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Instructor: Devin Lane. This course meets MWF 11:15 a.m. – 12:05 p.m. in PE G050.

This is a class on American pragmatism. Precisely what ‘pragmatism’ means is a contentious topic, one which will no doubt occupy us over the course of the semester. But the rough idea is that theory and action are inextricably linked. What our ideas mean – and whether or not they are correct – is closely tied to their practical value. This is without a doubt an oversimplification. But it will serve as a starting point as we work through the challenging and deeply interesting works of the American pragmatists. Along the way, we will engage with questions such as:

  • What is the nature of truth?
  • What is the point of inquiry, and what does it take to inquire well?
  • How do we determine the meaning of our concepts and ideas?
  • Can we form justified beliefs even when our evidence doesn’t settle the matter? Is something like faith, either of the religious variety or in ourselves, rationally permissible?
  • What is the relationship between our actions, our habits, and our environment?
  • Is ethics objective? If so, in what way?
  • Under what conditions can democracy flourish? What is the role of the individual in democracy, and what is the role of the community?

To approach these questions, much of our time will be spent reading and interpreting the works of the classical American pragmatists: C.S. Peirce, William James, and John Dewey. But we will also engage with other important figures in the pragmatist tradition. Jane Addams, the famous activist and social worker, has long been understood to have been influenced by the ideas of American pragmatism. But there has recently been a greater appreciation for her own intellectual contributions to the tradition. Alain Locke, considered the “Father of the Harlem Renaissance,” also contributed important and interesting ideas to pragmatist thinking on ethics. We will read work by both of these philosophers as well.

Finally, if time permits, we will try to trace the legacy of American pragmatism to the work of more recent American philosophers, such as W.V.O Quine, Richard Rorty, and Cornel West.