Is “American Philosophy” an Endangered Area of Specialization?


Is American Philosophy in jeopardy as an area of study in the profession of philosophy today? Gregory Pappas, professor of philosophy at Texas A & M and president of the Society for the Advancement of American Philosophy (SAAP) is concerned that it is.

Worrying that American Philosophy is an “endangered species,” he writes (in a comment he sent in):

Recent deaths and upcoming retirements of full professors in American philosophers, and lack of job openings in the area, have left me wondering if we are headed to a crisis of American philosophy in the USA.

He notes that despite expanding the canon of American Philosophy—the SAAP description of it includes not just American pragmatism, American idealism, American naturalism, American transcendentalism, and process philosophy, but also “collaborative transactions between these strains of American thought with feminism, indigenous philosophies, African American philosophy, Latin American and Latinx philosophies, post-colonialism, and race theories, to name just a few”—that it continues to be the case that “America does not care much about ‘American’ philosophy.”

He adds:

I used to be able to recommend students to departments that had 2,3, or 4 professors in the area, but does it look like every year there will be less departments fitting that description? This could affect the area (teaching and research) at all levels. It means less courses. Moreover, less full professors also means less professors that can write letters of promotion for associate level ones.

Discussion on the various issues here—what counts as American Philosophy, what its prospects in the profession are, whether it is a useful categorization, and so on–is welcome.

Jasper Johns, “Flag 1”

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Andrew S
Andrew S
2 years ago

maybe we can really jump start a revival if we start writing things like “A Controversy In Peirce On De Facto Dicto Lewisian-Stalnakerian-Kantian-Korsgaardian Dialetical Non-Idealist Transcendental Quasireal Laws, Intuitions On Transworld Identity That I Had Last Monday After A Few Beers Because I Need To Drink To Deal With My Stupid Philosophy Job, And Nomological Necessitarianian Quantificational Epistemic Non-Monotonic Logics: A Reply To A. Wallaby Phillips’ “Peirce On Scientific Non-Naturalistic Naturalism And The Idea Of A ‘Theory’ As Revealed In The Notebooks From November 31st 1903” and “Emerson on Why I Should Stop Doing Philosophy and Become a Hindu Priest in Jammu and Kashmir, Even Though It Is Heavily Militarized And Probably Not Altogether That Safe For First World Moron Westerners Like Me: ‘Cuz Of Nature Bruh'”

just throwing it out thereReport

J. Edward Hackett
J. Edward Hackett
2 years ago

As someone who works in American philosophy, I am seeing the shrinking opportunities to study the writings of William James anywhere in graduate school, not to say that I would advise students to pursue American philosophy in graduate school. I agree with Greg. Americanists are retiring. Lines are not getting replaced, and the Analytic and Continental Divide are taking up those lines that do get renewed. The Divide has controlled the whole philosophical imagination that analytics and Continentalists also do not see the wide arrangements of philosophical possibility from process philosophy, Boston personalism, the transcendentalists, and the American realists as even part of our shared past. American philosophy is wider than just the pragmatists, including the traditions Greg has fought so hard to represent too.

Harvard philosophy has no interest in Royce or James despite them flourishing there. At best, you’d have to go to comparative literature or American studies at Harvard. Boston University’s philosophy and theology department seem not to be interested in Boston personalism despite the historic fact that King went to study there with Edgar Sheffield Brightman who was part of that American philosophical tradition. All in all, the dearth of American philosophy is a sustained lack of vision on our contemporary brothers and sisters to see philosophy more than the politics and incidental sociological history of our discipline in North America. I’ve often wondered if exploring a career in American Studies might be more worth it than trying to say that I do ethics with pragmatism and phenomenology.Report

Danko
Danko
Reply to  J. Edward Hackett
2 years ago

What are American philosophers doing these days?Report

dmf
dmf
Reply to  Danko
2 years ago
Paul Benjamin Cherlin
Paul Benjamin Cherlin
2 years ago

There are many American philosophies. If we are specifically discussing the study and continuation of classical European American philosophies (e.g. pragmatism and naturalism) that emerged towards the end of the 19th century, then the situation has indeed become alarming. If you write a serious dissertation on figures like Peirce, James, Royce, or Dewey (just to name some familiar names), chances are that you will be shut out of research institutions and most tenure-track jobs (and, in some cases, the academy altogether). Searches in this area are practically non-existent. This means that those who do dedicated and technical research in this area will only teach undergraduates. While some people in research institutions maintain pragmatism as a side interest, that is (a) not enough to support serious dissertation advising, and (b) is not a substitute for the kind of dedicated specialization that is a precondition for producing deep, rich, and historically informed scholarship.

I have directly observed this much: I regularly teach classical American pragmatism/naturalism to undergraduates. I am inundated with requests from students who want to continue to read these figures (so much that I am teaching a special summer course on Dewey from pure popular demand). That is the good news, and reminds us that exposure creates demand. Then, the bad news:I am frequently asked some variation of “where can I go to study more of these philosophers?” The options are very, very limited, and are dwindling steadily.

