Code PD-7

I.  Submission Type:  Panel

II.  Title:  Meaning, Embodiment, and Practice:  New Directions in Pragmatism

III.  Abstract (for Panel and for its Individual Panelist Presentations)


Overall Panel

            This panel session explores the theoretical connections and the practical implications of three recent original books that seek to draw on, advance, and transform pragmatism:  Robert Innis’s Pragmatism and the Forms of Sense:  Language, Perception, Technics (Penn State University Press, 2002); Richard Shusterman’s Surface and Depth:  Dialectics of Criticism and Culture (Cornell University Press, 2002); and, John J. Stuhr’s Pragmatism, Postmodernism, and the Future of Philosophy.  These books draw on pragmatism (and other American philosophical traditions) in different ways and for different purposes, but their concerns overlap in sufficiently substantial ways so as to form a plural variety of perspectives on the issues of meaning, embodiment, and practice, as well as the implications of these matters for pedagogy and personal life. 

            As such, this panel session is modeled on a highly successful and popular "authors meet author" session at a SAAP conference a few years ago.  At that time, in an experimentalist outlook, the format was something of an experiment and something that fell between the cracks of the various standard SAAP sessions (individual paper, panel, book session, and so on).  Now, however, it is a proven success.  And, as such, this panel, like many sessions at the annual meetings of groups such as the Society for Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy, the International Philosophy and Literature Association, and the Society for Political Theory and Philosophy, seeks to bring multiple voices to bear on new work in the field—not simply as a review of that work but as an extended critical analysis and genuine furthering of thought from plural perspectives.  As such, the session seeks to "perform" some of the deepest commitments of SAAP.

            Implicitly, the subject of the panel concerns new directions and intersections in American philosophy.  In this vein, the spirit of the panel is Emersonian and Jamesian.  Explicitly, the subject of the panel concerns issues of meaning (signification, perception and experience, and the use of tools, but also taste and temperament), embodiment (physicality, art and style, and criticism, but also critique of technology and naturalization of transcendence), and practice (the meaning of a philosophical life, the extent of pluralism, and the demand to reconstruct and apply tradition, but also the role of fundamental forms and irreducible dialectical interplay).  These issues clearly are not the private property or sole concern of pragmatism:  They are central also in movements as diverse as feminism and personalism, phenomenology and Christianity, and postmodernism and critical race theory.  This session, like the books that form its point of departure, aims to illuminate and deepen these kinds of connections. 

            Accordingly, the focus of the panel is ultimately on three clusters of inter-related issues:  1)What is the nature of meaning, how are meanings made, and what are the forms or structures of meaning?  How are perception, conception, and action linked?  To what extent are these activities descriptive and to what extent are they evaluative or normative?  In what ways is the making of meaning an art?  What are the social structures and conditions that make possible, nourish, retard, or squash this practice?

            2)What is the embodied nature of meaning makers?  In what ways to individual embodiment and the art of the body meet social embodiment and the logics of culture and formations of selves?  What place is there in this embodiment for notions and experiences of transcendence and depth?  What is the relation between philosophy and the arts, particularly if one takes seriously the cultural situatedness and embodiment of human beings?  In what ways to philosophy, the arts (including literature), and politics converge or remain apart?

            3)To ask this question is to ask what it means to live philosophically—again, as an individual and as a culture.  In what was is wisdom, or even the love of wisdom, a matter merely of immanence or, instead, of transcendence?  In what ways do political, economic, religious, and other cultural formations provide both the limits of philosophy but also its subject matter?  In what ways, for example, is a particular constitution of philosophy related to matters of racial equality or international human rights or world health and economic well-being?  What if anything in the end is pragmatic about pragmatism, and how is this compatible with its commitment to pluralism and difference?  What, is it to be a pragmatist or an "American" philosopher today in a world in which most persons do not profess, practice, or strive to profess or practice, pragmatism or "American" philosophy?

            These issues run through the three books that provide a starting point for this panel.  They are taken up in detail as explained in the individual abstracts below.  In this context, finally, it is worth noting simply that these are not simply three papers that may suggest connections to their audience; instead, they are three perspectives, worked out in consultation for this particular purpose, on a set of common topics.  


