Diversity and Dialogue: The Transcultural Import of Pragmatist Pluralism and Perfectionism

Session Abstract:

Though often characterized as a particularly American philosophy, pragmatism affirms and embodies the values of diversity. It is misunderstood when construed as a uniform school or single method; it is more a tradition of dialogical exchange sustained and inspired by distinctive individual voices who share a historical trajectory and an array of overlapping philosophical outlooks and aims that display considerable divergence as well as convergence. Any American philosophy that can hope to be both true to American experience and useful for reconstructing such experience in better ways must be faithful to the diversity that exists in the American public. Race, ethnicity, and gender are crucial dimensions of such diversity, and this panel will address these dimensions. Moreover, a philosophy capable of dealing with global culture (that no instrument of homeland security can exclude from our borders) must engage diversity beyond the American continent. 

The proposed panel will not merely speak generally about the notion of diversity but will involve detailed discussion of the views of African-American, Hispanic, and Asian philosophers. Exploring pragmatism's potential for promoting the flourishing of diverse ethnic identities and cultures, the speakers in this panel describe important obstacles and challenges to the nurturing of cultural diversity but also suggest useful strategies to meet those difficulties. Pluralism, dialogue, and perfectionism represent three central pragmatist strategies that the panelists deploy.

The first paper, "Ethnic Diversity and Pragmatist Pluralism," deploys a radical pragmatist pluralism to safeguard ethnic diversity from the dangers of homogenization and normalization. While we need to speak of general ethnic identities (African-American, Hispanic, Asian-American) in order to ensure that socially real and historically painful ethnic differences are not homogenized into the idea that we are all simply, identically, and equally American, we also need to recognize plurality within each recognized ethnic group so that one dominant image of that ethnicity will not marginalize or delegitimate other expressions of that ethnicity. Otherwise, the perfectionist possibilities for a divergent individual within that ethnic group will be severely diminished, and similarly diminished will be the more-than personal fruits that her perfectionist efforts can contribute to that ethnic group.  This panelist therefore urges a double dialogue: "an intra-cultural dialogue" that respects the diversity of voices within each ethnic group, and "an intercultural dialogue" between recognized groups.

The second paper, "Du Boisian Erotics and the Ethics of Perfectionism," deploys the idea of perfectionism to treat a problematic dissonance in the towering African-American thinker W.B. Dubois.  How can one negotiate between his image as "The Great Man" morally preaching freedom for the oppressed (including pro-feminist pronouncements) and the new revelations of his adulterous and apparently sexist philandering?  We need to recognize Du Bois as a representative public figure of his ethnic group but also as an individual striving for growth and self-realization, in which eros can play a role and even intersect in surprising ways with the political.

The third paper "Affinities in Difference: Pragmatism and Confucianism," shows how these two philosophical traditions share several important themes whose recognition could promote not only better cultural understanding between the American and Chinese superpowers but also promote a dialogue that fosters more generally a philosophical recognition of the values of diversity. This is because pluralism is a key orientation in both Confucianism and pragmatism, which is reflected also in their shared themes of fallibilism, flux, and contextualism. But in both traditions this pluralism is combined with the ideals of dialogue and perfectionism, so that pluralism is not the mere toleration of existing differences but a resource and stimulus for improving our different experience and points of view.

The final paper "Experiential Diversity and Cultural Pluralism," will serve to some extent as a response to the central themes of ethnic and cultural diversity expressed in the first three papers and in recent publications that specifically relate pragmatism to African-American, Hispanic, and Asian thought.  The paper argues that the basic impulse to diversity that such recent work expresses is already strongly implicit in classical pragmatism's emphasis on the pluralistic dimension of experience, which includes both deeply personal and broadly communal moments that are differently shaped and differently interpreted in the contexts of divergent cultures.

Paper Abstracts

1. Ethnic Diversity and Pragmatic Pluralism (Abstract)

Now that cultural differences have come under suspicion with ethnic profiling, now that a post-racial and post-ethnic American identity is often invoked, now that the process of globalization is countered with the affirmation of national identities and indigenous races and ethnicities, now more than ever, a pragmatic reconstruction of the place of ethnic diversity and multiculturalism in our lives is needed. Drawing on American and Latin American philosophers such as John Dewey, Alain Locke, José Martí, and Gloria Anzaldúa, my presentation will articulate a thoroughgoing pluralistic view of ethnic identity in general and of Hispanic identity in particular. I will argue that the best way of elucidating ethnic experiences and identities without relying on essentialist assumptions is offered by a radical pluralism that we can find in the pragmatist tradition. This radical pluralism understands ethnic identity as intrinsically heterogeneous, that is, as necessarily containing inner diversity. On this pluralistic view, the unity of ethnic groups is conceived as "a unity through diversity" (Locke's phrase), and ethnic solidarity is genealogically explained as being made out of differences (not in spite of them, sacrificing them or erasing them). I will examine the critical power of this pluralistic view and how it can help us solve the problems that multicultural societies face today. In particular, I will focus on a central challenge that cultural diversity raises in the post-colonial and globalized world of the 21st century, namely: how to recognize and respect cultural differences without exoticizing them or commodifying them, that is, without contributing to their marginalization or subjecting them to the homogenizing forces of a global market.

