Pragmatism as transition : historicity and hope in James, Dewey, and Rorty /

Main Author: Koopman, Colin.
Format: Book
Language: English
Published: New York : Columbia University Press, c2009.
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Copyright information Excerpt from Chapter 1: Transitionalism, Meliorism, and Cultural Criticism Bringing Transitionalism Into Focus A working summary of the idea of transitionalism will be useful at the outset, although it must be stressed that it is the primary goal of this book to illustrate in lush detail what pragmatist transitionalism has already done and can yet do in the future. Any summary offered in anticipation of what follows can only be provisional. Transitionalism can be described as a philosophical temperament that focuses ideas, concepts, and things in terms of the way in which they are both part of and constitutive of transitional processes. Transitional processes are those temporal and historical media in virtue of which we work through a situation from old to new, past to future, prior to posterior. A transitionalist account of truth would focus on truth as a dynamic process with temporal duration rather than as a static quality that holds either momentarily or eternally. A transitionalist account of ethics would focus on ethical processes whereby we improve our living rather than on the supposed correctness of some isolable act extracted from the transitional relations that define its contexts. Such accounts, in short, would emphasize that the true and the good themselves admit of temporal duration. One way of thinking about transitionalism would be to urge that instead of talking about certain practices as true or good, we should instead talk about them as truer and better. Instead of focusing on epistemic or moral rightness, we should instead focus on epistemic or moral melioration, improvement, development, and growth. Transitionalism as I here develop and deploy it gathers together a number of philosophically complex concepts, including temporality, historicity, evolution, development, process, and event. The concept of transitions, which I find central to pragmatism, serves as a focal point for making sense of this complex bundle. In some ways, transitionalism can be usefully thought of as a lens that brings into focus a fairly wide network of interrelated concepts and themes central to the pragmatist tradition. It might also be usefully thought of as a figure that establishes a connected coherence among a diverse array of elements. Transitionalism, both the idea and the word, is an improvisation on an immensely generative insight offered by William James: "Life is in the transitions" (1904b, 212). I offer transitionalism for the purposes of providing a generous canopy under which a wide range of pragmatists and thinkers from other traditions can gather. It might thus be inadvisable to pick out any single pragmatist as guiding my vision, lest this lead to subtle exclusions of those to whom I wish to extend an invitation. But at the same time, it is immensely helpful to pick out a name that reaches back into the very tradition of which I am attempting a revision. If I must begin by following somebody's lead, then, I think it best to follow James's. In the pages that follow, I turn to James more than any other single thinker to make my points, though I certainly turn to plenty of others in addition (most notably Emerson, Dewey, and Rorty). Although my following James could indeed lead to the subtle sorts of exclusions that I wish to avoid, I believe that it will minimize the inevitable cliquishness if only for the reason that James is clearly the most intellectually and morally generous pragmatist in the tradition. It is that generosity which I wish to invoke in borrowing from James the title for the conception of pragmatism here offered. It is through such generosity that a renewing wave of pragmatism may yet prove capacious enough to gather philosophical work from across the entire tradition and from other traditions besides. A more problematic way to court subtle exclusions at the outset would be to offer up a rigorous definition or logical account of transitionality at the fore. This way of proceeding would be quite distant from the spirit of transitionalism itself. It will nonetheless be helpful to begin by more carefully specifying the concept of transitionality. Doing so requires that I explicate without going all the way to logical or formal stipulating. Transitionality, in the sense in which it is central for pragmatism, needs to be distinguished from mere change. Transitionality suggests temporally mediated development, whereas change suggests temporally mediated difference. The difference between development and difference, however, makes all the difference for transitionality. The best way in which to state this difference is in terms of a distinction between purposive activity and undirected change. Transitionality connotes purposiveness and directedness such that change can be regarded as something more than just random or dumb difference. A conception of transitionality as purposive already places transitionality at the center of pragmatism, insofar as pragmatism follows Kant in conceiving of thought as a thoroughly purposive and directive activity. Mind for the pragmatist is act, effort, and deed. It is this active dimension that distinguishes transitionality from passive change. The way in which a boulder rolls