In my own case, I attended the University of Minnesota, Brandeis, and then got my PhD from SIU (a flagship in classical American thought) so I could be properly immersed in this specialty area. SIU has quickly become a shadow of its former self, with the Dewey Center closing and many of the specialists retiring with no replacements in sight. Those who hold a PhD from this golden age of learning are not teaching graduates. Hence, the learning can only be passed on to the next generation in a limited way.Report

Preston Stovall
Preston Stovall
Reply to  Paul Benjamin Cherlin
2 years ago

It’s no doubt true that, sociologically, the situation for those who study what gets called ‘American philosophy’ does not look as promising as it did in, say, the last two decades of the 20th century. My sense is that there are a number of factors at work here. As someone lucky enough to have had substantial exposure to American philosophy throughout my education, I’m convinced there are strains of the tradition that remain living in various lines of undergraduate and graduate instruction. And just concerning pragmatism, I know of a number of young philosophers who work in that tradition, both in its theoretical guise as a project in the philosophy of nature and in its practical guise as a reflection on and intervention in American society. So I hope it’s not out of the running yet!

It is indeed alarming to hear about SIU Carbondale and the closing of the Dewey Center, on the other hand, and the diminishing number of open positions, together with diminishing graduate instruction in American philosophy, is a real loss not just for the study of philosophy but for the American public as well.

Some of this shift is due to the generally abysmal state of the job market, of course. Some of it is due to other factors. I seem to recall a thread on Daily Nous that looked at job advertisements in the ‘core areas’ of language, epistemology, metaphysics, and mind over the last few years and saw a decline there relative to other areas – and American philosophy wasn’t one of the growing fields. Either way, I’m not surprised to learn that there’s less interest in hiring people in the area today. All sorts of things are influencing hiring trends, and when I had the opportunity to look over good data on hiring it gave a much better picture of what was happening than I’d had up to then.Report

Preston Stovall
Preston Stovall
Reply to  Preston Stovall
2 years ago

Sorry Paul, I wasn’t directing that specifically in response to your remarks. I meant to post it as a response to the OP.Report

Preston Stovall
Preston Stovall
2 years ago

I was just listening to the conversation between Dan Kaufman and Oliver Traldi over at meaningoflife.tv. The discussion from about the one-hour mark goes into issues of ideological drift in American philosophy that’s worth bearing in mind alongside the pluralist revolt at the APA during Rorty’s presidency (Neil Gross’s discussion in his biography of Rorty is a good place to start, told of course from Rorty’s point of view).

Some of the prime movers of that revolt were philosophers in the tradition that we’re now decrying the apparent diminishment of. It’s worth thinking about how the political and sociological landscape of academic philosophy in America has changed since that time (1979 was the year of the revolt). Ecological upsets in American philosophy in the closing decades of the 20th century are bound up with the decline of the field of American philosophy as a discipline of ongoing research and instruction. It’s incredibly refreshing to see people like Kaufman and Traldi talking about what’s been going on, and it involves much more than the decline of a particular brand (or family of brands, or whatever) of American philosophy.

Justin, I encourage you to reach out to Dan and make amends between you. I think Dan would be up for it.Report

Monte Johnson
2 years ago

I share the general concern. Taking a seminar on William James with Russell Goodman in 1999 was one of the highlights of my education in Philosophy. On a positive point, I would like to note that at UC San Diego we have just this year added two new courses on various aspects of American Philosophy (as defined by the Society for the Advancement of American Philosophy). Below I copy the course descriptions– the first a lower-division course (for first and second year students), the second an upper-division one (for third and fourth year students).

PHIL 35. Philosophy in the Americas (4)
An exploration of central philosophical issues as they have been taken up in the diverse philosophical traditions of the Americas, such as indigenous philosophy, Latin American philosophy, American Pragmatism, and the Civil Rights movement, among others. Topics may include ethics, social and political philosophy, colonialism, philosophy of race and gender, environmentalism, and issues in philosophy of language.

PHIL 155. Mexican Philosophy (4)
Introduction to Mexican philosophy with discussion of the work of such figures as Las Casas, Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, Vasconcelos, Uranga, Zea, Villoro, Dussel, Hierro, Lara, and Hurtado. Topics may include historical movements, such as scholasticism, positivism, Mexican existentialism, and indigenous thought, as well as contemporary developments and the relationship to philosophy in the United States, Europe, and elsewhere.

