C. Wright Mills’ Critique of Pragmatism: Remarks on Sociology and Pragmatism: The Higher Learning in America (1964)

Sociology and Pragmatism: The Higher Learning in America, published after C. Wright Mills’ untimely death in 1962, derives from his dissertation A Sociological Account of Pragmatism, written twenty years earlier.

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Mills’ original title is in fact more accurate and representative of the scope and approach of the book, whereas editor Irving Horowitz’s retitling is misleading in suggesting that the book will show the reciprocal influences of sociology and pragmatism rather than situating, as Mills sought to do, the development of pragmatism in its sociological context in American society. Moreover, the retitling suggests closer reference of Mills’ study to Thorstein Veblen (whose 1918 title The Higher Learning in America is alluded to) than is actually the case; in retrospective notes on the study, Mills remarked that he would need to address the absence of any account of the intellectual relations of Veblen to Peirce and Dewey. What the study does is 1) establish a context for the development of pragmatism in the expansion and differentiation of the university and college system in the United States, along with more specific observations about Harvard University, Johns Hopkins University, and the University of Chicago, which played key roles in the lives of three crucial pragmatist thinkers, Peirce, James, and Dewey; and 2) offer a detailed exposition of the ideas of these three and their social implications. A particular focus is the pragmatists’ recasting and transformation of the science-religion controversy that arose with Darwinism, experimental science, and developments in technology in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Mills sees the pragmatists’ displacement of theology and recentering of philosophy on the methods and paradigms of scientific inquiry as expressions of the emergence of secular professionalism in the United States. Though still methodologically tentative and somewhat erratic in its approach, Mills attempts a sustained contribution to the sociology of knowledge, taking American pragmatist thought as his object.

Mills’ expositions of Peirce, James, and Dewey are detailed, insightful, and generally sympathetic. In particular, he grapples effectively with Peirce’s eccentric and dispersed corpus of writing, uncovering in it a coherent core of ideas that can be related to their author’s intellectual biography and to their sociological background—though this latter is true only negatively and disjunctively, since Mills interprets Peirce’s thought as an expression of his “continual outsider positions in the academies” (211).

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In opposing the legitimating ideologies which they carried,” Mills concludes, Peirce “came to oppose the practices they legitimated” (211). William James is dutifully considered by Mills, though for reason of his radical individualism, the social content of James’s thought and his conceptualization of the social are for Mills of lesser interest, attenuated as they were, in Mills’ view, to a kind of intellectual “mugwumpism” (referring to dissenters from the Republican Party in the 1884 elections and more generally to political independents).

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Mills’s real energies are, in contrast, thoroughly invested in his critique of Dewey, in the longest and most consistently critical—in a sociological and political vein—section of the book.

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Mills’ main criticism of Dewey is that his thought masks rather than confronts major social developments that characterize late nineteenth-century and especially early twentieth-century America. These include: the development of corporate capitalism and its attendant organizational forms; the crystallization of conflicting political ideologies and collective parties that represent them; the emergence of state bureaucracies; and the deepening of class and other social cleavages.

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Dewey’s model of thinking and inquiry—on which he bases his view of social interaction—is adaptive and harmonistic, dogmatically assuming the existence of a homogeneous community within which conflict can be dissolved into the experimental and experiential pursuit of knowledge and its dissemination, or, as Dewey so often emphasized, through education. That community, reflective of Jeffersonian rural ideals, is already a regressive utopia in the epoch of corporatism and state collectivism.

Specifically, Mills focuses on Dewey’s conceptions of action, moral choice, and political decision, and accordingly he interrogates the key models of technological problem-solving, rational inquiry, and experiential learning through which, in Mills’ view, Dewey skirts the implications of more fundamental cleavages of morality, ideology, and social power. Dewey’s concept of action, Mills notes (from a Weberian perspective, cognizant of the spread of rationalization and bureaucratic power)—

is of an individual. . .. It is the conduct of an individual in non-rationalized spheres or types of society. It is conduct that makes decisions about situations that have not been regulated. . . . It is conduct on the edge of social structures, such as frontier types of society that are edging out into places not hampered by social organization. (393)

And even more explicitly: “The concept of action in Dewey obviously does not cover the kinds of action occurring within and between struggling, organized political parties. Parties, as Max Weber put it, live in a house of power. They are organizations for social fighting” (394). But Dewey, Mills suggests, constantly fudges the question of power, by several characteristic features of his thought:

(a) by continual selection of concrete examples which are in a power context or even clearly inter-human, (b) by becoming very formal, highly abstract in its unitary model of thought, “adjustment,” “control of environment,” (c) by refusing to formulate concrete socio-political ends, (d) by an infinitely pluralistic view of society, (e) by methodizing all such problem, i.e. rendering them formally, soluble by “intelligence.” (394)

These characteristics also pervade Dewey’s moral thinking, which Mills sees as similarly evasive, by conjuring away fundamental conflicts of moral values in favor of formalistic mediations of moral disagreements through process and method:

The contents of a definite moral choice are never selected. The only criterion is the ubiquitous use of a method. It also assumes a tolerance, which is, of course, a virtue congenial to the indecisive, no matter how ironically its opposite is verbalized as a “quest for certainty.” (395)

In the end, Mills calls into doubt the keystone of Dewey’s epistemology and moral theory, and by extension the central agent of his theory of action, educational philosophy, and liberal political thought: the “rationally thinking individual,” who according to Mills corresponds to the ideal of occupations already on the decline since 1900.

The social structure which [these occupations] formed has undergone serious changes in the direction of bureaucratization. To the extent that his type of thought and action, and his call for its universal advocacy, correspond only to “liberal and free,” knowledge occupations, he is “calling for” a reinstatement. He is fighting the drift into corporate forms of organization fighting what formal rationality does to his liberal, individual thinking man. For in a deep sociological sense, in terms of occupational structure, John Dewey’s perspective corresponds to a Jeffersonian social composition. (442)

Clearly, Mills had a rich engagement with American pragmatism, and commentators such as Cornel West and Robert Dunn have emphasized the importance of Mills’ attempt to redress the shortcomings of pragmatism through its serious confrontation with sociological concepts, concerns, and contents. But Mills’ critique of Dewey also suggests his alignment with other critics in the American radical tradition, from Randolph Bourne to Paul Goodman to Herbert Marcuse, who point up the limits of the liberalism–and its underlying structures of thought and feeling–that Dewey espoused.

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It would also be useful to take up in greater detail how much of Mills’ critique might also apply to the recent, post-New Left reconstructions of German “critical theory” through the fusion of Jürgen Habermas’s “communicative action” with American pragmatist conceptions of action, interaction, and mediation. A good starting point, beyond the later work of Habermas himself, would be that of Hans Joas and Axel Honneth, both strongly influenced by Dewey and George Herbert Mead, and who even follow in Dewey’s footsteps with professorships at the University of Chicago and Columbia University respectively.

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