Dewey, Locke, Martí, and Anzaldúa are of one mind in arguing that ethnic and racial groups must acquire their own voices, exercise critical control over the products of their own agency, and enjoy the freedom and necessary resources for self-expression and cultural self-affirmation. The pragmatist view of diversity they propose offers an account of how the critical reconstruction of collective experience can lead to the empowerment of ethnic and racial groups, and of how it can promote and facilitate the open dialogue and mutual understanding between cultures and races. The empowerment of the diverse ethnic and racial groups that compose a multicultural society and the genuine and continuing dialogue between them are the preconditions for justice and equality and for the flourishing of all the members of such a society.

The pluralistic model of diversity that I derive from the pragmatist tradition suggests that the development and expression of the identity of ethnic and racial groups involves a double dialogue: an intra-cultural dialogue of all voices within the group in question; and an inter-cultural dialogue between groups in which they articulate their identity vis-à-vis each other. In the first place, the pluralistic articulation of a cultural identity requires an intra-cultural dialogue of an open plurality of voices (as many as possible). Through this dialogue the members of a culture can produce a multi-vocal articulation of their multiple problems, needs, values, ideals, and illusions. But this dialogue needs to be supplemented with another one that goes beyond the members of the group. For, indeed, no group—no matter how powerful or hegemonic—can fully comprehend the problems it faces and fully determine its own future independently of other groups. So an inter-cultural dialogue between the cultural group in question and other groups with which its existence is entangled is also necessary. I will argue that we need to keep cultural dialogues as open as possible, without constraining and disciplining their constitutive diversity, that is, the plurality and heterogeneity of their voices. In other words, we need to keep our dialogues polyphonic. We have to be prepared to fight homogenizing tendencies that erase differences as well as normalizing tendencies that make certain articulations of identity mainstream and relegate other identity formations to the margins.

2. Du Boisian Erotics and the Ethics of Perfectionism (Abstract)

This paper engages the issue of American philosophy and diversity in two ways. First, it analyzes the work of W.B. Dubois as a representative of the ability of American philosophy to absorb voices of ethnic and racial diversity that speak profoundly of the American experience and do so from disciplinary orientations and perspectives (e.g. sociology) beyond the traditional philosophical domain. Secondly, it examines a dimension of life – eroticism or sexuality -- that is not often treated by classical American philosophical canon but that is crucial to American experience as indeed to human experience in general.  It uses the notion of perfectionism, as advocated in American philosophical tradition, to reconcile Dubois's erotics with his public intellectual image and political project.

We now know that W.E.B. Du Bois was no stereotypical Victorian prude. (Thanks to the many other revelation like this that we've seen in recent years, there's rather little left of the stereotype. But still.) Historian David Levering Lewis shows in some detail, and with some unease, that Du Bois the "moralist" somehow coexisted with Du Bois the "priapic adulterer". Similarly, literary critic Claudia Tate rejects the view of Du Bois as the mouthpiece for a prudish Old Guard, resisting the encroachments of a more sensual younger generation (Hughes, Nugent, Hurston, McKay, and so on). Instead, she presents him as a figure whose erotic fantasies and desires are inextricable from his political and literary work.

Lewis and Tate improve in similar ways on time-honored traditions of Du Bois scholarship. Neither gives in to what Tate describes as one of the main obstacles to adequate scholarship on black writers: the "popular racial story [that] calcifies our roles in ... prescriptive racial plots" and that subordinates "private longing to racial politics". Both try to connect Du Bois's desires and 'longings' to his politics, though in different ways. Lewis restores the historical record, pulling back the veil that unknowing or uneasy commentators had thrown over the great man's embarrassing slips into immorality and licentiousness. And Tate gives these 'slips' the psychoanalytic treatment: she shows that the "individual and subjective experience of personal desire", which produced Du Bois's sexual (mis)behaviour, also reliably created what she calls an unconscious "residual surplus," an "enigmatic presence" in Du Bois's texts.

