(This is the first of a two-part essay originally posted as a contribution to a weekly feature on philosophical topics in psychoanalysis, on the Facebook group Psychoanalysis & Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy, April 9th, 2018.)

The philosophical school called pragmatism is the sole contribution of the United States to world philosophy.  Perhaps as no other philosophical system in history, it is one that springs almost directly from the daily lives of the most ordinary of people: specifically, from the concrete struggles, dilemmas, and acquired skill at devising immediate, impromptu solutions to the challenges of frontier life evidenced by the first European colonizers of this continent.  As I will argue, this highly extroverted, action-oriented ethos has trickled down into the later formation of American pragmatic philosophy, and, from there, into certain stereotypical “American” understandings of human nature, emotional suffering, and its treatment by psychotherapists, including analysts.

To be clear, I see these developments as having occurred for both good and ill.  Although I prize my United States citizenship, I am not blind when it comes to understanding the often downright ugly dimensions of our devotion to the values I will enumerate here. That said, I’d like to request that readers refrain from posting replies to this essay whose sole agenda is to deconstruct and critique the – to me, obvious – cruelties and problems of U.S. social policies and institutions.  If you have such criticisms in mind, they are quite welcome, but please try to thoughtfully weave them in to a larger conversation about the philosophical issues that are our central concern.

I chose to present my own “take” on this topic in two parts.  In this first part, I want to briefly describe the unique sociohistorical circumstances within which the United States was founded as a nation.  This is an essential prelude to the second and final part of this essay, to be posted subsequently, in which I will describe the way in which this history has informed philosophical thought on this continent.  Following this, I will describe how our unique national origins created values that now underlie the metapsychological principles of certain important North American psychoanalytic theories – that is, the basic assumptions about human nature informing their different treatment approaches.

The Early Colonial Experience

Early Map of New England, 1703

As one of the youngest nations on earth, the United States is also uniquely and unavoidably lacking in that sense of being rooted in the ancient flow of history that people in other lands simply take for granted.  Five hundred years ago native peoples in North America looked on – perhaps quizzically at first; then, later, in terror of their lives – as strangely overdressed people with blanched skin began arriving on their shores.  The first European settlers to this continent were largely “non-conforming” Protestants, what today many of us would likely call a group of socially-alienated, right-wing fundamentalists.  Not just Protestants, but Protestants who saw themselves as the most pious of all Protestants, selected by the deity to exemplify life lived according to scripture.   What they saw as the unsparing purity of their religious ideals is referenced in the moniker by which many of them came to be known: Puritans.  They were defiant of both worldly and ecclesiastical authority, both of whom they saw as decadent…and whose disapproval had, unsurprisingly, led to their having been shown the proverbial door to the first ship heading out to sea.  The non-conforming Protestants’ understanding of life lived according to the Almighty’s will expressed itself in their highly conservative social values and presentation, which the saw as fulfilling God’s mandate to be humble, and singularly stoical valuing of hard work, an aspect of their belief that the attainment of material success in this world signified their inclusion among those whom God had preordained to enter Heaven.

Even prior to departing Europe, the resolve of these defiant devotees to “come out from among them”, as scripture exhorts, had already caused them to sever psychological ties to many of the traditional historical values and social narratives upon which, for millennia, their neighbors had relied to provide a sense of identity.  These colonist’s first encounter with the vast and strange American wilderness must have driven home their sense of rootlessness as nothing else could.  Like the migratory children of Israel with whom they deeply identified, the first Protestants in North America had lost all established mental or social “road maps” to which to refer for a sense of how to grasp the import and potential outcomes of events in their new lives, and how best to respond to these.

