Research notes on the pragmatisms of James and Dewey

continuing research for my dissertation

I’ve been enjoying Louis Menand’s The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America (2001). With an insightful synopsis of American history from the Civil War until about WWI as the backdrop, Menand traces the intellectual development of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., Charles Sanders Peirce, William James, and John Dewey. Recent conversations with Jason Hills about the intersections of philosophy and religion have left me hungering for a better understanding of the pragmatisms of Peirce, James, and Dewey. My interest in pragmatism is primarily a result of dissertation research into the cosmology of Alfred North Whitehead, whose process-relational ontology owes much to these three men, especially James.

In a handwritten letter to Charles Hartshorne, dated Jan. 2, 1936, Whitehead wrote:

“European philosophy has gone dry, and cannot make any worthwhile use of the results of nineteenth century scholarship. It is in chains to the sanctified presuppositions derived from later Greek thought…My belief is that the effective founders of the renaissance in American philosophy are Charles Peirce and William James. Of these men, James is the analogue to Plato, and Peirce to Aristotle, though the time-order does not correspond, and the analogy must not be pressed too far…James’ pragmatic descendants have been doing their best to trivialize his meanings in the notions of Radical Empiricism, Pragmatism, Rationalization. But I admit James was weak on Rationalization. Also he expressed himself by the dangerous method of overstatement.”

Whitehead wrote in Process and Reality that all of Western philosophy could be described as a series of footnotes to Plato, and so for him to refer to James as the American Plato is no small praise. Whitehead’s metaphysical project could be described as an attempt to generalize James’ somewhat unsystematic psychological insights. In Thinking With Whitehead, Isabelle Stengers suggests that James’ relation to religious belief was primarily emotional, while for Whitehead it was primarily conceptual. The former had a psychological need to believe, while the latter arrived at the necessary doctrine of a divine function in the world as a result of systematic reflection.

In my conversations with Hills, I’ve positioned myself as a philosopher seeking justification for religious faith. This places me somewhere in between James and Whitehead. I think faith has an underappreciated cognitive importance: it represents the exercise of an organ of perception that usually lies dormant in the philosophical soul. I follow poet-philosophers like William Blake and Samuel Taylor Coleridge in suggesting that this organ is the Imagination. Cultivating it opens the soul to an experience of supersensible realities the philosopher would otherwise remain blind to.

In The Metaphysical Club, Menand discusses the influence of Coleridge’s Christian philosophy on the young Dewey. In the late 1870s, Dewey took a course with the Transcendentalist Henry Torrey at the University of Vermont. Torrey, according to Menand, was, “academically speaking, the direct descendent of James Marsh,” who was the former chair of philosophy at Dartmouth College and a great admirer of Coleridge’s philosophy. In 1832, Marsh published an edition of Coleridge’s Aids to Reflection, adding a substantial introductory essay. The book essentially argues that Christianity (at least a poetico-mystical interpretation of it) is consistant with philosophical reflection. Dewey read Marsh’s edition in Torrey’s class, and reportedly was quite enthusiastic about the synthesis it pulled off. Many years later, Dewey remarked that it was “my first Bible” (Menand, p. 252). 

In 1882, Dewey began studying at Johns Hopkins University with George Sylvester Morris, another Transcendentalist. As a student, Morris had studied theology, but after reading Hume’s dialogues on religion, he had a crisis of faith and was unable to finish seminary. He studied philosophy in Germany for two years before returning to teach in the States. By the time Dewey began studying under him, he had overcome Humean empiricism and was “a full-fledged Hegelian” (Menand, p. 265).

Hegel is described by Menand as having “completed the revision of Kant that Fichte and Schelling had begun” (p. 263). This is the standard reading of most scholars, but I think Iain Hamilton Grant successfully brings Schelling out of Hegel’s shadow in Philosophies of Nature After Schelling (2008) by showing that, in fact, his was a distinct philosophical project. Menand elsewhere credits Schelling with having influenced the erroneous views of the creationist biologist Louis Agassiz, which doesn’t do much for Schelling’s reputation among contemporary scientists.

At any rate, Dewey took to Hegel for the same reasons he took to Coleridge (whose philosophy, it should be added, was largely lifted from Schelling). In 1930, Dewey wrote that Hegel answered

“a demand for unification that was doubtless an intense emotional craving, and yet was a hunger that only an intellectualized subject-matter could satisfy…[T]he sense of divisions and separations that were, I suppose, borne in upon me as a consequence of a heritage of New England culture, divisions by way of isolation of self from the world, of soul from body, of nature from God, brought a painful oppression–or, rather, they were an inward laceration… Hegel’s synthesis of subject and object, matter and spirit, the divine and the human, was…no mere intellectual formula; it operated as an immense release, a liberation. Hegel’s treatment of human culture, of institutions and the arts, involved the same dissolution of hard-and-fast dividing walls, and had a special attraction for me” (The Later Works, 1925-1953, vol. 5, p. 153).

I’m realizing that my desire to do background research on Whitehead may be more involved than I originally expected. Dewey is just as interesting as James, and Whitehead credits both as influences in the opening pages of Process and Reality. I’m encouraged by the links between Dewey and Coleridge, Schelling and Hegel, since I’d already planned to include them in my dissertation. I’ve ordered James Marsh’s edition of Coleridge’s Aids to Reflection and will be posting on it soon…