Code: PD - 11



The virtues and vices of conceptualizing pragmatic rights:  practical and theoretical limitations regarding rights and religion



This panel is geared towards confronting what many have pointed out over the years as intellectual deficits in pragmatic philosophy specifically in relation to its viability for making justifiably sound moral and political judgments. The litany of charges against pragmatism as a baseless and vulgar doctrine of gaining political advantage is still a bit longer than the list of works defending pragmatism against just these charges.  What this panel hopes to do is to contribute to articulating the resources pragmatism has in addressing several of the issues contained in the aforementioned litany.  Specifically, the case of civil and political rights is a special case deserving attention as its development is fairly recent in the history of philosophy and this historical character makes it ripe for a pragmatic genealogical analysis. However its historical genealogy is not carried out here.  Rather each of the papers that make up this panel focus at different but nicely complementary levels of abstraction moving, in the order presented, from the more abstract to the concrete. 

It carries out this progression beginning at the metatheoretical level of the problematic integration of Dewey’s theory of action and his ‘theory’ of religion. Specifically the role of imagination in what Hans Joas has called the ‘creativity of action’ reorients the philosophy of social science and theories of human action away from rational choice based models of human doing, towards action and deliberation that is fundamentally imaginative in character.  Thus, even the very concepts used in moral action are hypothetically, that is imaginatively given meaning through experimentation, through carrying through plans and experiments in a democratic community of inquiry.    In addition, however, there are some problematic restrictions placed upon imagination in Dewey’s A Common Faith.  This tension is real and needs addressing if the ideal of civil rights is going to gain warrant.  The second paper wants to look deeply into the specifics of pragmatic moral theory, a topic left indeterminate by the first paper.  Most importantly, this paper investigates the resources available to pragmatism for making morality more than a mere Protagorean relativism redux.  This paper makes the contentious claim that a substitute for moral absolutism is not only required by the severity of the critiques of Dewey’s pragmatism with regard to evil, religion, and moral justification, but offers an argument that the pragmatic commitment to fallibilism ultimately leads to the individual as the irreducible grounding of moral and religious judgment.  This is presented in such a fashion as to provide the necessary grounds to marshal arguments that have the justificatory teeth the moral and religious absolutists with regard to some of the most vicious perpetrators of the annihilation of human rights in the twentieth century.  The final paper then focuses upon the contemporary scene of American policy and actions with regard to the expansion and contraction of hard won rights using Martin Luther King’s rhetoric of promissory notes, payment of what is obliged, and the promise of justice in his I have a Dream speech 40 years ago as a platform for pragmatic-critical analysis of our current ‘rights’ regime and its rhetoric. By contrasting this rhetoric regarding rights and terrorism using the pragmatic notions of hope and promise, deep critical contradictions emerge that pragmatism can address with the end of concrete transformative change in justifiable view.

By moving form metatheory regarding human action and religion, through moral theory, to the analysis of contemporary political practice with regard to the pragmatic resources to engage in meaningful religious and rights discourse, the panel hopes to provide an even flow of reflections sponsoring a varied discussion and argument.  The hope is that this overarching approach with regard to pragmatism’s vices and virtues with regard to theorizing religion and civil rights will exemplify a cogently organized discussion without being too exclusive.  The aim is for a pragmatic discussion that is both engaged on the topic at hand and pluralistic in approach.


Religion, action, and the trouble for a democratic theory of rights in Dewey’s theory of imagination

Brendan Hogan, The New School for Social Research

The contention of this paper is that the role of imagination as it is delineated in much of John Dewey’s work is in need of integration.  The contentious part arises because there is an irritating tension in working out the metatheoretical cogency of his political theory and his writings on religion.  A Common Faith points to an inextricably religious dimension of democratic life, on the one hand, and an inextricably ideal dimension of community life, that is democracy, on the other.  The position taken in this paper depends upon holding two facets of John Dewey’s philosophy together, John Dewey’s writings on religion as exemplified in A Common Faith and his writings on the human action, or the philosophy of social science, as exemplified in Human Nature and Conduct, his essay "The Logic of Judgments of Practice" and the 1938 Logic. What I hope to achieve in this paper is an integration of Dewey’s investigations into the structure of human action, when action is understood in its normative dimensions- that is, distinct from mere movement and mechanical cause and effect processes- and the imagination as it is presented in his discussions of the structure of religious experience.  In order to accomplish this task, Dewey’s writings regarding the imagination with respect to a variety of elements of experience must be brought to bear.  Integrating the religious with aspects of life is not an entirely new thought and is evident in both Dewey’s writings and Dewey scholarship.  What is new I claim, is the attempt to bring together, as this paper will strive to do in a preliminary and propadeutic way, the work of recent scholarship in Dewey’s aesthetics, political theory, and social science in order to show that the imagination is the linchpin to understanding how Dewey’s social philosophy, comments on religion, and his political theory hang together.  The authors considered and essential to this project include but are not limited to Thomas Alexander, Hans Joas, Mark Johnson, and Steven Fesmire. 

