Code: TP-35

Pragmatism and the McCarthy Era

While it may be undeniable that pragmatism fell into eclipse after World War II, there is little consensus as to why, exactly, this took place. Common explanations have focused on philosophical or institutional factors: either the advantages (real or perceived) of logical positivism and Oxford style linguistic analysis, or the failure of prominent pragmatists to inspire a succeeding generation of scholars. And, of course, these explanations may be connected.

However, two books have recently proposed political explanations for the eclipse of pragmatism. The first of these, Louis Menand’s The Metaphysical Club, cites the Cold War as a decisive factor in pragmatism’s declining fortunes. Menand argues that pragmatism was originally designed to ensure that our principles were not taken too seriously – or at least not so seriously that violence might result. However, the Cold War "was a war over principles" (441) and in that context pragmatism began to appear "naive, and even a little dangerous" (439). On Menand’s account, pragmatism was ill-suited to a time when people felt compelled to stake their lives for their beliefs.

In contrast, John McCumber’s Time in the Ditch: American Philosophy and the McCarthy Era argues that pragmatism’s decline was due to political intimidation. Unlike Menand, McCumber suggests that pragmatism (and other neglected philosophical approaches) were well suited for addressing the Cold War philosophically. Their eclipse was instead the result of political pressure that academics – philosophers in particular – become dispassionate and apolitical. According to McCumber this was a lesson that philosophers learned all too well: thus, the dominance of analytic philosophy can be traced to the imperative that philosophy be dry, narrow, and far removed from the concerns of everyday life.

Both proposals are compelling. On both accounts pragmatism fell into disfavor not because of philosophical shortcomings but rather as a result of an increasingly hostile, political climate. If true, these theories would have the advantage of explaining pragmatism’s eclipse in something other than philosophical terms. However I will argue here that neither Menand nor McCumber fully explain the fate of pragmatism in the 20th century. Nonetheless, they do encourage a re-examination of the political role of pragmatism during the Cold War and McCarthy era – which I will pursue by discussing an exchange among Sidney Hook, A.O. Lovejoy, Victor Lowe, and Herbert Schneider in the early 1950s. This exchange, published in the Journal of Philosophy, concerned the treatment of professors suspected of Communist sympathies. While there is no single explanation for pragmatism’s recent history, I will conclude that such a re-examination does help us grasp some of the factors responsible.

I. Menand

In his recent The Metaphysical Club, Louis Menand traces the development of pragmatism to the American Civil War. Examining the lives of Peirce, James, Dewey, and Oliver Wendell Holmes, Menand argues that they shared a common view as to how to judge the merits of our beliefs. In particular, they shared a certain skepticism that our beliefs can be justified through their correspondence with an external reality. Instead, our beliefs are justified by virtue of how well they jibe with our experience or what might be called, in a broader sense, our "culture" (342): that is, the complex web of customs, expectations, interests and interactions that constitute the social conditions of human life. This conception is further supported by the pragmatic theory of meaning , according to which the meaning of a particular belief is a function of its future consequences, not an antecedent relationship to the real nature of things. The pragmatic conception of belief was especially important, Menand argues, in the aftermath of the Civil War, which had shown the horrific consequences of taking a stand on principle. Pragmatism, as a result, was an attempt to deflate the overall significance of our beliefs, to bring these to a level where their consequences could be frankly discussed, and where differences could be settled short of violence.

And pragmatism was just the ticket in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century when, as Menand writes "the chance of another civil war did not seem remote, [and] a philosophy that warned against the idolatry of ideas was possibly the only philosophy on which a progressive politics could have been successfully mounted" (374). However, Menand also argues that pragmatism’s sensitivity to context may have led to its undoing. Thus, because pragmatism emerged as a response to a particular crisis in United States history, it was unable to respond as successfully to changing circumstances, notably the threat of Communism after World War II. In particular, this inability can be traced to two "deficiencies." The first is that pragmatism "takes interests for granted; it doesn’t provide for a way of judging whether they are worth pursuing apart from the consequences of acting on them" (375). The second is the fact that "wants and beliefs can lead people to act in ways that are distinctly unpragmatic" – or more succinctly, "pragmatism explains everything about ideas except why a person would be willing to die for one" (375). As a result, the 1950s and 1960s were not good years to be a pragmatist. The cold war required a stern commitment to principle and a willingness to use force, even when this would be self-destructive. While the cold war required taking a distinctly non-pragmatic stand, once it drew to a close, in the late 1980s, pragmatism was able to stage a comeback.

