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Modernism and the Crisis of Knowledge and Authority
By John Patrick Diggins
University of Chicago Press, 1994, 528 pages, $29.95

Pragmatism made its entrance into history under the banner of modernism, with its emphasis on scientific progress and its disdain of historical and metaphysical truths. The pragmatists, led by John Dewey, William James, and Charles Sanders Pierce, challenged Hegel's notion that "philosophy aims at knowing what is imperishable, eternal, and absolute."

Since objective truth was not something that could be discovered through the faculty of reason, the pragmatists thought, epistemology and its preoccupation with the "foundations" of knowledge needed to be abandoned altogether. In their view, ideas and propositions could not be judged by objective criteria since it was impossible to establish such criteria; instead, the strength of an idea had to be judged by the results it produced when put into practice. The pragmatists insisted that it was, in Santayana's memorable phrase, "better to pursue truth than to possess it."

In this engaging intellectual history of what he calls "America's one original contribution to the world of philosophy," Diggins traces pragmatism from the seminal works of Dewey and James to the contemporary neopragmatism of Richard Rorty. He juxtaposes their ideas with those of contemporaries such as Weber, Niebuhr, Lippmann, and Veblen, "as though they were in conversation with one another." The result is not only a sweeping account of a century of American ideas, but a probing and insightful analysis of many of its key players.

Diggins has a special fondness for historian Henry Adams. He serves as the conscience of the study for, in Diggins's view, pragmatism was an answer to the very "crisis of knowledge and authority" Adams articulated so well a century ago.

Diggins finds that although pragmatism ultimately failed to live up to its promises, it embodied both the spirit of its time and the culture in which it flourished. This account is certainly not the first to chart the legacy of pragmatism, but it is certainly among the more intellectually stimulating and wide-ranging.

This review appeared in the Winter 1995 issue of the Antioch Review

Copyright 1995 by Scott London. All rights reserved.