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J. C. Levenson


E Pluribus Unum?

Winter 2002 | Criticism

Pragmatism was once called America's philosophy. The pragmatic cast of mind was practical, even-tempered, experimental, effective. These qualities were ascribed to Americans generally, and the reading public that accepted the description were glad to be identified with the philosophers who, in Louis Menand's words, "were more responsible than any other group for moving American thought into the modern world," But the simplifications of half a century ago did not last, if only because American self-awareness took a different turn. By the end of the 20th century words like polarization or diversity had become much more common than consensus or national character. Although a pragmatist revival was well under way in the academic world, it was one school among a diverse lot and the original movement seemed remote. In the 1990's Alan Ryan's John Dewey and the High Tide of American Liberalism suggested by its very title that Dewey's tide was out, and John Patrick Diggin's The Promise of Pragmatism argued that the promise was unfulfilled because of intellectual and moral limitations that had been there from the outset. Now, after so much has changed, and taking the changes into account, Louis Menand revisits historical pragmatism in a work of fresh and powerful scholarship. Far from oversimplifying, he presents pragmatism by focusing on the four great founding figures, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., William James, Charles Sanders Peirce, and John Dewey. He does justice to theconnections among them. Among these he puts first their common belief that ideas are not representations of ideal entities but are best thought of as instruments for learning more about the world. He presents them with all their differences, too. He gives the book its remarkable breadth by relating their work, not to the supposed character of Americans in general, but to specific (and therefore different) contexts of popular thought and public events. The four heroes of his book, individually and in their settings, bring alive the pragmatist idea of pluralism.