down a mountain and the way in which a hummingbird and a human being strive toward the glory of the sun are two very different ways of transitioning. They are not entirely different, and there is much that these two processes share. But it is crucial to note that there are differences, the most important of which is the difference between development and mere difference. The boulder does not develop itself in rolling down the hill. But the hummingbird and the human being do, for better or for worse. For better or for worse? Isn't that the crucial thing? Of course it is. Everything within the vast spaces of the human heart and head, and perhaps also in the hummingbird's, depends on whether or not our purposive transitions result in definite improvements or in definite degenerations. It is crucial to the pragmatist way of thinking that we not specify in advance the particular pattern or shape that will determine whether or not any given transition amounts to melioration or decline. We cannot say in advance what success will amount to. This is unsurprising, because it means that the emergence of new futures is not fully determined by the structures of old pasts. The past constrains but does not determine the future. For the new to be truly new, it must be able to develop out of the old without merely rehearsing the old. This suggests that the difference that purposiveness introduces between difference and development cannot be strictly delimited in advance. While purposiveness, in the pragmatist way of thinking, connotes thought, intelligence, meaning, and rationality, it does not connote intellectualism, the view that rationality must conform to some pattern, method, or logic which precedes it. The very value of rationality, the pragmatist insists, is that it can introduce new differences where they did not formerly inhabit old structures. Thought must always respect the constraints of the situations in which it finds itself, but the difference between thoughtful transition and the dumb changes undergone by inert matter is that between a thought that develops a situation according to its constraints and a change that finds itself wholly determined by the past preceding it. That purposive activity cannot be wholly determined in advance suggests that transitions are a kind of neutral field within which both progress and decay are possible. This is indeed the case. The fact of transitionality, the fact that we are thoughtful beings, does not mean that things will always get better, that improvement will always ensue, or that rationality is the destiny of humanity or of the universe. Whether or not purposive activity achieves progress or depletes itself is something that can only be worked out in the context of actual transitions themselves. There are no universal rules of rationality that we can specify in advance. We can work with the epistemic, ethical, and political resources already available to us within a given situation, but there is no point in insisting that these resources are the sure route to success in every context, in every time, and in every place. In this sense, purposive transitionality and the temporal structure of practice are neutral fields out of which we can with effort develop forms of epistemic and ethical success. Recognizing that our possibilities are constrained only by the historical and temporal contingencies that shape them, however severe those constraints might be, enables us to focus on how we might work toward our futures and then actually achieve them on the basis of the resources already available to us within the situations in which we find ourselves. It is characteristic of the four pragmatists I take as the best exemplars of the tradition (namely Ralph Waldo Emerson, William James, John Dewey, and Richard Rorty) that they continuously worked to leverage their transitionalist sensibility into a meliorist hope with which they sought to turn the transitions toward which they found themselves flowing into processes of betterment. Before turning to the ways in which the meliorism of my four leading pragmatists describes the proper focal range for pragmatist transitionalism, allow me to roll out a little bit further the two ideas at the core of transitionalism: temporality and historicity. Transitionality connotes purposive change in light of the shifting circumstances of temporal and historical context. But what are temporality and historicity? I shall often use these two concepts more or less interchangeably. This is justified insofar as in many contexts these two concepts do function in more or less the same way. Nevertheless, there are occasions when it is helpful to distinguish temporality and historicity, and so I would like to offer a brief explication of my different use of these concepts. Distinguishing them in this way also enables me to better explicate how I take these concepts to function. I understand temporality and historicity as implying one another in the sense that they are two aspects of the same underlying phenomenon of transitionality, development, or purposive change. Temporality refers to the form of transitionality itself. Historicity refers to the determinate contents through which transitions occur. It follows that historicity needs temporality as its form and temporality needs historicity as its content. While temporality is the general form that transitionality assumes, such form must always manifest in particular historical contents. And