From Monte Johnson, Director of Undergraduate Studies, UC San DiegoReport

Fritz McDonald
Fritz McDonald
2 years ago

If you define American philosophy broadly enough to include American philosophy in the analytic tradition, there’s a great deal of interesting and vital work being done in American philosophy.Report

Cynthia Freeland
Cynthia Freeland
2 years ago

I’m very interested in this post particularly since I am currently teaching American Philosophy as an upper-level undergraduate course, and have done so off and on for about 20 years now. Since I’m about to retire, though, the course may not keep being taught, though it is always fully enrolled and is one of my favourites to teach. (Also it’s worth pointing out that the course regularly attracts more minority students than other upper-level undergrad courses.) I mainly do it as a history of pragmatism with some associated figures such as Jane Addams. I agree with Fritz above that there’s really quite a lot in the “analytic” tradition that can count in this field: Later on in my course I’ll cover Quine, Putnam, Rorty, Cavell, Sellars, Nancy Fraser, and a few others. There are scholars and thinkers at various institutions today who extend these traditions in various ways, such as James Conant at Chicago, Robert Brandom at Pittsburgh, and Paul Taylor at Vanderbilt. That makes me feel less pessimistic about the future of the field as a whole, although I do think it’s a shame that there aren’t more places that take James and Dewey seriously. Still, their influence is felt and still present in figures like those I’ve mentioned as well as in others who were students of Rorty/Cavell/Sellars/Putnam. The influence of, say, Emerson-Dewey-Putnam-Rorty-Cavell is very much present in scholars teaching critical race theory or, feminist epistemology and social theory.; there is a definite presence of Thoreau in environmental ethics and aesthetics (and I know Thoreau is studied in China, say, where environmental aesthetics is quite prominent). Thus, these so-called other fields that might be thought to be “edging out” more standard kinds of m&e subjects still include the strains and reflect the influence of pragmatism and American philosophy. Work of many scholars in aesthetics (which I acknowledge is itself marginalized) also reflects the influence of Dewey.( I might point to my own work which has discussed him consistently and to that of Richard Shusterman, among others.)Report

Jonathan Caleb Kendrick
Jonathan Caleb Kendrick
2 years ago

I welcome the demise of “American philosophy” (which, it is worth mentioning, is a weird name for a field that studies like really only a tiny slice of American philosophy). While James, Pierce, and Dewey said some interesting things, I haven’t seen many scholars who have said particularly interesting things about their work. Part of the reason, I suspect, is that the same deep exegetical questions that arise, in say, ancient philosophy or even early modern philosophy do not arise in James, Pierce, or Dewey. While the pragmatists are well worth reading, I don’t think studying their work leads to any interesting new research.Report

J. Edward Hackett
J. Edward Hackett
Reply to  Jonathan Caleb Kendrick
2 years ago

Wait. Sorry. I’m not being callous really, but did Mr. Kendrick just say that he “suspects” James, Pierce, or Dewey say “interesting things” without referencing those interesting things, and that what he suspects is interesting in ancient philosophy or modern philosophy (again with no specificiity) do not arise in James, Pierce, or Dewey such that studying their work doesn’t lead “to any interesting new research.” This is so vague and wrong I’m flustered at it, so I will only say that issues in Dewey Studies, William James Studies, Contemporary Pragmatism to name a few have some fascinating articles. Some of us are doing “new research” whatever that means. Some of us are even being invited to graduate departments to present said research. Look again.Report

Cynthia Freeland
Cynthia Freeland
Reply to  J. Edward Hackett
2 years ago

Yes, I have to agree with you here. There’s so much to mention that I hesitate to begin, but you could consider things Sellars wrote on Peirce on truth, or Putnam on Dewyean democracy, or on James on truth, Rorty on relativism and pragmatism…. there’s so much else. I’m a scholar of ancient philosophy, and I consider issues Plato and Aristotle raised about metaphysics and epistemology to be very deep (not to mention their discussions of art and poetry), but there are issues at least as deep in Dewey, Peirce, and James. To imply otherwise does seem to me to indicate that a person hasn’t really delved much into an existing scholarly and exegetical literature.Report

Jonathan Caleb Kendrick
Jonathan Caleb Kendrick
Reply to  Cynthia Freeland
2 years ago

With all do respect, I have, and I think it has very little value. Take Rorty, for example, when in PMN, he argues that “we see knowledge as a matter of conversation and of social practice, rather than as an attempt to mirror nature.” That’s not illuminating, it’s just bonkers. The idea that for some proposition to count as knowledge it needs to cohere with the beliefs and practice of one’s epistemic community is plainly wrong (e.g., when Copernicus discovered that the Earth wasn’t the center of the universe, he had knowledge, even though his knowledge did not cohere with the beliefs and practices of his epistemic community.) Furthermore, the argument that Rorty offers in PMN for this point is again bonkers. He points out that justification holds between propositions, rather than ideas and objects, and then blithely expects the reader to see justification as a social practice, when this is far from obvious. I could go on about James and Dewey, but I doubt anyone would read a post that long. The point I’m making is simple. Pragmatism is interesting because the pragmatist said very mistaken things, and it’s interesting to see how they were mistaken and how they argued for their mistaken claims, but I don’t think any future research will proceed from studying them.Report

