Critical Pragmatism and Neopragmatism by Mark Foster




The Institute for Emancipatory Constructionism
Critical Pragmatism and Neopragmatism
Pragmatists view social action as the site where multiple realities are created. Contemporary critical pragmatists supplement this view with an emphasis on the construction of reality as a struggle between conflicting discourses and competing definitions of the situation. Viewing reality construction as a site of contention opens up the space for deconstructive and polemical approaches to the making and remaking of reality as a political act. Because pragmatism privileges the doing and the performing over the done and the performed, critical pragmatists emphasize the openness of culture to critical change, to knowing as a critical form of inquiry, to reflexive understanding as emancipation and radical pedagogy, to concerted action as orchestrated resistance, and to power as knowledge.
Influenced by the quasi-pragmatism of Foucault, many contemporary critical pragmatists emphasize the polyvocality of power, pluralism, inclusiveness, the value of subaltern cultural beliefs and practices, and the incomplete, partial, and contingent nature of reality. Critical pragmatists value involvement and participation and, therefore, embrace an understanding of multiple realities as the tool for a participatory orientation toward praxis and change. As Norman Denzin discussed, such a critical pragmatist view of cultural realities becomes a politics of resistance and possibility and a moral call for everyone to intervene in public life and interrupt the uncontested flow of inequality....
Inspired by the emancipatory political consciousness of C. Wright Mills, current studies informed by critical pragmatism pay close attention to the components of generic social processes of inequality reproduction within institutions such as stigmatization, “othering,” marginalization, alienating emotional labor, subordination, the formation of symbolic boundaries, the selective transmission of cultural and social capital, the regulation of discourse, the scripting of mass events, and more....
Contemporary critical pragmatists such as Dorothy Smith have embraced a view of knowledge based on embodied situated forms of experience of the world....
Contemporary critical pragmatist approaches to knowledge continue to show the relevance of earlier pragmatist concerns with the changing character of scientific truths ....
Within critical pragmatism, no principles of truth are absolute; no realities transcend the local conditions under which they emerge. Experience and interaction are the sites where knowledge takes shape, and dialogue is the process through which consensus is achieved. Pragmatism is critical of liberal democracies founded on technocratic principles. Science is meant not to rule but rather to help in concrete circumstances. Ethics is to be guided not by universal codes but rather by context-driven action focused on how goals-at-hand serve the public good....
Yet this is no carefree rosy optimism. Contemporary critical pragmatists share a deep concern for the conciliatory nature of bourgeois liberalism. Nancy Fraser's socialist–democratic feminist pragmatism, for example, challenges the essentialism of male-centric views of power and politics and opens the door for a historical and hermeneutic criticism of institutions as the site of gender-biased discursive political practice. Her perspective is critical of hegemonies in the structures of knowledge and the economy that lead to unequal gender divisions of labor, the racial segmentation of markets, and a global economy insensitive to need. Other contemporary critical pragmatists have empirically outlined systems of disjuncture and difference in global cultures and identities, the blurring of national and ethnic identities, the power of the technological imperative to shape media ecologies, the pervasiveness of diasporic populations, the transnational formation of identity-based and interest-driven social movements, the demagogic impression management of ruling politicians, and the resilience of old conservative meta-narratives and the reactionary party structures that support them.

Vannini, Phillip, "Critical Pragmatism." The SAGE Encyclopedia of Qualitative Research Methods. Thousand Oaks, California. Sage Publications. 2008.


