Recovering Pragmatism's Practicality: Four Views

Philosophical Frontiers: A Journal of Emerging Thought 4 (1):3-18 (2009)
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In this paper, I evaluate three views of philosophical pragmatism’s practical implications for academic and non-academic or public discourses, as well as offer my own view of those implications. The first view is that of George Novack. In an underappreciated tract, Pragmatism versus Marxism, the American Trotskyite and union organizer launched a vicious attack on John Dewey’s career as a professional philosopher. He alleged that Dewey’s ideas were inaccessible to all but a small community of fellow academicians. While Novack conceded that Dewey’s philosophical inquiries had a cross-pollinating influence on other academic fields, he doubted that the beneficial products of those inquiries traveled far beyond the walls of the so-called ‘ivory tower.’ Larry Hickman offers a second view. He understands Dewey’s claim in Experience and Nature that philosophy serves as a “liaison officer” to mean that philosophers should provide a common lexicon that translates between the languages of distinct disciplines. In other words, for Dewey, the role of philosophy, including philosophical pragmatism, is to facilitate interdisciplinarity. Since interdisciplinary sharing is usually confined to academic discourse, Novack’s challenge is perfectly compatible with Hickman’s interpretation of Dewey’s ‘liaison officer’ claim. Both Novack and Hickman are mistaken, though in different degrees and for different reasons. The third, and more promising, view is advanced by Robert Talisse. He cites the life and works of Sidney Hook, one of Dewey’s better-known students, as an exemplary case of a pragmatist who consistently realized his pragmatic commitments in public discourse. The most important reason for qualifying Hickman’s interpretation of Dewey’s ‘liaison officer’ claim is that the measure of pragmatism’s value is not solely the ability of pragmatists to facilitate interdisciplinary collaboration, but their ability to also insert their ideas into public discourse. In my view, philosophical pragmatists, and philosophers generally, should both facilitate interdisciplinarity in academic discourse and introduce philosophical notions into public discourse—that is, serving in the dual capacity of interdisciplinary scholar and public intellectual.

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Shane Ralston
University of Ottawa (PhD)


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