However, what will emerge is that none of these authors thus far has brought out a tension with Dewey’s use of the imagination, though each is right to emphasize it in their accounts of Dewey’s political theory, philosophy of social science, and moral philosophy respectively.  The tension which I mention comes into relief most clearly when the questions of limits on the imagination are brought to bear in A Common Faith.  There we see limits Dewey places upon the grasping of ‘totality’, ‘the whole’, or ‘the absolute’.  Indeed, this is not surprising considering Dewey’s steps away from Hegelian absolutism during his philosophical pilgrimage.  However, his limitations upon the imagination and the actual force imagination has in envisioning ends, ideals, and ideal objects sounds much less like the Dewey so often biographically portrayed as having moved from idealism to pragmatism, from Jena/ Berlin to Chicago IL via Burlington VT.  In the texts I am concerned with, Dewey is not situating, as he normally does, the imagination between the flights of romanticism and the cold, reproductive and mechanistic accounts of imagination and reason that the romantics were reacting to.  It would be a grossly inadequate account of Dewey’s understanding of imagination and ideals that did not accord a central role to the constraint upon our ideals by our inquiries and their warranted results.  Rather what I want to claim is that there is a tension in Dewey’s employment of imagination in the old Hegelian sense, one that emerges again and again in the Phenomenology of Spirit but also in the first section of the Science of Logic regarding the ideal, the beyond, and totality.   of the limits of imagination and intentionality arise due to Dewey’s restriction on the imaginations ability to envision the totality.  Such limits give rise to the notion of fallibility.  But what deep purpose do these serve except as signposts of the end of the road, ‘thou has come this far and shall go no further’ in a manner reminiscent of transcendental limits?  This seems especially troubling when in other works Dewey is willing to use his imagination to engage in a hypothetical metaphysics, for instance, that poses descriptive characteristics of the generic traits of all existence. 

The first order of business, then, is to reread these limitations and this possible tension back into his theory of action.  It will be reiterated that his theory of a democratic community may not only be informed by ends that are ‘in-view’, but the question as to the character of these ends will be asked in light of their practical consequences, e.g., whether or not the ends that are in-view might be truncated and limiting, not because of any malleable limit to due to an epistemological limitation that is snuck in the back door of his ‘theory’ of religious experience. This is especially important if, indeed, democracy is to become the secular faith of a community, a view that is not too radical to impute to Dewey.   In addition, it will be offered that his theory of imagination may be lacking a prophetic dimension in the sense that the community finds the prophet speaking gibberish from the common everyday perspective of what Dewey in a more Kantian vein, calls our, social ‘frameworks of imagination’ in and through which social and individual experience not only takes place, but, and here’s the second layer of Kantian residue, is a ‘necessary condition of its possibility’.  These reflections may not wear their consequences for the theory of human action on the face of what is said regarding these seemingly scholastic disputes regarding imagination and whether or not Dewey is slipping into a mild version of Kantian idealism or not.  However, the real possibilities of democratic action and having a philosophical understanding of the potential of imagination with regard to the kinds of ends possible for envisioning within the social imaginary, and thus the real possibilities for the criticism of criticisms dealing with contemporary problems of human rights, is of the utmost relevance


 Notes on Pragmatism, Absolutism, and Civil Rights

Matthew Robb, The New School for Social Research


Forty years ago, in August 1963, the civil rights movement reached a turning point with the march on Washington that culminated in the "I have a dream" speech given by Martin Luther King.  Several weeks after King’s stirring and galvanizing statement, Birmingham witnessed one of the ugliest episodes of that movement in the church bombing that killed four young black girls.  In considering these two events, it is worth noting that both sides in this struggle were motivated by absolute, religious conviction: Dr. King, of course, was a minister, and his rhetoric constantly drew on biblical imagery to assert the justice of his cause; for their part, the Klansmen and their sympathizers frequently invoked their own interpretation of the Christian faith, in support of their wish to establish the supremacy of white Protestants over blacks, Catholics, and Jews.  Both sides, therefore, acted on religiously-based principles that they understood to have an absolute, not relative, status—to state the demands of morality, justice, and Right, not just the counsels of prudence and relative advantage.


