The Promise of Pragmatism:
Modernism and the Crisis of Knowledge and Authority
By John Patrick Diggins
University of Chicago Press, 515 pages, $29.95
Christianity is essentially a contemplative faith. The ultimate purpose of life is to know God, and beyond this end there is no other end. Action is necessarily relegated to a position of lesser dignity than contemplation. The kingdom of heaven cannot be envisioned as a place where we shall be able to get a great deal done, for there will be nothing to do apart from rejoicing in God and in the glory of a redeemed creation. There we shall know even as we are known, and that will fully and eternally suffice.
It follows that Christianity necessarily presupposes “foundations.” There must be realities-objects of contemplation-outside the mind and outside the concepts and words our minds employ. These, of course, are God and creation. In the kingdom of heaven we shall see God face to face and not play language games or playfully deconstruct the words that (assuming there will be words in heaven) will all reflect with perfect fidelity the Word. There is thus a deep antithesis between Christianity and the intellectual trends often characterized as “postmodernist,” and it is hard to see how Christians can do anything, in the main, but resist these trends.
These matters are closely connected with revelation. Christians may agree with one tenet of postmodernism, if with no other, namely, that reason alone provides no access to foundations. Not only does it fail to disclose foundations; it fails to provide grounds for thinking that foundations exist. But Christians, of course, do not start from reason, even though they do not ordinarily hold reason in contempt. They start from revelation and from the faith in which revelation is received. Only after the foundations have been brought to light by revelation is reason called upon to illuminate the foundations further and to clarify faith. This is all quite plain in Augustine: first we believe and then, believing, we strive to understand.
Christianity is antithetical not only to postmodernism, a school of thought that is primarily European, but also to pragmatism, which is always and quite properly thought of as quintessentially American. Pragmatism has diverse forms. William James’ openness to almost any idea that helps us, even if only by enabling us to feel better, is quite unlike John Dewey’s emphasis on science as the authoritative guide to truth. And C. S. Peirce’s exploration of dialogical pathways to truth contrasts with James’ individualism, although it is akin to Dewey’s embrace of democracy as the political method assumed by science. In all of its forms, however, pragmatism idealizes action. We discover truth not by theorizing but by trying out ideas in our individual and common lives; and once discovered, truth proves its worth by “working.” In James’ well-known phrase, truth is the “cash-value” of an idea. The stress on action in pragmatism appears simply because there is no other access to reality. There is no truth of the kind affirmed by Plato and Aristotle, or by Augustine and Aquinas: truth possessing intrinsic beauty and accessible to theoretical reason and to faith. There are no foundations.
Affirming action and denying foundations, pragmatism is necessarily averse to contemplation. Not that it is necessarily atheistic. As everyone knows, James explored religious experiences with great sympathy and sensitivity; and Peirce accepted the reality of God. But a follower of James, or Peirce, or Dewey could scarcely be an orthodox Christian and carry on a life devoted to participating eternally in the beatific vision. It may be hyperbolic but it is not baseless to say that a Christian’s heaven-a scene of profound, everlasting inaction-must have some resemblance to a pragmatist’s hell.
A young graduate student, unversed in Christian theology-which describes the present reviewer some decades ago-may find James charming and perceptive and may see Dewey as sober and balanced. The same person, after several decades of further experience and after becoming familiar with Christian insights-which describes the present reviewer today-may find pragmatism dismayingly shallow. How could a man of James’ acumen be so offhanded in his treatment of humanity’s enduring search for truth? And how could someone as wise and balanced as Dewey seems on the surface to be dismiss “natural rights and natural liberties,” the time-honored grounds of constitutional democracy, as existing “only in the kingdom of mythological social zoology”? And how could thinkers with any claim to being taken seriously as analysts of the human condition be as indifferent as pragmatists were to history and the human past?