while historicity refers to the determinate content of transitionality, these contents must always be informed by the general structure of temporality. Take experience. Temporality refers to the flowing-ness of experience. Historicity refers to the actual ways in which experience flows. Temporality indicates that it flows, and historicity indicates how it flows. That I have an experience of something being before something else that is after it refers to the temporality of experience. But the particular way in which this thing is before that other thing that is after it invokes the historicity of experience. Temporality captures the structural relations of transitions, and historicity captures the actual situated occurring of transitions. Transitions always take place through the form of temporality as expressed in the historicity of particular contents. Given this account of the relation between temporality and historicity, we can say that transitionalism focuses on experience, knowledge, ethics, politics, and critiques as temporally structured and historically situated. This clarifies the often puzzling relationship between temporality and historicity. But there remains another puzzling pair of relationships between temporality and time on the one hand and historicity and history on the other. It is not my aim here to resolve longstanding philosophical questions concerning these matters, but a few words are nonetheless in order. If temporality refers to a particular form of practice and historicity refers to the particular content of practices that accord with that form, we might say at first blush that this implies that practice takes place in time and through history. This is true enough. Historicity invokes the historical content that invests every practice, while temporality invokes the temporal form that every practice so invested takes on. My arguments in later chapters thus concern the way in which pragmatism enables us to focus on the thoroughgoing historicity and temporality of epistemic, ethical, and political practice. But as it turns out, this is to say something quite more than is revealed by the first-blush impression that our practices take place in history and time. For we can go further than this and say that the content of our practices is irreducibly historical and that their form is irreducibly temporal. We can say, in short, that historicity and temporality invest all of our practices with the form of real flowing time and the contents of actual flowing history. Our practices are not merely located in time and in history but are also themselves constituted in their entirety by practical content that is itself historical and temporal. Our practices not only flow through time and history but are also made up of material that is irreducibly historical and temporal. This is related to why I prefer "transitionalism" to "transitionism" -- the latter states the fact of flow while the former invokes the process of flowing in action. Best, of course, would be "transitioningism," but that word is too ugly to want to invent. Bringing Meliorism Into Focus Transitionalism inflects our practical and theoretical activity with an interrelated family of notions including historicity, history, time, and temporality. When philosophy itself is interpreted through the lens of these transitionalist notions, it turns out that philosophy is best understood as a theory and practice of hopeful cultural criticism. One name that pragmatists have used to refer to such a conception of philosophical practice is meliorism. The central idea of meliorism is that a philosophically robust conception of hope can function as a guide for critique and inquiry. As put forth here, this melioristic conception of philosophy as hopeful cultural criticism is meant to be extensive enough to function usefully across epistemic, ethical, and political contexts. The function of philosophy on this melioristic view is to engage in the long labor of reconstructing and reorienting the epistemic, ethical, and political realities in which we find ourselves flowing. This melioristic conception of philosophical hope helps focus the transitionalism that is at the heart of pragmatism. Although transitionalism is the centermost conception for the pragmatist way of thinking, the conception of meliorism helps clarify the specific value of the transitionalist perspective. I noted above that transitionalism easily appears neutral with respect to development or decay. Meliorism, by contrast, clearly connotes something valuable at the same time as it connotes something effective and workable. If transitionalism connotes merely purposive change, then meliorism connotes purposive change for the better. These two outlooks are obviously complementary: meliorism standing for the attitude of improvement, progress, and betterment at the heart of pragmatist cultural critique and transitionalism for the temporal and historical perspective within which this melioristic cultural critique is situated. Pragmatism, which is best focused in terms of this transitional perspective, is commonly summarized as offering a conception of inquiry in which human thought and action is an affair of traveling from hypotheses to their outcomes, or from conceptions to their effects, as Peirce originally put it. Those travelings in which our conceptions successfully lead us to their objects are meliorative. Whether or not our travelings are successful or not