U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Daniel T. Rodgers, Neo-Pragmatist

In my last post I argued that Daniel Rodgers in the Age of Fracture stands in what I called the Rortyean intellectual tradition of analyzing vocabularies. Several commentators expressed skepticism that Rodgers’s orientation toward language in Age of Fracture rose to the level of method and expressed reservations that Rodgers would be called a neo-pragmatist, a claim that I had not intended to make. So I immediately backed away from the claim that Rodger was a pragmatist, while holding onto the idea that Rodgers was in the broader intellectual tradition (as Rorty was) of Wittgenstein.

But I recently had a chance to reread Rodgers’s second book, Contested Truths, and I now think that perhaps I backed away from the claim of Rodgers’s neo-pragmatism too soon.

Contested Truths anticipates Age of Fracture in multiple ways. But rather than doing a full summary of his method in the earlier book, consider some quotations from Contested Truths:
“For the history of political talk in America—if I have it straight—is not the story of a slowly unfolding tradition but of contention, argument, and power. Yet language is commonly supposed to be ephemeral material, the stuff of ornament, perhaps, or logic, but not of power and not always easy to take seriously amidst the clash of harder historical forces. It may be best, then, to start with words themselves “(p. 3).

“Words legitimize the outward frame of politics; they create those pictures in our heads which make the structures of authority tolerable and understandable. Thus human beings come to talk of the sacredness of the king’s body, the sovereignty of the people, or the destiny of nations—word pictures all, tissues of metaphor, but essential to their reconciliation with realms of power beyond their reach” (p. 5).

“We use political words, most of the time, not as signs of hidden intellectual systems but as tools. We do things with words; William James was never more profoundly right than in that assertion. Out of them we fashion arguments; we persuade, maneuver for space and advantage. Political words take their meaning from the tasks to which their users bend them. They are instruments, rallying cries, tools of persuasion” (p. 10).

“Words come to us in clusters, trailing associations and meanings we may not intend. Born into political languages we did not invent, we are never able to talk any which way we might want. But though words constrain their users, hobble political desires, nudge them down socially worn channels, they are in other circumstances radically unstable. Let enough persons repeat a cant phrase (all men are created equal, for example), and there is a chance that they will suddenly charge the words with new meaning—take them literally, perhaps, or apply them to circumstances where their inventors never imagined they belonged” (pp. 10-11).

The political keywords he discusses “offer entry into a series of historical moments when the basic metaphors of politics were up for grabs” (pp. 11-12). He adds: “I have tried to set these words where they belong: in the context of sharp reconfigurations in rhetorical authority and political power. A more comprehensive story might deal more fully with persistence and reverberations. But if we are to comprehend the shard and fragments all around us, the tools we use and those used upon us, there is a fundamental advantage in knowing the circumstances in which we came upon them” (pp. 15-16).

Words “create those pictures in our heads.” Words function “not as signs of hidden intellectual systems but as tools.” ““Words come to us in clusters.” The words of the past exist as ” shard and fragments all around us.”
I’m now convinced that it would be appropriate to call Rodgers a neo-pragmatist after all. Thoughts?
UPDATE: I realized that I was using the wrong title for Rodgers’s second book, in spite of the cover art staring me in the face. So I’ve updated the post with the correct title.

13 Thoughts on this Post

  1. To what end? I’m no expert, but finding an appropriate label (box, really) and justifying attaching it to Rodgers (or putting him in it) probably requires a bit more motivation, especially since he and those he draws on would resist the move for reasons intimately related to the ideas on which you draw to justify the attachment in the first place.

    What work is the label and the act of labeling doing *for you*? Does it help us understand what he’s up to? Probably not. Does it help us see who his influences are? Not as much as your first two posts. Does it help us find things in his work to use in our own? Again, I don’t think so. What’s in a name?

  2. Well, I couldn’t speak for David, but it seems to me that a big part of what this post is doing is teasing out the implications of ideas touched on in earlier posts and establishing yet another angle of approach to Rodgers and his book.

    I guess the bigger issue, at least from where I sit, is the amount of interest the blog posts on Rodgers have generated, the number of comments, the level of controversy or at least controversialism, and the general “buzz” surrounding this book.

    Maybe Rodgers is to the authors and commenters of the USIH blog what Rodgers says Foucault was to the university in the 1970s — a “a magnet for young scholars eager to accumulate intellectual capital.”

    I don’t mean to imply that those of us who have felt inclined to “weigh in on Rodgers” here on this blog have done so for the purpose of enhancing our “portfolios.” Everyone here seems genuinely interested in the book and the questions it raises, and with good reason: it seems clear to me from the many reviews and discussions happening across the blogosphere that Rodgers’ book is Important with a capital I. (In comments on one of the earlier threads, Lisa Szefel agreed with Andrew Hartman’s assessment that Age of Fracture “has canonical written all over it.”)