Unfortunately, despite their attempts to undermine the old bifurcated reading of Du Bois, both Lewis and Tate leave Du Bois's acknowledgments of desire somewhat anomalous, related only inexplicably to the Harlem Renaissance moralist. Lewis's duties as a biographer prevent him from lingering too long over the question of how to reconcile Du Bois's priapism with his pro-feminist and other commitments. And Tate's appeal to unconscious textual desire to close the gap between erotics and politics succeeds most clearly in just relocating the gap, mapping it onto the division between conscious and unconscious – and in the process effacing the intellectual and historical context that might have shaped Du Bois's supposedly conflicting impulses and his attempts to deal with them.

We propose to go a step farther in the direction indicated by Lewis and Tate, toward reconciling The Great Man with the priapic goat.  We will examine Du Bois' erotics – in "Criteria of Negro Art"(1925), Dark Princess (1928) and elsewhere – not as a moral lapse or as an unconscious or anomalous effusion, but as part of a consciously avowed perfectionist philosophy.  As we'll explain more fully, we use 'perfectionism' to indicate a version of the nineteenth-century ethics of self-realization, manifested somewhat differently in Nietzsche's talk of Dionysian self-overcoming, in Fuller and Emerson's transcendentalist focus on self-evolving, and in the progressive-era pragmatic emphasis on what Gilman and Dewey, at least, often called, simply, growth.  Our claim is not that Du Bois read Gilman and the others and transposed their ideas to the conditions he sought to understand and change. We posit these models as exegetical devices, not as causal influences.  We'll argue that Du Bois's thought runs in directions that converge with these figures and traditions, and we'll use their greater philosophic detail as an aid in finding words for the ideas that he tended to marshal and endorse in quite broad strokes or in passing.

3. Affinities in Difference: American Pragmatism and Confucian Thought (Abstract)

American philosophy has in the last few decades become increasingly influential on the international scene. This new ascendancy is partly the product of America's general global prominence which includes and promotes its cultural hegemony.  China is now universally perceived as potentially the strongest challenger to America's economic supremacy. Perhaps the most important international relationship at the beginning of the 21st century is that between the most developed economy, the United States of America, and the fastest growing economy, China. Moreover, because China is home to 22.5% of the world's population and can boast very rich and long-enduring philosophical, artistic, and medical traditions that have been extremely influential throughout Asia and remain vibrant today, the importance of the American-Chinese relationship extends far beyond issues of economic interest to include matters of environment, health, science, law, security, and culture.

It is important that these cultures come to know and understand each other better, and one good way to promote reciprocal understanding and recognition is through philosophical dialogue that underlies both affinities and differences, that appreciates shared themes while resisting the dangers of homogenization.  This dialogical work is complicated but enriched by the fact that neither pragmatism nor Confucianism presents a monolithic point of view; there is considerable debate and openness to difference within each tradition. Such pluralism helps explain the vibrancy and adaptability that has allowed Confucianism to sustain its power for thousands of years, enabling it, for example, to adapt to the challenge of the influx of Buddhism by assimilating some key Buddhist themes into a neo-Confucian synthesis. This suggests that pragmatism could similarly survive through its internal diversity and openness to difference from the outside, including an openness to Asian thought.  This raises the promising prospect of a new global philosophy built on diverse cultural traditions that converge in recognition of diversity.

To promote the Confucian-pragmatist dialogue (already initiated by David Hall and Roger Ames), this paper will proceed through two stages. First, it traces some key affinities and probing some apparent differences in the two traditions. Pragmatism and Confucianism will be shown to share some basic philosophical orientations that have wide-ranging ramifications. These orientations include pluralism, fallibilism, the primacy of practice and action over theory, a deep appreciation of instrumentalities rather than mere ends, a sense that the world is in continuous flux and thus demands flexible thinking and an appreciation of context. Connected with the recognition of the crucial role of context we find in both pragmatism and Confucianism an appreciation of the larger (contextual) wholes that shape individuals and individual events. This has important ramifications for political and social theory. 

But the pragmatist and Confucian recognition that the self is socially constructed is combined with the insistent, melioristic urging that the individual agent can and should do what is in her individual power to improve herself and that such exemplary self-improvement plays a key role in helping to improve the larger society that shapes her. In other words, perfectionist self-cultivation is a key feature in pragmatist and Confucian thought, and this paper will examine their conception of self-cultivation and argue that it explicitly acknowledges and demands an appreciation of difference rather than conformity to a single ideal.  The paper will also examine the themes of tradition and science which are often thought to radically divide pragmatism and Confucianism, with pragmatism characterized as forward-looking through experimental method, while Confucianism is seen as backward-looking through ritual practice.