Menand’s theory is certainly attractive and his argument has undeniable merit. However, it is not clear that the "deficiencies" he points to are real deficiencies and, consequently, it is not clear whether they can account for pragmatism’s decline in the cold war years. They do certainly rank among pragmatism’s perceived deficiencies and, as such, they may have played a role in its decline; but this is not an argument Menand makes, and making it would require showing why pragmatism was perceived in this way. This point can also be made by noting that Menand often seems to approach pragmatism via neo-pragmatism. The objection that our interests are not simply given, and that the appropriate stance toward them is not one of ironic skepticism, are objections more easily raised against late twentieth century neo-pragmatism than against its mid-century forebear.

It is possible to quickly mention a few reasons why these deficiencies do not apply to classical pragmatism. First of all, far from treating our interests as given, we find in Dewey and other pragmatists a keen interest in where our beliefs come from. The concern for the future implications of our beliefs was not to the exclusion of their origin. This, I take it, is the reason Dewey engages in so much historiography: by recognizing the contingent, historical basis of many of our beliefs we are then able to determine how they might be improved, replaced, or overcome. Second, classical pragmatism possessed significant resources for understanding the power that beliefs have over our lives. There may be few beliefs that we would actually die for, but there is certainly a continuum of beliefs stretching from those we barely know we have, or could easily give up, to those which we are quite sure of. The beliefs we would stake our lives on fall at the latter end of this continuum. Thus, pragmatists such as Peirce and Dewey are well able to explain how beliefs happen to land where they do along this continuum. It is by marking the ways in which we "fix" our beliefs, after all, that we realize which of our beliefs deserve our trust, and to what extent. There isn’t space to go into these points more deeply here, but I think it should be clear that the deficiencies Menand notes are not inherent features of pragmatism so much as accusations unfairly leveled against it. However, if that is so, then it is not possible to explain the cold-war treatment of pragmatism as due to these shortcomings. The real story is more complicated than that.

II. McCumber

In Time in the Ditch, John McCumber proposes another explanation for the decline of non analytic approaches during the cold war era. On McCumber’s account, McCarthyism forced American philosophy departments to pursue a positivistic program which emphasized a quasi-scientific approach to philosophical questions. Science was conceived in ideal terms, as a "timeless, selfless, quest of truth" (40). McCumber’s theory is interestingly at odds with Menand’s. While Menand argues that pragmatism was saddled with shortcomings rendering it out of step with the cold war era, McCumber claims that pragmatism (as well as other philosophical approaches) was silenced for being too relevant for the concerns of that time. In short, pragmatic points of view had to be excluded in order to ensure a common-front against the perceived threat of Marxism and Communism.

McCumber offers a wealth of evidence in support if this theory, and sheds much needed light on the state of philosophy during the McCarthy era. He points to evidence that philosophers came under special scrutiny during the McCarthy era (philosophers were more likely than other academics to be investigated) and that this scrutiny succeeded in reshaping the discipline (25-28). Given its relatively modest size and the small number of prominent graduate departments, political intimidation had a more pervasive and chilling effect on philosophy than on other fields (29). He also recounts the extreme hardships faced by philosophers suspected of Communist or Marxist sympathies and, subsequently, the less than courageous responses of the American Philosophical Association and the American Association of University Professors. He concludes that while these episodes have been conveniently erased from the history of philosophy, their effects are still felt in the professional marginalization of feminists, pragmatists, critical theorists, and others outside the mainstream of analytic philosophy.

