In the first of this two-part essay I summarized my thoughts about the sociohistorical background of that distinctly American philosophy called pragmatism.   Here I want to touch on some of the key elements of the philosophy itself, which, as will become clear, I see as a parochial, plainspoken variety of phenomenology.  Phenomenology is the philosophical study of the nature of consciousness, and specifically of our interior or “subjective” experience of navigating a world that presents itself to us as a compelling here-and-now; that is, as “a phenomenon”.  An intriguing aspect of phenomenological thought is its consideration of the interplay of subjective and objective dimensions of Being, often conceived of as two faces of a single, unitary, transcendental reality.  As we shall see, this is a view of the mind as embedded in existence, hence, as literally co-creating the very nature of a world which, on first blush, seems to exist as a separate realm of existence, an “out there” standing in some degree of opposition to what is felt to be “within” the experiencing self.

I am not a “phenomenal” writer (sorry, I couldn’t resist that); but, as an American, my main goal is to just get the job done.  So hopefully what follows will be “close enough for government work”, as my friends say.  This essay makes no claim to comprehensiveness.  Rather, it is meant to give readers a sampler of some of the key elements of this way of thinking.  Those inspired to seek a fuller picture will find the readings listed in the reference section to be helpful.  I will begin with a summary of last week’s essay describing the social, cultural, and historical roots of pragmatism.  It is somewhat redundant (though it contains some new information and insights).  If you have read the prior post and understood it you may wish to skip the following paragraphs and proceed to the subsection titled The Birth and Development of Pragmatism, With a Preliminary Look at Heidegger.

To recount the mullings in part one of this essay, the experiences of the first European settlers in the “new world” of North America generated a worldview in which abstraction, quiet contemplation of immovable, eternal realities, and the expectation that reality operates by clearly-defined, regular laws found no part.  This is due, in large part, to the often harsh conditions they faced in the vast and strange American frontier.  They landed, disoriented and frightened, in a place whose qualities were mostly unknown and often threatening; and, having severed ties with their European homelands, were forced to carry on minus the security of the social, cultural, and daily interpersonal rituals, shared understandings, and accumulated wisdom about how best to negotiate life’s challenges that they enjoyed in Europe, but which were largely inapplicable to comprehending existence in their new environment.  Lacking time or energy for little else beyond simple survival, these colonists naturally turned improvisation into a kind of art form: “making it up as you go” became an admirable virtue, embodying the practical inventiveness and spontaneous capacity to “think on (one’s) feet” that ensured, not only survival, but even the possibility of thriving, given time, hard work, and a pronounced capacity for denial of present gratifications in the service of future goals.

The ethos of a stubborn determination to succeed against the odds partly grew from, and also reciprocally reinforced their particular brand of “non-conforming” Protestantism. This was a highly conservative take on the Reformation reform of Catholicism, one that ardently clung to the ancient Israelite notion of God as manifest, not foremost in theological ideas, but in the concrete unfolding of history.  The early colonists sought to work out their salvation by responsiveness to what they felt the deity demanded of them in the here-and-now of daily life.  This work was not confined to performing virtuous deeds, but was also expressed in toiling to be become socially and economically successful in the course of one’s life on earth.  This is a definition of success that looks to the palpable evidence of what one has done and mastered in the face of one’s immediate circumstances.  It led to a credo of “progress” that was of critical emotional importance for the settlers, as they believed that worldly achievement provided evidence that God had looked kindly upon them; hence, that they were among the elect predestined to enter Heaven. Of course, it is easy to see how this radical devotion to progress continues today in the United States, albeit in secularized forms.  (See Wisconsin native Max Weber’s 1926/2013 iconic social-psychological writings for the original statement of this hypothesis, especially his “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism”.)

