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Symposia. “Perfectionism and Pragmatism”

Pragmatism, Transcendentalism, and Perfectionism

Introduction to the Symposia
Piergiorgio Donatelli, Roberto Frega and Sandra Laugier

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  • 1 There are, though, some considerable exceptions. See notably Goodman 1990, and Anderson 2006.
  • 2 We owe to Naoko Saito a careful reconstruction of the philosophical kernel uniting and dividing Eme (...)

1The relation between Pragmatism, Transcendentalism, and Perfectionism is both obvious and difficult, and this is what prompted us to edit the present issue of the Journal. The relation is obvious, because the history of American Philosophy is deeply textured by this relation, and the transition from Transcendentalism to Pragmatism has been historically attested. Difficult, because these traditions seem to deny one another.1 Pragmatist philosophers have often presented themselves as the founders of the American philosophical tradition, or at least of a new one; and in order to establish their philosophical and epistemological legitimacy, they have undervalued the influence of previous tradition. While this is mostly evident in the case of Ralph Emerson, similar remarks can be made for the whole American pre-pragmatist philosophical tradition. On the other hand, lovers of Transcendentalism (Stanley Cavell being the first) have vindicated Emerson’s voice by disconnecting him from Pragmatism and claiming his irreducibility to the pragmatist tradition. There has therefore been a sort of Transcendental anti-pragmatist reaction, issuing in charges to the effect that Pragmatists have been blind, or deaf, to Emerson’s influence and, consequently, to perfectionist themes.2 This question, then, seems to need some elucidation, and, moreover, seems to be at the core of any reflection on the nature and definition of American Philosophy today.

  • 3 See Anderson 2006 for a philosophical interpretation of this notion.

2The recent upsurge of studies aimed at exploring the historical relationships between these traditions has not obfuscated the importance of Cavell’s voice in this debate. Indeed, his work has significantly contributed to the emergence of a specifically perfectionist dimension to this discussion, making a distinct contribution to the fashioning of the very idea of American Philosophy as a Philosophy Americana.3 Cavell, in works such as Conditions Handsome and Unhandsome: The Constitution of Emersonian Perfectionism (1990) and Cities of Words (2004), has worked to bring Emerson’s voice back to the heart of American philosophy. Beyond mere historical rehabilitation, Cavell has sought to establish the present-day relevance of Emerson’s thinking. He identifies the task of establishing Emerson as an actual philosopher with a twofold struggle: distinguishing Emerson from the Pragmatists and distinguishing himself from “neopragmatists,” i.e., those who, like Rorty, claim the inheritance of Dewey. Thus, the struggle for a new appraisal of Transcendentalist themes has turned out to be a struggle for inheritances.

  • 4 See his important Presidential Address of the APA in 1978 (Rorty 1980), echoed some years later by (...)
  • 5 See the reconstruction of this historical process offered by Scott Pratt 2002. See also Bunge 1984, (...)

3As Cavell notes in This New Yet Unapproachable America (1989), in order to establish something as American philosophy, you need to specify whom you will inherit from. The classical European tradition imported during colonial period? The native, indigenous traditions existing since time immemorial? From Emerson and the Transcendentalists? From Dewey, James, Peirce and the other Pragmatists? Or from the philosophers of the Vienna circle, who arrived during the 1930’s and 40’s? These struggles over inheritance are not merely historical quarrels: they play an essential role in establishing what the word “American” might mean for philosophy in America today. They are thus at the very heart of the making of contemporary American philosophy. In this sense, Cavell’s reappropriation of the Emersonian tradition represents but a step in the broader process through which American philosophy attempts the reappraisal of its own sources. It parallels Rorty’s re-discovery of Pragmatism at a time when Pragmatism was itself deeply marginalized within American philosophy,4 and it has been followed by a more recent but equally important reappraisal of those native and indigenous philosophical sources that shaped American culture (and therefore philosophy) prior to and independently of both Pragmatism and Transcendentalism.5 All these different philosophical strands are contributing to a significant transformation of American philosophy: if we compare what is being done in philosophy in America today to what constituted the bulk of American philosophy only three decades ago, one is simply astonished by the incredibly rich and varied spread of approaches and traditions that have come to compose it. The state of a dominantly analytical and post-positivist philosophy (later to be opposed to a post-modern philosophy hosted by literature departments) has now been replaced by a much more pluralistic and sometimes even syncretistic flourishing of philosophical traditions. Cavell is probably the most prominent among a plurality of voices in insisting that the recovery of the American tradition in philosophy should not be veiled by a generalized appeal to pragmatism and that, accordingly, there is really no point in calling “Pragmatist” anything that has been done in philosophy before the rise of analytical philosophy. Cavell’s point is that we should give room to a wider, more inclusive understanding of the American inheritance, an inheritance that is at the same time pragmatist, pre-pragmatist, and non-pragmatist. This is the historical scenario within which Cavell’s reappraisal of Emerson and, more generally, the renaissance of an Emersonian tradition today has to be understood.