Dave Biggs
Dave Biggs
Reply to  Jonathan Caleb Kendrick
2 years ago

Oh, please go on about James! Please show that he has nothing illuminating to say about consciousness, intentionality, psychology, religion, and so on!Report

Robert Lane
Reply to  Jonathan Caleb Kendrick
2 years ago

Please don’t take Rorty as representative of the tradition of American philosophy in general or as a reliable commentator upon James, Dewey or (especially) Peirce. The relative worth (or worthlessness) of PMN and Rorty’s other “pragmatist” works implies very little about the worth of the works of those (and other) pragmatists.Report

Jonathan Caleb Kendrick
Jonathan Caleb Kendrick
Reply to  Robert Lane
2 years ago

I disagree. I think Rorty is largely representative of the pragmatist project. His views on truth and justification are similar to those of James, though James’ views are more defensible (in that James doesn’t attempt to fully ‘socialize’ truth and justification–if I understood Prof. Hackett correctly, this is also the point he makes in his post). Again, I’m not saying that pragmatism isn’t worth studying. I’m just not sure its historically important enough to warrant its existence as anything other than an extremely small specialization.Report

Ekard
Ekard
Reply to  Jonathan Caleb Kendrick
2 years ago

With all due respect, your claim that you have “delved” into the existing literature is incredible (based on the stances you are taking up here, anyway). I can only speak to fields in which I have expertise, so I will pick merely one example in one of those fields, and mention the impact of merely one so-called American philosopher.

In normative theory broadly, one of the most currently debated issues is the relation between moral, epistemic, and practical normativity. In epistemology, there is currently quite a lot of discussion about the relevance of moral and practical reasons to epistemic rationality, and also about epistemic consequentialism. These contemporary discussions are explicitly rooted in and framed by the work of William James (see the works of Richard Feldman, Sophie Horowitz, Thomas Kelly, Joseph Raz, and Miriam Schoenfield, just to name a few). It would strain credulity to suggest that their work does not offer instances of “scholars who have said particularly interesting things about [James’] work,” or evidence that “studying [James’] work leads to any interesting new research” –– or perhaps you should inform these prominent scholars that they are wasting their time, since “no future research will proceed” from what they are doing or studying?

I would not have chimed in here, save for the fact that it does not require any excessive familiarity with the current literature in epistemic and practical reasoning to come to know any of this. I would be somewhat surprised if similar points could not be made about other “American” philosophers and/or contemporary research. What any of this says about the urgency of situation for American philosophy, I am not sure; but we can at least not rush to judgment on the basis of implausible premises.Report

Margaret Atherton
Margaret Atherton
2 years ago

A gentle reminder that the age a American Philosophy that contained James and Dewey also contained a number of women in Philosophy. To get you started i’ll Name two, Mary Whiton Calvin’s and Grace De Laguns, both of whom were Presidents of the APA in their day, but there were many more.Report

Thomas Alexander
Thomas Alexander
Reply to  Margaret Atherton
2 years ago
Margaret Atherton
Margaret Atherton
Reply to  Thomas Alexander
2 years ago

Thanks. Typo.Report

BCB
BCB
Reply to  Margaret Atherton
2 years ago

And then there’s Dewey’s enormously interesting student, whose work is just waiting for a serious revival, Susanne Langer.Report

Kris McDaniel
Kris McDaniel
Reply to  BCB
2 years ago

If I may, I have written on both Calkins and Langer, and agree that they are very interesting figures in American philosophy. Papers below, if only to show that there is continuing interest in these figures. (And to generate some interest in my continuing interest.)

“Freedom and Idealism in Mary Whiton Calkins”, British Journal for the History of Philosophy (forthcoming).

http://krmcdani.mysite.syr.edu/CIAF.pdf

“The Idealism of Mary Whiton Calkins”, (2017) in Idealism: New Essays in Metaphysics, edited by Tyron Goldschmidt and Kenny Pearce, Oxford University Press.

http://krmcdani.mysite.syr.edu/calkins.pdf

“Ontology and Philosophical Methodology in the Early Susanne Langer”, (2017) in Innovations in the History of Analytical Philosophy, edited by Sandra Lapointe and Christopher Pincock, Palgrave Publishing.

http://krmcdani.mysite.syr.edu/langscan.pdfReport

Margaret Atherton
Margaret Atherton
Reply to  Kris McDaniel
2 years ago

Thanks, Kris. I know your work on Calkins, but i’m Glad you are taking up Langer as well. Another unduly neglected thinker.Report

