The Pragmatist Family Romance

Robert Westbrook

in The Oxford Handbook of American Philosophy

Published in print September 2008 | ISBN: 9780199219315
Published online September 2009 | | DOI:

Series: Oxford Handbooks in Philosophy

The Pragmatist Family Romance

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  • History of Western Philosophy



The relationship between American pragmatists—Charles S. Peirce, William James, John Dewey, Richard Rorty, Hilary Putnam, and others—and their critics has often been marked by sharp conflict. Those philosophers wedded to the conceptions of meaning and truth that pragmatists would displace have, not surprisingly, been ill-disposed to go quietly. Yet conflict among pragmatists has been no less sharp, leaving some to wonder whether it really makes sense to speak of “pragmatism” as such. It does, but only with some care. Pragmatism is best conceived less as a well-defined, tightly knit school of thought than as a loose, contentious family of thinkers who have always squabbled, and have sometimes been moved to disown one another. Indeed, the history of pragmatism can perhaps best be narrated as what Freud called the “family romance” of the neurotic child, in which imagined doubts about paternity and sibling rivalry are front and centre.

Keywords: American pragmatists; pragmatism; family romance; Freud; Charles S Peirce; William James

Article.  4869 words. 

Subjects: Philosophy ; History of Western Philosophy

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