Panelist One:  Meaning, Art and Politics:  ‘Seeing connections’ in thoughtful living and lifeful thought is exemplified in the philosophical enterprises undertaken by Richard Shusterman and John Stuhr not just in their most recent books (Surfaces and Depths and Pragmatism, Postmodernism, and the Future of Philosophy) but also in their antecedents. They are not only continuing the inner intellectual trajectories of the pragmatist tradition, in all its variety of emphases and temperaments, but are actually practicing, philosophically and non-philosophically, what they preach.      

What they are doing first of all is placing or locating the practices of philosophy. While Shusterman most wants to locate the points of intersections between art, or more broadly the aesthetic, and philosophy, Stuhr, for his part, wants to locate the deep lines that bind the ‘philosophy of politics’ with the ‘politics of philosophy’—in the broadest senses of those terms. While the aesthetic dimension governs the range of Shusterman’s concerns, it is the political dimension that governs Stuhr’s. Both are concerned with the individual and social ordering of life and with transfiguring, potentiating, and validating the meaning-structures of immanence, the manifold senses of life.

Both in their actual practices and in their methodological and substantive reflections Shusterman and Stuhr propose and defend, albeit in rather different registers, a set of cognate, intertwined, but by no means identical theses about the flexible ranges of fundamentally multifocused ‘pragmatist’ philosophies. They are extraordinarily provocative and engaging.  Faced with a richness of possible issues, I will focus my reflections on, or ‘rotate,’ the following three closely, indeed essentially, interlinked topics.

First, what is the relation between the descriptive and the normative sides of their projects? Shusterman claims to be offering us a "rich menu"—certainly a descriptive notion—along with a "critical guide"—certainly a normative undertaking. From what standpoint, then, and for what end or ends, does Shusterman use such notions as ‘marginal’ and ‘traditional’ art forms, ‘high’ and ‘low’ art forms, or the notion of ‘aesthetic decline?’ What kind of work do, or can, they do? Stuhr, for his part, following Dewey’s lead, thinks of philosophy as fundamentally criticism: political criticism, social and cultural criticism, religious criticism, self-criticism. Stuhr, however, does not just want to engage us in reflection, he wants to lead us on to democratic practices, just as Shusterman wants to open us to new aesthetic practices. So, the descriptive/normative polarity is matched by a theory/praxis polarity. Put another way, their projects display a fine interlinking of constructive, deconstructive, and reconstructive moments. What can we learn here?

Second, what is the connection between pragmatism and the very notion of postmodernism, a category that tinges their approaches? Shusterman and Stuhr alike want to combat exclusionary practices codified by ‘modernism’: primarily aesthetic practices (in the broadest possible sense) for Shusterman and political/cultural practices for Stuhr. There are remarkable parallels between their motivations for proposing inclusionary practices. The motivation comes from the conceptual heart of pragmatist philosophy, its protean idea of experience. One could ask, nevertheless, about the conceptual ultimacy of the distinction or contrast between modernity and postmodernity and its network of notions and implications. Is pragmatism alone an adequate philosophical resource for specifying and criticizing the experiential consequences of the putative shifts attendant upon the material side of the ‘postmodern turn,’ assuming such a turn has actually occurred in the ‘real’ world and not just in the heads of critical theorists? Here Shusterman and Stuhr really force us to think.

Third, Shusterman and Stuhr offer deep existential advice about the disciplines of living, about the art of life.  For Shusterman we have the development of a somaesthetics, which affirms and cultivates our radical embodiment, and for Stuhr we have a philosophy that culminates in a radical critique of transcendence and in the proposals of distinctively ‘this worldly’ life practices. What can we take from these books about how to live, both on life’s surfaces and in its depths, if not on its heights?


.2.  Panelist Two:  Embodiment, Transcendence, and Immanence:  Because pragmatism has been famously defined as a forward-looking philosophy, there is an understandably irresistible urge to pose the questions of where it is currently going and where it should be directed to go further in the twenty-first century. What issues call for or reward the most careful philosophical attention?  Which of pragmatism’s historical figures and which of their theories would prove most useful for our current problems and inquiries? Which traditions and philosophers outside the pragmatist fold could provide particularly helpful conceptual resources and rewarding dialogue for today’s pragmatist problematics? Indeed, one might ask a more radical question. As a forward-looking philosophy, to what extent and in what way does pragmatism even need to take its own specific past and that of other philosophical traditions seriously?  This paper will consider these questions by a comparative examination of two very recent and noteworthy books by two distinguished SAAP members: Robert Innis’s, Pragmatism and the Forms of Sense: Language, Perception, Technics (Penn State University Press, 2002) and John Stuhr’s Pragmatism, Postmodernism, and The Future of Philosophy (Routledge, 2002).