The Birth and Nature of Pragmatism, With a Preliminary Look at Heidegger  

In the latter half of the nineteenth century, one hundred years after the first colonial period, a philosophical tradition that came to be called pragmatism began to take shape. I am far from expert in the nuances of the origins and unfolding of this trend, though I believe I have a reasonably good grasp of its overall intellectual thrust to credibly describe it here.  I will consider only the three most famous of the first generation of pragmatic thinkers, as they are the ones I know best: Charles Sanders Pierce and William James, both at Harvard in Boston, and John Dewey, who eventually landed at the University of Chicago.  Each maintained their own intellectual focus: Pierce, the most philosophically rigorous and intellectually talented of the three, dealt with purely theoretical topics, including the factor that “belief” plays in our acceptance of scientific truth; James’s early interests centered on the psychology of consciousness, and eventually evolved into an interest in the mechanism of religious belief and spiritual experience, including paranormal events; and Dewey applied pragmatic methodology to understanding the nature of society and culture, including art.  However diverse their areas of expertise, they were united in their common adherence to the idea that our mental involvement in the world acts to actively structure its nature, and vice-versa, in an ontological dance of co-creation.

That is to say, the quality of our first conscious experience of existing is determined by the fact that our minds are situated in the world.  Therefore, our primal encounter with reality is characterized by the experience of what German phenomenologist Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) called “being there” as an inhabitant of the overarching and mysterious structure of Being (“Being” capitalized here to differentiate from entities and events occurring in the finite temporal dimension of “being”).  At this point I will turn to a very brief and necessarily incomplete review of Heideggerian thought, as presented in his important work Being and Time (Heidegger, 1927/1962).  This foray is helpful for fleshing out what I believe to be the implications of the earlier writings of the original American pragmatists, found most explicitly in James, inasmuch as they suggested in less evolved and systematic ways the emphasis upon the mind’s embeddedness in reality that grew to a mature form in Heidegger’s thinking, and that finally helped make the exploration of consciousness a central part of twentieth century Western philosophy.

Being and TimeHeidegger’s notion of “being there” is his term for the way Being distinguishes itself to limited human consciousness.  Hence, it is the primal underpinning of our experience of existing, the concrete context of our life spans, an infinitely sublime realm populated by the multitude of relations to other people, groups, and nonhuman entities in which we live and move.  This primal experience dawns on us in its most undisguised, directly apprehended forms in childhood, but it is also a constant feature throughout our lives, until death.  The singular awe of our earliest contact with the fact that we have being naturally becomes obscured as we mature and incorporate a growing array of ideas about how best to live, as we become increasingly able to shut out this rudimentary, unscreened form of encounter with Being by imposing our preformed values and goals on new experiences.   Hence, as we grow older, moments of genuine, more or less mentally unelaborated – or “naive” – openness to life’s self-manifestation become possibilities rather than irresistible experiences to which we cannot say “no”.

That said, while Being’s “thereness” can be ignored as we compile life experiences, it cannot be wished away.  It continually reveals its structure to consciousness, though we do not (and cannot) experience its self-disclosure apart from the minutia of our daily lives: temporal, maybe seemingly trivial facets of life that present themselves as figural elements – as “standing out” – in awareness for limited periods of time, and then recede into the background of subjectivity: children heard playing outside, looking for one’s keys, a pot of water boiling on the stove, and so forth.  Except in rare moments, we do not think of these experiences as expressions of Being, but merely as the small details of life in the here-and-now that they self-evidently appear to be.  Yet this does not alter the fact that these miniscule daily occurrences are in fact the venues in which we continually interface with the absolute structure of existence.

So Being is always disclosing itself to us, despite our usual unconsciousness of its presence and activity.  It perpetually “addresses” us, so to speak, and in doing so forces decisions on us.  Put perhaps a bit too simply, Being confronts us in one of two ways.  First, throughout our moment-to-moment journey along life’s trajectory, it reveals to our awareness hard, unalterable facts over which we can have no influence, although because we inhabit all dimensions of the world around us, we are still compelled to decide what our response may be to our helplessness in these moments.  Second, it also foregrounds circumstances to subjectivity that call upon us to choose from among a number of possible responses.