This paper joins a broad discussion of the relationship between John Dewey's pragmatism and the tradition of critical theory. In general terms, the historical relationship between pragmatism and critical theory is one in which the antifoundational and practice-oriented dimensions of pragmatism appear to exist in tension, if not outright conflict, with the emancipatory commitments of critical theory's neo-Marxist legacy While Deweyan pragmatism is most often understood in its deliberative, experimental, open-ended, and contextual dimensions, little attention has been paid to the critical dimensions of Dewey's thought. In what follows, I take initial steps in recovering the critical features of Dewey's pragmatism by developing an analysis along two lines. First, I sketch the general contours of the relationship between pragmatism and critical theory in order to account for and unpack the long-standing hostility of critical theorists toward pragmatism. Second, I argue that these hostilities are unwarranted, and that they have been passed to us in the form of a persistent inability of critical theorists to appreciate the more radical features of Dewey's pragmatism. In contrast to the prevailing characterizations of pragmatism, I argue that the philosophical underpinnings of Dewey's pragmatism form the core of an enterprise which is both antifoundational and critical. Moreover, I hope that this effort will open avenues of inquiry into what might be called a model of "critical pragmatism."

Kadlec, Allison, "Reconstructing Dewey: the philosophy of critical pragmatism." Polity. Northeastern Political Science Association. October 1, 2006.

... this entry would be remiss if it did not consider more broadly— if too briefly—the place of neopragmatism in contemporary governance. Although the work of Hilary Putnam, Nelson Goodman, and Donald Davidson, among many others, has revived and advanced pragmatism as a philosophical tradition, the work of Richard Rorty has captured particular attention beyond philosophy. Building on Dewey, Heidegger, and Wittgenstein, Rorty presented in 1979 a sweeping argument against the basic “foundational” conception of human knowledge, hence challenging the status of philosophy as the foundational discipline for all knowledge (based, in turn, on a claim about the foundational role of epistemology). Rorty argued that the major distinction between classical and new pragmatism is that neopragmatists do not accept the classical pragmatist's faith in scientific method. The implications of this argument for governance are less specific than those previously described, but possibly more far-reaching. Hugh Miller, for example, argued that neopragmatism provides a better resource for reforming contemporary public administration precisely because it so clearly rejects claims of scientific objectivism. Certainly Rortian pragmatism provides a critical perspective from which to understand the authority claims of scientific expertise in governance. It also probably complicates Dewey's goal of reconciling progressive models of expertise with populist models of direct democratic participation.
However, beyond these differences, both classical pragmatism and neopragmatism share an openness to the world of everyday politics that allows them to engage with contemporary debates about governance. It is both steadfastly antiutopian and hopeful for social progress.

Ansell, Chris, "Pragmatism." Bevir, Mark (ed.). Encyclopedia of Governance. Thousand Oaks, California. Sage Publications. 2006.

Pragmatism arose in the early twentieth-century as a foil to traditional Continental metaphysics. However, it did not focus on language as a notion of philosophical import, something that later philosophers, particularly the conceptual analysts, would. [Richard] Rorty [neopragmatism], something of a Pragmatist, brought together the works of Davidson and Kuhn to form Pragmatism in accordance with the new focus on language. His deflationary view of language runs along with his expansionistic view of Pragmatism. Verifiability operates in time-sectioned paradigms, thus lending itself to relativity in "truth." More importantly, Rorty's gap between man and the world is not to be overcome with language, leaving man and science permanently separated from the actual condition of the world. This does not bother Rorty; he sees it simply as a part of the human condition, something that man has had to deal with since the beginning of time. While his views are intriguing, Rorty appears to have moved away from the foundation of traditional Pragmatism, placing and emphasis on relativity and metaphysics rather than on strict verifiability.

Forney, Andrew J. (Western Maryland College), "Pragmatism and Neo-Pragmatism: Language and 'Truth.'" Abstract. SUNY Oneonta Undergraduate Philosophy Conference. March 30-31, 2001. Retrieved on June 16, 2009.