is something that must always be worked out in practice. The only general thing that the pragmatist is willing to say about them is that travelings are successful where they offer a resolution of the problems we face in practice. Pragmatism offers a technical term for such resolutions: reconstruction. Meliorism is successful transitionalism. Meliorist transitionalism is a philosophical practice of reconstruction . This is as summary a statement of pragmatism as I can muster. But such compact and glistening summaries, I hasten to remind, are often less illuminating than the grey and meticulous volumes meant to explicate them. The characteristic attitude of the pragmatist is hope. The pragmatist engaged in reconstruction is at bottom a meliorist transitionalist. Hope expresses the faith that we can make a better future. Such faith posits its intended outcome before it has arrived. In doing so, it helps us work toward realizing that outcome. That the faith of hope braces our energies and efforts constitutes the difference between that attitude and the more passive optimisms and pessimisms that insist that our destiny shall arrive, be it for better or for worse. There is, of course, no way of guaranteeing the realization of the objects of our hopes before their emergence, but there is in almost every instance plenty we can do to assist them. Melioristic hope thus suggests a philosophical practice that is both fully situated amid the transitions in which we find ourselves and rightly confident that we can, through our effort, see these transitions through to better futures. Meliorism is a transitionalism that is confident, energetic, and generous toward our prospects. When philosophy invests itself in transitionalist themes of historicity and temporality, it is best practiced as a melioristic project of reconstructing the cultural problems that we find ourselves facing in the present. Philosophy, according to the distinctively pragmatist methodology of reconstruction, is thus best understood as a practice of cultural criticism. This practice involves working toward the resolution of our most pressing cultural problems. Explicating this conception of pragmatism as a philosophy of cultural hope adds nuance and detail to the more general conception of pragmatist transitionalism that is my main concern in this book. The remainder of this chapter is focused on the crucial but too often neglected topic of what philosophy as a practice of cultural criticism might involve. On the basis of the paradigm offered in this chapter, later chapters can then explicate more detailed cases of what pragmatist reconstruction involves for core philosophical topics including knowledge, ethics, and politics. Truth in Hope In recent years, there has been an increasing surge of interest in pragmatism's melioristic perspective, as attested by an increasing number of books and articles calling attention to the role that hope plays in the pragmatist way of thinking. But despite this increase of interest in pragmatist meliorism and the widespread acknowledgment that meliorism is somehow central to pragmatism, it remains to be spelled out exactly how meliorism contributes to pragmatism. I understand pragmatism, and find it at its best, as a philosophical way of taking hope seriously. Pragmatism, on this view, develops the philosophical resources of hope. One implication is that traditional philosophical categories look different when seen pragmatically, where they are inflected with, and interpreted through, hopefulness. It is thus that traditional philosophical concepts are widely understood to be severely reconstructed by pragmatism. Yet the motivations for, and philosophical significance of, these reconstructions remain obscure so long as the meliorism at the heart of pragmatism goes unexplained. One way of looking at hopefulness, which in its more philosophically robust moments can be called meliorism , is as a combination of pluralism and humanism , two central themes in the pragmatist vision. Pluralism is the thesis that the realities we inhabit are many. As William James put it, "the world we live in exists diffuse and distributed" (1907, 126). There is no one way that things are. The world is dynamic and shifting. Pluralism takes contingency seriously by applying it to reality itself. The result is that things could always be different than they happen to be. The world is thus a pluriverse, not a universe. A corollary of pluralism, humanism is the thesis that we humans make definitive contributions to this pluriverse. Again in James's words, the idea is that "the world stands really malleable, waiting to receive its final touches at our hands. . . . Man engenders truths upon it" (1907, 123). What reality is depends on our contributions, interests, and purposes. Meliorism, holding together pluralism with humanism, is the thesis that we are capable of creating better worlds and selves. If pluralism is the thesis that better futures are possible and humanism the thesis that possibilities are often enough decided by human energies, then meliorism combines the two in asserting that better futures are made real by our effort. Meliorism, then, is best seen as humanism and pluralism combined and in confident mood. James conceptualized meliorism as follows: "Meliorism treats salvation as neither necessary [as would optimism] nor impossible [as would pessimism]. It treats it as a possibility." Melioristic hope offers a genuine