one of his primary disagreements with his Doctorvater, Dick Rorty. [2]  This disagreement is about how to understand Derrida and Foucault: Brandom, unlike Rorty and like pretty much every other analytic philosopher, views fashionable French nonsense as a species of irrationalism.  Unlike pretty much every other analytic philosopher, Brandom identifies irrationalism in a very precise way that makes an extraordinary amount of sense given his work on language. [3]  Being all that as it may, the best of Romantic thought is about as naïve as pragmatism when it comes to the antitheses Brandom marshals—i.e., if we are being charitable to the instrumental excesses of pragmatism, there’s no reason to be uncharitable to irrational excesses of Romantic thought—and, additionally and more specifically, one will get nowhere with Emerson—the great, polychromatic mother of us all—by thinking he rejects reason. [4]

4.     If the culmination of the Enlightenment was Kant, as Ernst Cassirer has it, and Romanticism is specifically a counter-Enlightenment, as Isaiah Berlin has it, then pragmatism ties together in a coherent philosophy the best of the three worlds hiding inside: rationalism, empiricism, and romanticism.  The best way to see this is to emphasize, as M. H. Abrams does in Natural Supernaturalism, that the historical movement of Romanticism was a replacement for religion.  At the outset I suggested that we weren’t going to understand 19th-century philosophy very well until we wrote Romanticism into our philosophy textbooks, and its convenient that the ease in rebutting Brandom is by recurring to James and Dewey on religion.

Brandom says that pragmatism doesn’t privilege feeling over thought, but this surely flies in the face of the central thesis of James’s “The Will to Believe”: 

Our passional nature not only lawfully may, but must, decide an option between propositions, whenever it is a genuine option that cannot by its nature be decided on intellectual grounds; for to say, under such circumstances, Do not decide, but leave the question open, is itself a passional decision,—just like deciding yes or no,—and is attended with the same risk of losing the truth.
I would certainly concede that what “passional nature” means here is obscure at best, and that what Rorty says in criticism of it in “Religious Faith, Intellectual Responsibility, and Romance” (in Philosophy and Social Hope) is largely sound.  But what James is pointing at here is what Rorty is pointing at with the notion of a “final vocabulary,” and while it may help to understand how language works to bracket questions of how the trick is done in favor of what the trick is, [5] it will not help our understanding of what it is we do, and what are legitimate doings, to abdicate an understanding of the role of attitudes other than the propositional—i.e., the role of emotions is woefully underdeveloped in pragmatist philosophies.  They play an important but vague role in Rorty’s philosophy, and it’s clear that Brandom does not wish to discount them, but it seems clear to me that pragmatism’s stake in “the passions” is not simple enough to fit with Brandom’s warding off of romanticism.

What is particularly disappointing in Brandom’s dismissal of romanticism is that he says nary of imagination, the most important piece of it to many, if not most, and particularly to Rorty.  And in order to solidify my ground against Brandom with Dewey, I want to point to a passage in A Common Faith that parallels the thought of many American Romantics, and so open up a vista in a larger conversation than that of which just professional philosophers were having.  In the second chapter, Dewey gives this odd definition of “God,” one which Emerson would have recognized:
We are in the presence neither of ideals completely embodied in existence nor yet of ideals that are mere rootless ideals, fantasies, utopias.  For there are forces in nature and society that generate and support the ideals.  They are further unified by the action that gives them coherence and solidity.  It is this active relation between ideal and actual to which I would give the name “God.”
My parallel text is not Emerson, however, but Hawthorne.  In “The Custom-House” preface to The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne defines romance as “a neutral territory, somewhere between the real world and fairy-land, where the Actual and the Imaginary may meet, and each imbue itself with the nature of the other.”  There is a lot more to be said about the relationship between American Romanticism and pragmatism, and indeed, a lot more to be added to the conversation—already at work in tracing the Emersonian roots of pragmatism—about the relationship between the optimistic Emersonian strain of American Romanticism and the pessimistic Hawthornean-Melvillean strain.  American philosophy, and intellectual life generally, is in a strange position regarding its 19th-century traditions.  Unlike on the Continent, it is clear that until quite near the end of that century, there were no powerful American thinkers who were professional philosophers.  And this poses a problem for understanding American philosophy, when that century’s most powerful indigenous thinkers are taught in English departments.