The disenchanted former graduate student may even find himself wondering whether there is something more sinister in pragmatism than an overly casual attitude toward such lasting human concerns as truth and the natural grounds of human liberty. Contemplation is a form of concentration on values such as beauty and truth. When action is set above contemplation, it loses its proper subordination to values. It is deprived of moral purpose and becomes an end in itself. And those pursuing it are apt to discover that the grandest forms of action are domination and destruction on a wide, or political, scale. They are apt to become committed to tyranny, imperialism, and war. If that overused and underdefined word “fascism” has any legitimate uses, one of them might be to characterize a commitment such as this.
John Patrick Diggins is concerned, in The Promise of Pragmatism, with the present-day repudiation of foundations and with the problems that repudiation creates. As his subtitle indicates, two problems are uppermost in his mind-that of reaching objective knowledge when, so to speak, there is nothing that knowledge can be about; and that of establishing authority on the basis of assumptions suggesting that, since no objective knowledge is available, one person’s opinion is as good as another’s. These problems arise from two corollaries of the postmodernist (in Diggins’ usage “poststructuralist”) outlook.
The first corollary concerns language. If there are no foundations, then language becomes like a ship without an anchor. It cannot be secured by attaching it to external realities. To elaborate on the simile, it also lacks portholes, for there is nothing outside to be seen, as well as navigational instruments, for there is nowhere to go. It is a prisonship, a craft built of words without meaning and destined to be everlastingly adrift. And that is not the worst of it. Lacking external referents, language becomes vulnerable to “deconstruction.” Our prisonship of words is far from being a secure habitation. It is continually having holes torn in its sides, allowing the cold winds and seas of nothingness to sweep in. This is a way (mine, not Diggins’) of indicating the problem of knowledge.
The second corollary of postmodernist antifoundationalism concerns power. If language cannot tell us of the truth, or be used to search for the truth, then philosophy, the love of wisdom, dies. It is replaced by rhetoric. It becomes an effort to convince-which is to say exercise power over-other people. All relationships become power relationships of one kind or another. In that situation, authority is inconceivable. If all speech is rhetorical, there can be no authoritative speech. There can be no relationships based on mutual recognition of the truth. Diggins does not put things in quite this way, but I think something of this sort is what he has in mind.
Diggins’ principal subject, however, is not the antifoundationalism of present-day European philosophy. Such philosophy was anticipated, as he sees it, by the American pragmatists and is in some degree replicated in the thought of the major contemporary representative of pragmatism, Richard Rorty. Diggins also holds that antifoundationalism was anticipated by the framers of the American Constitution, who relied not on any foundational principles but on political mechanisms calculated to discipline and check governmental officials. Accordingly, while his book contains frequent references to European thinkers such as Heidegger, Foucault, Derrida, and Habermas, it is focused on James, Peirce, Dewey, and Rorty. Henry Adams is used throughout as counterpoint-a thinker who was as conscious as the pragmatists of the apparent disappearance of foundations from the modern mind but was less blithe than the pragmatists in assuming we could live very well anyway. And at various points Diggins discusses the Framers, especially Jefferson (not actually, of course, a member of the Philadelphia Convention) and Madison.
Diggins has mastered a vast range of difficult and complex philosophical material, and he subjects the thinkers discussed to a host of shrewd criticisms. Not many will read his book without learning a good deal. The general conclusion that emerges from his discussion is that pragmatism fails to meet the crisis of knowledge and authority. This, the reader may infer, is because it fails either to provide foundations or to show convincingly (and failure to be convincing is fatal if philosophy is really rhetoric) how we can live well without them. Diggins is invariably sympathetic and fair-minded, but pragmatism looks very tattered indeed when his account of it is finished. One is left wishing that other schools of thought, such as idealism and Thomism, had found American soil as congenial as pragmatism did; and one also wishes that the major American philosopher of our time were someone other than Richard Rorty. Perhaps the worst Diggins says about pragmatism is found in a statement that is mild on the surface but lethal in its effect. “In pragmatism,” he writes, “one finds neither deep sensibility to alienation nor much anxiety about the eclipse of authority and truth.” This is the dismaying shallowness of our native thinkers.