alternative to the familiar pessimistic and optimistic moods that are almost universally proffered in modern philosophy. These moods share a common assumption that progress and decline are inevitable. Meliorism, on the other hand, focuses on what we can do to hasten our progress and mitigate our decline. Pragmatic meliorism thus posits possibilities for which we are "live champions and pledges." These possibilities, said James, are "such a mixture of things as will in the fullness of time give us a chance, a gap that we can spring into." This leads us to the crucial question of meliorism: "Does our act then create the world's salvation so far as it makes room for itself, so far as it leaps into the gap?" James sees no reason why not: "Why may [our acts] not be the actual turning-places and growing-places which they seem to be, of the world, why not the workshop of being where we catch fact in the making, so that nowhere may the world grow in any other kind of way than this?" (James 1907, 137, 138). Pragmatist meliorism, James here makes evident, is the view that our energies and efforts can make a definite contribution to the realities we inhabit. Our acts can change the world for the better -- and indeed the improvement of the world may itself require our work for its sustenance. It is only with our acts, uncertain and hopeful, that the possibilities of improvement may be actualized. It is in this sense that James wrote that "the pragmatism . . . I defend has to fall back on a certain ultimate hardihood, a certain willingness to live without assurances or guarantees" (1906, 124). Meliorism is the name for that hardihood and willingness -- that uncertain hope. One way of further explicating the pragmatist conception of meliorism is to consider the way in which pragmatism reconstructs traditional philosophical conceptions. This would involve showing not only how pragmatism transforms the philosophical content of our lives but also how pragmatism expresses a commitment to philosophy as a practice of reconstructing the situations in which we find ourselves. For the timeless philosophical idol of contemplation, pragmatism substitutes a transitional philosophical practice of reconstruction. I begin by considering James's reconstruction of truth for ameliorative purposes before using his work as a platform for looking backward to Emerson and forward to Dewey and Rorty. " The Truth: what a perfect idol of the rationalistic mind!" (James 1907, 115). James's reconstruction of truth radically broke from the debilitating assumption that possession of the truth places us in harmony with the way the world itself really is. This assumption renders us impotent because it authorizes an optimism regarding truth's emancipating power -- but this optimism is easily reversed by those pessimistic about our qualification for possession of truth. The common assumption of optimists and pessimists alike is that freedom is truth's consequence. This thesis renders superfluous any effort in experimentation. But pragmatism refocuses attention on the possibilities of our efforts in holding that the truth does not make us free. James's conception of truth, which he described in transitionalist terms as something that " happens to an idea," can be appreciated in terms of the meliorism internal to that conception. What specifically happens to an idea when it " becomes true, is made true" is that the idea successfully leads us from one part of the temporal and historical field of experience to another part of that field that we find improved -- "the truth of a state of mind means the function of a leading that is worth while ." James was clear that the transitions that the pragmatist refers to in terms of truth are precisely those transitions that meliorate or improve the situations in which we find ourselves. It is in this sense that James situated truth as a good, or, as he put it, "truth is one species of good " (1907, 97, 98, 42). In this sense, the what of truth and the why of truth are not dichotomous for the pragmatist. This is why James was not only interested in a logical conception of truth but was instead committed to a broader inquiry into how truth functions and what truth means in our lives. James's pragmatism thus co-locates truth as simultaneously epistemology and axiological. He offers a specification of truth, a concept of obvious epistemological significance, in terms that specify truth as a species of improvement, a concept of obvious axiological significance. This suggests that he takes neither epistemology nor axiology as prior to the other. Rather, his pragmatism indicates that epistemology and axiology enhance one another and can be made sense of only insofar as they are regarded as interactive. This deep-running philosophical rejection of the classic dichotomy between facts and values is essential to the pragmatist vision of knowledge, ethics, and politics as reconstructive enterprises. A crucial aspect of James's meliorism involves thinking of truth in terms of processes though which we free ourselves so as to break away from the classical assumption that the truth makes us free. James abandoned the most problematic tendencies of the philosophic tradition that we should want him to, most notably the idea that truth is the name of a power that we ought to hook ourselves into. Truth is nothing we can rely on, for it is not the name of a power extrinsic to human action. Truth is human action in potent