"The timeless, selfless quest of truth" is a phrase that McCumber cites repeatedly, using it to signify a particular analytical, quasi-scientific approach to philosophy. The phrase itself comes from Raymond B. Allen, the former president of the University of Washington. Allen came to prominence during the McCarthy era for firing two professors – one a philosopher, Herbert Phillips – for their membership in the Communist Party. Allen employed this phrase to justify his university’s actions. He argued that academic integrity requires allegiance to the truth. Philosophical positions which took truth to be something other than timeless and selfless (such as Marxism or even some forms of pragmatism) undermined the university’s mission and thus constituted grounds for firing.

This raises the question of whether such a conception of truth really does characterize analytic philosophy, and analytic philosophy alone. McCumber writes that "the supposedly scientific view of philosophy as a timeless, selfless quest of truth…continues to hold sway among American philosophers, who seem unable to visualize any goal for their inquiries except the truth of sentences" (127-128). But this accusation seems unfair, for several reasons. For one thing, there are practical advantages to this quest which McCumber does not mention. Dewey, for example, held that the pursuit of truth not only distinguished universities from factories but was also the basis of academic freedom. Commenting on this, Louis Menand argues that the development of academic freedom in the twentieth century depended on a tacit agreement that "professors would commit themselves to the unselfish and disinterested pursuit of truth" (Menand, 417). Rather than lead to political coercion the pursuit of truth was a way for academics to serve, in Dewey’s words, "the interests of their moral employer – society as a whole."

This would suggest that the "timeless, selfless quest of truth" does not by itself characterize whatever philosophical and political forces may have been arrayed against pragmatism. While these words would have a somewhat different meaning when spoken by pragmatists, it is not clear that the difference would be so great as to inspire political persecution. In fact, pragmatists were among the most prominent anti-Communists: Sidney Hook (who was sometimes called "Dewey’s bulldog") was a distinguished representative of the anti-Communist left and he claimed that his position was essentially the same as Dewey’s. Political factors may still have played a role in pragmatism’s fate, but McCumber has not made an entirely convincing case for why pragmatism (or other philosophical approaches) came under special scrutiny, or why analytic philosophy triumphed as a result.

So we are once again left with the conclusion that political intimidation does not fully account for the decline in pragmatism’s fortunes during the Cold War period. Nonetheless, Menand's and McCumber's theories do encourage a re-examination of the positions taken by pragmatists during the Cold War and McCarthy eras. In the next section I will examine this range of positions in more detail.

III. The Journal of Philosophy Debate

My point of entry into this topic will be an exchange that took place between Victor Lowe, Sidney Hook, and A.O. Lovejoy in The Journal of Philosophy between 1951 and 1952. (Herbert Schneider also made a short contribution.) Lowe was a distinguished student of Whitehead’s and professor of philosophy at Johns Hopkins (where Lovejoy also taught). Hook was, in Cornel West’s terms, "the postwar heir to John Dewey’s mantle as the leading socially engaged pragmatist philosopher". This debate shows how pragmatists approached the McCarthy era and, I will argue, provides some clues for understanding its subsequent fate.

The debate began with Victor Lowe’s "A Resurgence of 'Vicious Intellectualism'." He took the term "vicious intellectualism" from James' A Pluralistic Universe, where James used it to describe a narrow frame of mind which takes a definition to be absolutely exhaustive of the object defined, such that an object cannot possess a property not explicitly mentioned in the definition. According to James, the fault of vicious intellectualism was that it failed to recognize that objects outrun our definitions: to the extent that we live in an evolving, contingent world, we must find that the objects of our experience are richer than merely verbal definitions would suggest. Lowe expanded the notion of vicious intellectualism to include the tendency to treat objects as having "to perfection all the characteristics which the name’s definition includes and connotes" (436). Thus, while James was concerned with vicious intellectualism in its "negative" sense – that an object could possess no property not mentioned in its definition – Lowe drew attention to its "positive" sense: the claim that an object possessed all the properties mentioned in its definition "to perfection." Like James, his point was that definitions do not exactly capture the objects defined. But, unlike James, Lowe wished to show how an object may fall under a definition without possessing all the properties mentioned in it.

