New dawnings: Lincoln, Rorty, Putnam, Cavell and beyond

Greetings from Galloway, New Jersey. I’m here  as a “discussant” (or “commentator,” according to the final program draft) at the session titled New Dawnings in American Philosophy, part of the 40th annual meeting of the Society for the Advancement of American Philosophy.
This year’s host is

 The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey, where an old friend and Santayana scholar (and fellow protege of John Lachs) is in charge. He insists his is the only school “he knows of” whose campus actually resides within a national park and includes a four-star resort with two seaside golf links. (They’re wearing a fresh coat of snow this morning, btw.)
It was a pleasure to reconnect with President Saatkamp last night at the post-keynote reception, and to meet other old friends including our department’s March 22 Lyceum speaker Kelly Parker. The estimable Bill Gavin, who will chair our proceedings, told us about his new James book. And, I finally got a chance to ask Anthony Appiah (our keynote speaker) about the Cosmos version of cosmopolitanism. (He agreed with its main  implication: true cosmopolitans spurn anthropocentrism and speciesism every bit as much as they do racism, parochialism, and chauvinistic nationalism.)
(What a great organizational acronym, eh? Somebody should make a tee-shirt: “We are SAAPs.”)
Here’s the premeditated, unspontaneous portion of what I intend to say later this morning. The rest I entrust to the inspiration of my peers, and my coffee.
(I sent a version of this out to Bill earlier in the week, but last night learned it had not yet reached Kyoto nor, presumably, Toledo. So Naoko and Bill will be receiving it spontaneously now.)
Good morning! In light of our session theme, that salutation seems to merit a particular inflection of cheer this a.m.
I really could not have tailor-ordered a more congenial pair of papers to discuss with you today than Professor Campbell’s on Lincoln-as-pragmatist, and Professor Saito’s on the dialectical dynamic of Rorty, Putnam, and Cavell. I’ve been looking forward to this conference and in particular to this session, and have not been reluctant (as frankly I sometimes have been, in years past) to share and discuss its theme with my non-academic friends. For once, a gathering of philosophers has summoned itself to a topic worthy of their full attention.
That’s harsh. We students and devotees of philosophy in the classic American tradition often tackle large themes and seek the relevance of philosophy to life. Many of us are even in love with life.
But I still want to thank James Campbell and Naoko Saito for their exemplary essays, both so emblematic of the public, pluralistic, collaborative, cosmopolitan, democratic spirit of pragmatism at its best. This is philosophy that probes, experiments, leans eagerly into the future, and doesn’t merely tolerate but actively solicits multiple voices and views. It looks beyond the academy and the narrow conventions of scholarship, to a cosmos of mutually-interested peoples and ideas. It tries to articulate a vision of thought entwined directly with life.
It is also, I think we agree, the spirit of the dawn.
SAAP_poster_09At SAAP 2009 in College Station,Texas, our colleague Mitch Aboulafiah presented a persuasive plea for our profession’s greater openness to the new age of social media, as a venue for both serious scholarship and public philosophy. I went home to Tennessee, inspired, and on April 24 published the first of 1,100+ dawn posts:
April 24, 2009
This new blog is inspired by that of my professional colleague and fellow American Philosophy-enthusiast Mitchell Aboulafia, whose UP@NIGHT blog I admire and enjoy… but whose night-owl predilection I do not share. I’m a morning person, and this is an experimental blog all of whose posts will be conceived and published ante-meridian and most typically in the pre-dawn.  (I will continue to publish the bulk of my post-sunrise reflections at my old venue, Delight Springs.)
Stay tuned!
Mitch responded graciously:
Thank you for the kind words about UP@NIGHT! I certainly wish you well with your new blog. (And I will set up a link on my site.) After all, the world should be big enough for both night owls and early birds.
But forget not that we night owls are the oppressed, struggling for survival. We need a movement to get us our day in the sun. (Or is it the night in the moon?) All you early birds have to do is relish the morning and praise it. Perhaps I am missing something….
Not exactly Emerson-greets-Whitman at the dawn of a great career, but a moment nonetheless.
There next followed a post called “Dawn”:
 …Thoreauvian excess is irresistible.
“The morning, which is the most memorable season of the day, is the awakening hour. Then there is least somnolence in us; and for an hour, at least, some part of us awakes which slumbers all the rest of the day and night.”
“All memorable events, I should say, transpire in morning time and in a morning atmosphere.”
Night owls will find these sentiments annoying, if not insulting.  Sorry.  The proper emphasis, though,  is not on morning in the clock-time sense but as an atmospheric phenomenon.
“To him whose elastic and vigorous thought keeps pace with the sun, the day is a perpetual morning. It matters not what the clocks say or the attitudes and labors of men. Morning is when I am awake and there is a dawn in me.”
That set the tone. I’ve been at it ever since, straddling the divide between inner and public, posting thoughts philosophical and personal, celebrating social justice and reform (“Trotsky”) and the delights of private sensibility (“orchids”). I’ve nodded to Emerson & Thoreau, James & Dewey, Rorty, Putnam, and Cavell and much else.
The point of this autobiographical excursion, not too great a detour I hope, is to underscore and amplify our session’s celebratory theme, and to hitch my little wagon to Naoko’s and Jim’s and Lincoln’s, Rorty’s, Putnam’s, Cavell’s, and all the philosophers of the future who will also take their inspiration from the great “dictionary of life.” It’s still noble to profess, for those dedicated to the quest for noble living.
Cavell’s autobiographical Little Did I Know: Excerpts from Memory– all of Cavell’s writing is autobiographical, really- reveals that