Plymouth, Massachusetts, 1622, W.L. Williams
Detail, “Plymouth in 1622”, W.L. Williams (1901)

Some scholars, such as William Dean (2002), suggest that in this lonely experience, bereft of any clear sense of how to anticipate and react to reality, lay the seeds of the uniquely American school of philosophy known today as pragmatism.  Specifically, the colonists instinctively began to develop a highly practical working philosophy of life, this being a simple matter of survival, and did so minus the usual, ancient sociocultural landmarks, enshrined understandings, and other reliable traditions that human groups look to for guidance.  Hence, this working philosophy was one founded on a credo of “making it up as you go”.  Close attention to changes in the external worlds of nature and interpersonal relationships, upon both of which the settlers were heavily dependent, were paramount in this stance toward life.  Here too is the origin of what today is recognized as Americans’ characteristic embrace of innovation, and creative adaptation to circumstances.

The Puritan Legacy in Modern America

Hundreds of years after the colonial period, Americans continue to base their lives around the simple criteria of what does, or does not work in a concrete, immediate sense, to further adaptation to the environment.  This is a worldview founded upon action, and American English is shot through with slang and aphoristic expressions of this collective ideology: “go for it”, “give it to me straight”, “turn on a dime”, looking for “a pay off”, and so on. Or, as any waiter in a Chicago restaurant will ask you toward the end of your meal, “Are ya still working on that?”, meaning “Are you finished eating?”.  (Note the action-orientation implied in this seemingly friendly, plainspoken question: one doesn’t eat, one works at eating, since, after all, one can’t be still for a moment. There are things to be done.)  Look at the license plate of a car registered in the American state of Missouri.  Along the bottom one sees Missouri’s official nickname: “The Show Me State”, referring to an old yarn about a taciturn farmer’s two-word comment to a salesman who tried to sell him a tractor that he claimed was the very best around.

Anyway, that was fun.  But, to draw conclusions: the foregoing has led to a nation consumed with doing, and a preoccupation with reliance upon immediate sense datum as possessing the most valid and reliable criteria for determining how best to live.  The first American pragmatists, such as Charles Sanders Pierce (1839-1914), William James (1842-1910), and John Dewey (1859-1952), created a system of interpreting reality that grows directly from this credo.  They radically reframed the philosophical quest, dismissing abstract descriptions of, say, truth as an emanation of the immaterial “forms” of “eternal ideas”, or of static “categorical imperatives” considered universally valid for all people at all times.  In place of these European ethical and ontological views they substituted definitions of truth as that which “works” to forward one’s practical adaptation to reality.  That is, faced with understanding the meaning of a given phenomenon, they stopped asking “What is it?”, a question they deemed largely irrelevant to life in the challenging here-and-now, and instead asked “What does it do?”.  Associated with this turn toward the concrete datum of subjective experience was a renewed and very American emphasis on the ultimate authority of personal experience.

So insistent were the first pragmatists on this latter point that someone like James posed baffling postulates that, as he wrote, “God is real because he has real effects”, “Belief creates the actual fact”, and, somewhat less baffling, that a difference that is based on word-labels is not a real difference.  That is to say, the experience of the individual, in the lived phenomenal tumult of his or her daily life, became the new standard for assessing how and what we call “true”, and for how we should then act.  Pragmatism is often accused of being superficial and overly, sometimes ridiculously literal.  This is a fair critique, though, as we will see next week, the first pragmatists and those who later followed their methods (such as Harvard professor and African-American activist Cornel West) appear more intellectually simple than is actually the case.  Trust me on this.

Though America did not devise empiricism, it has turned empirical methods into a veritable cult of people who have difficulty understanding questions of value that do not refer to the “usefulness” of a given way of conceiving reality; with “usefulness” too often defined along the lines of a crude utilitarianism, one whose vision of existence is hemmed in by the inability to see the worth of anything beyond that which forwards increased control over the natural world, including the mind’s organic rhythms.  In the field of psychotherapy, the most prominent example of this is the recent fascination with so-called “evidence-based” interventions.  While American psychoanalysts have thankfully remained aloof from this trend, the emphasis on immediate, here-and-now experience has found its way into its models of human nature in other, more subtle ways…again, as we shall see in this essay’s second and final installment.


Dean, William (2002). The American Spiritual Culture and the Invention of Jazz, Football, and the Movies. New York, NY: Continuum International Publishing

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