If Pragmatism was so great, what happened to it?

Pragmatism was a powerful force in World Philosophy during the early decades of the twentieth century. Then the First World War erupted, followed by the Great Depression, and later the horror of the Second World War. With these events, the progressive modernism, of which Pragmatism was surely a part, began to fall out of favor. Culturally, many began to believe that overemphasizing progress had resulted in a general loss of deeper human values. At Columbia where Dewey was heading the philosophy department, he found himself intellectually opposed by a new movement, Traditionalism. Traditionalists like Mortimer Adler and Mark Van Doran, Dewey’s colleagues, were teaching their students to look toward the great works of human history to find the deep truths and spiritual values that had developed through great literature and art.

Mark Van Doran taught Literature at Columbia, and was so beloved by his students that there is still a Mark Van Doran award given today for teaching excellence. He had a unique ability to inspire in his students a love for the human spirit as it is found in the great writings of humanity. Three of his students would go on to play significant roles in creating a new cultural movement that would challenge Modernism’s dominance in American life. Each was turning away from what he saw as an overly mechanistic, deterministic and scientific age in search of deeper spirit. These three students were Thomas Merton, Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. Merton would pursue spirit as a Catholic monk, and gain fame as an enormously popular author and pioneer of Interfaith dialogue through his historic dialogs with Asian Spiritual Masters. Ginsberg and Kerouac hunted spirit through poetry, prose, drugs, alcohol and Buddhism. They ignited the Beat Movement of the 1950s, which, in turn, catalyzed the counter culture of the 1960s and gave birth to the New Age spirituality of the seventies and eighties.

Politically and economically, the progressive side of modernity was also under attack. As the American version of democracy and the free market economy began to show its blemishes, many turned to Socialism and Communism for answers.  Philosophy, too, saw a turning away from the progressive passion of Pragmatism by embarking upon a deep investigation of language and more analytical forms of philosophy.  All of these leanings were part of what is now seen as the post-modern cultural shift. Post-modernism is most simply characterized as the cultural backlash against the short-comings of Modernism. Pragmatism was one of its victims.

Another interesting backlash to Modernism was fundamentalism; which, in America, took two forms – one being the fundamentalism of the Christian right, the other being the fundamentalism of materialistic scientists. The uproar and sensation around the so-called Scopes Monkey Trial, which challenged the rights of states to block the teaching of evolution in schools, was an ignition point for the growth of both forms of fundamentalism. John Dewey was the only original Pragmatist who lived long enough to witness the decline of his life’s work. He was the great progressive educational reformer who found himself the recipient of a barrage of criticism from conservative Christians, who held him personally responsible for ripping the soul out of the school system. At the same time, many scientists developed their own, at times equally fervent, scientific fundamentalist insistence that only a materialistic and deterministic interpretation of reality was scientifically valid, and the psychology of James and Dewey yielded to the growth of Behaviourism.

It now seems that we may be seeing another great turn of the cultural pendulum, as Post-modernism begins to show its own shortcomings. Towards the end of the twentieth century, the liberalism of the counter-culture became the self-infatuation of the “Me Generation.” The spiritual pursuits of the New Age seemed to give up reason altogether. And religious fundamentalism and scientific materialism both came under increasing scrutiny. This may be the beginning of a new progressivism, a progressivism of which the Obama presidency is dramatic evidence. In this progressive atmosphere, philosophers like the late Richard Rorty, Hilary Putnam, Cornel West, and others have begun to dust off the progressive spirit of Pragmatism and look for gems among the rubble.

The surging interest in popular forms of Evolutionary Spirituality today might also be a public embrace of the creative spirit that was always the heart of classical American Philosophy.  We are at a moment when bridges can be built from the more popular forms of Evolutionary Spirituality to the historical development of American Philosophy. Perhaps it is time for American Philosophy to once again take up a central position in the public’s eye. Emerson, James and Dewey were all enormously popular and respected figures in their time, but now American Philosophy has been largely removed from public attention for more than half a century. Perhaps it is time once again to capture the public’s imagination, and to use philosophy to educate individuals and transform society. In a world as tumultuous as the one in which we live, the need for deeper philosophical introspection could not be greater. The will of the American public seems poised for a dramatic re-introduction to its own philosophical heritage.