4In the context of this framework, Cavell has given himself the task – notably in his essays “What is the Emersonian Event?,” and “What’s the Use of Calling Emerson a Pragmatist?” – of clearly distinguishing Emerson from Pragmatism. His strategy of demarcation is based upon a reading of Pragmatism – and notably of Deweyan Pragmatism – stressing those elements of instrumentalism and practicalism (what Dewey called ironically a “bread and butter” kind of Pragmatism) that mostly contrast with the ethical insights of the Transcendental tradition. Such a position has appeared to many to be quite unfair. One has to consider, for instance, Dewey’s many references to Emerson (see Colapietro 2004, Saito 2005, and Juan Pablo Serra this issue) as well as Dewey’s reflective and imaginative conception of ethical experience (see Frega 2006, Pappas 2008).

5Given his views about the philosophical importance of the theme of inheritance, this demarcation has had a central methodological importance to Cavell. But it has also a philosophical significance of its own. Pragmatism and Perfectionism, in fact, incarnate a tension between two dimensions of moral experience whose reconciliation remains an unachieved task for moral and political thinking. On the one hand, you have the pragmatist struggle to account for human experience within the framework of a rationality immanent to experience and focused on the needs that emerge within contextual problematic situations. On the other, the perfectionist idea that at the heart of experience lies a core which is and remains irreducible to any effort at rationalization, and which escapes any reductivist attempt at accounting for it in functional, instrumental or materialist terms. This tension notwithstanding, pragmatism and perfectionism are philosophical traditions that share quite a broad basis provided by the primacy both assign to the ordinary as well as the epistemological primacy they assign to experience as a privileged starting point in philosophy. Yet they part ways, at least partially, with respect to the part of experience they decide to emphasize: its reflective and rational character in pragmatism; its stubborn irreducibility to a complete and self-transparent articulation in perfectionism.

6Accordingly, for Cavell the reappropriation of Emerson’s true voice – the specific tone of Emerson – requires in the first instance a differentiation from Pragmatism. As Cavell says early on (this time regarding the difference between Pragmatism and Wittgenstein):

It might be worth pointing out that these teachings are fundamental to American pragmatism; but then we must keep in mind how different their arguments sound, and admit that in philosophy it is the sound that makes all the difference. (Cavell 1969: 36; 2003: 216)

7This tone in Emerson (that Cavell in a previous text called “mood” and, later, “pitch”), or Wittgenstein for that matter, is not a variable or psychological element: it is our capacity to speak, to stand up and speak for ourselves or for others, to take into account the fact that language is said and must be said in order to really be meant (herein lies the meaning of the title of his first text “Must We Mean What We Say?”). Here we should certainly remark that a certain priority of language which marks Cavell’s approach to philosophy is not to be found in classical pragmatism, whose philosophical stance is rather marked by the priority of experience over language.

