Norton Versus Callicott on Interpreting Aldo Leopold: A Jamesian View

  • Piers H. G. StephensEmail author
Part of the The International Library of Environmental, Agricultural and Food Ethics book series (LEAF, volume 26)


Since Bryan Norton first advocated an American pragmatist reading of Aldo Leopold’s work in 1988, he has been debating with J. Baird Callicott over interpretation of Leopold’s development of the land ethic. In this chapter I give an overview of this debate, defending the general outlines of Norton’s position by bringing in new interpretative work of my own. I argue firstly that Norton is correct to see a Jamesian pragmatist influence on Leopold, but maintain that this is best read as deriving from William James’ own work rather than from the secondary source, Arthur Twining Hadley, and that Norton may have exaggerated the immediacy and strength of the influence. Secondly, I demonstrate how strands of evidence suggest that Leopold read James, and that elements of James’ thought chimed with Leopold’s own perspective sufficiently to support Norton’s claim of a pragmatist influence. Thirdly, I show that aspects of Callicott’s interpretation of Leopold do not exclude a pragmatist reading, and argue that Callicott has misunderstood Jamesian pragmatism in ways that undermine his case. Finally, I suggest that Jamesian pragmatic naturalism has far more radical potential than Callicott allows, and that the wider framing of the debate within the environmental philosophy community as setting pragmatist managerialism against radical ethical innovation has itself been misleading. I conclude that Norton is correct to argue that the American pragmatist tradition is a powerful positive contributor to environmental philosophy and policy, provided that the breadth of pragmatic naturalism itself is sufficiently recognized across the board.


Leopold Pragmatism Callicott Truth James Experience 


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© Springer International Publishing AG, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Philosophy DepartmentUniversity of GeorgiaAthensUSA

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