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Keywords:

  • pragmatism;
  • war;
  • democracy;
  • pluralism;
  • Dewey;
  • Bourne

Abstract: This essay explores the resources and limits of pragmatism in a world marked by violence, war, and terrorism. After explicating major strengths of pragmatic social philosophy as developed in the work of John Dewey, I consider two important criticisms of this view as formulated by Randolph Bourne in the face of Dewey's support for American entry into World War I. Bourne first charged that pragmatism is a fair-weather philosophy ineffective in deliberations among persons who do not already share its principal values of freedom, individuality, education, community, and democracy. I argue that Bourne is correct, but that this does not mark a theoretical weakness or failure of pragmatism: Pragmatism has a real but limited practical value or sphere of effectiveness; it cannot do certain kinds of work in times of war (which it should oppose) and it cannot do certain kinds of work in the face of a certain kind of pluralism (which it should more fully embrace). Bourne's second charge against pragmatists is that too often they miss opportunities and waste time. Here I claim that Bourne is correct, and that his point directs pragmatists to turn away from efforts to make pragmatism better in theory and instead to engage in efforts to make practice more intelligent—something Bourne characterized as a “new Americanism” of “federated ethnic groups and traditions,” a genuine alternative to military coalition, “war in the service of democracy.” I close by outlining four such projects.