    At the same time, it does seem like there’s a kind of contest afoot — a competition to see who can come closest to naming Rodgers. (In an odd way, it reminds me of “Rumplestiltskin”.) I saw from a comment Andrew made earlier that he has put together a panel for the conference in November, and that Rodgers will respond. As we talk about this book here — and I think we should keep talking about it, in whatever way(s) might be useful — maybe there’s a hope/wish/fear that Rodgers himself is following the discussion. Maybe the “prize” at stake is to prove oneself to be Rodgers’ most perceptive reader? (And, yes, I know I’m out of the running. Besides, as a grad student, I don’t think I’m even allowed to compete yet.)

    As a student, though, I am really grateful for David’s post. The question of whether or not someone is “Rortyean” or a “neo-pragmatist” may seem like a pointless exercise for some, but it is surely good exercise for me to think it through. (And, FWIW, my still-incomplete sense of the matter is that Rodgers is not “Rortyean” or a “neo-pragmatist” in some systematic sense — at least not in this book.)

    Anyway, I’m glad for David’s post, and glad for Anonymous 9:43’s reply. Interesting and instructive, at least for me.

  3. Again, though, I’m asserting that it’s not a “good exercise for [you] to think it through,” especially as a student. Which is to say, your inclination that he doesn’t fit inside one of these words in any systematic sense is right, and defending against David’s claim by seeking out another name (which you haven’t done, but which others might) is to cede the point. Making the case for Rodgers-as-X might establish “yet another angle of approach to Rodgers and his book,” but it’s not as productive as other lenses (including some of David’s own), and it’s *certainly* not the way to “prove oneself to be Rodgers’ most perceptive reader,” whether one’s eligible for the prize or not. Is Rodgers our “Foucault”? Well, no, but if he were, and if we thought the labeling game was productive, then we’d want to find out what Foucault was a “neo-” of, which is, again, to approach important ideas and ways of thinking in the wrong way (“the letter killeth..”).

  4. Dear Anonymous,

    There is an odd hostility to your comments that make me unsure whether you actually want a conversation or just to pop off. But I’ll go ahead and answer your question.

    I don’t actually have an ideological axe to grind; I just find the subject, well, interesting. If I had to choose one label for Daniel Rodgers, “neo-pragmatist” probably wouldn’t be it. I’d go, instead, with “intellectual historian.” (By contrast, if I had to choose one label for Richard Rorty, I probably would go with “neo-pragmatist.”) But then that leaves the question of what kind of intellectual historian? What is his approach? My first thought would be, he is a Wittgensteinian, though Rodgers’s work has a strong correlation with Rorty’s conception of intellectual history.

    I tend to think about this because I teach a graduate research seminar in intellectual and cultural history. One of the most difficult things for students in my seminar, after the choice of subject, is figuring out how to move forward in research. What are they looking for? What kind of argument should they make? Which of the multiple angles should they take into a subject. In figuring this out, it’s often useful to have in one’s mind a set of different approaches to take to a problem. Reading Rodgers’s latest book has given me another approach to suggest to students (and to myself).

    As for the issue of labels: labels are indispensable. The act of thinking is the act of making distinctions. “This is not that,” we say, and then we start adding names (labels). To come to consciousness of different approaches is to begin adding labels as a shorthand for those approaches. You seem to think Rodgers would reject the label of neo-pragmatist. I’m not 100% sure what he would say, but his similarities to Richard Rorty and his avowal of words as tools (with a corresponding reference to William James) make me think that the label might be a fair one. And to think of language as a tool (pragmatism) is different from thinking language as an expression of power (Foucauldian poststructuralism, though Rodgers would agree in part). It is different from thinking that language, even the most philosophical language, is plagued by slippages and antinomies and aporias (deconstruction). And it is still different than thinking that language manifests deep structures (structuralism). Those are quick and dirty definitions that go slightly beyond the mere label of pragmatism, Foucauldian poststructuralism, deconstructionism, and structuralism, labels all. I’m sure how to do without those labels, so I’m not sure why we can’t apply those labels, just as long as we all understanding that the labels are not supposed to be totalizing and don’t purport to explain everything about a person’s work.

    But, incidentally, I think Rodgers is scheduled to be at our next USIH conference, so maybe I’ll ask him.

  5. Anonymous– From what I’ve read here, it seems like a very successful book (I don’t know firsthand because it’s still on its way from Amazon), but it’s also an unusual one. So the professional historians on this blog are saying, How did he do it? What was his approach? How did he get it to hang together? What might be the pitfalls?

    Academics looove their methodologies, codification of approaches, and theoretical justifications of same. I think it’s partly a way to maintain professional quality control. Once you’ve identified an approach, you can also identify how to do it right when someone else tries it in the future.