It is here that we experience Being as a more vital, positive vehicle of possibility.  And, again, because we inhabit Being in the meaning-laden context of our immediate being-in-the-world, by choosing from among different options and intentionally acting on these, we not only define our personal identities, that is, the forward-going nature of our being-in-the-world, but the very structure and direction of Being itself.  To explain: we may choose to divorce rather stay married; walk to work rather than take the subway; or, even less dramatic but no less an existential decision-point, order salad rather than meat when eating out.  In all of this we implicitly affirm our status as co-creators of Being, inasmuch as across time we alter some aspect of its unfolding in the “hereness” of this limited temporal realm.  This occurs because we are emanations of the Being, not merged with it, but embodying the Absolute nature of its qualities in the modified, relative context of our personal ideas, feelings, and choices.

This underlying identity between the two makes each of us a conduit through which Being expresses itself; and any change in the structure of the conduit necessarily influences and alters the nature if the “thing” (not really the best word) that is manifested through it, the way a trombone player’s judgement as to if, how far, and in which direction to move his instrument’s slide alters the sound that it emits.  Or as Richard Polt (1999) puts it in his very readable “Heidegger: an Introduction”, “…we are the site that Being requires in order (literally) to take place” (p. 30, italics his).  Hence, for example, by remaining married rather than divorcing we implicitly affirm certain aspects of our being-in-the-world which then become woven into Being’s architecture: in this example, perhaps an affirmation of, say, the essential value of tolerance, a religious principle, and/or the placement of a moral premium on avoiding the disruption to the lives of immediate family created by splitting up.  Other people around us, such as friends, coworkers, and anyone else observing our decision integrate their perceptions of our action (accompanied by their chosen judgments about its wisdom and worth) into their phenomenal worlds; and, in doing so, their own positions as transmitters of Being change accordingly.  And, with that, Being changes too.

The Birth and Development of Pragmatism, With a Preliminary Foray into Heidegger

Now let us turn to the pragmatists, whom I see as presaging Heidegger’s work in many ways.  At the risk of stating things too generally, I’ll suggest that the three major first generation of pragmatists under review here hold to a two-part proposition about the nature of consciousness.  The first is easier for most people to swallow, as it corresponds fairly closely to our view of reality as an interior image of something external to us.  It holds that we are able to comprehend and hence navigate so-called “objective” reality because it is also a fundamental constituent of our subjective, phenomenal experience. This is perhaps what we mean when we say that something in the world is “an object of thought”.  It is felt as “inside” of us; or, in the language of pragmatism, it quite literally is inside of us, not in its strictly material form, obviously, but as an immaterial correlate or extension of a phenomenon existing in what I’ll call the “world-out-there” (to copy Heidegger’s habit of creating new words by stringing together a chain of old ones).

If we stop and quietly consider our consciousness of existing in the present moment, at this very moment, we become aware of our thoughts as possessing a felt, sensuous immediacy that, to use a phenomenological term, “foregrounds” itself to our awareness. Here thoughts are described as having palpable dimensionality, synthetic inner geometry, an imaginal form, and something probably unique to human subjectivity, meaning.  In other words, our mentations have a structure that we can inspect, turn over, consider, and interpret.  This, perhaps, is what we mean when we say that something “feels real”, or that an idea “has weight” or “gravity”.  The cognition takes up residence within our minds, where it quite literally becomes synthesized into the “stuff” of phenomenal personal identity, one carrying with it a certain subjective “weightiness”. In terms of our sense of being-in-the-world, this yields the sensuous conviction that “I am”, and, further, that “I am that or this particular kind of person, in that or this certain circumstance”, for example.

The second part of the pragmatist position waxes mystical in a few of this group of thinkers, most explicitly in James, and so is often viewed as some variant of magical thinking by those schooled in standard Western modes of thought (and also by those who simply lack imagination.)  Essentially, it suggests that events in what we call “objective” reality are, in a circumscribed but actual sense, extensions of the action of the mind.  This is simply the correlate to the foregoing, more commonsense idea that the world is represented in the mind.  Such a proposition supposes that the mind is an active participant in elucidating the structure and activity of Being.  As such, in the act of perceiving the world, the mind also shapes, forms, and brings to the foreground certain qualities of the world that otherwise would not exist for the observer.  And if we assume that the mind is fully an aspect of Being, as much so as the wind, waterfalls, or birds, then it follows that any alteration in the subject’s experience and/or understanding of Being is ipso facto a genuine alteration in the nature of Being.