This circumstance raises the question of how the conflict over civil rights is to be evaluated from the standpoint of the main strain of identifiably American thought, pragmatism.  And despite the reputation of classic pragmatism’s most prolific exponent, John Dewey, as a "progressive liberal"—one who was certainly sympathetic with the struggle of American blacks to secure equal rights—the issue is not as clear or obvious as it might seem.  After all, as Louis Menand makes clear in his recent account of the emergence of pragmatism, this specifically American style of thought emerged as a reaction to the trauma of the Civil War—a war that, just like its continuation by other means a century later, was provoked by absolute claims of right on either side.  In Menand’s account, the intellectual upshot of the war was precisely a retreat from absolute commitments and religious certainties.  The lesson that Oliver Wendell Holmes, William James, et al, drew was that moral certitude leads to violence; a more seasoned and mature intellectual attitude, therefore, would be modest where its predecessor had been certain, circumspect where its predecessor had been fired by righteous conviction.  In a word, it would be fallibilistic instead of absolutistic.


This makes it look as if pragmatism must fail to grasp the moral imperative behind the Civil War, and its reprise, the civil rights movement; and pragmatist thinkers have indeed been criticized on these grounds in similar circumstances (e.g. Dewey by Lippmann on the moral dimensions of World War II).


Pragmatism does, of course, recommend a fallibilist over an absolutist attitude; it forces us to acknowledge that we may be mistaken in any, or all, of our beliefs.  Nevertheless, it is a vulgar caricature to conclude from this that pragmatism can make no moral judgment about the evils visited on history by the Nazis or the Klansmen—or even worse, that for all we know, they "may have had a point."  The reason this is a caricature has to do with the status of the human individual in the pragmatist conception.  That status is twofold.  On one hand, as Peirce observed, the individual is the site of error: this is precisely why the process of scientific inquiry can only be undertaken by a community, its members cross-checking and independently corroborating or falsifying one another’s findings.  And although the community can certainly be mistaken, indefinitely, about any collectively held belief, that mistake remains a mistake originated and maintained by the individual members of the community.  On the other hand, the individual is the source of creativity and novelty in the life of the community; the insights and breakthroughs that establish new paradigms and define new epochs in intellectual history also come from individuals.


In its dual status, as source of error and of creativity, the individual is logically prior to, and in this sense irreducible to, the community.  (This priority is not negated by the historical fact that any given individual’s concrete beliefs and attitudes will be largely constituted by the prevailing mores of the society in which that individual has been raised.)  And it is this logical priority of the individual that permits the pragmatists to condemn the programs of National Socialism or the KKK: for these programs systematically and arbitrarily discounted the individuality of members of a certain group.  By contrast, as the site of both error and creativity, the individual is at the very heart of pragmatism’s fallibilistic ethos.  Thus, any philosophic or religious ideology that denies radical individuality by classifying people into general types is wrong—absolutely.  Fallibilism, perhaps surprisingly, rests on an absolute commitment to the moral validity of the individual—a commitment that Dr. King, with his dream that one day his children would be judged not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character, would have appreciated.


The Promises and Prospects of Civil Rights

Mark Van Hollebeke, Fordham University


     Martin Luther King, Jr., in his famous 1963 speech delivered in Washington, spoke of a promissory note given to all Americans by the founders of the republic.  As King said, "this note was a promise that all men would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."[i]  Great crowds came that August day in 1963 to "cash a check," King said.   They knew, however, that the promissory notes contained in the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence had been "defaulted on" for blacks.  Blacks in America had been given a bad check, but King and his audience refused "to believe that the bank of justice [was] bankrupt."  They came to the Capital to demand that "the great vaults of opportunity" in the nation be opened and "the riches of freedom and security of justice" be shared by all.  King’s metaphor—Washington a bank, holding the keys to vaults of freedom and democracy—is as apt today as when King first spoke of it.  Even more striking is how this nations leaders who still refuse to open the vaults to all of its citizens, are now handing out promissory notes to the rest of the world.  Washington is now promising freedom and democracy for all, care of the bank of America.      

     The African American struggle for civil rights in the United States during the 20th century saw victories and defeats.  It is thus possible to argue both, that legal progress in the battle against institutional racism was made, and that this progress was undermined by the creation of covert forms of racism.  Although this unfortunate actuality receives a fair amount of attention from intellectuals, a related phenomenon has not been fully thematized, namely, the relationship between the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s and the anti-globalization movements of recent years.  I will argue that these movements are at root the same phenomenon.  The struggle in the US for civil rights has become the global struggle with the US and its allies for basic freedom and justice.  Using Deweyan tools of analysis, I will briefly trace the shared historical trajectory of these two movements, connecting to both the promises (and neglectfulness) of American freedom and democracy.  This also opens up, I argue, the possibility of using the immanent critique so powerfully employed by African Americans philosophers and activists, from Frederick Douglass to Martin Luther King, Jr., to develop the hopeful prospects rooted in the United States’ growing global reach.  Finally, the continued power of this critique resides, I argue, in its nonviolent deployment, as King’s work made so clear. 