Central to critical theory is the questioning of social structures of inequality, that is, relations of power. In contrast, pragmatism has been labelled conservative and incremental. Whether it is capable of radical critique has been questioned (and calls for its affiliation with critical principles are associated with this concern). The traditional concern of pragmatism is that philosophy, or the act of thinking, is a response to some previous experience and does not exist without it. The intellectual effort driven by the doubt that arises from previous experience is therefore oriented toward problemsolving. This focus does not preclude or require incrementalism, but nor does it preclude radical action. Pragmatism per se is neither conservative nor progressive but can be used in either direction. Richard Rorty, for example, is widely recognised as being on the conservative wing, while the pragmatist Cornel West is regarded as being politically radical and Dewey also had a progressive reputation....
The distance between the traditions of critical theory and pragmatism lie in conceptions of rationality. In short, critical theorists deal with totalities – with rationality at large. Within this frame, they have particular reservations about bourgeois democracy and are committed to a collective consensus. Pragmatists, on the other hand, discard totality in favour of dealing with the particular, are likely to embrace the idea of multiple rationalities and are committed to democratic institutions where many voices and rationalities may be aired (Shalin, 1992).....
It was only in the 1960s that critical theory began to take pragmatism and its sociological counterpart, symbolic interactionism, seriously.... In his theory of communicative action, Habermas made a concerted effort to incorporate this democratic ethos of pragmatism into the essentially European project of critical theory. The background to this effort concerns the question of rationality in critical theory....
Both Habermas and Foucault recognised the need to resist and struggle against the imposition of an instrumental rationality or subjugation....
Like Habermas, Foucault rejected instrumental rationality. His genealogical project was concerned with analysing rational practices and he understood these as being inextricably linked with the sociohistorical contexts in which they emerge (McCarthy, 1994). The striking difference between Foucault and Habermas is that for Habermas rationalisation has a twosided normative character – on the one hand there is partial, insufficient rationalisation, and on the other there is a fuller, political and practical rationality. For Foucault, there is no contrast in rationality and no normative element. He considers rationality to either be neutral, or (more often) to be an instrument of domination (Fraser, 1989)....
For Foucault, the notion of power must be understood as pervasive and unavoidable. This frame perceives power as having both coercive and productive potential. Deeply opposed to idealism, Foucault dissociates the discussion of power from utilitarian perspectives of good and evil....
The pragmatism of Dewey, while more critical than it has been credited with, remains insufficiently versed in relations of power. Critical theory offers an analysis of power dynamics and a firm normative stance related to liberation from domination. But it has failed to provide a practically applicable guide to action. It has also held onto absolutes that do not resonate with the current conditions of multiplicity and unknowables.

"Philosophical Roots of Critical Pragmatism." Chapter 3 of a dissertation (title unknown). Retrieved on June 16, 2009.

Kuhn's incommensurability thesis presented a challenge not only to positivist conceptions of scientific change but also to realist ones. For a realist conception of scientific progress also wishes to assert that, by and large, later science improves on earlier science, in particular by approaching closer to the truth. A standard realist response from the late 1960s was to reject the anti-realism and anti-referentialism shared by both Kuhn's picture and the preceding double-language model. If we do take theories to be potential descriptions of the world, involving reference to worldly entities, kind, and properties, then the problems raised by incommensurability largely evaporate. As we have seen, Kuhn thinks that we cannot properly say that Einstein's theory is an improvement on Newton's in the sense that the latter as deals reasonably accurately (only) with a special case of the former. Whether or not the key terms (such as ‘mass’) in the two theories differ in meaning, a realist and referentialist approach to theories permits one to say that Einstein's theory is closer to the truth than Newton's. For truth and nearness to the truth depend only on reference and not on sense. Two terms can differ in sense yet share the same reference, and correspondingly two sentences may relate to one another as regards truth without their sharing terms with the same sense. And so even if we retain a holism about the sense of theoretical terms and allow that revolutions lead to shifts in sense, there is no direct inference from this to a shift in reference. Consequently, there is no inference to the inadmissibility of the comparison of theories with respect to their truth-nearness....
Subsequently, Kuhn developed the view that incommensurability arises from differences in classificatory schemes—taxonomic incommensurability. A field of science is governed by a taxonomy, which divides its subject matter into kinds. Associated with a taxonomy is a lexical network—a network of related terms. A significant scientific change will bring with it an alteration in the lexical network which in turn will lead to a re-alignment of the taxonomy of the field. The terms of the new and old taxonomies will not be inter-translatable.

"Thomas Kuhn." Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved on June 16, 2009.
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