[1]  Brandom tells a potted version of this historical story in the long introduction to his Tales of the Mighty Dead.

[2]  I have to believe this willful writing out of romanticism is quite self-conscious, for Brandom even goes so far as to suggest that Rorty “thought that the biggest contribution philosophers had ever made to the culture more generally was the Enlightenment” (PP 108). This is quite a strong misreading, very much in the honorific Bloomian sense. For even if one emphasizes that Brandom said philosophers, you can’t miss the fact that Rorty thought Hegel one of the principal contributors to the flowering of romanticism. The philosophical anti-authoritarianism that Rorty articulated in his late writings, and Brandom traces to the Enlightenment, may be the first step, but Rorty would’ve demanded the second step toward the romantic apotheosis of imagination. It is not a mistake that in the same last volume of essays that includes “Pragmatism and Romanticism” there is no corresponding essay entitled “Pragmatism and the Enlightenment.” For better or worse, Rorty could not be convinced that there was enough to be redeemed in Kant (unlike Brandom), and felt that the Enlightenment philosophers were mainly, rather, responsible for our continued entrancement with Platonism, the original philosophical authoritarianism.

Brandom’s best piece of evidence for Rorty’s sympathy with his misreading is Rorty’s 1996 Ferrater Mora Lectures, “Anti-Authoritarianism in Epistemology and Ethics,” which Brandom attended—and Rorty never published together. One of those lectures was surely “Pragmatism as Anti-Authoritarianism,” which Rorty published in a French journal in 1999 and failed twice to publish in the two volumes of collected essays that came out from its time of composition until his death. And even in that piece, he calls the relationship between pragmatism and the Enlightenment a “useful analogy” and can’t help but mention the R-word in the same breath as Brandom’s E-word: “Dewey was convinced that the romance of democracy, a romance built on the idea that the point of a human life is free cooperation with fellow humans, required a more thorough-going version of secularism than either Enlightenment rationalism or nineteenth-century positivism had achieved” (7). The rhetoric here is important, I think, in seeing the relative emphases between Rorty and Brandom, and the lines of misreading Brandom is involved in in displacing Romanticism for the Enlightenment. Not only can Rorty not but help inject “romance” into his qualified appreciation of the Enlightenment, but “required a more thorough-going version of secularism” doesn’t quite intimate the continuity of tradition that Brandom would like to establish between Kant and pragmatism. And further, what Rorty means by “the romance of democracy” is actually meant, I think, to establish a distinction between what Rorty referred to in his 1997 Spinoza lectures as the two projects of Enlightenment, one political and the other philosophical: “one was to create heaven on earth: a world without caste, class, or cruelty. The other was to find a new, comprehensive worldview which would replace God with Nature and Reason” (Truth, Politics, and “Post-Modernism,” 35). The first project—the Millian project of founding a democratic ethos—Rorty wants to defend, but the second to criticize, for he is one of those “who think that the Enlightenment philosophers were on the right track but did not go far enough. We hope to do to Nature, Reason, and Truth what the eighteenth century did to God.” There’s the idea Brandom is talking about, but in Rorty’s hands, I think, it was in the service of the first project that the 18th-century “did it to God.” The political project is the project of antiauthoritarianism, extended into philosophy as anti-Platonism.

