William James, Pragmatism, and American Culture

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Deborah Whitehead
American Philosophy
  • Bloomington, IN: 
    Indiana University Press
    , November
     194 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Pragmatism, we are often told, is a peculiarly American philosophy. But aside from locating its geographic point of origin, what are the stakes of this claim? What sort of critical and productive insights does it open to tell the story of pragmatism as a philosophy that is intricately bound up with the history of the United States? This is the task that Deborah Whitehead takes up in her important book, William James, Pragmatism, and American Culture. She is not the first to do this. A number of scholars have situated pragmatism in its American context, including such eminent figures as Cornel West, Louis Menand, and David Hollinger, for example. Nevertheless, Whitehead’s contribution to this discussion is noteworthy for several reasons. First and foremost is her careful attention to issues of religion and gender, especially in relation to James and Richard Rorty. She examines, in an evenhanded way, how pragmatism has been caught up into the discourses of feminism and theology in our own time, and she guides us with nuance and sophistication through various assessments of James and Rorty on the question of gender. Additionally, her remarks about pragmatism and nationalism are astute, and her understanding of pragmatist methodology as one especially well-suited to mediating intellectual conflicts deserves to be taken seriously.

In the introduction to the book and the first chapter, Whitehead sets out her own methodology for the study. Primarily, she states, she is conducting a rhetorical analysis of the discourse about pragmatism, with a specific focus on three topics: gender, religion, and nation. In chapter two, she presents a range of different interpretations of pragmatism, to show the diverse ways in which it has been conceived by its proponents. She fits C. S. Peirce and John Dewey into her genealogy, but then tells us that James and Rorty will be the principal figures with whom she is engaged for the remainder of the book. In chapter three, Whitehead attends to James’s rhetoric concerning pragmatism and America. She notes his use of a frontier metaphor to describe his philosophy: a European intellectual legacy encounters a new world of wide open territory and sets out to expand and become distinctively new. As it does this, it makes unclaimed space distinctively its own. Whitehead notes the problematic associations of this discourse with manifest destiny, burgeoning American imperialism, and the destruction of Native American societies. Without letting James off the hook for these failures, she rightly notes that he turned aggressively anti-imperialistic with the American invasion of the Philippines. Pragmatism and nationalism, then, display a “mixed heritage” (82).

Turning to gender in the next chapter, Whitehead finds here again a mixed heritage when it comes to James and the status of women. She argues quite rightly that he occupies a middle position between Victorian norms and progressive views. What this amounts to is that he criticizes Victorian justifications for women’s subordination but doesn’t endorse progressive arguments. His unwillingness to take a firmer stand in favor of women’s equality is unsatisfying, of course, but his rejection of the more extreme versions of inegalitarianism allows him to complicate gender hierarchies in some significant ways. He presents pragmatism as feminine and as a mediator between masculine empiricism and feminine religion. James, then, does not exclude feminine qualities from his ideal philosophical life, though he is, to be sure, conceiving of those qualities as feminine in accordance with Victorian stereotypes. In chapter 5, Whitehead turns to Rorty and the reception of Rorty’s neopragmatism by feminists and theologians. She deftly presents the fascinating and important exchange between Rorty and Nancy Fraser on pragmatism and feminism. What emerges from that debate and from theologians’ discussions of pragmatism, for Whitehead, is the role of pragmatism as a space for mediation, “a means of mediating disagreement, coalition building, and working toward consensus.” It does so, for example, by providing a discursive context in which disputants can strive to resolve disagreements about “essentialism versus constructivism, foundationalism versus historicism, critical theory versus poststructuralism, and the like” (132). 

In the introduction to the book, Whitehead informs us that she is not so much interested in ascertaining whether pragmatism has “workable solutions to contemporary theoretical or political issues” (6), but rather to analyze pragmatism’s rhetoric critically. In the conclusion, she makes apparent that the aim of her criticism is to highlight to contemporary pragmatists the ways in which gender and nation have been and still are bound up in the philosophy, so that they will be cognizant of that as they conduct their work. It becomes apparent, though, that she is herself invested in the ongoing project of pragmatism. Her goals are to facilitate constructive work, even if she is not so much engaging in that work here. She speaks favorably of the “endless possibility” of Jamesian pragmatism and enjoins us to “continue the argument” (142).

The book’s argument is concise, and there is virtue in that to be sure, but a more extensive discussion of Dewey, for example, on the themes of nation, religion, and pragmatism would have been welcome, especially since he plays a crucial mediating role between James and Rorty. Rorty’s sensibilities are more with Dewey than James. Also, whereas the issues of gender and religion in Rorty get substantial attention, the topic of nation is treated more briefly. The debates about Rorty’s chastened patriotism in Achieving Our Country are mentioned, but Whitehead does not attend to them as much as one might wish, particularly given the controversial nature of Rorty’s attempt to goad the left into a more appreciative stance toward the American project.   

Whitehead is right to highlight the potential that pragmatism has to mediate among various sorts of intellectual divisions; however, I would not want to overlook the ways in which pragmatism is a substantial, constructive project in its own right. In James’s understanding, pragmatism is a corridor that connects different sorts of philosophical agendas, as Whitehead rightly notes. However, it is also a “protestant reformation” in philosophy for James, a novel intellectual moment with creeds of its own—not just an adjudicator of others’ ideas. Whitehead notes this in passing (21), but prefers to emphasize the mediating aspect of pragmatism over and against its distinctive ambitions. In my reading of James (and Dewey), pragmatism’s distinctive, constructive agenda has to do with (among other things) its application of certain aspects of the scientific method to philosophy and to intellectual inquiry more generally; its promotion of democratic habits of thought and conduct; and its commitment to pluralism. Finally, alongside the attention Whitehead gives to James’s construal of pragmatism as feminine (receptive and conciliatory), I would want to point out the ways in which he presents it as very, very masculine (active and efficacious). James explicitly labels as “masculine” the voluntarism that is so central to his philosophy, and also the “strenuous” life of actively pursuing one’s ideals in the face of opposition, which he praises in Varieties of Religious Experience, Pragmatism, “Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life” and elsewhere. Of course, my point here is not to accept James’s way of coding masculinity and femininity, just to emphasize that he conceives of pragmatism as a fighting creed, as much as he sees it as a mediating conciliator.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Stephen Bush is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Brown University. 

Date of Review: 
May 24, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Deborah Whitehead is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado, Boulder.



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