Volume IV, Number 1, Spring 2008

"Pragmatism as Post-Postmodernism: Lessons from Dewey by Larry A. Hickman" review by Michael Eldridge

Michael Eldridge is Lecturer at the Department of Philosophy, University of North Carolina at Charlotte. E-mail:

Pragmatism as Post-Postmodernism: Lessons from Dewey
Larry A. Hickman
New York: Fordham University Press, 2007.
284 pp.

Larry Hickman is that rare philosopher who knows classical pragmatism, as well as the neo-pragmatism that has been informed by postmodernism. He is also well aware of other philosophical approaches and how they impinge on pragmatisms old and new. It is not surprising then that Pragmatism as Post-Postmodernism is a rich, diverse treatment of many issues philosophical and otherwise. Hickman skillfully and thoughtfully explores philosophy, technology, environmentalism and globalization, doing so from a very clear, persuasive, but non-dogmatic, point of view.

The book is a series of previously published essays that have been revised and related to one another to form a loose but coherent whole. It is not the coherence of a tightly developed argument as one might find in a monograph. Rather it is a set of issues—postmodernism, technology and the environment—that Hickman approaches from a classical pragmatic perspective, for he is convinced, and his performance provides ample evidence for his conviction, that the methods and understandings of Charles Sanders Peirce, William James, and above all John Dewey have value for current debates. His approach is not that of the dogmatist who thinks that the truth discovered by the classic pragmatists is applicable today, for they did not think there was such truth. Hickman is faithful to their spirit, taking seriously the problems and discussions of the present, even as he employs the classic pragmatists’ insights.

One could read this book from beginning to end as one would a monograph, or one could pick out the essays that interest one. If one reads a sizable number of the fourteen essays, say a half dozen or more, one will find a theme that is well illustrated and developed. The one suggested by the title is that classical pragmatism has anticipated many of the developments of the latter part of the twentieth century and is suggestive of resolutions to the problems encountered by postmodernism and other recent trends. But the more pervasive theme is the one developed explicitly in the latter part of the book in the essays on homo faber and “productive pragmatism.” Thus the book, while not a monograph, has a point toward which it moves.

One can interpret technology in the narrow sense of high tech and point to the various electronic gadgets that are ubiquitous in our lives. But Hickman has a more inclusive sense in mind. He understands technology, in line with Dewey’s instrumentalism, to be any use of a tool or means to accomplish a task or end. Thus what is distinctive about humans is not their language use but their productivity. We certainly have highly developed communicative skills, but these skills are a form of technology. It is our technical abilities that set us apart from other animals. We make things, including ourselves, our societies, our world, our lives. But this is not unconstrained inventiveness. We are a part of a natural world that both limits and enables us.

With this core insight Hickman is able to critique a variety of approaches that would privilege either subjectivity or objectivity. For instance, at one point Hickman observes: “Dewey is thus postmodernist in the sense that he rejects the notion that there is some foundation of certainty on which we can stand. . . . But he is post-postmodernist in the sense that he reconstructed and put to work what the postmodernists had simply dismissed: a set of organic function or activities that are natural to human beings as a group, that reveal their common evolution, and that can be employed as a part of the process of testing and securing desired ends” (20). Dewey and Hickman want to embrace Darwinian naturalism and the inventiveness of romanticism. They do so by recognizing our natural setting and celebrating our ability to improve upon it. We are at once within the world and able to go beyond that which we are given. We can do so because we are homo faber, man the maker.

Hickman spends much effort spelling out the logic of this constructive approach to the world, emphasizing, with Dewey, the experimental character of successful inquiry. Hickman writes, “At the conscious level, inquiry takes its start in situations that are doubtful, from which it seeks to shape well defined problems. It then uses tools of all sorts, abstract as well as concrete, to from hypotheses which it tests in the very existential arena from which the motivating difficulty arose” (37). Unlike more intellectualist approaches, pragmatism never strays too far from lived experience, from which it gets its problems and by which it tests its proposed solutions. For the pragmatist, practice is primary, but unlike the short-sighted practicalist, it does not hesitate to use theories as tools to enhance experience.

The scope of the book is quite wide, including a chapter on Dewey’s religious proposal, “Cultivating a Common Faith.” Hickman not only faithfully presents Dewey’s proposal; he also places it in the context of Dewey’s understanding of experience and education. He thus wisely begins his exposition with the theme of the ability of human beings to generate the “aims and methods by which further experience can grow in ordered richness” (192). Hence we do not need external norms; we can develop what we need “without external constraints” (193). This, of course, is consistent with Hickman’s larger theme of homo faber. One might think that homo faber could, once he has come of age, be rid of religion. But Dewey and Hickman think not. As Hickman shows, Dewey thought that we can discover what it is that the various religions, at their best, attempt to do, then use that understanding to shape our lives. This approach would not mean that one must abandon his or her religious heritage, but one should use the pragmatic naturalist insights that experience can become self-regulative and that education should enable us to achieve this. In so doing, one would tend to reconstruct one’s religion along more humanistic and naturalistic lines.

The evidence thus far, despite some notable exceptions, is that the various religions, under the pressure of modernity and post-modernity, have tended not to develop in the way desired by Dewey. And the approach of those who have reacted in fundamentalist ways is clearly, according to Hickman, not acceptable from a pragmatic naturalist perspective. I argued for an eliminativist position in Transforming Experience: John Dewey’s Cultural Instrumentalism (Vanderbilt University Press, 1998). Hickman appears in this chapter to be more positive toward the possibilities of existing religions. But our differing appraisals of the possibility of the reconstruction of existing religions should not obscure the fundamental agreement about the value of Dewey’s recommended way of life. Whether one describes it in religious terms or not or whether one thinks that the existing religions can be transformed, we agree that the way to the good life is the one described by Hickman in this chapter: “experience must be allowed to develop on its own terms without being trumped by intransigent institutional doctrines,” and the ideals developed through this pragmatic naturalist process “must be put to objective tests in order to determine the extent to which they are valuable” (197), where value means what is beneficial to humans as inhabitants of a world that is not completely of our making. Yet, to the extent that it is malleable, homo faber must be responsive to the needs of both the world and its productive citizens.