Besides their other merits, these books provide useful probes into the rich complexity of contemporary pragmatism because they are strikingly different in several important ways. One’s first reading of these books might suggest that they are even in fundamental dissonance with respect to issues of topic, aims, methodology, and tone. After outlining some key differences of these books, I will then try to explain these differences in terms of the complex pluralism of the pragmatist tradition and will also try to show some deeper similarities that underlie their different pragmatist approaches. I will conclude by attempting to draw some lessons from their books that can help me address the problems and limitations of my own efforts to develop and extend the pragmatist tradition. In this abstract, however, I’ll concentrate on setting out the differences between these two admirable books.

Robert Innis’s book is devoted to a very careful, detailed study of crucial and very general semiotic structures that generate our sense-making activity in perception, in language, and in the use of tools. His study, as he puts it, is devoted to "exploring and attempting to justify, pivotal forms of sense about the forms of sense". Innis is especially concerned with a "from-to" structure of perception that is incorporated into all our perception and that is likewise reflected in our use of language and tools. The roots of making sense are thus traced to the basic semiosis of perception as grounded in basic embodied experience.  Just as embodiment fundamentally shapes our perception, so our language and technics (which both involve perception) are similarly somatically molded and function as probes that extend the realm of our embodied experience and powers.  Though Innis draws heavily on the concepts, insights, and arguments of Peirce and Dewey, he is equally concerned with resurrecting and utilizing the ideas of past European thinkers. Innis distinctively does not concentrate on the most recent and trendy exemplars of European thought, but instead focuses his attention on older figures like Cassirer and Polanyi who rarely figure in contemporary pragmatist discussions, and also theorists such as Bühler. Wegener, and Vailati who have been virtually forgotten by American philosophers. Innis explicitly recognizes and thematizes this philosophical methodology as "historical retrieval with systematic and theoretic intent."  His book is indeed a fine exemplar of creative philosophical reconstruction and synthesis. Innis is a systematic philosopher who is interested in determining or explaining very general features of our experienced world (such as semiotic embodiment and intentionality of consciousness) that could be claimed to be invariant, "permanent", or "universal".  In his account of human existence as semiotic and tool-using, he enlists notions of spiritual power and transcendence that guide our efforts of interpreting, of making sense beyond what is imminently given or present. As Innis’s program aims at systematic analysis and synthesis of basic structures or frames of meaning, so his tone – perhaps in intentional contrast to the rhetorical excesses of some famous poststructuralist semioticians -- is avowedly very sober.

John Stuhr’s fine new book presents a vivid contrast to most of the features I have outlined in characterizing the book of Innis.  Rather than focusing on invariant features or permanent universals, Stuhr is keen to emphasize change, not simply as an ontological given but as an ethical injunction. Today’s pragmatists, he urges, should "think differently and live differently from pragmatists in the past." If Innis is primarily concerned with fundamental issues in philosophy of perception, language, and action, Stuhr’s main focus is ethics and social, political, and cultural criticism. While Innis devotes his main efforts to the analysis and justification of key general frameworks of interpretation or universal schema of sense-making, Stuhr’s most powerfully voiced message is a much more personal and political one. We have to change ourselves and our society by resolutely thinking differently and actively living in new and better ways.

Given his urgent message of ethical and social reform, Stuhr forsakes the typical style of Anglo-American philosophy. In contrast to the measured, sober tone of Innis, Stuhr’s is one of exhortatory passion - - brash, sweeping, and impatient of minor nuances and qualifications that make up so much of the texture of academic philosophy. In contrast to Innis’s commitment to historical retrieval, Stuhr insists (after Emerson) that we need to think much less of the past in order to think beyond it. Stop chewing "the historic cud", he urges, and "think and live forward. Think and live prospectively instead of retrospectively" which means also going beyond our favorite thinkers and their interpretations. Though Stuhr also deploys European philosophers, they are the more contemporary, radical, political, and subversive voices of Adorno, Deleuze, and Foucault. Finally, whereas Innis is willing to deploy the concepts of transcendence and spiritual power to explain our semiotic and tool-making activities, Stuhr fiercely rejects these two familiar though polysemic philosophical concepts, insisting, in his bold concluding chapter, on "life without spirituality, philosophy without transcendence".