phase. Truth names our power, our success, our accomplishment -- contrast this to a concept of truth as an external force bestowing its blessings upon us. It is notable that commentators have generally failed to realize the most important implications of this view. As an example of this unfortunate misinterpretation of pragmatist truth, I pick a passage from an otherwise invaluable book on the subject where Harvey Cormier explicates James's conception as follows: "the value of truth lies in its power to make the world and our human lives in it better" (2001, 28). This claim is representative of a quite typical misinterpretation of the pragmatist approach to truth that is deeply rooted in the very philosophical tradition that pragmatism works its way out of. My alternative view is that truth for James is not powerful in itself but is rather a name for our being powerful. Any supposed effectiveness commonly attributed to truth is really our effectiveness. This is what it means to take a melioristic perspective on truth. Meliorism focuses on improvements that are due to our energies and efforts. Truth, understood melioristically, is an improvement resulting from our work. Richard Poirier sounds the crucial element in this pragmatist meliorism: "James, like Emerson, foregoes any supports for the self that are extrinsic to its own workings" (1987, 196). The innovation of pragmatism is the inscription of truth within the circle of human work. This reverses the old philosophical picture of the success of our work as an effect of truth. Such continuities between the pragmatists and Emerson as that here suggested by Poirier merit fuller consideration. Emerson was long a preoccupation of James's. As a young student in Europe, James looked forward to a time "when Emerson's philosophy will be in our bones" (James, in Matthiessen 1947, 432). Nearly thirty years later, at a 1903 Emerson Centenary, James sounded the quintessential pragmatist themes of pluralism and humanism: "The world is still new and untried. In seeing freshly, and not in hearing of what others saw, shall a man find what truth is" (1903b, 455). The good that James and Emerson recognize as truth is the good of innovation. Truth renews traditions and thus neither insipidly repeats nor impudently abandons them. Truth, James would write a few years later in Pragmatism , is "a go-between, a smoother-over of transitions. It marries old opinion to new fact so as ever to show a minimum of jolt, a maximum of continuity" (1907, 35). This central idea of pragmatist transitionalism holds that melioration consists in simultaneously accepting and criticizing our inherited traditions. Melioration occurs at the confluence of old and new. At the heart of pragmatist philosophy is a resolute hopefulness in the abilities of human effort to create better future realities. James finds this too in Emerson. It is not a cheap optimism, an "indiscriminate hurrahing for the Universe," but rather a firm belief that "the point of any pen can be an epitome of reality." This democratic meliorism James named "Emerson's revelation," lauding it as "the headspring of all his outpourings" (1903b, 455). And while it may seem an embellishment to describe Emersonian tendencies as deeply democratic, I take courage for this thought in the precedent set by pragmatism's most respected visionary of democracy. Dewey hoped, also in 1903, that "the coming century may well make evident what is just now dawning, that Emerson is not only a philosopher, but that he is the Philosopher of Democracy . . . when democracy has articulated itself, it will have no difficulty in finding itself already proposed in Emerson" (1903b, MW3.190--3.191). Dewey further noted of Emerson that "he finds truth in the highway, in the untaught endeavor, the unexpected idea" (1903b, MW3.189). In this view Dewey found a melioristic conception of truth consistent with his own. Dewey wrote of truth: "The adverb 'truly' is more fundamental than either the adjective, true, or the noun, truth. An adverb expresses a way, a mode of acting." Truth, for Dewey, looks forward to consequences and thus anticipates a meliorism that "arouses confidence and a reasonable hopefulness." Dewey thought of truth in this way because he understood truth as performing a "reconstruction" (1920, 156/MW12.182). Truth, in Dewey's lingo, names a form of success in which we reconstruct problematic situations into ones that are more secure. In thinking of truth as an achievement in this way, Dewey agreed with James that "verification and truth completely coincide." The crux of the view is that the truth can for us have no practical meaning until the beliefs that may be true lead us to the realities of which they are true. Following James, belief for Dewey is "hypothetical until the course of action indicated has been tried." This is because "the event or issue of such action is the truth or falsity of the judgment" (1915a, 346/MW8.21). Truth for the pragmatist is thus thoroughly reconstructive. It names our working well in the situations in which we find ourselves by instituting changes in those situations on the basis of the resources furnished within them. It is thus that Dewey conceived of truth in terms that are decidedly melioristic. A melioristic philosophy of growth as "the only moral end" (Dewey 1920, 177/MW12.181) is emphasized throughout Dewey's pragmatism, in his work on truth and science as much as in his work on ethics and democracy. These