No such shallowness can be attributed to Henry Adams, who is perhaps, for Diggins, the great hero of American thought. One may surmise that Diggins is interested in Adams particularly because he was an historian, as is Diggins, and experienced at first hand what it means for an historian to find himself without foundations. The past unraveled in his hands, revealing neither reliable causal connections nor overall meaning. Unlike the pragmatists, with their insouciance about the human past, Adams realized the devastating consequences the disappearance of foundations has for our comprehension of the past, and this realization caused him profound anguish. Adams’ near despair can be seen, in Diggins’ account, as a badge of spiritual honor.
The Promise of Pragmatism contains a bewildering array of insights. This is said, of course, partly in praise. It is also said partly in blame. The reader may wish the book were less bewildering. Diggins’ general attitude toward pragmatism is clear, but his intellectual position and critical orientation are not. To censure him for not providing a solution to the crisis of knowledge and authority would be asking for too much. But the reader may feel that he should have somewhere fused into a single theme his criticisms of pragmatism and of European antifoundationalism. Indeed, I must confess that I do not know whether his title is meant ironically-to suggest that pragmatism has no promise-or whether it is meant rather to suggest that pragmatists have so far failed to realize potentialities inherent in their own philosophy. In other words, I do not know whether Diggins feels that we must somehow rediscover our foundations, or whether he feels that, by following some method yet to be developed, we must simply learn to live without them.
Christian readers are apt to be particularly conscious of these obscurities. It is clear that Diggins is sympathetic to religious thinkers and themes. He criticizes Habermas for ignoring them, and he discusses Reinhold Niebuhr with manifest respect and approval. Yet a Christian may feel that so judicious a sampling of the food of faith is rather unsatisfactory. God is a somewhat peculiar reality and must either be in the center of the picture or else not in the picture at all. It seems that Diggins would like to have Him somewhere in the picture but not in too prominent a position. The consequence is simply that God disappears altogether, contrary to Diggins’ intent, and that the favorable references to religion wither into significance. His general analysis is handicapped.
This happens, for example, in his analysis of sin. Diggins is critical of the optimism of thinkers such as Dewey and Habermas, and is manifestly conscious of the fact that human beings do not on the whole behave very well. He is, in a Niebuhrian sense, “realistic.” Yet it never becomes clear whether he accepts-in a Niebuhrian sense-the concept of original sin, the notion that man is captive to sin and is unable through his own resources to be good. This is closely connected with the question of God. Diggins never mentions grace, and if you have no consciousness of grace then, of course, you must not push the concept of sin too far; you will find that you have construed the human situation as hopeless. This may be why Diggins neglects to think through the concept of sin. In any case, if I read him accurately, a rather serious confusion arises from this neglect.
Foundations may be unseen by us for either of two quite distinct reasons. For one, it may be that there are no foundations, which is, of course, the view held by the postmodernists. Or it may be that foundations are unseen by us because we have defective eyes; we lack normal vision. If this is the case, it must, on Christian terms, be due to our sinful natures. We cannot see reality clearly because we are turned away from it. Augustine holds this view. That Augustine affirmed foundations is not open to doubt, but his writings show throughout an acute consciousness that we are able to see these foundations at best only dimly and that this is because we are sinful beings. In his treatise on the Trinity, for example, he explores indefatigably analogies between divine and human nature that can enable us to envision the Trinity better; yet he insists repeatedly that the Trinity is ultimately incomprehensible to fallen beings like ourselves. The confusion in Diggins, if I am not mistaken, is that he does not sharply distinguish between what we might call the postmodernist and the Augustinian views concerning foundations. This confusion weakens his argument at two points.