Simon Critchley (2005) conveys this idea in a short book entitled “Things Merely Are”, in which he uses the poetry of American Wallace Stevens to illustrate what he calls the “transfiguration” of reality through the act of imagination.  Says Critchley, “…poetry has to do not with a bare, alien reality, but with a reality with which we are already in contact, a solid existing reality, a world shot through with our cognitive, moral, and aesthetic values” (p. 53).  He then expands on an implication of this idea by quoting from Steven’s philosophical contemplation on poetry called “The Necessary Angel”, regarding the relationship of the poetic imagination to the world,  Said Stevens…

It comes to this, that poetry is part of the structure of reality.  If this has been demonstrated, it pretty much amounts to saying that the structure of poetry and the structure of reality are one, or, in effect, that poetry and reality are one, or should be.  This may be less thesis than hypothesis.  (Stevens, 1960, quoted in Critchley, 2005)

In this vignette we see that Stevens pulls his punches, suggesting that perhaps his ontology (theory of Being) may not be true; but, in any case it “should be”, as he adds in a forlorn afterthought.  But the central notion here is that, as Stevens notes at another point in this same essay, “…absolute fact includes everything that the imagination includes”, this being what he calls his “intimidating thesis” (also in Critchley).

Though by most accounts Stevens is a brilliant poet but a rather amateurish philosopher, here his instincts were quite true to the phenomenological strain in American thought.  He correctly intuited that the (essentially mystical) notion of mind and Being as an integer, and the fact that this is something of a threat, or intimidation, to our taken-for-granted identification of the ego as detached and isolated from involvement in the panorama of life.  That he developed such a perspective is perhaps not surprising, given that he was raised in a strict Protestant household in Pennsylvania, a direct descendant of the ultra-conservative non-conforming faithful, such as the Amish and Mennonites, who settled in and around his home town of Reading.  Stevens was not himself formally religious; yet, as a person deeply attuned to modernity and its loss of belief, he was uniquely able to apply a balm to this circumstance in the secular language of a poetry containing in veiled form the repressed mystical side of his religious heritage (one only explicitly celebrated by the Quakers, probably the sole non-conforming Protestant sect comfortable with this radically experiential dimension of their tradition).

Charles Sanders Pierce (1839-1914)

Pragmatist Charles Pierce

Charles Sanders Pierce was the most cautious of all the first pragmatists about the engagement of mind and world, focusing narrowly on such things as how we “fix” our beliefs, and the manner in which fixity is established and maintained (Pierce, 1877, in Menard, 1997).  For example, he saw scientific truth as the highest form of all methods of defining something as “true”, and described the psychological mechanisms by which we may progress from establishing belief through simple “tenacity” (“It is because I want to believe it is”), to authority (“It is because I am told that it is”), and, finally, to scientific logic (“It is because my reason tells me that it is”).  This may seem to be an appeal to the Platonic idealization of reason, which it is, but only to an extent.  It differs from this European-based view in that Pierce dwells on the experiencing subject’s engagement with Being, wherein the subject actively inserts him or herself into life as a being that takes in and synthesizes the here-and-now datum of sense experience, sometimes correctly, sometimes not, an act which their experience tells them will enable a productive navigation of the contours of reality.  He notes that we will generally feel at peace with how we are getting along in existence as long as our subjective beliefs enable us to negotiate life’s challenges in a practical way.  Therefore, we may attribute changes in our loved one’s moods to the actions of gods or demons, and will entertain no doubt about this as long as this assumption “works”, pragmatically speaking.

Pierce is sanguine about such “primitive” beliefs, saying that we have no right to judge them negatively if they enable the person who holds them to get through reality unscathed.  (Note here his emphasis upon the experiencing subject as the measure of the value of a belief, rather than upon an authoritative objective presence or preformed, abstract category of “correctness”.)  However, reality being what it is, eventually such a belief is likely to be undermined, for any number of reasons, and the individual is then faced with what Pierce calls the “irritant” of doubt.  This becomes the driving force for him or her to reengage the world-out-there, and consider if perhaps another explanation is better conformed to illuminating their phenomenal experience and allowing them to return to a state of peace.