Lowe argued that many professors identified as communists had been victims of just this sort of vicious intellectualism. Thus, despite the fact that Communist party membership connoted agreement with its policies, one of which required members to perform a propagandizing and indoctrinating role, party membership alone was not sufficient grounds to dismiss a professor. One could be a member of the Communist party, and thus be a communist, without necessarily being a perfect communist: without, that is, indoctrinating one’s students. To determine if a professor was a perfect communist required a careful investigation of her classroom performance, and without such an investigation summary dismissal would be unfair and unjust. Those who argued that party membership was, in and of itself, sufficient grounds for dismissal – and here Lowe mentioned both Hook and Lovejoy – were thus guilty of a "philosophical error" (446). Worse, their position amounted to nothing more than "plain, ordinary intolerance" (446).

Lovejoy and Hook responded several months later, in the February 14, 1952 Journal of Philosophy. Lovejoy’s response was the shorter of the two. He argued that it was a matter of empirical fact, not a matter of definition, that membership in the communist party contributed "to the triumph of a world-wide organization" which was opposed to "freedom of inquiry, of opinion and of teaching" (87). As such, continued membership in the party constituted grounds for dismissal, just as allegiance to the Nazi party or the Ku Klux Klan would.

Hook in turn responded that the policy of excluding communists from higher education was justifiable based on the probability that a party member would prove disloyal to the ideals of democratic education. This policy made no claims about the behavior of any particular communist; it was simply a prudent conclusion drawn from our knowledge of communists as a class. Like Lovejoy, Hook responded that this policy was based on empirical evidence, not by drawing a conclusion from the definition of "communist." He contrasted this with what he termed Lowe’s "mindless empiricism" which, he claimed, seemed to refuse to draw any general conclusions at all on the basis of empirical evidence. Hook also claimed that a mindless empiricism would allow more successful infiltration of die-hard communists, and thereby also provide an opportunity for the spread of McCarthyism.

In his rejoinder Lowe made two further points. First, in response to Lovejoy. he stressed the complicated and even illogical structure of human psychology: our ability to hold an inconsistent set of beliefs raises the question of which beliefs one really accepts. Lowe argued that this question was best answered by examining a professor's daily actions, "the afternoons in the laboratory or library, the hours in the classroom" (105), and not simply by determining one’s party membership. The former carried as much weight as the latter: thus, it was necessary to consider all the empirical evidence before dismissing a professor. Second, Lowe accused Hook of ignoring the particular circumstances of specific professors, focusing on their membership in a particular class at the expense of their individuality. Not only had Hook chosen an unnecessarily large class (the class of all Communist party members as opposed to the class of Communist college professors) but, by ignoring the differences among the members of this class, he had committed the fallacy of vicious intellectualism all over again (107). Lowe sums up by describing his position as a form of "individualistic empiricism": that "we should judge an individual first of all (though not exclusively) by his record rather than by that of any group, whenever and wherever special circumstances do not make that too dangerous" (110).

Lovejoy was content to leave matters pretty much at that – his final "Rejoinder to Mr. Lowe" is barely two pages long, and repeats his earlier position. Hook offered a more lengthy response, arguing that Lowe failed to appreciate the importance of class-membership, especially when the class in question was the Communist party. It was not just that members of the Communist party held unpopular views, but that the party was engaged in a secret conspiracy at odds with the "ethics of free inquiry essential to liberal education" (120) and was "functioning as a fifth column in every sector of democratic life" (121). For these reasons membership in the Communist party constituted sufficient grounds for dismissal; evidence of actual harm was not worth waiting for.