So the qualification that Rorty would make to Brandom’s formulation is that the Enlightenment philosophers did make a huge contribution to the larger culture, but it wasn’t as philosophers—more like as pamphleteers, as cultural propagandists. Voltaire is more important here than Kant, and though Voltaire was a philosophe, who is it who isn’t read in Philosophy Departments, again? Rorty’s conception of philosophy as cultural politics does make Voltaire a philosopher—and so validate Brandom’s assertion (sans “biggest,” again in deference to Romanticism)—but Brandom, I think, meant philosophy more narrowly. For while Rorty thought that there wasn’t anything that was distinctively philosophy, Brandom does think this, and what it does is precisely the form in which Kant’s contribution was made. Philosophy is concerned “to understand, articulate, and explain the notion of reason” (Reason in Philosophy 1), and what Kant did for us in the name of the Enlightenment political project is begin to show us that reason is a social-normative enterprise and not an authoritarian faculty. Rorty was never convinced by Brandom, whose “reinterpretation of Kant’s doctrine of the primacy of the practical is as charitable as it is ingenious,” that we shouldn’t rather emphasize the gaps between Kant and Hegel, instead of the continuities (“Some American Uses of Hegel,” 41). However that may be, I find Brandom’s strong misreading of Rorty and pragmatism very persuasive, so persuasive in fact that the only real response to it is to re-romanticize it.

[3] For example, Brandom says that the strand of irrationalism he identifies with Derrida “has its roots in the Romanticism of the early nineteenth century.  It claims that giving and asking for reasons is just one game one can play with words, and that only a self-serving conspiracy of philosophers and scientists has convinced people that it deserves any privilege at all over all the other playful and artistically creative things one can do with language” (RP 144).  Brandom has, to my mind, shown convincingly that Rorty’s rhetoric gets away from him when it seems he’s saying this—to get pragmatism to work in the philosophy of language, we have to repudiate, as Brandom likes to put it, Wittgenstein’s thesis that “language has no downtown”: it does, and it is the game of giving and asking for reasons (cf. RP 120).  Rorty ran this direction because of his appreciation of the power of metaphor.  In the end, I think, Brandom’s rationalism has to be augmented by Rorty’s romanticism, for though Brandom carefully circumscribes the area of his project in order for others to fill in gaps he self-consciously avoids glancing in, there’s no reason to pigeon-hole Romanticism as a kind of dandyism. 

[4]  One might begin here by meditating on the parallels in themes, lines of thought, and verbiage between “Intellect” in the First Series and “The Poet” in the Second.

[5]  This is another favored way for Brandom to circumscribe his project.  In describing the philosopher’s relationship to cognitive science, he says cognitive science is “concerned with the broadly empirical question of how the trick of cognition is or might be done.  Philosophers are concerned with the normative question of what counts as doing it” (RP 198).


  1. Matt,

    I am currently reading one book, and have another on order, on the primal (meaning Native American) roots of Pragmatism. Currently I'm reading Bruce Wilshire's Primal Roots of American Philosophy and I've got ordered through snail mail (why can't everything be in kindle format?? Why?) Scott Pratt's Native Pragmatism: Roots of American Philosophy. Pratt's book looks to be the most interesting to me as it is a lot more current and coincides with a rising tide of Royce scholarship. I just finished Randall Auxier's Time, Will and Purpose - the living ideas of Josiah Royce and a lot of that I wanted to bounce off of you. Hope you are well and can comment some on the books above. (Auxier wrote a book on Rorty, btw, read his wiki, I think you'll be intrigued)


    1. Those look like interesting books; they might prove useful if I ever get around to incorporating D'Arcy McNickle into my work on American Romanticism. As it is, I'm afraid I don't have the time to look into them. I'm currently focused on writing my dissertation, which doesn't take me near enough in that direction. Likewise for Royce: despite Rorty's admiration for Royce, it just doesn't seem likely I'd be able to find a place for him. Somebody said to me the other day that Royce was a pragmatist, and that doesn't seem right to me at all. Royce had a lot of interesting commonalities with the classical pragmatists, like appreciation for Hegel, and I think it warrants study, but not common branding, at least not with that one. I'd be more disposed to calling Santayana a pragmatist than Royce. (Are you talking about the Rorty entry in the Library of Living Philosophers series that Auxier edited? I wouldn't call that writing a book on Rorty, though he did write an interesting preface to it.)


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