J. Edward Hackett
J. Edward Hackett
2 years ago

Mr. Kendrick,

Maybe just judge Rorty from what Rorty says, and don’t think all pragmatists are not interesting because of what Rorty says. The funny thing to me was that I used to sound much like you exactly about James, which was the real bonkers position. In graduate school at SIU no less, I maintained along with Husserl that James’s Pragmatism lectures were guilty of psychologism. It wasn’t until I really considered how much my positions relied on a transcendental ego and James’s argument against it that I changed my mind, but also a charitable presentation of those views from others rather than outright dismissal was part of my process. What opened my eyes was the forced confrontation I had addressing the many assumptions I think you might be committed to such as the necessity of thinking that the most basic epistemic situation is propositional knowledge (Husserl inaugurated his phenomenology by first reducing all experience to epistemic motivations in the beginning). The pragmatic critique of philosophy finds issue with the bonkers tendency to separate epistemic moments of having knowledge from the action generated out of those epistemic moments. Such distinctions don’t hold surprisingly when put to scrutiny, and this is one positive benefit I get from studying the writings of James and Dewey.

Another positive benefit of studying James came from his critique of representational metaphysics. We don’t have access to reality in the way many positions are carved up prior to experience, and to think that the subject has access to knowledge without paying attention to the structure of lived-experience that knowledge feeds misses a crucial aspect of experience. Under James, metaphysics is interpreting the whole by the metaphor of some part. The interpretation is also historically-bound to its own time. Part of Rorty’s project is understanding how knowledge fits back inside the aims it seeks to produce in us, and this expansion of a thick conception of experience widens philosophy to never lose sight of the sociality of experience; the same tendency is in Dewey and James. That’s why some might pay attention to epistemic community. A good example might be understanding why Thomists are still around in Catholicism talking about substance-based metaphysics when metaphysics is, again, the interpreting the whole by the metaphor of a concept. Well, substance-based metaphysics explains why some Catholics believe what they do since they the conceivable effect of substance is one to be overturned in the mass. Transubstantiation explains the miracle of the host, and a belief in substance is first required to get there in their liturgy. In other words, there are Thomists around today because of Catholic liturgy. In this way, the belief is not about describing some state of affairs out there extricated from this need, but instead all beliefs are rules of action. That bears repeating. All beliefs are rules of action, not propositions we find evidence for independently of the actions they produce in us. We only keep beliefs around because of the actions they facilitate in future experience.

Now, the reason why Rorty is an easy target is that he overextends the infinite interpretabililty of texts to think about all forms of knowledge. In Jamesian terms, he overextends the metaphor of the interpretability of texts. By contrast, James thinks that a science might develop its own verification processes to link beliefs of its community to some determinate truths. The verification processes of engineers determining how much a given material can support is domain specific to engineers and the science of materials like physics, but is not the same process employed by historians. There’s nothing wrong with reigning in Rorty’s confidence in that claim but also thinking that truths are generated out of a community’s demands about those verification processes and those demands may differ across the space of inquiry between domains. Some overlap; others don’t. However, what’s clear is that it’s never been about mapping on a set of beliefs onto a state of affairs WITHOUT attention to the practical consequences such beliefs enable in their adopters. To ignore that is to get a basic fact of the human experience wrong.Report

Preston Stovall
Preston Stovall
Reply to  J. Edward Hackett
2 years ago

Hi J (Edward?) – I fully agree about the continuing importance of James and Dewey on the unity of the reflex arc or circuit. My sense is that people in cog sci and neurophil circles are as well, though they may not read James and Dewey themselves. Depending on how a rule is spelled out, and with the proper notion and use of self-critically habituated neural dispositions, I’d probably say that every belief is or involves a rule of action as well.

But I’ve always found Rorty a bit wishy-washy when it comes to what he claims to be rejecting. I think that’s because I just don’t find his notion of representation-as-mirroring very plausible to begin with. Plus, his reading of the classical triumvirate is too piecemeal and ideologically motivated for my taste. And he’s just all sorts of wrong about the role that picturing plays in Sellars’ theory of perception.

I appreciated your going to bat for him though. It helped me see some things I was missing, I think.Report

J. Edward Hackett
J. Edward Hackett
Reply to  Preston Stovall
2 years ago

Preston,

My friends call me: Ed, so call me, Ed. I don’t bat for Rorty, and I do not think his reading of James all that good. I do think, however, if someone is incapable of seeing pragmatism beyond Rorty that one strategy to engage that person might be to make some version of Rorty’s claims palatable.

My controversial claim in American that I am adopting is a thesis between traditions, so here’s my pitch: Radical empiricism is the best version of phenomenology that has ever been developed. This has many implications as I was for some time dedicated to a transcendental phenomenology, and my forays into James have always been about recovering from this present tension in my thinking between where pragmatism and phenomenology meet.Report

Preston Stovall
Preston Stovall
Reply to  J. Edward Hackett
2 years ago

Thanks Ed. That makes sense. I was at A&M for two years, and McDermott read pragmatism and phenomenology as tribemates or species of a genus, though in his case it was primarily through Dewey and Heidegger.