“from the time of the book I called A Pitch of Philosophy, I have sought explicitly to consider why ph’y, of a certain ambition, tends perpetually to intersect the autobiographical… a life of study and writing growing out of phy was for me to discover… I speak philosophically for others when they recognize what I say as what they would say, recognize that their language is mine, or… that language is ours… [as in rwe & hdt] the ph’er entrusts himself or herself to write, however limitedly, the autobiography of a species… In my case the experiment of calling upon a steady companionship of phy in telling my life involved a decision… to begin entries of memories by dating myself on each day of writing [LIKE A BLOG POST!]… freed me to press onward with my necessity to find an account of myself without denying that I may be at a loss as to who it is that at any time, varying no doubt with varying times, to whom or for whom I am writing… (temporal directedness… unsynchronized with the times of depiction) [LIKE BLOGGING!]… my emphasis on phy as the education of grown-ups entails an interest in the intellectual lives of children & adolescents…”

The proposal that philosophy henceforth should turn away from barren, lifeless, abstract, remote concerns and towards real people and their problems and preoccupations gets us philosophers of the dawn up and going. The suggestion that it turn to children and adolescents is visionary.
In other words, I’m not here in a dissenting role. For that we’ll need a real night-owl. Or I guess I mean, rather, a figurative one. If dawn is whenever I am awake, the benighted state of somnolence must be similarly detached from the literal clock.
So… I prefer to spend the balance of my allotted time this morning articulating that spirit of Aurora we seem to agree permeates the best American philosophy, and noticing its recurrence in our tradition. I appreciate the way both Jim and Naoko concluded their essays anticipatorily and invitingly, looking down the road to new possibilities in the ongoing conversation.
And here’s my succinct summary of what Aurora means to me, offered in solicitous anticipation of yours.
The spirit of the dawn is melioristic, energetic, ambitious, clear-headed, uninhibited, expansive, immediate, hopeful, expectant, confident, unhurried and unharried, conciliatory, firm, principled, patient…
Well, as William James said: a strong cup of coffee at the right time really can change your view of life.
The spirit of Aurora, the morning mood, is all about the day to come. “There is more day to dawn, the sun is but a morning star” etc. HDT’s “infinite expectation of the dawn” is a meliorist’s optimism (12), confident that compromise in the morning moves us all down the road. The “art of the possible” considers time an ally, and reality an unfolding movement to be shaped with patient urgency. Dewey’s “sense of the whole” takes a long view, his “common faith” seeks common ground. It doesn’t panic. HDT: “These may be but the spring months in the life of the race… it is a characteristic of wisdom not to do desperate things.”
In Lincoln’s judgment, breaking up the Union would have been desperate, would have consigned untold generations to indentured servitude. It is an auroral confidence that is willing to wait for complete justice but unwilling to sever the strained ties whose renewal might hasten it.
“The arc of justice is long but it bends,” and a democracy must always hash out the question that Dr. King made so insistent: how long must we wait? Lincoln’s pragmatic calculation was that it would come sooner, to more, in a preserved Union. He understood implicitly the meaning of our Deweyan responsibility to conserve, transmit, rectify [etc. etc.] a heritage more complete than we have received it. This is of course a cosmopolitan, as well as a pragmatic, ideal. Pragmatic compromise for the sake of a better day to come, and for justice for all, is philosophical (not just expedient political) pragmatism.
I’ll close with some questions delivered by the dawn, constructive answers to which we may allow ourselves to be as hopeful for as the days ahead are long. First, how may a sunnier disposition as to the pragmatic possibilities inherent in the “book of life” be engendered in our children?
But perhaps that question merits a precursor: do we agree that raising optimistic children is desirable for their own personal good and for ours, collectively?
Do we agree that future philosophy must aspire to greater public currency than the inherited model of arcane, mostly ignored specialist scholarship tucked into unread and unappreciated library archives (dusty or digital) is ever likely to foster?
Can public philosophy, built on a platform of social media, and MOOCS, and tweets, etc., be intellectually respectable and genuinely educative?
Will a relevant future philosophy continue to revolve around  a handful of canonical dead white male philosophers? Or dead presidents? Or pop culture icons?
Does thinking and writing about the ageless ongoing “conversation” in pragmatism  promise not only a better understanding of its historical context, but also an expansion of its place in our culture, in our time and in philosophy “the day after tomorrow”?
Should it trouble us that we cannot easily or entirely reconcile our respective personal subjectivities (Rorty’s “wild orchids”) with the collective spirit of social reform and progress?
For myself: I am not troubled. I drove past Walt Whitman’s Camden yesterday, on the road to Galloway, and cannot resist closing with a paraphrase of his famously audacious, charmingly impudent locution: Our tradition is large, it contains multitudes (of ideas). This is good. But greater multitudes of philosophically reflective Americans?  That is still the great undiscovered country we must achieve.
[Obama as pragmatistLincoln’s Tragic Pragmatism (Burt)… Reading Obama: Dreams, Hope, and the American Political Tradition (Kloppenberg)… The Senses of WaldenPhilosophy: The Day After Tomorrow (Cavell)… Philosophy and Social Hope (Rorty)… Philosophy in an Age of Science (Putnam)… ]
Postscript. The Atlantic Room here at the Stockton Seaview is the prettiest conference space & setting I’ve ever presented in. It actually has windows, for one thing, and they looked out onto a swirling snowfall as our session proceeded.  Very nice.


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