William James (1842-1910)

Pragmatist William James

James, a hyperactive (and probably manic) genius, pursued the implications of Pierce’s more conservative ideas to fashion forms of pragmatism that were, and remain intellectually radical, at least in the West.  Deeply ensconced in his New England Protestant heritage, James embodied, as no other pragmatist then or since, its “can-do”, utilitarian ethos.  Ever the maverick, later in his career he went beyond the strictures of his own religious tradition, to incorporate its underground mystical elements.  His initial forays into the phenomenal world of the subject included a study of “habits”, our compulsive manner of thinking and doing things in defiance of common sense, some of which create problems for us (James, 1890, in Menard, 1997).  Put perhaps overly simply, James voiced his optimistic and very Protestant belief in the efficacy of the will to alter these.  This is to say that what we think can and does change our involvement with Being. While this may seem a rather simple idea, it contained the seeds of what was later to evolve into his exploration of the interface and mutual co-creation of inner and outer reality.

This first unfolded in his study of spiritual experience, in his iconic work Varieties of Religious Experience (James, 1902).  In this work, James cataloged and mulled over the nature of an array of different persons’ accounts of their encounters with the transcendent. Though he began his research as an agnostic, following this study he found himself giving more credence to such experiences, based on his application of pragmatic methodology: if mind and world are at base a unified field, going together like a hand in a glove, then we must take seriously the manner in which the world presents itself to any given individual’s consciousness. (In fact, James decried those who dismiss such things out of hand as acting from a logically unjustified and unscientific prejudice.)

A further implication of this view is that human subjectivity is involved in structuring the world that it encounters, thought James.  As noted above, this can be usefully understood as expressing the circumscribed but actual interdependence of the experiencing subject with the world registered consciously (if ultimately wrongly) as “out there”.  In terms of religious experience, this metaphysic allowed James to make the remarkable statement that “God is real because he has real effects”.  That is, the fact that some of us construe the objective existence of an Absolute from the dynamic operation of our interior lives is worth paying attention to. This gives some credence to the fundamentalist

Protestant notion that one must believe before one can experience the living deity: in other words, one must first shed one’s habit of dismissing things unseen, and approach reality in a more “practical” way, that is, by suppressing a priori assumptions and biases, and simply attending, in a subjective position of openness, to the interface of one’s consciousness with the world.  And then see what happens in one’s life-as-lived, minus preconceptions, even those that seem indisputably reasonable…at least as much as possible.  This is to say that the phenomenal world of the human subject is an agent of what Critchley calls a “poetic sensibility”.  He calls this sensibility the cradle of an “enlarged world of fact, an exquisite environment of fact, what Stevens calls ‘an incandescence of the intelligence’” (p. 53), one that is true to life as it objectively is, yet which also elicits life’s real but latent qualities by revealing “a world of fact enlarged and rendered radiant…” (pp. 53-54).  This is quite similar, perhaps identical to James’ notion that religious consciousness is founded on the intuition of “something more” that is contained within, but is also just beyond consciousness.  Or, as Stevens put it in his 1936 poem “The Man With the Blue Guitar”, it is an awareness of something “beyond us, yet ourselves”.  James (1912) gave himself more completely to this philosophical perspective in his description of what he called “radical empiricism”, part of which contained his suggestion that there exists a realm of “pure experience” underlying matter and mind.  Of course, one cannot help but notice the influence of the Christian doctrine of the incarnation here, framed in an implicit mysticism that rivals the Catholic theology of the symbolism of the High Mass, in which God and humanity are unveiled as being of one substance.

John Dewey (1859-1952)

Portrait of John Dewey

Finally, let’s turn to John Dewey. Dewey’s most significant intellectual contributions concerned the analysis of society and culture from a pragmatic philosophical standpoint. (He also invented the “decimal system” still used by North American libraries to catalog books, for those who care.)  Dewey (1958) described social organizations as founded in what he called “a sense of an extensive and underlying whole”.  By this he meant the rudimentary and unvarnished phenomenal experience of the entirety of a human group’s being-in-the-world.  He saw this as central in generating an understanding of the moral and utilitarian values, and the ultimate, practical goals of any human collective.  This grasp of the whole is an inner “take” on the encompassing nature of the reality of what I’ll call a group’s “situatedness” in Being; the manner in which they “fit” into it, and how it “fits” them, so to speak.

