Canadian Pragmatism?

Posted on November 9, 2015 by

Back in May and June I was at the annual meeting of the Canadian Philosophical Association, where I attended an excellent symposium, organized by Susan Dieleman, on “The Possibility of a Canadian Pragmatism”. The presentations and discussion made me think a lot about what it means to be a pragmatist who is Canadian, and whether or not there is, might be, or could even possibly be, a distinctive philosophical movement called “Canadian Pragmatism”.

Though pragmatism was inaugurated by Americans, and has been sometimes seen to be a quintessentially “American” style of philosophy, the appeal of pragmatism has never been limited to America and Americans (even in its early days, there were followers of Peirce and James in Italy, for example; and currently, pragmatism is flourishing all over Europe). The topic of the symposium, however, was to what extent there could be a distinctively Canadian pragmatism, not just in the sense of “pragmatists who are Canadians” (there are quite a few of us!), but in the sense of a  philosophical tradition or project that is somehow distinctively Canadian.

The possibility of a Canadian pragmatism, I think, lies not in what one might (tendentiously and not exactly accurately) call the typical “doctrines” of pragmatism; i.e., anti-foundationalism, anti-representationalism, (liberal) naturalism, fallibilism, and so on. These epistemological and metaphysical views, it seems, are not distinctively bound up with a particular nation or citizenry. So if we are looking for something distinctive about a possible Canadian pragmatism, we would have to look elsewhere.

Where to look? I would suggest, in a preliminary way, looking towards pragmatism’s socio-political attitudes. The ideal of democratic inquiry for the good of a people attains its height in Dewey, though the materials and themes are implicit in Peirce and James. In Dewey, too, we find the democratic ideal not only advocated for in inquiry but in all aspects of life. Secondly is pragmatism’s emphasis on social context and community. For the pragmatist a society is a project, a product of ever-evolving social and communal activity directed towards the end of that society’s flourishing.

This is the sense in which there could be a Canadian Pragmatism: Canadian philosophers banding together in the project of furthering the flourishing of Canada through theorizing and advocating for institutional and social structures which have as their aim that flourishing. Dewey should be our model here. Canadian Pragmatism, then, would be a distinctively Canadian attempt to use pragmatist resources to work for the good of our country’s political, social, and cultural institutions.

In that sense, pragmatism is not limited to the United States and Canada. Pragmatism provides a set of tools for any one in any nation to work to bring about human flourishing within their own social and political contexts.

A Canadian Pragmatism, then, is just one of many possible pragmatist projects. But, importantly, it is ours.

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