And I’m totally on board with your reaction to people who dismiss pragmatism on the basis of Rorty. In some ways that dismissal is an instance of the same sort of unfair treatment given to pragmatism that Rorty’s critics sometimes charge Rorty with in his reading of other philosophers. Brandom’s reading of Hegel’s account of trust, as a duty we owe to those we enter into philosophical conversation with, is very good on this.Report

Preston Stovall
Preston Stovall
2 years ago

I worry the long view threatens to be obscured in one or two of these comments. Since before the founding of the Republic, the U.S. system of higher education has been closely connected both to leading work in the natural and social sciences, and to the process of helping shape the spirit of American citizens. Jefferson’s plan for the educational system in the colony of Virginia, which became the model for the nation, was devoted (in part) to just that operative principle.

In the second half of the 19th century, as the university system in the U.S. expanded, the Darwinian revolution in biology impelled American educators to rethink their fields of inquiry. American philosophers were involved at every step of the way, and elements of American philosophy remain in close dialogue with both the practice of the various sciences and with the American educational system.

In that sense American philosophy, as a historical body of U.S. institutions, remains at work in labrooms and lecture halls across the country. Whether students and faculty are studying American philosophers is another issue, of course.

And in a different sense what has come to be called ‘American philosophy’ is apparently diminishing, as represented in figures like (I would suppose) the number of endowed chairs currently held by members of the SAAP. It’s here that I think we see the real loss. We need voices like those of John McDermott, who speaks with such integrity and eloquence about the drives and dynamism of the American people. McDermott was not shy about the importance of American philosophy, and Dewey in particular, for the view he had come to.

Either way, I don’t think the project outlined above, which has animated American philosophy since its inception, has run its course.

And this is a peculiarly philosophical project. It continues a collective historical effort directed at understanding the nature and object of human knowledge (at work in, e.g., German idealism and Scottish realism – Peirce cites Kant’s use of ‘pragmatisch’ as the reason he called the view ‘pragmatism’ to begin with). As an inquiry it has as one of its drives the creation of a set of categories through which one can understand, in comprehensive view, how the natural evolutionary processes at work in the evolution and actualization of habituated capacities to sense, think, and act will, over time, tend toward the development of linguistic communities within which ever more precise notions of beauty, truth, and goodness are examined and developed.

For those with the right cast of mind, this is a task that Kant gradually awoke to in his development of the three Critiques, it was something Peirce pursued in studying the three ‘normative sciences’ of aesthetics, logic, and ethics (Peirce simply identifies philosophy with the practice of these three sciences), and it recurs in Sellars’ discussion of perceptual takings, inferences, and volitions as a basis for the rule-following agency characteristic of human persons. Though their numbers may be decreasing, those who keep track of these sorts of explanatory resources are still putting them to good use today (to echo a thought from Margaret Atherton, I’ll note three women: Susan Haack, Cathy Legg, and Cheryl Misak).

TL;DR Hurrah, Pragmatism! Also, here are some reasons!Report

Gregory Fernando Pappas
Gregory Fernando Pappas
2 years ago

On how the “canon” of what counts as “American Philosophy” as been expanded, and its history I recommend this book:
https://www.bloomsbury.com/us/american-philosophy-9781441183750/Report

Preston Stovall
Preston Stovall
Reply to  Gregory Fernando Pappas
2 years ago

That looks like a great text. For another reorienting view on ‘American philosophy’, I recommend Bruce Kuklick’s “Does American Philosophy Rest on a Mistake?”. Kucklick’s book on the history of the Harvard Philosophy department up to 1930, The Rise of American Philosophy, is great as well.

I also learned a lot from the second edition of Herbert Schneider’s A History of American Philosophy. He tells a conventional story about what ‘American philosophy’ is, but he does it very well and with good use of the primary sources.Report

Thomas Alexander
Thomas Alexander
2 years ago

Jonathan Caleb Kendrick is a doctoral student at the University of Maryland, as their website explains. How he developed his vast and deep understanding of the traditions of American philosophy we may guess. I wouldn’t comment except that for decades Americanists have been facing this same smug prejudice and condescending ignorance from people who profess themselves to be lovers of wisdom, self-critical reasoners,, and empiricists. Mr Kendrick, maybe you should not speak of what you clearly do not know.Report

Andrew Sepielli
Andrew Sepielli
2 years ago

I don’t disagree with anything Prof. Pappas wrote, but here’s a view from elsewhere: When I was a grad student at Rutgers a decade ago, none of my fellow students engaged with the American pragmatists, and none saw themselves as developing or defending pragmatism. Ditto for the other grad students in the NY/NJ area of whom I was aware. Fast-forward to 2019, and I can think of several current and recent PhD students from those departments and similar departments who regard themselves as pragmatists (including, now, myself). Certainly plenty of young pragmatists working in my main area, meta-ethics. Additionally, when I started at Toronto, I believe there was just one pragmatist grad student, working with Cheryl Misak. Now there are at least 5 that I can think of.