are all Emersonian echoes. Emerson held that truth, like life, is a transitional sort of thing: "Life only avails, not the having lived. Power ceases in the instant of repose; it resides in the moment of transition from a past to a new state, in the shooting of the gulf, in the darting to an aim" (1841, 144). A world completed yesterday cannot be infused with value today. Only if the world is in the making can our acts make a difference. These and other anticipations of pragmatism are evident throughout Emerson's work. I shall consider the pluralism, humanism, and meliorism in just one essay, "Self-Reliance." Here is Emerson's pluralism in that essay: "If you are true, but not in the same truth with me, cleave to your companions; I will seek my own. I do this not selfishly, but humbly and truly. It is alike your interest, and mine, and all men's, however long we have dwelt in lies, to live in truth." Emerson does not refute those who counter his own truth -- truth is plural, there is room in it enough for all, only we must hold fast to ourselves, else we cease to live in truth. Self-reliance also connotes humanism because it involves a recentering of the soul around the self's successful creations and away from the powers supposedly possessed by independent truth. Emerson's humanism is thus this: "You take the way from man, not to man." This pluralism and humanism balance on the melioristic invocation of confidence and hope that are at the heart of Emerson's melioristic faith in our own energies: "To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men -- that is genius" (1841, 146, 143, 132). Unfortunately, Emerson's melioristic vision of what he once called in his journals "the infinitude of the private man" (April 7, 1840, in Emerson 1960, 7.342) is regarded by too many of his readers as expressing an elitist and egoistic individualism. Countering this influential misinterpretation, I agree with those who read Emersonian personality as an accomplishment not of isolation but of better worlds between persons. For Emerson, as for James and Dewey, the democratic contribution is thoroughly personal . This means that it is simultaneously individual and social just insofar as all persons find themselves simultaneously individuating from and associating with other persons: "It is easy in the world to live after the world's opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude" (Emerson 1841, 136). The kind of ethical commitment consonant with this vision of democracy is exemplified in Emerson's famously puzzling remark on charity: "Then again, do not tell me, as a good man did to-day, of my obligation to put all poor men in good situations. Are they my poor? I tell thee, thou foolish philanthropist, that I grudge the dollar, the dime, the cent I give to such men as do not belong to me and to whom I do not belong" (1841, 135). Emerson's ethical commitment is to other persons as they are in their actuality, my poor, not to other persons in the abstract according to idealized principles, the poor. So it is that democratic melioration occurs between persons, not between persons and principles. Emerson wrote of personality as "art": "The difference between persons is not in wisdom but in art" (1844, 267). Art is Emerson's name for acts of renewal: creation in relation to tradition, living new ways by breathing life into old ways. His essay "Art" meditates on this line with which it opens: "Because the soul is progressive, it never quite repeats itself, but in every act attempts the production of a new and fairer whole" (1844, 274). The old is made new: mere repetition is no novelty. Art for Emerson best captures that transitional combination of recurrence and variance. It is the production of a new whole that is new only in relation to what precedes it. Emerson's "art" is a counterpart to James's "truth" -- both flow fastest at the confluence of old and new. Art and truth are in this way understood by pragmatists as transitional reconstructions. Truth is like art in that it makes no provisions for us. The provision is our doing, our art, our hope. Truth and art are the effectiveness of human effort, not powers that inform it from some great glory beyond. Writing on Dewey's essay on Emerson quoted above, Rorty re-sounds the quintessential pragmatist theme of hopefulness: "For Dewey, Emerson's talent for criterionless hope was the essence of his value to his country" (1989b, 120). Rorty's own pragmatism similarly evinces a "willingness to substitute imagination for certainty, and curiosity for pride" (1994a, 88). Rorty offers neither bland optimistic reassurance nor pessimistic suspicion but a unique hopefulness that we can create better selves and worlds without "prophecy and claims to knowledge" but only with a "generous hope" which "sustain[s] itself without such reassurances" (1998e, 209). Few commentators stress the centrality of hope in Rorty's philosophical outlook, and even fewer engage with it as a philosophical concept worthy of attention in its own right. Yet what is most abidingly valuable in Rorty's intellectual career are not his by now familiar rails against essentialism, universalism, representationalism, givenism, and foundationalism. Important as these criticisms remain and as much as I draw from them in what follows, there is clearly something of more enduring worth in Rorty's work than his having launched the latest salvo against the increasingly insolvent cottage