Reading the American Pragmatists

For the last couple of weeks I have been rereading Louis Menand's The Metaphysical Club, a work of intellectual biography that treats Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., William James, and Charles Sanders Pierce, within their social and intellectual context. It's a wonderful book that holds up well to a second reading and this time I have been reading primary texts by Holmes, James and Pierce along with the relevant chapters in Menand. If each of us gravitate toward a philosophy congenial to our personality, as James might suggest, then pragmatism is my philosophical home. I've long been interested in, even obsessed by, the relationship of words to things and the ways in which human beings make meanings, and while I have read a fair amount of the rationalist modern philosophy descending from Descartes, I have found it dry and mostly unsuited to my purposes )though when reading historical accounts of, say, Spinoza's life and travails, I can sympathize with the degree of intellectual passion); Holmes and James, on the other hand, with their pluralism and emphasis on experience, actually reflect the way I think. Or the way I experience myself thinking.

Author: jd

Joseph Duemer is Professor of Literature Emeritus at Clarkson University in northern New York state. His most recent book of poems is Magical Thinking from Ohio State University Press. Since the mid-1990s he has spent a good deal of time in Vietnam, mostly Hanoi. He lives with his wife Carole & five terriers (four Jack Russells & one Patterdale) on the stony bank of the Raquette River in South Colton.

2 thoughts on “Reading the American Pragmatists”

  1. My concerns are similar, but I’m more of a Peircean myself (not that his system ever really coalesced [but that’s a feature not a bug], nor that his life inspires), and have found that his writings and ideas dovetail nicely with Bakhtin’s (not merely in semiotic aspects).

    1. I am more attracted to Dewey’s and James’s emphasis on aesthetic experience than to Pierce’s on scientific experience, though Pierce is more rigorous than James, at least. but as an artist, when Dewey says that philosophers must go to aesthetic experience in order to understand the nature of experience, I am obviously sympathetic. Aesthetic experience predates (as it were) scientific experience.

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