8This different attitude accounts for some of the distance that characterizes the relationship between pragmatism and perfectionism, or transcendentalism, although such differences should not be overemphasized. At any rate, one should distinguish the disagreement marking Cavell’s distance from classical pragmatism from the disagreement between Cavell and the neo-pragmatists. It is at this second level that the question of inheritance emerges, so that we might describe the disagreement between Rorty and Cavell as a disagreement over inheritance: it concerns the figures of American philosophy each of them promotes. Of course, Cavell, Putnam, and Rorty join forces in wishing to prompt the rediscovery of unjustly neglected American thinkers (Emerson, James, Dewey). Yet the forms and the meaning of this rediscovery are not the same. Although in keeping with a felicitous movement of reappropriation of the American philosophical past, the rediscovery of Pragmatism is feared by Cavell to circumvent Emerson’s originality. For Cavell, reading Emerson means rediscovering his specificity, a certain approach to the ordinary and to democracy, which is insoluble in terms of the consensual thinking on democracy that developed in America during the 20th century.

9According to Cavell, in order to realize this, it is necessary to listen to the distinctiveness of Emerson’s voice, the difference in tone in the treatment he proposes of themes now familiar in the writing of John Dewey. In “What’s the Use of Calling Emerson a Pragmatist?” Cavell distinguishes Emerson from Dewey and from Pragmatism in general by the tone of his democratic aspiration (Cavell 2003: 216). The question is therefore to decide which Emerson we wish to inherit today: the precursor of Pragmatism, who would poetically formulate some principles later to be rationalized (as the call to commonality and practicality), or the radical thinker of individualism? Cavell wants to establish a caesura between Transcendentalism and Pragmatism. As a consequence of this, Cavell’s position towards Pragmatism appears inevitably unjust, notably towards sincere defenders of democracy like Dewey, or towards philosophers like William James who claimed (certainly not without ambiguity) a part of the Emersonian legacy.

10In any case, it is precisely in the democratic demand, however, that Cavell proposes to locate what is different in Emerson, even if we find more than an echo of Emerson in Dewey, who never ceased to refer to his debt to Emerson (Dewey 1903). Dewey, like Emerson, demanded commonality, that the ordinary or everyday life be shared by all men; and both called for an ideal community. But in the Emersonian approach to commonality, there is nothing of a consensus or a rational agreement. Cavell urges this point also against contemporary political theories of democracy, most notably against the Rawlsian conception and the long lasting tradition of contractualism. A characteristic of Emerson’s politics is his critical dimension, a perfectionist refusal of society such as it exists – a refusal to recognize it as belonging to oneself as soon as one begins searching for a better self. Hence the notes of hatred for his contemporaries that sometimes sound in his work, which are justified only by a hatred for oneself:

Emersonian Perfectionism requires that we become ashamed in a particular way of ourselves, of our present stance, and the Emersonian Nietzsche requires, as a consecration of the next self, that we hate ourselves, as it were impersonally. (Cavell 1990: 16)

11A political implication of this skeptical refusal to accept to resolve agreement in consensus is an original questioning of the relationship of the individual to the community. This is what Cavell thinks is lost in Pragmatism – but more generally in mainstream con- temporary political theory – and why, according to Cavell, Emerson’s voice is “deadened” even in 19th century American Philosophy. Still, the question remains open: maybe because Cavell’s position, as shown in a number of contributions here (Ardiv, Dika), is deeply determined by the connection between Emerson and Wittgenstein established, e.g., in Cavell (1989), and their approach to voice. The voice is precisely what is defined, at the start of “Self-Reliance,” as the very demand to trust oneself, which Cavell calls the “arrogation of voice” that leads oneself to say “We,” to speak in the name of the rest of humanity. For Cavell, the first question, then, is indeed knowing how one can speak – who, apart from me could give me the authority to speak for us? This is the question he had already asked in “Must We Mean What We Say?” where he examined the method of ordinary language philosophy, which consists in elucidating what we say, and which led him in turn to Austin’s defense. This question of the voice comes years before Cavell’s discovery of it in Emerson, with its themes of the acceptance of speech, of the autobiographical, and the act of (dis)possessing one’s speech as the only manner, paradoxically, of accessing representativeness. Cavell generalizes the autobiographical dimension of any speech act in the first person in clearly Emersonian terms:

The autobiographical dimension of philosophy is internal to the claim that philosophy speak for the human, for all; that is its necessary arrogance. The philosophical dimension of autobiography is that the human is representative, say, imitative, that each life is exemplary of all, a parable of each; that is humanity’s commonness, which is internal to its endless denials of commonness. (Cavell 2003: 10-1)

12The enigma of representativeness is then the central enigma of politics. How can I relinquish my voice and consider that someone represent and speak for me? Here, the connection to Dewey’s themes becomes obvious, especially if one relies on Emerson and Cavell’s call for a community and Dewey’s call for a public as the necessary and necessarily unachieved task of democracy. Cavell’s discovery of Emerson, which took place some years after the publication of The Claim of Reason, responds to problems raised very early in his philosophy. Recall that Cavell remarks, in his first texts on Emerson, that he was for a long time deaf and indifferent towards Emerson. One is thus only struck all the more by the Emersonian tone of these passages from The Claim of Reason:

But since the genuine social contract is not in effect (we could know this by knowing that we are born free, and are everywhere in chains) it follows that we are not exercising our general will; and since we are not in a state of nature it follows that we are exercising our will not to the general, but to the particular, to the unequal, to private benefit to privacy. We obey the logic of conspiracy. (Cavell 1979: 26)

13The question of the voice is thus the political question, from Plato to Rousseau to Emerson and Dewey. Cavell, when he takes it upon himself to bring Emerson’s voice back to the field of philosophy, inscribes Wittgenstein himself in the extension of the Emersonian voice.

To speak for oneself politically is to speak for the others with whom you consent to association, and it is to consent to be spoken for by them – not as a parent speaks for you, i.e. instead of you, but as someone in mutuality speaks for you, i.e. speaks your mind. Who these others are, for whom you speak and by whom you are spoken for, is not known a priori, though it is in practice generally treated as given. (Cavell 1979: 27)

14Democracy, for Emerson, is inseparable from Self-Reliance, that is to say, from confidence – not as hollow self-conceit or a feeling of superiority (a debased version of perfectionism, as he sometimes says), but as a refusal of conformity, of letting oneself be spoken for by others. Self-reliance is thus a political position, claiming the voice of the subject from conformism, from uses that are accepted in a non-critical way, and from dead institutions, or those no longer representative or “confiscated.” Cavell therefore brings perfectionism back to contemporary politics at a time when Rawls’ political liberalism seemed to have definitively expunged it from political theory. Rorty’s proposition, which sees in Emerson the precursor of a pragmatism whose tradition, with liberalism, continues on into the 20th century, rests, for Cavell, on a lack of understanding Emerson’s political specificity. This is the critical requirement with Emerson: a critique, first of all, of oneself, one that inscribes itself at the heart of the contemporary American debate on political radicalism and its legacy, a political question of individualism as a principle of the agreement to society (see Bercovitch 1993). But self-reliance only has strength or practical value if its aversion to conformism also addresses itself to oneself:

So we are to remember that an aversive address may be taken toward oneself as much as toward any institution. Not thus to address the self is to harbor conformity, and I think Emerson invites us to see this as a political choice. (Cavell 2003: 190)

  • 6 [Pragmatism] is the formation of a faith in intelligence, as the one and indispensable belief neces (...)

15Cavell compares Dewey’s treatment of intelligence6 with what Emerson wrote in “Self- Reliance”: “To believe your own thought […] that is genius.” When Emerson evokes the genius in each person, he expresses the hope that man is one, and that he can therefore become ordinary, attain his ordinariness, and such a hope has nothing to do with the increase of knowledge or scientific progress. In attaining the ordinary and democracy by way of individual genius instead of by science and the reform of intelligence: there again is something that separates Transcendentalism from Pragmatism.

