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Between Pragmatism and Critical Theory: Social Philosophy Today

Abstract

This paper aims at renovating the prospects for social philosophy through a confrontation between pragmatism and critical theory. In particular, it contends that the resources of pragmatism for advancing a project of emancipatory social philosophy have so far been neglected. After contrasting the two major traditions in social philosophy—the analytical and the critical—I proceed to outline the main traits of a pragmatist social philosophy. By inscribing pragmatism within the tradition of social philosophy, my aim is to promote a new understanding of pragmatism as one of the central Euro-American traditions in social and political philosophy, deserving to be on an equal footing with critical theory and political liberalism. And, furthermore, one whose critical and radical force may be of great help in the wake of the dismissal of the metaphysical certainties upon which the critical program of social philosophy had once set its hopes of social emancipation.

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Notes

  1. The term ‘Critical Theory’ will be rendered in upper case throughout this article to signal a circumscribed reference to the Frankfurt School and to those who directly draw on that tradition.

  2. A reconstruction of the pragmatist tradition in social philosophy throughout the twentieth century by far exceeds the scope of this paper. Here I wish only to mention the names of a list of philosophers spanning more than a century of pragmatist social philosophy as the basis of a pragmatist canon: John Dewey, George H. Mead, Jane Addams, W.E.B. DuBois, Alain Locke, Sidney Hook, Charles Wright Mills, Richard Bernstein, Richard Rorty, Cornel West, James Bohman. In addition, I would like to enlist the work of a heterogeneous new generation of scholars inspired by pragmatism such as Anderson (2010), Lawson (2004), Collins (2011), or Sullivan (2006), whose work proves the distinctive character and the vitality of this tradition and its capacity to contribute to different strands of social philosophy. More than anyone else, Joseph Margolis has insisted on the necessity to think pragmatism beyond the Analytic/Continental divide.

  3. I have begun this task in Frega (2012a). In writing this paper, I have learned much from Midtgarden (2012). I have equally learned from Hetzel (2008), whose account of the convergences between classical American pragmatism and the first generation of Critical Theory are well informed and deeply persuasive.

  4. See also Christman (2002), one of the rare books bearing the title 'Social Philosophy'. In the preface to the book the author simply omits any further reference to social philosophy and describes the aim of the book as “to lay out in some detail the guiding paradigm of political philosophy which currently dominates the field”. The book then goes on exposing liberalism as a political doctrine.

  5. This was also the view of Joel Feinberg in a book that dates back to 1973; see Feinberg (1973).

  6. In this vein, see for example Thomas (2008). For many belonging to this tradition, a work such as Bicchieri (2006) would uncontroversially count as an essay in social philosophy.

  7. As will become clear in what follows, I do not take social philosophy and Critical Theory to be synonyms. Whereas Critical Theory is now a program too large and too variegated to be grasped within a consistent and meaningful definition, social philosophy refers, at least in Honneth's intention, to a specific interpretation of the task of philosophy and social theory, one that can but should not necessarily be consistent with the theoretical assumptions of Critical Theory. By calling into question the overly rapid connection that tends to be drawn between the two, I intend to question the tacit assumption according to which social philosophy proper must inevitably be critical.

  8. Horkheimer’s texts provide probably the best account of the programmatic intentions of Critical Theory. See in particular Horkheimer (1931/1933, 1982, 2002).

  9. Honneth is, however, not alone in pursuing this project, as the most recent works in the tradition of Critical Theory show. Harmut Rosa’s works on the pathologies of social acceleration (Rosa 2005) and Rahel Jaeggi’s works on the critique of ideology are exemplary of this trend. For a survey of the different positions, see the contributions in Jaeggi and Wesche (2009) and Jaeggi and Loick (2012).

  10. One may speculate on the different understanding of normativity that underlies these projects. In a very simplified way, one may say that, whereas for the Anglo-American or analytical tradition normativity refers to the theoretical conditions that grant legitimacy to actions, beliefs, or institutions, for the Continental or critical tradition normativity refers to the capacity of an image of the good life to function as a guiding principle for transforming an existing situation. In contemporary parlance, the Franco-German social philosophy is methodologically committed to some sort of perfectionism, whereas the Anglo-American tradition has been notoriously wary of perfectionism, in particular since the ban Rawls brought against it. Pragmatism approaches normativity from a still different angle, as this paper shows.