    But no doubt the academic profession can get obsessive and waste peoples’ time. I once took a graduate literary theory class: deconstruction, new criticism, reader response… all conscientiously trying to teach how to approach poetry. But I’m sure the Romantic poets we were studying would have detested about 80% of what the instructor was teaching. I figured out that I could trace the assumptions of deconstruction through Nietzsche and a few others, and found where I agreed and disagreed and really try to articulate that, but that would have been like combing out a big hairball. And at the time, it felt about as rewarding as that too.

    But anyway, this *is* Rodgers’ book, and he *is* quoting William James in a previous book. So I would be interested in what he’d have to say about his approach, whether he would characterize it as “anti-foundational”, what that means to him, etc…

  6. @Anonymous 9:43,

    Thanks for your response to my comment.

    Maybe I’m too meta, but for me a big part of “thinking it through” — whatever “it” is — is to think about the thinking. IOW, thinking through David’s label (and his argument for why it applies) means thinking about whether his approach is a useful way to think about Rodgers. David’s model is not a useful way for me to think about Rodgers — but thinking about David’s model is useful.

    On other “Rodgers” threads on USIH I have commented about what I think Rodgers is doing. My basic sense of that is pretty well summed up here and here. No need for me to beat that dead horse.

    But the last sentence of David’s reply to you above reinforces my hunch that there’s something at stake in these discussions besides understanding Rodgers’ thought. Yes labels are important. But the act of labeling is important to think about too. Naming is an assertion of power — not only over the thing named, but also over rival namers. Whoever comes up with “the definitive label” for Rodgers on this blog “wins” that power struggle.

    (To be fair to David, I think the bulk of his response to you makes a good case for why labeling Rodgers could be heuristically useful. But there’s nothing “incidental” about Rodgers being at the USIH conference (“I think” he’s going to be there?), and there is no way on God’s green earth that David is going to ask Rodgers if he’s right to peg him as a Rortyean neo-Pragmatist — at least not in front of anybody. That’s an automatic DQ.)

  7. I’ve got to admit, David, that I don’t even know what it would mean to be a neo-pragmatist historian. In good pragmatist fashion, I cannot say what I make of your insights until I know exactly what they mean, which is to say, what their possible consequences would be.

    I’ve been thinking about this since your initial post on the topic, and I think that my confusion stems from what I believe may be a category mistake implicit in your initial claim. Despite Rorty’s protests to the contrary, his version of pragmatism remains fundamentally a philosophical position, one that advances a theory of what it means for a statement to be true, and then spells out the consequences of that position. The categories that apply to historians, however, usually mean something quite different. Many suggest something that a given historian believes about the past itself (e.g., “Whiggish,” “consensus,” “progressive,” etc.), while others describe what an historian finds interesting or important to study (e.g., “social,” “economic,” or, indeed, “intellectual”). So I don’t see an easy formula that makes philosophical approaches isomorphic to historical ones, and consequently don’t understand exactly what you are trying to *say* about Rodgers.

    I’m curious as to whether you think, David, that the parts of Rodgers’s writings that can be called “neo-pragmatist” are those parts that find him doing something other than historical work? Do you seem him advancing a theoretical position, rather than an historical one? A philosophy of history, perhaps? If so, what do you think that position (specifically) is?

    Alternatively, do you think that there *is* something meaningful about the notion of pragmatism as an approach to history, that there is sense to be made of “neo-pragmatist historian” as a category? If so, then what does *that* mean?

  8. “Many suggest something that a given historian believes about the past itself (e.g., “Whiggish,” “consensus,” “progressive,” etc.), while others describe what an historian finds interesting or important to study (e.g., “social,” “economic,” or, indeed, “intellectual”).”

    There is something that you left out, though, Mike, and that is the method that a person adopts in studying the thing that they choose to study. It seems to me that Rodgers studies words and vocabularies, and that in studying vocabularies he assumes words are used as tools, which is a central claim of Rorty’s. So in assuming that words are used as tools, the relevant thing is to study to what end those words are used and the consequences of using those words. Rorty’s recommendation that “we should restrict ourselves to questions like ‘Does our use of these words get in the way of our use of those other words?’” (p. 12), becomes in Rodgers hands, How has the vocabulary of the market gotten in the way of the vocabulary of solidarity in the last forty years? I don’t think that is an advancement of a theoretical position. I think Rodgers has a theoretical position and it grants him a certain insight into his subject matter that results in a distinct method of study.