16We could also characterize this difference by turning to science, which rendered Pragmatism more presentable in the 20th century, and thus more assimilable to analytical philosophy than Transcendentalism. Cavell thinks that there is a certain conflict between the appeal to science and the appeal to ordinary language, which has been constant since the entrance of the latter into philosophy. It is the specific difficulty in turning to ordinary language, and more generally in rediscovering what is common to us, that is forgotten in Pragmatism. We could then characterize the difference between Transcendentalism and Pragmatism as the difference between the appeal to the ordinary and the appeal to commonality – except that commonality, in Pragmatism, appears as given, while for Transcendentalism, it is an object of skepticism:

The philosophical appeal to the ordinary, the words we are given in common, is inherently taken in opposition to something about my words as they stand. […] The appeal challenges our commonality in favor of a more genuine commonality (surely something that characterizes Dewey’s philosophical mission) but in the name of no expertise, no standing adherence to logic or to science, to nothing beyond genius. (Cavell 2003: 218)

17It is for this reason that the symptom of Pragmatism’s ignorance of the ordinary is, for Cavell, its casualness regarding Skepticism, or the idea that science constitutes a response to Skepticism. Emerson’s entire work is run through, at least after Nature, with the menace of Skepticism. According to Cavell, the refusal of Skepticism is, conversely, a characteristic of Pragmatism:

In contrast, neither James nor Dewey seems to take the threat of skepticism seriously. […] Pragmatism seems designed to refuse to take skepticism seriously, as it refuses – in Dewey’s, if not always in James’ case – to take metaphysical distinctions seriously. (Cavell 2003: 221)

  • 7 But see Saito’s important achievement in bringing Pragmatism and Perfectionism closer.
  • 8 See Cavell’s Foreword to Saito 2005.

18Here we see probably the highest point of Cavell’s misunderstanding of pragmatism: he draws an opposition between science and the ordinary (that according to him is an opposition between science and ordinary language) where the real opposition is that taking place between a philosophy of the ordinary as experience and a philosophy of the ordinary as language. Here lies one of the enduring sources of the misunderstanding of pragmatism: its call for intelligence, for practice, for the public nature of thought are but appeals to the manifold and constantly changing guises of human experience. In its closeness to experience, pragmatism and perfectionism are probably closer than they are currently acknowledged to be.7 And yet, as Cavell incessantly remarks, our philosophical understanding should be sensitive to their irreducible differences, which should neither be neglected nor conceived as forms of conflict. They are, rather, as Cavell aptly acknowledges, forms of philosophical tension.8

19This perspective makes it easier to rethink – under the guise of this philosophical tension – Dewey’s political and ethical ideas in relation to those expressed by Emerson. We all know that the democratic influence of the philosophical appeal to the ordinary is an essential question for Emerson and Dewey. Emerson and Dewey are both, although in dissimilar ways, thinkers of the community. They both praise the communal dimension of human experience, and they both call for an ethical engagement as the necessary basis of political democracy. Yet Emerson, more than Dewey, has stressed the irreducibility of the individual to the community, the political necessity of taking seriously his individual voice the moment before it vanishes into the universal vacuum of political consensus. While Dewey’s democracy at times seems to take the individual’s assent to the community too easily for granted, Emerson reminds us that human association is always on the verge of failure. Both the Emersonian and the Pragmatist tradition bring to contemporary thought voices that cannot easily be reconciled with the mainstream categories of moral and political philosophy. They are both accused to be the bearers of a currently unacceptable perfectionism and, although for different reasons, to foster oppressive political conceptions. Yet their perfectionism is not the same, and their conceptions of the individual and of the community differ at significant points. These are some of the moments of this fruitful tension that constantly unites and separates the pragmatist and the perfectionist traditions in philosophy.