This undoubtedly sounds vague to many readers.  It is that, admittedly, but only from a subjective standpoint that prefers to first examine the details of a situation, compiles them as if mathematically, and only then proceeds to draw conclusions.  Such an “accounting” mindset is good for many things, but it does not reflect the actual nature of how we initially encounter the pluralistic, constantly changing, buzzing chaos of the hundreds of interacting factors that make up what we call “society”.  This viewpoint is one uniquely suited to life in democratic societies, like the United States, where the multiple voices clamoring to be heard must somehow be incorporated into a working whole, one that both contains and finally derives negotiated meanings and agendas from what may look like hopelessly disorganized madness to someone from a totalitarian state. Here again we see the rootedness of pragmatism in the soil of the American experience.

So comprehending the “whole” of a group dynamic is only possible when we stand back and first take it all in, letting its crazily colliding, contradicting dynamisms settle into consciousness.  Though Dewey did not reference psychoanalysis in his writings, here we may think of Freud’s notion of the synthetic nature of the unconscious, which is superior to the line-by-line “accounting” style of the conscious ego, inasmuch as it is innately able to perceive the totality of events in the world-out-there, distill them into discrete units, and then endow these with meaning.  And it is from the meanings that we ultimately attach to this mentally processed, metamorphosed perception of the total environment that we then set out moral, legal, political, and aesthetic preferences and goals.  That is to say that, in pragmatic thought, as in the United States generally, our collective direction is defined and enacted only after immersion in immediate experience, not imposed beforehand, a priori, at least when confronted by a relatively unforeseen challenge…though in the US political system even the most familiar problems can lead to fierce debate, the consequent scrapping of all that was presumed true, and eventual reconsideration of what else to do.  Like his fellow pragmatists, Dewey’s philosophy promoted a vigorous and very American embrace of uncertainty, ambiguity, and novelty: here the “making it up as you go”, impromptu ethos of “getting by” that was forced upon the colonists became a position freely chosen and given pride of place.  As Dewey (1925) put it, “To catch the mind in its connection with the entrance of the novel into the course of the world is to be on the road to see that intelligence is itself the promising of all novelties…” (in Menard, 1997, p. 230).

The intellectual debt which Pierce, James, and Dewey owe to the early American migrants’ experience, including their religious feelings, is probably clear by now.  Put succinctly, the first generation of immigrants to the New World instinctively created a world-view in which active doing, in an improvisational, inventive style, often made the difference between living and dying.  And, as we have seen, this credo lived on in the first generation of pragmatist’s emphasis upon our immediate, phenomenal experience of the world in its here-and-nowness, and the acts we undertake in the wake of this comprehension.

Perhaps a practical lesson that we may take from the pragmatist style of thinking is that what we do matters.  I use the word “matters” quite self-consciously here, to illuminate a specific idea: “matter” is what we call the stuff of felt, tangible, physical reality that holds out the possibility of change.  It is sheer, characteristically American optimism on the part of the first pragmatists to suggest that our ideas and intentions can and do make real changes in our journey through life-as-lived.  Providing, of course, that we can live through initial periods of deep uncertainty, pivoting and altering our views based on our creative interpretation of the datum of sense experience.  This requires frontiersman-like courage, a confidence in that property of mind that not only takes in the world, but also projects itself into it, in boldly innovative acts of hope…acts that cannot but matter.

Pragmatism, Psychotherapy, and Psychoanalysis

Here I will offer some brief comments on the way in which pragmatism has influenced the field of mental health in North America.  American psychotherapies are rather dominated by approaches such as cognitive-behaviorism, “positive psychology”, rational-emotive, dialectical behavioral, and “goal-oriented”-nee-”solution focused” treatments, among many others.  These approaches uniformly have a highly practical bent, or at least that is their perception of themselves.  This class of treatments for mental suffering all work closely with the patient’s conscious experience of their difficulty, and require the therapist to actively insert themselves into the patient’s subjectivity so as to achieve results: broadly defined here as the realignment of the individual’s thoughts with what is presumed to be the objective nature of reality.  Hovering in the background of this general mode of treatment we may detect the distant presence of the Pilgrim emphasis upon making one’s way in the world through a “can-do” orientation, one seeking evidence of success in palpable, objectively observable alterations in the patient’s daily life.  (This is most recently evident in the North American trend toward what are called “evidence-based” interventions.)  In this view, the patient is to make “progress”, in what I see as a secularist reframing of what the first American settlers took to be God’s demand that they be productive contributors to the world, preparation for the final goal of their telic progression through life: the entry into Heaven.

