“The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.”
–Alfred North Whitehead

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…




9 responses to “Research notes on the pragmatisms of James and Dewey”

  1. Leon Avatar

    Of course one must find their own Dewey, but when looking at the secondary literature be sure to read the “magical” Dewey (the one espoused by Tom Alexander) and not the “technological” Dewey (the one espoused by Larry Hickman). Be warned, however, it is easy to get “pinballed” around when doing literature reviews for your dissertation. Limit yourself to three months of research to get started for a prospectus defense, and then once your start writing the actual dissertation read for three days, then write for three days – find a schedule that works for you and stick with it. As an aside. and perhaps an interesting note per your dissertation: Dewey considered Coleridge’s ‘Aids to Reflection’ to be his “first Bible.”

    Eager to see what more ideas you like from Peirce/James/Dewey, please do report! But of course the Hartshorne mention in your post also has me gleeful.

    Your dissertation is stocked with philosophers to cover already, but I was thinking that Emerson would be another good choice as someone who has quite abit to say about the imagination – and he is a good bit closer to Schelling on the point and would be a closer connection to Whitehead also, so I would say Emerson rather than Steiner. Coleridge, Emerson, Schelling, Whitehead (in that order) would be a compact way of proceeding in a dissertation on process philosophy and the imagination, if you are finding the Whitehead alone to be too involved. That specific order gives you a good introduction to the imaginative faculty via Coleridge, establishing its aesthetic and philosophic importance through a discussion concerning poetry, imagination, and creativity in Emerson, connection that to creativity and ontology in Schelling, and finally synthesizing the notions of creativity, imagination, and ontology in Whitehead, as that is his theory anyway (plus, Whitehead has a fundamental role for the aesthetic portion of experience, to boot). Just my two cents.


    1. Matthew David Segall Avatar

      Thanks very much for your advice, Leon.

      1. khadimir Avatar


        Tom Alexander was on my committee and in many ways I am a direct inheritor of his interpretation of Dewey. Just a scholarly fyi, he was an inheritor of James Gouinlock, who came from the Columbia naturalists school. The book to read is John Dewey’s Theory of Art, Experience, and Nature. The first chapter is rough going, but 2-3 should give you a lot of metaphysical food for thought.

        As for advice along Leon’s, I’d differ. I’d say write until you cannot anymore, then read to get “take a break” and to “eat” ideas to keep going. Of course, the at least 3 months of reading for the prospectus is mandatory, as you should have a good grasp of the major works in advance, and you’d hope to only add-in tertiary material once you start, or more only to get you out of a bind. In either case, both Leon and I plowed through our dissertations and finish unusually quickly.

        A bit of advice he didn’t give, and that was given to me by a (former) fellow graduate student. If you write faster than your advisor can read it, then it gives you more power in the relationship. That’s a bonus if you’re in a tug-of-war situation with an advisor.

      2. khadimir Avatar

        p.p.s. per Leon’s “find their own Dewey,” Dewey was such an unsystematic though cogent thinker with so many volumes of work that the interpretations vary widely.

  2. khadimir Avatar

    Thanks, Matt.

    Yes, you have positioned yourself as a philosopher seeking justification for faith, which reminds me. Have you read Fear and Trembling? I would like to know your response to it, the two knights.

    While I affirm the power of imagination, I would say that it grows the horizon of experience, which is not limited to the sensible. This is not saying the same things as claiming the “experience of the supersensible.”

    I would also affirm that Fitche, Schelling, and Hegel should not be seen as a dynastic succession, although that’s a fight I’ll like to those scholars.

    Finally, if you’re interested in suggested Dewey readings that might be read with Whitehead, I would recommend Experience and Nature.

    1. Matthew David Segall Avatar

      I read a bit of Kierkegaard in college and was deeply moved by it. I don’t think I ever read Fear and Trembling, though. I stuck to Philosophical Fragments, Either/Or, and Sickness unto Death.

      In writing of the “supersensible,” I aim pointing toward realities that are perceivable, just not by the outward facing senses.

      Thanks for the suggestion!

      1. khadimir Avatar

        Whoops. I wrote “Fear and Trembling,” but I meant “Sickness unto Death.” The knights are in there.

        As for “supersensible,” then either you mean “conscience” or you mean something new.


  3. Unnecessary Mechanism: A Reply to R. Scott Bakker | Footnotes 2 Plato Avatar

    […] not because it is true in some matter of fact sense, but because it is becoming increasingly true (in the American pragmatist sense) as the values of techno-scientific imperialism continue to infect secular societies […]

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