     As a pragmatic and critical look at the historical trajectory of the civil rights movement, this analysis does not share in Francis Fukuyama’s triumphalist disposition, nor does it surrender to an emerging intellectual cynicism in the face of growing U.S. imperialism.  In this sense, the prospects for critique and progress articulated here, I will argue, are rooted in a type of faith.  This is not the explicit religious faith of King and other civil rights activists that allowed their perseverance through lifetimes of injustice and even an experience of redemption through undeserved suffering; rather, it is a more natural faith in the prospects of transience, or better, the prospects of marshalling social intelligence in world of continuous change.  Thus, this paper’s hopefulness may be said to reside in a pragmatic faith seen in Dewey’s naturalism.  This faith is not a naïve optimism, but it does find hope in the face of loss and change; it is a faith that we are capable of celebrating and perpetuating those historically emergent ideals we deem worth keeping even if, or perhaps because, they have come to exist in our perpetually changing world, rather than being eternally fixed.  This is a faith in possibility.

     The high moral ideals the United States government employs to justify its actions at home and abroad are undermined when it displays a lack of concern for the material welfare of the same people it was trying to convince of its aims.  Evaluating the promises coming out of Washington today by a pragmatic criterion both Dewey and King shared, one that demands the concretizing of ideals, exposes the current emptiness of these promises.  The people of the world will only embrace the vision proposed by the U.S. when the justice and liberty it promises are shared by all in their most concrete and material forms of prosperity and liberty.  But here is the lesson to be learned from King.  He knew that blacks were excluded from the "magnificent promises" of this country’s founding documents, but still vigorously pursued the concretizing of these concepts.  This avenue remains available today.  Many non-U.S. citizens understand that Washington’s politicians use the promises and ideals of American life to promote its own interests, while at the same time knowing that, if these goals were seriously pursued with all of Washington’s might, they could become a reality.  Now that America’s reach has been globalized, now that she is perceived as an Empire, what used to be merely a domestic experience of anomie is becoming an international phenomenon.  American imperialism, in this regard, has both negative and positive potential.  On the negative side, it universalizes the acrimony created when false promises cloak manipulation and misdeed.  On the positive side, most immediately, it creates a toehold for immanent critique.  

     Jean Baudrillard expresses the negative prospect in his essay "The Spirit of Terrorism" when he writes,

The moral condemnation and holy alliance against terrorism are on the same scale as the prodigious jubilation at seeing this global superpower destroyed—better, at seeing it, in a sense, destroying itself, committing suicide in a blaze of glory.  For it is that superpower which, by its unbearable power, has fomented all this violence which is endemic throughout the world, and hence that (unwittingly) terroristic imagination which dwells in all of us.[ii] 

King was alluding to this same "terroristic imagination" when he urged America to embrace "the fierce urgency of now."  King told his country that we could no longer afford the luxury of gradualism, "Now is the time to make real the promises of Democracy…Now is the time to open the doors of opportunity to all God’s children."  King knew that we could not wait, that the "urgency of now" was fierce, because black resentment was fueling an imagination of violence and revolution.  King knew as well as Malcolm X did that there would be "neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights." Ian Buruma addresses this negative prospect, now made a global phenomena, in his recent essay "Sweet Violence" which The New Yorker magazine described as arguing "that America’s ideals and promises guarantee resentment precisely among people abroad who are most excited by them."[iii]  Buruma writes of the "special humiliation of the disappointed supplicant, that sense of inadequacy that comes from longing for something forever out of reach."[iv]  It is clear today, just as it was in 1963, that the time is now for the United Sates to bring these promises within reach.  Washington’s promises must immediately begin to manifest in material well-being, or the very people who it is counting on to imagine and bring to life liberal democracies around the globe, will begin cultivating the "terroristic imagination" Washington so desperately wants to quell.





[i] This and all subsequent King quotes are taken from his 1963 speech in Washington, now called the "I Have a Dream" speech, which is widely available.  I am using a reprint of this speech in The World’s Great Speeches, Fourth Edition, edited by Lewis Copeland, Lawrence W. Lamm and Stephen J, McKenna (New Rok: Dover Press, 1999), pp. 751-754.

[ii] Jean Baudrillard, The Spirit of Terrorism. Translated by Chris Turner (London: Verso, 2002), pp. 4-5.

[iii] Peter Schjeldahl, "Target America," The New Yorker, August, 4, 2003, pp. 82-83.

[iv] Ian Buruma, "Sweet Violence," as quoted in The New Yorker, August 4, 2003, p. 83.