industries that continue to define the entire scope of the intellectual agenda of more than just a few professional philosophers. This something of greater worth emerges when we read Rorty as he recommends we read others: "we should skip lightly past the predictions, and concentrate on the expressions of hope" (1998e, 205). Read in this way, we can begin to discern in Rorty's pragmatism an expression of the hope that we can make the difference between a world sustained by our values and a world to which our values are irrelevant. Rorty thus places pragmatism in the service of meliorism's enabling mood. Describing Dewey more or less as a figure for himself, Rorty writes that "Dewey urges that the quest for certainty be replaced with the demand for imagination -- that philosophy should stop trying to provide reassurance and instead encourage what Emerson called 'self-reliance.'" The melioristic view Rorty finds central to the pragmatist tradition is the view that "one should stop worrying about whether what one believes is well grounded and start worrying about whether one has been imaginative enough to think up interesting alternatives to one's present beliefs." The same point was again put by Rorty in a somewhat different way when he wrote that "substituting hope for knowledge, substituting the idea that the ability to be citizens of the full-fledged democracy which is yet to come, rather than the ability to grasp truth, is what is important about being human" (1994a, 34; 2000a, 3). In these and other passages, Rorty gives expression to the hope that we can make the difference between a world cultivated by our values and one to which our values are irrelevant. It is basic to the vision of pragmatism I am calling melioristic that human values and interests are understood to occupy the center of our pluriverse. Concerning truth, Rorty followed Emerson, James, and Dewey in disclaiming traditional identifications of truth with emancipation: "'Truth' is not the name of a power that eventually wins through" (1994c, 226). Like the earlier pragmatists, Rorty reversed traditional formulas of truth's liberating power in claiming that "if you take care of freedom, truth will take care of itself" (1989b, 118). Barry Allen makes this point in a passage that qualifies him as a pragmatist under Rorty's influence: "Truth has no power of its own, no utopian potential, no affinity for good, and will not make us free" (1993, 182). It is an old faith that the truth emancipates us -- it is the new pragmatist hope that we emancipate ourselves. The crucial contrast is between a philosophy that preaches obedience to a greater glory that may yet subsume us and a philosophy that provokes the courage and confidence of our humble human hopes. Antialethism was for Rorty but a species of a more crucial antiauthoritarianism. Rorty always held that we do not stand in need of a theory of truth if we can get an adequate theory of justification. "True," for James, was a name for the satisfaction of felt cravings and doubts. For Rorty, this satisfaction was better glossed as "justified," but the project of redefinition remains the same. Despite superficial differences, the common upshot of both views is that there simply is no craving for truth itself taken apart from any human interest. Rorty's idea that hope may suitably replace truth rather than reconstruct it, as other pragmatists have claimed, may indeed be terminologically troubling, but more important is the broader resonance of his view with the earlier pragmatist rejection of any attempt to puff up truth as some superhuman power commanding our allegiance. Rorty was in good pragmatist fashion when he railed (as he frequently did) against any concept crediting a "nonhuman authority to whom we owe some sort of respect" (1998d, 150). Rorty's redescription of truth under the auspices of justification is best seen as his way of attempting to credit the more meliorist hope that we may improve our living by our own lights. I can now sum up my discussion with the suggestion that there is a common pragmatist meliorism running from Emerson through James and Dewey to Rorty according to which truth is sustained by our effort and energy. These pragmatists all reverse the old philosophical pretence that the truth sustains us. Their view is that the truth will not set us free -- our humble human efforts, not supreme inhuman energies, are the only forces of freedom. These pragmatists all reject the worship of truth and refuse to offer up prayers of obedience to this most hollow and august philosophical idol. They use pragmatism to refocus philosophy on the differences we humans might make. Hope is the mood in which they expect that we can make the requisite differences. This is the mood of meliorism. *** COPYRIGHT NOTICE : Published by Columbia University Press and copyrighted (c) 2009 Columbia University Press. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form by any electronic or mechanical means (including photocopying, recording, or information storage and retrieval) without permission in writing from the publisher, except for reading and browsing via the World Wide Web. Users are not permitted to mount this file on any network servers. For more information, please e-mail or visit the permissions page on our Web site. Excerpted from Pragmatism as Transition: Historicity and Hope in James, Dewey, and Rorty by Colin Koopman All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.