After expounding these contrasts in greater detail, my paper will try to explain the different approaches of Innis and Stuhr in terms of the pluralistic tradition of pragmatism. Though seeking to uncover significant convergences that underlie their differences, I will also try to assess how the intractability of their differences reflects more general problems that threaten contemporary pragmatist thinking, my own included.


Panelist Three:  Practice, Semiotics, and the Limits of Philosophy

            Emerson famously wrote that each generation must write its own books or, rather, the books for the next generation.  Pragmatism is committed to this task, but how can it be accomplished given pragmatism’s commitment to pluralism (the books that speak to one person may not address or be alive or be instrumental for another person), time (change and precariousness are basic, and it is folly to pretend to have a crystal ball), and practice (the recognition that because beliefs are habits of action that we write our philosophies in our actions everyday as we determine what to do or not do and what sort of person to be)?

            In their illuminating and genuinely original new books, both Robert Innis and Richard Shusterman provide substantial resources for this question.  Innis presents us with a tour de force of scholarship—a book that draws on figures familiar to members of SAAP as well as European authors too often at the margins (or beyond) of the profession and its canons today.  He develops an account of the nature, scope, and consequences of systems of signs and systems of tools—and of the ways in which their forms are embodied in perception while also being embodied forms of perception.  What is most distinctive and, I think, most important here, is Innis’s understanding of the ways in which meaningful perception saturates language and tools while, at the same time, they seep through and constitute perception.  (Innis sometimes says they "distort" perception but I think the notion of constituting perception and its meanings is more consistent with his overall project.)

Now, to what extent do these twin processes have "forms?"  In turn, to what extent are these forms specific to particular historical periods or cultures?  And, in what ways, if any, is it meaningful to talk about some of these processes as resulting in language and tools that are better than other language and tools?  I will argue, generally with Innis but at times reading him against himself, that Innis presents us with an opportunity to understand semiotics as politics, and that his more specific cultural analyses exemplify the Deweyan notion of philosophy as cultural criticism.  Post-metaphysical, anti-foundational, anti-representational philosophers frequently are confronted with the charge that such criticism, on their own terms, can have no basis.  Innis, I argue, provides a way to locate this "basis" in the meanings immanent to our languages and tools.

This account of the making of meaning and the meaning of making goes hand in hand with the account that Richard Shusterman develops of the "depth" of aesthetic experience—the cultural context that makes possible and shapes the aesthetic experience itself.  Shusterman seeks to hold together or to connect dialectically this depth with the "surface" appreciations and sufferings, the experienced undergoings, that are the aesthetic dimension of experience.  By refusing to look past the depths as he looks at the surfaces, Shusterman highlights the role of practice—of history, politics, economics, religion, war, oppression—in our experiences, values, and meanings.

Near the close of his book, Shusterman develops an account of art as dramatization.  Because of the ways in which he understands philosophy itself as an art, as a life practice, this suggests that philosophy too might be understood profitably as a dramatization.  This raises obvious normative questions—what, for example, is a good drama?  Is James or Anselm or Carnap the Shakespeare of philosophy?  But it also raises, or can be pointed to raise, key political, practical questions about the dramas that are our lives—who for example, plays what role, and what other persons are consigned to what other roles?  Are there dramas that should be re-written—for example the drama of civil rights (or the lack thereof)?  And, how might characters who are in—or who are—a drama rewrite them while they are underway?  (Here Shusterman’s account of the limits of philosophy—in another chapter near the book’s end—is particularly enlightening.)  In short, the issue here concerns the place of justice and injustice in the practices that are the depths of aesthetic experience, the depths of criticism and culture.  In this context, drawing on Shusterman’s notion of dialectics (and the semiotic of Innis), I will urge an account of justice that is ultimately political rather than aesthetic.  In doing so, I will be concerned to stress the ways in which this account supports, and in turn is supported by an understanding of philosophy as cultural criticism.