  11. In his Lectures in China of 1919–1920 (Dewey 1973), Dewey has clearly defined his philosophical program as a form of social philosophy. The first series of lectures he gave was entitled “Social and Political Philosophy” and the expression ‘social philosophy’ appeared also as the title of the second lecture. Around the same time, the expression ‘social philosophy’ is repeatedly used in (Dewey 1920). From these uses, the reader gets a clear sense of a research project that holds together the main themes of social philosophy: a concern for a direct engagement with present social problems, an orientation toward non-ideal theory, the search for normative standards for validating specific normative claims, a sense of the relevance of social and historical circumstances for establishing the ends and means of social reform. However, if one look at the ensemble of Dewey’s works, one cannot avoid observing that the expression ‘social philosophy’ is used by Dewey neither systematically nor very consistently. It occurs some 65 times within the totality of his Works and with the exception of a few texts dating between 1919 and 1923, seldom as an object of specific concern. My goal here is not to reconstruct his mature position, nor to retrace the evolution of his views on this matter—a task that will be fulfilled by a separate paper—but rather to single out his living contribution to a contemporary pragmatist social philosophy.

  12. A point clearly explained in Dewey (1927). See Fraser (1992) and Bohman (2007, 2012) for a reactualisation of this approach.

  13. A point clearly stated in Dewey (1915, 1973). The most compelling theoretical account of the importance of taking experience as a starting point or method in any branch of philosophy is (Dewey 1925: Ch. 3). See Hildebrand (2011) and Browning (1998) for commentaries.

  14. In the same light, see the contemporary responses to attempts to reduce political philosophy to an exercise in ideal theory and against the idea that the choice between ideal and non-ideal theory is neutral with respect to the normative results that are to be expected. See, for example, Anderson (2010: Ch. 1) and, beyond the pragmatist tradition, Laclau and Mouffe (1985).

  15. Recent works by James Bohman, Elizabeth Anderson, and José Medina draw explicitly on Dewey’s social philosophy to defend the priority of non-ideal as opposed to ideal theory, and illustrates various strategies of reappraisal of this idea. See Anderson (2010); Medina (2012); Bohman (2004).

  16. On the sociology of social problems, see Spector and Kitsuse (1977), and more broadly, articles published by the journal Social Problems over more than two decades. For a study of the relationship between pragmatism and the sociology of social problems, see the introduction to Cefäi and Terzi (2012).

  17. I explain the central function of the notion of consequences in a pragmatist conception of public reason in Frega (2010).

  18. On the difference between the pragmatist and the Critical Theory conceptions of the relationships between philosophy and the social sciences, see Schubert (2011). On the Chicago school of sociology, see Abbott (1999) and Bulmer (1986). Cressey (1932) is a paradigmatic example of this type of ethnographic inquiry.

  19. Among a list of possible references, see for example Cefäi and Trom (2001); Cefäi and Terzi (2012); Thévenot (2011); Chateauraynaud (2004); Quéré (2011); and Bidet (2011).

  20. Anderson (2010) provides a paradigmatic example of a pragmatist social inquiry that proceeds through a tight alliance between philosophy and the social sciences. The author begins with a claim which is normative in content. It concerns the injustice of racial discrimination and the primary role played by segregation in reproducing and confirming discrimination. This normative claim stands in opposition to competing theories of the nature and causes of the racial social situation. It then proceeds to a thorough and empirically informed survey of the factors, causes, dynamics of discrimination associated with segregation, in order to demonstrate that segregation is one of the main causes of racial inequality and discrimination. With this empirical work done, the author can then proceed to formulate and sustain a normative claim against specific institutional settings that in this perspective can be seen as being causally responsible for the social harm previously identified. In the end, the author proceeds to show how the social problem of racial discrimination should be addressed, given the normative critique and the empirical analysis of the situation. What follows is an informed and empirically grounded normative claim about the need to contrast racial segregation as a means of reducing racial discrimination. In this account, the critical work of social philosophy proceeds in the way indicated by pragmatism: (a) a problematic situation is first perceived by examining the forms of its social expression; (b) a normative claim about the illegitimacy of the situation is advanced and defended; (c) a hypothesis is formulated about the more probable causes that produce and reproduce it; (d) an empirical inquiry into the situation is conducted in order to show the mechanism through which the social problem manifests itself; (e) a normative claim is advanced about how a just society should be organized in order to avoid the social problem, and (f) guidelines are offered as to how to remedy the social problem.