20It is with the aim of furthering the complex and rich conversation between these American traditions that many of the essays here published propose a reworking of moral perfectionism as this notion has been invented by Cavell in his specific reading of Emerson. Cavell brings his long reflection in several fields of philosophy and cultural criticism – more directly in the direction of rethinking the place and the nature of ethics – and in so doing he opens a new scene in moral and political philosophy. In Cavell’s treatment, moral perfectionism is an elaboration of the importance of the idea that one’s life is progressing towards an ideal of perfectibility, but he actually moves this notion into an entirely new space where new questions are seen and a new problematic is introduced. The idea of perfectibility and thus of a movement from the present condition to a further, better one is placed within the circumstances of a self which may find or lose herself, may find or lose confidence in herself, in her grasp of the world and of people. Cavell’s diagnosis is that the place of such movements is mainly missed by philosophical ethics nowadays, and the notion of perfectionism attempts to render this area of life visible once again. The dimension of perfectionism renders visible such movements of the self that make sense as discoveries of possibilities which require a distance from one’s present condition, and yet which are also perceived as a further stage of one’s life (see Sophie Djigo on this notion of possibility).

21The condition of the self diagnosed by Cavell’s perfectionism speaks to issues of moral education, the importance of the philosophic notion of virtue, the importance of sentiments and motivation, and against a picture which attributes the main role to reasons which move in an empty space (emptied of humanity). But it does so in a way which places the idea of becoming intelligible to oneself at the center, the idea of authenticity, self-discovery, self-reliance, and thus introduces the notion of the self as something that needs to be conquered against the inclination to take it for granted as a matter of habit, of what is received passively from society, or of what is merely absorbed but never made one’s own. At this crossroad we find issues of how one comes to terms with one’s culture, of the various possibilities of inheritance, transformation or refusal (see Martin Shuster). In this perspective perfectionism rethinks what makes one’s relationship with other people, with society and with one’s beliefs something alive and meaningful, or on the contrary something disconnected from ourselves: the conditions of friendship (see Russell Goodman on this crucial notion) and of just institutions (on Rawls and Cavell, see Nadav Arviv).

22The way in which Cavell inscribes into the notion of the self and its education this radical possibility of loss shapes moral perfectionism and its dialogue with various traditions that have placed the importance of self transformation and the test of personal life at the center of their reflections. Perfectionism encourages especially dialogue with the ancient tradition (see Daniele Lorenzini on a comparison between the ancient and the modern), with the Socratic notion of ethics as a kind of integrity with oneself, with the special place given by Aristotle to the virtue of friendship, with the Hellenistic teachings about how to take care of oneself in a way which transforms the substance of one’s self (as first given prominence by Foucault), and also with how this rich tradition gets to be re-employed by Christianity. This dialogue continues through the centuries with the difficulties and resistances offered – if we follow once again Foucault’s lesson – by both Christianity’s interest in making self-transformation invisible as a possibility open to all and by the detachment of spirituality from science, which in the end means the neglect of spirituality as an area in which knowledge requires personal transformation. A space for moral perfectionism comes to be visible from within the preoccupations of the authors whom Cavell takes as main references: Emerson, Wittgenstein, Heidegger, among others (see Russell Goodman, Joseph Urbas and Heikki Kovalainen on Emerson, Tarek Dika on Wittgenstein). Our main focus is of course the connection between transcendentalism and pragmatism: some of the papers show Emerson’s influence on Dewey and James, and thereby go up against a tendency, in the promoters of American transcendentalism, to deny the very important influence of Emersonian ethics on Pragmatist ethics, which elaborates the perfectionist role of the self and of its relation to democratic society (see Sarin Marchetti on William James, Juan Pablo Serra on Peirce and Dewey). Cavell writes that his way of introducing moral perfectionism suggests that it should not be thought of “as a competing moral theory […] but as emphasizing a dimension of the moral life any theory of it may wish to accommodate” (Cavell 1990: xxxi). We may actually enlarge the comparison with the various traditional ways in which philosophic ethics is treated in the analytic language – metaethics, moral theory, applied ethics – and explore how they miss this dimension.

