Conduct and Contestation in Pragmatist Political Philosophy: Mobilizing the Political



From a pragmatist perspective, the political world political appears dynamic. On one analysis, this is a function of conflict and ongoing contestation. On another analysis, it is a feature of progress and repair. Both analyses are correct, but there is a difference of emphasis. I begin by introducing William James’s early conduct pragmatism. James’s pragmatism wells up within both a progressivist-instrumentalist current and a contestational-ironic current. The first is well known in the progressivist work of John Dewey, but the work of his contemporary W.E.B. Du Bois motivates us to temper the place of progress in pragmatist political thought. Similar motivation can be found in the work of political theorists of other stripes, such as Michel Foucault.

The central theme in Du Bois I seek to retrieve into pragmatism is his emphasis on contestation. I argue that this is what defines his contribution to the politics of race in the twentieth century. In developing a reading of Du Bois as contestatory, I argue that he manages to maintain hope without resorting to a moralistic tone. Where one’s moral truths cannot simply be pressed onto others, contestation must be strategic and politicizing in intent. The moralistic option too easily amounts to a pressing to no avail, with the inevitable endgames of bitter despair. In contrast to this, a politicizing contestation works to mount, and to maintain, an apparatus of hope that can outlast forces of defeat. What Du Bois’s manner of contestation offers, I argue, is a way of maintaining itself, and therefore hope, midst conditions of strife so severe that they would reduce mere moralizers to hopeless despair.


The talk will be given by Prof. Colin Koopman from the University of Oregon. The session will take place in Room 101, Founder’s West (FW101) at 5pm, Wednesday on the 16th March 2016. All are welcome.


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