Friday, July 02, 2010

Christie, Drew. Review of Joseph Margolis, PRAGMATISM'S ADVANTAGE. NDPR (July 2010).

Margolis, Joseph.  Pragmatism's Advantage: American and European Philosophy at the End of the Twentieth Century.  Stanford: Stanford UP, 2010.

In more than thirty books over forty years Joseph Margolis has crafted an admirable body of thought, key themes of which include Heraclitian flux, constructivism without idealism, the metaphysical importance of the natural/cultural divide, the inadequacy of putative attempts at foundational and transcendental arguments, a sophisticated relativism, and the importance of legitimation (as opposed to foundational justification). He is always careful to position himself in relation to the brightest historical and contemporary stars. Margolis is at his best when he develops a single theme in detail: e.g., Science without Unity: Reconciling the Human and Natural Sciences (1987). He provides an overview in Historied Thought, Constructed World (1995). Margolis's oeuvre deserves more attention. Unfortunately, his latest book is too general and too partisan to convince. By contrast, Robert Brandom offers a comparatively detailed and constructive approach to many important concerns they share.

The volume under review, a spirited, polemical comparative evaluation of analytic, continental and pragmatist philosophies, finds pragmatism the most promising of the three. Margolis believes that pragmatism earns the advantage because it presents "a Darwinized Hegel," a recognition of the metaphysical divide between cultural and natural entities, and an appreciation of the constructed, encultured, and artifactual nature of the self. Margolis sees analytic philosophy as encumbered with materialism, scientism, reductionism, and extensionality. With regard to continental philosophy, he complains of unwarranted transcendentalism and a tendency toward abstruse, gnomic declarations.

Margolis like Richard Rorty believes that there something is fundamentally wrong with both analytic and continental philosophy. Margolis maintains "The whole of Western philosophy was, I think, becalmed, traumatically affected by the Second World War and the cold war, and by and large, almost nothing got through the conceptual haze that was not a recycling of the seemingly successful inquiries of the first half of the century" (x). However, where Margolis and Rorty see a muddle, many other philosophers see vibrant, diverse traditions. This more positive framing of the situation sees analytic, continental and pragmatist philosophies as vigorous ongoing traditions. By analogy, one can appreciate the best within the classical, jazz and rock music traditions without having to choose among them. Each tradition has things to learn from the other and there are wonderful fusion works. However, there is no call for a grand musical synthesis, a single best style of music making. My point is that one need not follow Margolis in either his dismal assessment of contemporary philosophy or his demand that we pick a winner among the various schools. . . .

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