It is worth noting, finally, that Lowe’s position was quite similar to Dewey’s own. In a letter to the New York Times published on June 21, 1949, Dewey had expressed his own concern with the dismissal of Communist party members. While admitting that "in the abstract" Communist party membership would make one unsuitable for a position of public trust, Dewey also expressed his "aversion…to deciding important matters on abstract grounds, without reference to concrete conditions and probable consequences." The concrete conditions consisted of one’s actual record as a teacher and scholar; the probable consequences included the likelihood of witch-hunts which would only serve to limit academic freedom for all.

IV. Conclusion

It is not easy, in retrospect, to determine who had the better argument. On the one side were the undeniable evils of Stalinism and the justifiable concerns this provoked; on the other side the widespread abuses of the McCarthy era. This way of framing the issue in terms of the empirical consequences and facts is reminiscent of Lovejoy's position, and I do not feel competent to decide the issue in these terms here. So, instead, I wish to pose the question of whether, from the positions taken by these prominent pragmatists, we can draw any conclusions concerning pragmatism’s post-war fate.

The debate between Lowe and Hook hinged on the relative weighting of individual circumstances against the probable actions of members belong to a certain group. Lowe's position was that priority should be given to the particular circumstances of a case; Hook argued that membership in the Communist party constituted prima facie grounds for dismissal. Thus, Lowe and Hook disagreed over the level and extent of context sensitivity required in this case. Lowe aimed for context sensitivity at the level of individuals, arguing that each particular case should be examined separately. Hook stressed context sensitivity at the level of groups, arguing that specific features of the Communist party warranted treating it unlike other political organizations. Lowe's position was arguably closer in spirit to that of James and Dewey: his position displayed the concern for individual experience evident in much of James' work, and the emphasis on "concrete conditions" stressed by Dewey. In contrast, Hook's position is much closer to the sort of logical argument characteristic of early analytic philosophy. To conclude, I will argue that, to the degree that Hook's position carried the day, a distinctive aspect of classical pragmatism was lost.

Hook's position had the virtue of being expressible in terms of a deductive argument: from the fact that Professor X was a member of the Communist party, and that all Communist party members were unfit to hold positions of public trust, it followed logically that Professor X, too, was unfit to hold the position of a college professor. This argument bears a striking resemblance to the covering law model of explanation: from a general law and a set of initial conditions a certain result follows deductively. Moreover, this model and Hook's argument share a common appeal. By casting the philosophical question in terms of whether a deductively valid argument has been made, it then becomes a clear-cut matter whether an explanation is successful or a professor is worthy of dismissal. Nonetheless, something has undeniably been lost in the process. Just as critics have faulted the covering law model for failing to capture the pragmatic context of giving explanations, so too Hook's argument fails to do justice to the concrete circumstances surrounding one's political affiliation and day-to-day activities.

Of more concern, for present purposes, is the fact that Hook's argument becomes indistinguishable from the sort of argument any logically minded philosopher might give. As a result, the difference between pragmatic and non-pragmatic approaches is blurred, leaving us with a version of pragmatism that fails the pragmatic test: it is no longer clear, in this context, what difference is made by approaching matters pragmatically. While not necessarily a fatal shortcoming, this result does suggest that a pragmatic philosophy which argues from general laws to individual instances, at the expense of particular conditions, risks no longer being a form of pragmatism at all.

Of course the reasons for pragmatism's eclipse are complex and perhaps beyond reconstruction. Menand and McCumber have argued that political factors played a deciding role in its fate. While I do not think their arguments have shown that such factors are directly responsible, they may well have played an indirect role. That is, the political situation of the Cold War period presented a special challenge and, to the extent that pragmatism moved away from the individualistic contextualism of James and Dewey, something distinctive was lost. As the arguments of pragmatists (like Hook) began to resemble points that could be made on distinctly non-pragmatic grounds, a uniquely pragmatic point of view disappeared. No longer standing for a real difference – the very criterion at the heart of pragmatism – it is not surprising that the Cold War and McCarthy eras heralded a grim period for pragmatic philosophy.