American psychoanalysis is less enamored of such a literal and, in my view, sadly incomplete definition of “progress”, perhaps because it is more influenced by strains of Romanticism (as expressed in English thinkers like Blake, Wordsworth, and Byron, and, on this continent, Emerson and Whitman), with its emphasis on life as an aesthetic exercise in self-expression, being true to oneself, and living authentically.  However, it is not hard to find signs of the pragmatist credo in its North American theories, usually fused in some way with romantic ideals.  For example, Kohut’s self psychology has arguably taken Freud and reworked his metapsychology so as to make it more palatable to the extroverted American character.  In place of unconscious conflict and fantasy as driving mental suffering, Kohutians have substituted the notion of narcissistic injury.  Their remedy for this is the provision of what they call an “experience-near” involvement with an analyst, meaning one who grasps the emotionally-deflated patient’s need to be empathically understood, seen as if through their own eyes, as it were.  Here we find a scientized re-visioning and application of the prototypically American idealization of subjective experience.  And this, of course, is exactly the central preoccupation of people like Pierce, James, and Dewey.

Loosely related to self psychology are the so-called American “relational” and “intersubjective” schools.  Though their metapsychologies are different from those proposed by Kohut, they too have steered decisively away from European assumptions of unconscious conflict as maintaining psychopathology, and instead dwell heavily on the embeddedness of the mind in its social and interpersonal environments.  Hence, this latter-day American “revolution” against perceived domination by Old World powers (read “Freud”) has elevated our tangible involvement in the world around us to the new standard for determining the correct attitude of the analyst toward the patient.  Among other things, such a theory hopes to overcome what he sees (correctly or not) as the abstractions of Freudian theory, in place of which they place the simpler, more “user-friendly” concept of the self as shaped by its interpersonal engagements.  This appears to be a rather simpler and more straightforward theory of human nature, at least superficially: hence, it is arguably one that is perceived by American theorists and practitioners as more “democratic”, more widely available to people from all walks of life and not only those who adhere to what they may interpret, if only unconsciously, as an “aristocratic”, felt-hat European model of mind.

I trust this essay was helpful to its readers.  Pragmatism is an endlessly fascinating philosophical system, and, while many academics find its premises to be simplistic, a “hayseed” way of thinking inferior to continental thought, I hope to have demonstrated its actual subtlety and nuance, particularly in its remarkable anticipation of the work of later European phenomenologists.  Please feel free to chime in with comments and/or suggestions for additional readings.


Critchley, Simon (2005).  Things Merely Are.  New York: Routledge

Dewey, John (1925).  Experience, Nature, and Art.  In Menard, Louis: Pragmatism: a Reader.  New York: Vintage, 1997

Dewey, John (1958).  A Common Faith.  New Haven: Yale

Heidegger, Martin (1927).  Sein und Zeit (Being and Time).  New York: Harper & Row, 1962

James, William (1890).  Habit.  In Menard, Louis: Pragmatism: a Reader.  New York: Vintage, 1997

James, William (1902).  The Varieties of Religious Experience.  Cambridge, Ma.: Harvard, 1985

James, William (1912).  A Pluralistic Mystic.  In Essays in Philosophy.  Cambridge, Ma.: Harvard, 1977

Pierce, Charles Sanders (1877).  The Fixation of Belief.  In Menard, Louis: Pragmatism: a Reader. New York, Vintage, 1997

Polt, Richard (1999).  Heidegger: an Introduction.  Ithaca:  Cornell

Weber, Max (1926/2013).  From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology.  London: Routledge

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