American Pragmatist philosophy, and part of the energy of that resurgence may be due to feminist interest in pragmatism. Before discussing how feminists have transformed pragmatist discussion, it is necessary to briefly look at some of the basic themes in pragmatism. What is now called “classical” American pragmatism is a grouping of philosophies that were developed from the late nineteenth through the early twentieth century, and were largely influential in the Progressive Era (1890-1915) and up until the Second World War. Pragmatists, such as John Dewey, William James and Jane Addams, were interested in the intersection of theory and practice, bringing philosophic thinking into relationship with the social and political environment. For these thinkers, philosophizing was an active process, both as a way to change social realities and to use experience to modify the philosophies themselves. Early pragmatists were often humanists; they saw the social environment as malleable, capable of improvement through human action and philosophic thought. Because of this, many of the classical pragmatists were engaged in social action, often participating in experiments in education and working for egalitarian social reforms. Both early and contemporary pragmatists reject the idea of a certain Truth that can be discovered through logical analysis or revelation, and are more interested in knowledge gained through experiences of all sorts, while emphasizing the social context of all epistemological claims. Because of this understanding of knowledge as shaped by multiple experiences, pluralism has been a central value in pragmatism.
Contemporary studies in pragmatism and feminism generally combine a historical and a theoretical/methodological approach. Feminist pragmatists are working to recover the history and ideas of women philosophers who were influential in the development and articulation of classical American pragmatism. This approach brings into view the lives and philosophies of thinkers and activists such as Jane Addams, Jessie Taft, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Emily Greene Balch, Lucy Sprague Mitchell, Anna Julia Cooper, Mary Whiton Caulkins, and Ella Flagg Young. These women bring added dimensions to pragmatism and remind us of the issues that were subsequently left behind as American philosophy became more exclusively technical and academic. In the pragmatist tradition, it is particularly significant to understand the cultural and philosophic context of ideas, since pragmatists understand theorizing as part of one’s interaction with environment. It then becomes essential to recover the voices of the women who were involved in the early pragmatist dialogue. For the women of this era, their pragmatism was a philosophic practice used to accommodate their new academic and political engagement with the world, as well as a method of reforming politics and culture. The pragmatist approach to philosophy that brought theory and practice together helped these women trust and learn from their own experiences and to be intellectually engaged with their social reform movement.
Thanks to Patrick Seamus for this!
Update: Searching “feminist” results in 102 entries, many of which unsurprisingly overlap with “feminism.”