    For what it’s worth, I’m not misappropriating Rorty. He quite explicitly talks about intellectual history in Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, for example: “I shall try [in this book] to show how a recognition of that contingency [of language] leads to a recognition of the contingency of conscience, and how both recognitions lead to a picture of intellectual and moral progress as a history of increasingly useful metaphors rather than of increasing understanding of how things really are” (p. 9). Accepting the linguistic turn “takes us into intellectual history viewed as the history of metaphor” (p. 16). “A nonteleological view of intellectual history, including the history of science, does for the theory of culture what the Mendelian, mechanistic, account of natural selection did for evolutionary theory’ (p. 16). “This account of intellectual history chimes with Nietzsche’s definition of ‘truth’ as ‘a mobile army of metaphors'” (p. 17). So I don’t disagree that Rorty’s version of pragmatism is a philosophical position, but it also seems to me (and to Rorty) to entail a specific understanding of inquiry in intellectual history.

    As for LD’s latest, I’m puzzled by it. My own interest in understanding Rodgers’s method is to clarify in my own mind how it works so that I could, if I wanted to, imitate the method or recommend it to students. One way to clarify something is to talk about it, which we are doing here. I don’t see a game in which there are winners, unless everything that we say is supposed to be a projection of ego. I also don’t see why I wouldn’t ask Rodgers about his understanding of language and how that effects his method in Age of Fracture and Contested Truths, nor why I would be hesitant to do so in front of everyone. I clearly think the method is interesting and worth discussing. And to have a discussion is to be willing to be wrong. What matters is the discussion, unless this is all a game of “look at me,” which is a very unappealing understanding of academic exchange and inquiry.

  9. If it helps, I found Frank Ankersmit’s investigation of Rorty and history compelling:

    Frank Ankersmit, “Rorty and History,” New Literary History 39 (2008): 79-100.


  10. “…a very unappealing understanding of academic exchange and inquiry.”

    Ain’t that the truth.  Menand’s Marketplace of Ideas was definitely not the best reading choice for me this week.  

    And of course you are right:  no signaling or territorial display behavior goes on among academics. And certainly no gamesmanship. My mistake.

  11. I certainly do not think, David, that you got Rorty wrong, and I completely agree that the passages you cite from Rodgers sound very neo-pragmatist. What I am not sold on is that those quotations are all that central to Rodgers’s project, at least in “Age of Fracture,” the only book of his that I have read.

    You say that it is Rodgers’s methodology that is particularly pragmatist. But his methodology, as far as I can see, is pretty standard for intellectual history: he analyzes a large number of texts that might not initially seem to have much in common, finds a common thread in them, and then inductively generalizes to proclaim this thread as a feature of the intellectual life of the time. The existence of that common thread in disparate texts, then, presumably tells us something about the period in which these texts were written. While that approach is compatible with pragmatism, I certainly don’t think it requires or is necessitated by that theory.

    Moreover, your argument as I recall it has more to do with subject than methodology: that is, you focus on Rodgers’s concern with language and metaphor. Certainly historians have been concerned before with the changing use of terms as a marker for shifts in thinking, without being pragmatists. (Examples that come off the top of my head as examples are Foner’s “The Story of American Freedom,” Trachtenberg’s “The Incorporation of American” and even Chauncey’s “Gay New York.”)

    As essential to Rortyan pragmatism as its focus on language and metaphor is its concern with the consequences of holding a particular belief. And tracing these implications does not seem to be an object of Rodgers’s concern. How, if at all, does the prevalence of “fracture” in American intellectual life affect other aspects of American society nad culture? Indeed, our Georgia State colleague Brian Ingrassia has commented that this is something of which he would have liked to see more in this book: he wanted Rodgers to answer the question of *why* fracture characterized so much of the intellectual life of the period. What was it about American life in the 70s and 80s that resonated with “fracture”? While I don’t necessarily believe that doing this was incumbent upon Rodgers in that particular book, I do agree that he didn’t do it in any sustained or detailed way.

  12. Mike, I think Rodgers does focus on the consequence of this shift in our vocabulary: the loss of solidarity. From my previous post: “And if he is not much interested in what caused the shift, that is because he is more interested in showing what resulted from this shift in vocabularies. In my reading, Age of Fracture is an extended and more theoretical elaboration of a point made in 2006 by David Hollinger (in “From Identity to Solidarity”) when Hollinger said: “The problem of solidarity is shaping up as the problem of the twenty-first century.””

  13. For me, a neo-pragmatist (like a plain old pragmatist) is interested in “practical” problems (practical meaning both utiliarian [Bentham-James-Rorty] and ethical (Kant’s Second Critique of Practical Reason, his ethics). It is an old tradition where practical comes from praxis, pragmata (actions),and practic (in Vico’s langauge). Modern historiography was founded, after all, in service to the emerging nation-states in the 19th century and had a twofold aim or purpose: to provide a genealogy of the nation state and to contribute to moral philosophy as “philosophy teaching by example.”

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