Now, many of these younger pragmatists are not *scholars* of American philosophy (and I sure am not) — so again, no disagreement with Prof. Pappas — but still, it seems that there’s a greater willingness to take very seriously the ideas of people like Dewey, Mead, Rorty, etc., at departments where there was once near-uniform hostility/indifference towards these philosophers.Report

Cheyney Ryan
Cheyney Ryan
2 years ago

I attended SAAP several times, even won an award from them for a paper I wrote, and for many years was in a department where American philosophy was much discussed. I did not find that its proponents sufficiently engaged the rest of the profession, specifically in my field political philosophy. They were like Marxists prior to people like Jerry Cohen coming along to say that Marxists needed to break out of their insularity, they needed to stop mulling over what Marxism “really was”, and talk to other philosophers. I heard endless discussions of what American philosophy “really was”; oftentimes related to (in my view, fairly idiotic if not racist) discussions of what “America” really was–but I didn’t hear enough engagement with other philosophers and their concerns.

Example: I taught the grad seminar on contemporary discussions of justice, starting with Rawls. His political liberalism represents itself as engaging central themes in American political culture, and he was–after all–an American, as well as the dominant political theorist of our time. I found “American” philosophers to be eerily indifferent to him and the discourse he started. I am not talking about the kind of meta-commentary you find in Rorty, but about actual engagement with the specific issues–eg the role of the basic structure, constructivism in political philosophy, etc.. Whole issues–like the different forms of egalitarianism–were ignored or dismissed, in the name of vague blatherings about “democracy” and “doing what works”.

I have since concentrated on just war theory and pacifism, and, except for Addams, have found that American philosophers have nothing of interest to say about those issues beyond the antiquarian (eg James). Let me be clear: I would want a political philosopher to know these American figures, just as I would them to know British Idealists like TH Green; but I would never endorse a political philosophy hire whose main focus was “American” thinking (or TH Green),–given its parochial, sectarian tendencies. After I left, my former department decided not to hire anyone specializing in Rawls, etc.–while still claiming to train people in political philosophy. I am not surprised that such programs are increasingly marginalized, and deservedly so.Report

Cathy Legg
Reply to  Cheyney Ryan
2 years ago

As a non-American I want to suggest that the ‘current state’ of American philosophy looks very different from outside the USA than inside.
One might argue that the tradition has declined within the US, but I’m not convinced of that given the huge ongoing influence of Brandom, and Rorty. Brandom consciously engages the broader Western tradition and in my view is one of few contenders in his generation for taking that tradition in a genuinely exciting new direction. There is much that Rorty explicitly says that I disagree with and consider exaggerated, but I have also come to realise how much of his philosophical work is going on in the space of rhetoric, for better or worse. I admire the impact he’s had in confronting smugness and lazy arguments in our profession (and can’t resist noting that discombobulating opinionated junior scholars such as Joseph Caleb Kendrick is precisely the kind of work he sought to do).
Outisde the US, though, I see pragmatism as *hot* right now, particularly in central Europe, South America, and increasingly China.
I worry this whole thread is a little ‘click-baity’ with its use of the term “Endangered Area…”.
p.s. Thanks for the shout-out Preston Stovall!Report

Alan White
Alan White
Reply to  Cathy Legg
2 years ago

Just to add that Cathy Legg’s work on Peirce has had a very large effect on my own thinking about many issues, especially pushing me towards Brandomish lines of thought. Twenty years ago I was strongly anti-pragmatism; now several of my positions metaethically–and even metaphysically regarding free will–are deeply pragmatic. I haven’t fully made pragmatic peace with some of my phi/sci views, especially on time, but there is no doubt for me that pragmatism embraces much of truth as concerns us as conceptualizing and acting beings in a world with which we have epistemically fragile access.Report

Cathy Legg
Reply to  Alan White
2 years ago

Thanks for the lovely note, Alan. I would love to talk further with you about pragmatism and time at some point. There is much on this topic of huge interest in Peirce.
Also, in my earlier message I called Jonathan Caleb Kendrick ‘Joseph’ – sorry, Jonathan. I tried to correct it multiple times but the DN server kept rejecting my posts.Report

dmf
dmf
Reply to  Cathy Legg
2 years ago

also alive and well in philo of science and cog-sci/enactivism:
A persistent criticism of radical embodied cognitive science is that it will be impossible to explain “real cognition” without invoking mental representations. This talk will provide an account of explicit, real-time thinking of the kind we engage in when we imagine counter-factual situations, remember the past, and plan for the future. We will first present a very general non-representational account of explicit thinking, based on pragmatist philosophy of science. Then we will present a more detailed instantiation of this general account drawing on nonlinear dynamics and ecological psychology.
http://www.ensoseminars.com/presentations/past22/Report

Preston Stovall
Preston Stovall
Reply to  Cheyney Ryan
2 years ago

I think I agree with both you and Cathy here Cheyney. My own experience has been that some people working within a certain brand of American philosophy tend to display insufficient engagement with the more ‘mainstream’ (or whatever) philosophical work in their area. At the same time, in part because of this lack of engagement, there is evident disinterest on the part of more mainstream philosophers to engage with what goes on in that tradition.