  21. This is the thesis defended by Robert Talisse (2003). In Frega (2012a: ch. 5 and 6), I have explained why I think that Talisse’s reading is misguided. I am equally unconvinced by the interpretation of Dewey’s theory of democracy as a perfectionist political philosophy that is conveyed by an uncritical acceptance of Dewey’s idea of “democracy as a way of life”. The problem with both these approaches is that whatever Dewey says about democracy is considered to belong to the domain of political philosophy, whereas most of his concerns are for democracy from the perspective of social philosophy. For an account of Dewey’s democratic theory that steers clear of both these shortcomings, see Bernstein (2000); Honneth (1998); and Frega (2010).

  22. For an exposition of the locus classicus of this allegiance and his critique, see MacGilvray (2000).

  23. This is notably one of the points of disagreement between Dewey and Marx: “Karl Marx borrowed from the dialectic of Hegel the idea of the necessity of a negative element, of opposition, for advance. He projected it into social affairs and reached the conclusion that all social development comes from conflict between classes, and that therefore class-warfare is to be cultivated. Hence a supposedly scientific form of the doctrine of social evolution preaches social hostility as the road to social harmony. It would be difficult to find a more striking instance of what happens when natural events are given a social and practical sanctification” (Dewey 1922: 207). However hurried this commentary may sound, its methodological standpoint is clear. Dewey wants to provide a general concept of social conflict that is not a general explanation to be imposed on any social situation from outside. Concepts are tools for exploring social reality, and the concept of conflict is no exception to this rule.

  24. In this regard, see the critique of corporate capitalism and of the “age machine” in Dewey (1927: ch. 4).

  25. See Urbinati’s (1998: 374) passing comment on Gramsci and Dewey on hegemony and West’s (1987, 1989) more sustained comparison of Dewey and Gramsci.

  26. This point has clearly been identified by Frederick L. Will, a much-neglected source of contemporary pragmatist social philosophy. I explain in greater detail the philosophical background of a conception of normativity as a reparative or maintenance practice with reference to the Will’s work in Frega (2012b).

  27. For a useful introduction to the debate on democratic experimentalism within the pragmatist tradition, see Butler (2013). Hetzel (2008) has persuasively shown that pragmatism and the first generation of Critical Theory parts company precisely over their differing appreciation of the emancipatory function of active democratic participation.

  28. For Dewey’s conception of democratic participation as self-government, see Dewey (1939). For a commentary, see da Silva (2009) and Zask (2010).

  29. On this point, see (Fraser and Honneth 2003: 244). See Zambrana (2013) for insightful comments.

  30. A point clearly perceived but in the end not completely resolved by Honneth.

  31. Thévenot (2011) correctly notes that the same asymmetry marks the distance between Dewey’s and Bourdieu’s critical theories, with Bourdieu explicitly theorizing an epistemological break between the distanced, critical, and enlightened perspective of the sociologist and the blind, a-critical perspective of the agent.

  32. Rainer Forst’s version of Critical Theory also provides an attempt to integrate these normative dimensions. It is not clear, however, if, according to the definition of social philosophy adopted in this article, Forst’s program can still be considered a part of social philosophy.

  33. A reading begun with Honneth (2010), and further developed in Honneth (2012) and in Honneth (2011).

  34. I have provided a detailed analyses of Honneth’s use of pragmatist sources in Frega (2015).

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Acknowledgments

I wish to thank the organizers, as well as all the participants. A special thank-you to Daniel Cefai, Joachim Festl, Judith Green, Larry Hickman, David Hildebrand, Chad Kautzer, Joseph Margolis, Torjus Midtgarden, Albert Ogien, Louis Quéré, Sarah Tyson, and Rocio Zambrana for their useful comments during these meetings and on other more informal occasions. The paper has been written with the support of a grant from the Paris Institute for Advanced Studies.

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Frega, R. Between Pragmatism and Critical Theory: Social Philosophy Today. Hum Stud 37, 57–82 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10746-013-9290-0

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Keywords

  • Pragmatism
  • Critical theory
  • John Dewey
  • Axel Honneth
  • Social philosophy