23The emphasis placed by perfectionism on the self may also be read along with its emphasis on the voice with which we speak, on the words that make us intelligible to ourselves, on how we take in the things that happen, on what sorts of attention and senses of portance make these things our personal and shared world. Here perfectionism shows how traditional divisions within metaethics about the role of language and its connection with reason and the sentiments may leave this dimension of the moral life entirely out of consideration (see Jeremy Millington). The kind of personal weight borne by a word, which is also the weight of a whole culture, what makes a fact significant and important, may not be registered along the traditional lines of cognitivism and non-cognitivism. The traditional concern within metaethics for language has missed the importance for words as being expressive of one’s life, of one’s attachment or separation from others and from the world. This was the topic of Iris Murdoch’s writings from the 50s on, and such issues have been taken over and explored beautifully by Cora Diamond (see Stefano Di Brisco on this). This also shows how perfectionism requires an understanding of the imaginative arts, of literature and film, as places where the expressive character of words and human voice are dealt with crucially.

24Another theme explored by Perfectionism (and on a different tone by pragmatism too) is that of the place of reasons and rationality within moral life. Perfectionist thinkers – Stanley Cavell and Cora Diamond above all – have claimed that the choice offered by moral theory, especially through the false alternative between utilitarian and deontological ethics, presents moral experience in a rationalized form which does not answer the questions raised by moral perfectionism (on perfectionism and reasoning, see Matteo Falomi). The approaches which place virtue at the center may also miss the concern of perfectionism for the transformation of the self as a matter of self-discovery and intelligibility. Further, what is now discussed as applied ethics may also easily miss the concern that perfectionism elaborates for the richness of the concrete case. Applied ethics has been thought of, in the course of its main discussions, as conceptual clarification which bears on general notions and large theories, whereas perfectionism suggests bringing in reflection and generality in a different manner, that is, in the way in which a specific circumstance facing specific people can call a whole culture and way of thinking into question, and how one personally takes responsibility for this.

25These are but some of the challenges that the articles published in this volume take on. They show to a considerable degree that Transcendentalism and Perfectionism belong to the best part of the American tradition in philosophy. They also show that the dialogue with the Pragmatist tradition is fruitful and worth pursuing as a dialogue among members of a common philosophical family.

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1 There are, though, some considerable exceptions. See notably Goodman 1990, and Anderson 2006.

2 We owe to Naoko Saito a careful reconstruction of the philosophical kernel uniting and dividing Emerson, Dewey, and Cavell on the question of the philosophical inheritance of transcendentalist themes within pragmatism, and of pragmatist themes within contemporary perfectionist thought. See Saito 2005.

3 See Anderson 2006 for a philosophical interpretation of this notion.

4 See his important Presidential Address of the APA in 1978 (Rorty 1980), echoed some years later by that of Richard Bernstein, significantly devoted to a reconciliation in the appraisal of the common roots of the American philosophical tradition (Bernstein 1988).

5 See the reconstruction of this historical process offered by Scott Pratt 2002. See also Bunge 1984, Dunsmore 1997, and Wilshire 2000.

6 [Pragmatism] is the formation of a faith in intelligence, as the one and indispensable belief necessary to moral and social life” (Dewey 1963: 34-5). The quotation is taken from “The Development of American Pragmatism.”

7 But see Saito’s important achievement in bringing Pragmatism and Perfectionism closer.

8 See Cavell’s Foreword to Saito 2005.

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Electronic reference

Piergiorgio Donatelli, Roberto Frega and Sandra Laugier, « Pragmatism, Transcendentalism, and Perfectionism », European Journal of Pragmatism and American Philosophy [Online], II-2 | 2010, Online since 21 December 2010, connection on 25 September 2017. URL :

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About the authors

Piergiorgio Donatelli

Sapienza Universita di Roma

Roberto Frega


By this author

Sandra Laugier

Université Paris 1 Sorbonne

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Author retains copyright and grants the European Journal of Pragmatism and American Philosophy right of first publication with the work simultaneously licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

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