Nevertheless, Cathy’s right that the situation in Europe is in many ways quite different. There simply aren’t departments like NYU or MIT that have built up programs that the rest of the field gravitate toward in the way they do in the U.S. (here again I commend the discussion between Kaufman and Traldi from about the one hour mark at meaningoflife.tv). Oxbridge is of course incredibly influential in the Anglophone world, but the centers of philosophical interest on the continent are more widely distributed across the intellectual landscape – unsurprising, when one thinks about the greater cultural variation across the countries of Europe.

And so given the way American philosophy has developed since, say, the pluralist revolt of 1979, it isn’t too surprising that American philosophy would be represented as it is in the U.S. and in Europe. Having spent the last year and a half in the Czech Republic, it’s been a breath of fresh air to discover that the work of ‘classical American philosophy’ (or whatever) and its descendants is recognized as doing the sort of thing it claims to be doing.

Finally, I just want to emphasize that prospective and current students should be talking with their placement directors yearly about what the job market is like. Get good information and make informed decisions about what you yourself are liable to face when you go on the market. That information is out there, and it should be made available to you. Some of it is widely distributed, so be sure to talk to your peers and those who have gone through the process before you as well.Report

Cathy Legg
Reply to  Preston Stovall
2 years ago

I can’t resist adding that, coincidentally, my new edit of the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on “pragmatism” has just gone live! Check it out if you’d like to know more about what’s been going on lately in this part of American philosophy. (Here I acknowledge that, as Gregory Pappas notes in the OP, there is more to American philosophy than pragmatism.)Report

Preston Stovall
Preston Stovall
Reply to  Cathy Legg
2 years ago

That’s great Cathy, thanks. I just got done teaching a course on German idealism and American pragmatism, and I’m hoping to teach something on just American philosophy soon. I’ll mention two things I stumped for in an email exchange with Prof. Pappas, as maybe they’ll be of use to other philosophers interested in keeping this tradition alive.

First, American philosophers ought to pursue opportunities for closer engagement with Chinese philosophers. Dewey in particular remains a figure the influence of which shouldn’t be underestimated (Sun Youzhong’s “John Dewey in China” is a good place to start; interested philosophers could reach out to Chen Yajun as well). After giving the lectures that became Reconstruction in Philosophy in Japan (still a timely book) , Dewey spent two years in China, from 1919 to 1921, travelling the country and lecturing on democracy and education. There is as much potential value to be had from cross pollination between Chinese and American philosophy now as there was then.

Second, and continuing the theme of education, I would encourage philosophers in the American tradition to look at opportunities to teach elements of native American philosophy in ethics, political philosophy, and the philosophy of education, and to seek opportunities to do so in secondary education in public schools and on tribal lands. I’ve lectured on philosophy in middle schools and high schools in Pennsylvania, Montana, and in the Czech Republic, and it’s evident that there’s a sincere interest on the part of administrators, teachers, and students.

Given the abysmal state of the job market, the kinds of trends that are showing up there, the evident need for more critical thinking on the part of American citizens, and the potential to get students engaged with philosophy before they attend university, it counts as a serious failure of our collective agency that there isn’t far more support for these kinds of programs among American philosophers today. Two of my colleagues and I were denied a small grant from the APA last year to continue a program we’d begun and were invited to expand the next year. In part as a result of the lack of APA support, that school in Pennsylvania is no longer receiving philosophical instruction.

I’ll try to bring this all together with some remarks that illustrate the ongoing importance of broadly American approaches to philosophy and education, from the Sioux philosopher Ohiyesa (Charles Alexander Eastman) concerning the pedagogy of the Sioux.

We taught our children by both example and instruction, but with emphasis on example, because all learning is a dead language to one who gets it secondhand. Our physical training was thorough and intelligent, while as to the moral and spiritual side of our teaching, I am not afraid to compare it with that of any race.

We conceived the art of teaching as, first and foremost, the development of personality; and we considered the fundamentals of education to be love of the Great Mystery, love of nature, and love of people and country.

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Ryhan Higgins
2 years ago

Academia has become particularly fragmented in some respects, and I think the reduction of philosophy departments is a big contributor to this issue. Another culprit would be the curriculum itself which in most programs gives little emphasis on philosophy as an essential course of study accept save maybe law and the humanities. Yet, I see philosophy as essential for any program of study that draws on multiple disciplines, since the general discipline of critical thinking of philosophy is an interdisciplinary field in many respects.Report