The Pragmatist Turn

Religion, the Enlightenment, and the Formation of American Literature

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Giles Gunn
Studies in Religion and Culture
  • Charlottesville, VA: 
    University of Virginia Press
    , December
     218 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The author of The Pragmatist Turn, Giles Gunn, is a Distinguished Professor of English and of Global Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. His research interests span from American literary, cultural, intellectual, and religious studies to global theory, culture, and ethics. The Pragmatist Turn: Religion, the Enlightenment, and the Formation of American Literature is a collection of six essays. In the introduction, Gunn aims to show, in general, how “seventeenth-century American religion and the eighteenth-century American Enlightenment had managed to influence nineteenth- and twentieth-century American writing” (1)—and, in particular, to “delineate how” these were “to be absorbed—and at the same time transformed—in subsequent American writing and thought by means of a pragmatist turn” (8–9). Protestantism and the Enlightenment are described as “two spiritual traditions” (9), although Gunn acknowledges that the “first spiritual imaginary is associated with Native American traditions” (10). 

In the process of demonstrating how these transformations took place over historical time, the author employs a key concept—“spiritual imaginaries”—defined as “symbolic formations composed of metaphors, images, narratives, legends, and other discursive and figurative material that constitute the notional and affective schemata by which people define their collective sense of life or lifeworld” (1–2). These “symbolic matrices” confer “intelligibility and legitimacy on social practices” and “help shape collective subjectivities and install them in a normative framework” (2). What Gunn intends to demonstrate in The Pragmatist Turn is how the idea of America “continues to remain somehow suspended between these two spiritual imaginaries” (12). As this reviewer will argue, Gunn has kept the idea of America in suspended animation, whereby the “transformations” are incomplete, indeterminate, and open-ended. 

Significantly, the author states: “American history thus properly begins not with the history of American colonization but rather with the creation of the idea of ‘America’ itself” (3). Gunn refers to “idea and actuality” in a way similar to what the present writer has termed “nation and notion” (3). Here, the “synergistic agent” in the symbolic transformations that Gunn surveys “was the development in the nineteenth century of a new intellectual disposition and theory of inquiry known as pragmatism” (7). Given the limitations of space, this review will focus on how Gunn uses pragmatism as a frame and focus in analyzing how the idea of America is transformed over time across the literary and religious landscape.

Gunn characterizes his first three chapters—“The Difficulty of Beginnings”; “Puritan Ascendance and Decline”; “Enlightenment and a New Age Dawning”—“as background” (11). Chapter 4, “The Pragmatist Refiguration of American Narratives,” is best epitomized by the section heading, “Foreshadowing the Pragmatist Turn” (107). Together these chapters constitute the bulk of The Pragmatist Turn

If the reader is patient and persistent, the payoff is in chapter 5, “The Jamesian Component.” This is where Gunn substantively introduces and explains his conception of the American philosophy of “pragmatism,” which originates with William James (1842–1910). The Pragmatist Turn itself turns (or should turn) upon “The Pragmatic Rule,” in which James’s classic formulation of his own pragmatist method is set forth in a quotation from his essay, “Some Problems of Philosophy,” to which Gunn draws special attention since the following is one of the very few block quotes in the entire book: “The pragmatic rule is that the meaning of a concept may always be found, if not in some sensible particular which it directly designates, then in some particular difference in the course of human experience which its being true will make. Test every concept by the question ‘What sensible difference to anybody will its truth make?’ and you are in the best possible position for understanding what it means and for discussing its importance” (130–31.)

James’s “pragmatic rule” leads to his functional formulation of truth: “The true is the name of whatever proves itself to be good in the way of belief, and good, too, for definite, assignable reasons” (italics James’s, 136). Gunn’s chapter on James and pragmatism is well worth reading. This penultimate chapter stands alone. Yet the real test is in its application to Gunn’s final chapter, chapter 6, “Religion and the Enlightenment under the Sign of the Modern and Beyond” (144–72). The pragmatic rule, as applied to the idea of America and the values for which it stands, is best treated by Gunn in his section titled “Henry James and The American Scene Pragmatized.”

Gunn then turns his attention to “one of the chief creations of the American Enlightenment itself,” the rise of American civil religion that “has sought to restate the nation’s own cultural experience within a transcendent perspective at the risk of making a religion of America itself” (163–64). As such, American civil religion has “drawn fire from representatives of the pragmatist tradition” from Ralph Waldo Emerson himself, Walt Whitman, Herman Melville, Mark Twain, and Ernest Hemingway (164).

In 2014—well before The Pragmatist Turn first appeared in 2017—Gunn defined the “tradition of literary and intellectual pragmatism in American writing”—starting with Emerson—as “a tradition held together chiefly by its aversion to absolutes and foundationalism, its fascination with contingency, process, and change, its respect for the commonplace and the ordinary, its belief in the constructed nature of truth, and its emphasis on the relational dimensions of the real” (“Is There a Pragmatist Approach to Literature?” Complutense Journal of English Studies 22 [2014]: 47). 

The Pragmatist Turn is endorsed by pragmatist philosopher Cornel West as “a profound analysis of the trajectory of the major spiritual imaginaries in the shaping and molding of the idea of America.” I would qualify that endorsement by hastening to add that Gunn leaves the idea of America—which has been questioned, critiqued, and otherwise deconstructed throughout The Pragmatist Turn—open to our own “spiritual imaginaries,” individually and collectively.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Christopher Buck is an Independent Scholar.

Date of Review: 
September 28, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Giles Gunn, author of Ideas to Live For: Toward a Global Ethics(Virginia), among other books, is Professor of English and of Global Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara.



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