To begin with, his analysis of the mind of the Framers is not entirely satisfactory. Diggins attributes to the Framers a skepticism about foundations that is virtually postmodernist. The idea is provocative and there may be some truth in it. It is hard, however, not to feel that it is overdrawn. Even the Enlightenment pointed toward foundations. More important, the Framers were heirs of a Calvinist worldview in which both foundations and original sin were emphatically affirmed. They may, much of the time, have seemed more like Deists than Calvinists. But the suggestion that they were-in 1787, in America-postmodernists of a sort is implausible. Surely the decisive consideration in their design of the Constitution, with all of its divided powers and its checks and balances, was human nature, not metaphysics or epistemology. At the very least, Diggins should have confronted this objection and offered stronger evidence in support of his argument.
The absence of a clear distinction between postmodernist and Augustinian attitudes toward foundations also affects adversely Diggins’ discussions of Niebuhr. To begin with, although he is well-informed about Niebuhr, one misses in the Niebuhr he presents the drama of sin-which one can scarcely miss in Niebuhr’s own writings. The tenacity of sin, along with the ironies it brings into human events, seems lacking from Diggins’ account. To adapt Mark Twain’s remark about his wife’s efforts to mimic his profanity, he knows the words but not the tune. Worse than this, Diggins allows the impression to arise that Niebuhr, like the Framers, was a kind of postmodernist. But surely he was not. He was an Augustinian. He believed in foundations as unreservedly as did Augustine; these comprised not only God but an order of creation that was at least obscurely visible through conscience and reason. Niebuhr’s depiction of the human plight, like the Framers’ design of the Constitution, rested more on considerations of human nature than on considerations of metaphysics or epistemology. Diggins does not deny these things, but neither does he clearly set them forth, and this makes for a certain cloudiness in his discussion of Niebuhr.
In sum, when God is put on one side of the picture he will inevitably be found to have disappeared completely, and one way God’s disappearance affects Diggins’ book is by causing a certain inability to handle the concept of sin. But there is another way in which God’s disappearance becomes manifest in The Promise of Pragmatism . This is in Diggins’ neglect of the concept of revelation. Revelation and foundations are nearly inseparable concepts. In the Chris-tian view, revelation is, in our fallen state, our one sure means of access to foundations. By way of New England Puritanism, it was the main source of the Framers’ sense of foundations even though few of them may have given much thought to revelation. And it was the main source of Niebuhr’s foundations. I suggest that it is Diggins’ neglect of revelation that makes it possible for him to exaggerate the postmodernism and obscure the Augustinianism of both the Framers and Niebuhr.
Indeed, the problem of foundations is probably insoluble apart from revelation. It is arguable that “the crisis of knowledge and authority” that Diggins names in the subtitle of his book arose ultimately from the denial of revelation. With Descartes, there began an effort to base everything on reason, and what we see in postmodernism is that reason, unguided by faith, not merely fails to uphold everything, but destroys everything, even itself. Diggins does not face this fact. This is not because he is intellectually weak. On the contrary, he is an uncommonly discerning and serious writer. Nonetheless, it seems to me that he does not force himself to look unflaggingly at the ultimate questions underlying the crisis of knowledge and authority. How is it that so many thinkers, both in this country and elsewhere, have failed so signally to deal with this crisis? How is it that some of them, like the pragmatists, have failed even to see it? What explains the fact that after more than twenty-five centuries of philosophy and nearly twenty centuries of Christianity we find our lives-at least our intellectual lives-running along the very brink of nihilism?
Glenn Tinder is the author of The Political Meaning of Christianity.
We launched the First Things 2023 Year-End Campaign to keep articles like the one you just read free of charge to everyone.
Measured in dollars and cents, this doesn't make sense. But consider who is able to read First Things: pastors and priests, college students and professors, young professionals and families. Last year, we had more than three million unique readers on firstthings.com.
Informing and inspiring these people is why First Things doesn't only think in terms of dollars and cents. And it's why we urgently need your year-end support.
Will you give today?