In connection with these themes of tradition and science, the second stage of the paper examines pragmatism's controversial reception in modern China through Dewey and his disciple Hu Shih, a reception that was initially enthusiastic but soon relegated to failure. The paper considers the hypothesis that part of pragmatism's failure in China was due to failing to appreciate and respect sufficiently the power and range of traditional Confucian thought, while also overemphasizing science as a panacea that was somehow inconsistent with tradition. If this hypothesis is correct, it should teach contemporary pragmatists to be more alert to respecting the diversity of foreign (and homegrown) traditions without abandoning the key experimental and experiential value of scientific method and falling into an anything-goes relativism. Reconciling science and tradition is a task we Americans must address as we witness a hostile lack of communication between secular and religious American culture.

4.  Experiential Diversity and Cultural Pluralism (Abstract)

The defenders no less than the critics of pragmatism all too often betray a failure to appreciate the range of this distinctive philosophical approach, both the actual scope of the historical achievement of its inaugural figures (Peirce, James, Dewey, and Mead) and the still unrealized potential of this philosophical perspective.  There is indeed nothing narrow or superficial about pragmatism, as it was initially articulated and defended in the second half of the nineteenth century and opening decades of the twentieth, also as it has been creatively appropriated and developed in the closing decades of the twentieth century and the opening years of the twenty-first.  The range of pragmatism as forcefully as any other contemporary intellectual movement exposes the limits of philosophy, especially as conceived and practiced by professional philosophers in English-speaking countries.  Pragmatism is nothing less than an encompassing discourse in which narrowly defined disciplinary boundaries are continuously trespassed, also one in which sharply demarcated cultural divides are imaginatively bridged.  Some recent examples of this kind of intercultural and interdisciplinary work will be examined, in particular attempts that focus on pragmatism's ability to engage fruitfully with remote foreign philosophical traditions (such as those of East-Asian culture) and new issues of ethnic diversity and identity concerning African diasporic cultures and Hispanic cultures in the diversity of the Americas.  This paper will explore the treatment of these topics of diversity and relate them to the classic tradition of pragmatic pluralism.

One of the most frequently quoted texts from any pragmatist is a passage in John Dewey's "The Need for a Recovery of Philosophy."  Despite its familiarity, it warrants quotation here: "Philosophy recovers itself when it ceases to be a device for dealing with the problems of philosophers and becomes a method, cultivated by philosophers, for dealing with the problems of men [and women]."  Closely connected to this recommendation for how philosophy can recover itself there is Dewey's almost equally famous insistence that philosophy in America will be lost between [sic.] chewing a historic cud long since reduced to woody fiber, or an apologetics for lost causes (lost to natural science), or a scholastic, schematic formalism, unless it can bring to consciousness America's own needs and its own implicit principle of successful action.

But a far less familiar text from this central pragmatist document than the two just quoted helps to convey a sense of the range of pragmatism not likely evoked by the more famous passages.  Near the outset of this essay Dewey confesses how "grateful a task [it would be] to dwell upon the precious contributions made by philosophical systems which as a whole are impossible."  He immediately adds:

In the course of the development of unreal premises and the discussion of artificial problems, points of view have emerged which are indispensable possessions of culture.  The horizon has been widened; ideas of great fecundity struck out; imagination quickened; a sense of the meaning of things created.

Accordingly, when he asserts later in this essay "philosophy is vision, imagination, reflection," it is crucial to appreciate the extent to which the work of philosophy in precisely this sense is aided by a detailed, sustained consideration of "philosophical systems" and intellectual outlooks not tenable in light of contemporary knowledge, experience, and aspirations. 

In "Philosophy and Civilization" Dewey suggests, meaning "is wider in scope as well as more precious in value than is truth, and philosophy is occupied with meaning rather than with truth" (or primarily concerned with meaning and only secondarily with truth).  The range of pragmatism, especially in its capacity to expose the all too narrow limits of academic philosophy, is perhaps no better revealed than by its preoccupation with the irreducibly diverse modes of human significance, especially as the modes of meaning are rooted in and thus outgrowths of various contexts of human experience. In today's world some of the most important contexts concern intercultural exchange and the complex processes in and through which ethnic identities are established and sustained and issues of international understanding and conflict are resolved.

The essays I will critically address will be shown to be exemplifications of the diverse and fruitful ways in which questions of meaning (experiential meaning ordinarily of a deeply personal and yet broadly communal character) have been posed and pursued by contemporary pragmatists who are seeking not simply to preserve but renew and expand the pragmatist pluralist tradition.

In "How to Make Our Ideas Clear," C. S. Peirce proposed a maxim by which we might attain mastery over our meanings in the rather narrowly defined context of experimental inquiry.  But, as his own manuscripts illustrate and his theory of signs helps to explain, meanings migrate and signifiers shift, discursive contexts are inevitably transformed and inherited symbols radically transfigured.  The pragmatic meaning of pragmatism itself is, thus, one with the irreducibly diverse forms of meaning to which pragmatic thinkers are ineluctably drawn, in their efforts to make fuller and finer sense out of human experience in its significantly different guises.