Hegel's Influence on Pragmatism


I'll write something on Peirce later.


It could be argued that William James was influenced by Hegelian thought at least indirectly through his disputes with British neo-Hegelian idealists, such as Bradley. James, in creating a "radical empiricism," rejected both the atomism of traditional empiricist epistemology as well as the British idealists' belief in an Absolute. James sought to overcome traditional epistemology by turning instead to a pluralistic philosophy of living, a move that in some ways parallels Hegel's drive to elevate our position beyond rationalism and empiricism, though for James this results in rooting philosophy in the language of experience (a term which takes a radical departure from its traditional use) and psychology, rather than an absolute idealism.


Of the classical pragmatists, John Dewey is the most directly tied to Hegel, and is much more familiar with Hegel’s writings and the history of German philosophy than James. As a "dynamic pluralist with a triadic procedure," we see a strong influence, even in the later Dewey, to the Hegelian dialectic.1 Dewey’s interpretation of Hegel, however, is rather unique. Much of his Hegelian tendencies were bestowed upon him in an American context where Philosophy professors were also clergymen. The protestant interest in idealism came to American largely by way of the British idealists, picking up Scottish empiricism along the way. The debates between idealism and sensationalistic empiricism in England and America became a reenactment of many earlier debates between the rationalists and empiricists on the Continent.

In his undergraduate education at the University of Vermont, Dewey studied with Marsh, one of the first scholars to bring German philosophy to the United States. Though, this strand of idealism was carried by a fervent protestant religiosity. Dewey also experienced the “restriction” upon philosophy imposed by the prevalence of Scottish empiricism. The context of much of American philosophy prior to the turn of the century was such that somehow this strand of idealism and empiricism were mutually supportive. Dewey says there was a “firm alliance established between religion and the cause of ‘intuition’,” such that the meaning of intuition formed the keystone for theological doctrine.2 Out of this context Dewey developed an early skepticism towards contemporary debate: “it is likely that many of those which seem highly important to-day will also in a generation have receded to the status of local and provincial.”3 For Dewey, who was raised in a tremendously evangelical background and had yet to shed fully his religious baggage as a student, the religious phase was nevertheless always after the fact of intellectual and philosophical affairs; it was responsible for conforming to philosophy, not the other way around.

After completing studies at the University of Vermont, Dewey sent several articles to W. T. Harris, a famous Hegelian and editor of the Journal of Speculative Philosophy, one of the only venues for philosophy in America that was not also theological. But Dewey attributes his explicit period of Hegelianism to his attendance at the newly created doctoral program at John Hopkins under the tutelage of George S. Morris, a deeply religious man convinced of the “‘demonstrated’ truth of the substance of German idealism.”4 Dewey wrote his dissertation on Kant’s psychology and was most fully immersed in learning how to read German philosophy at this period in his life. Dewey sees Germany as having a significant role in the formation of contemporary philosophy, as he suggests in his later book on German philosophy and politics:

"…the heroic age of German thought lies almost within the last century, while the creative period of continental thought lies largely in the eighteenth century, and that of British thought still earlier. It was Taine, the Frenchman, who said that all the leading ideas of the present day were produced in German between 1780 and 1830. Above all, the Germans, as we say, have philosophy in their blood.”5

Dewey recounts that the general philosophical temperament at the time was a push away from atomic individualism and sensationalistic empiricism, and that he found Morris’ position advantageous over many of the other idealists that came to America by way of British idealism. Morris, Dewey tells us, approached Kant through Hegel, rather than the other way around, and so retains much of Hegel’s criticism of Kant. But he also held on to Scottish empiricism to some extent, placing a strong emphasis on the sensate world. For Morris, the existence of this world was not in question, only the meaning of this existence. Young Dewey was attracted to this “unification of Hegel and Aristotle,” of idealist metaphysics combined with a realist epistemology.

"There were, however, also “subjective” reasons for the appeal that Hegel’s thought made to me; it supplied a demand for unification that was doubtless an intense emotional craving, and yet was a hunger that only an intellectualized subject-matter could satisfy. It is more than difficult, it is impossible, to recover that early mood. But the sense of divisions and separations that were, I suppose, borne in upon me as a consequence of a heritage of New England culture, divisions by way of isolation of self from the world, of soul from body, of nature from God, brought a painful oppression—or rather, they were an inward laceration. My earlier philosophic study had been an intellectual gymnastic. Hegel’s synthesis of subject and object, matter and spirit, the divine and the human, was, however, no mere intellectual formula; it operated as an immense release, a liberation. Hegel’s treatment of human culture, of institutions and the arts, involved the same dissolution of hard-and-fast dividing walls, and had a special attraction for me."6

After his move to the University of Michigan, Dewey soon fell in love with Alice Chipman, who seems to have been a large influence in his full departure from religion. Chipman also nurtured Dewey’s concern for social problems, politics, feminism, and education, herself an outspoken advocate for women’s rights in higher education and a highly practical-minded and active member of the University of Michigan community. Dewey’s interest in experimental science and psychology became a driving factor in his “drift” away from Hegelianism. Though, even in many later phases of his life we see an urge to unify idealism with an experimental method. Largely responsible for this shift was also William James’s Psychology. James, who Dewey regarded as having a uniquely dynamic and active philosophy of living, expressed disappointment at young Dewey’s inability to remove himself from the suffocating world of theology that dominated the institutions, famously sighing, “poor Dewey.” As Dewey moved closer and closer towards a deep experimentalism, this Hegelian strand became reformulated away from the neo-Hegelian theology of his mentors. His eventual break with Morris and his move to the University of Chicago marked a new phase in his philosophy.

"I drifted away from Hegelianism in the next fifteen years; the word “drifting” expresses the slow and, for a long time, imperceptible character of the movement, though it does not convey the impression that there was an adequate cause for change. Nevertheless I should never think of ignoring, much less denying, what an astute critic occasionally refers to as a novel discovery—that acquaintance with Hegel has left a permanent deposit in my thinking. The form, the schematism, of his system now seems to me artificial to the last degree. But in the content of his ideas there is often an extraordinary depth; in many of his analyses, taken out of their mechanical dialectical setting, an extraordinary acuteness. Were it possible for me to be a devotee of any system, I still should believe that there is greater richness and greater variety of insight in Hegel than in any other single systematic philosopher—though when I say this I exclude Plato, who still provides my favorite philosophic reading. For I am unable to find in him that all-comprehensive and overriding system which later interpretation has, as it seems to me, conferred upon him as a dubious boon. …Although I have no aversion to system as such that is sometimes attributed to me, I am dubious of my own ability to reach inclusive systematic unity, and in consequence, perhaps, of the fact also dubious about my contemporaries. Nothing could be more helpful to present philosophizing than a “Back to Plato” movement; but it would have to be back to the dramatic, restless, cooperatively inquiring Plato of the Dialogues, trying one mode of attack after another to see what it might yield; back to the Plato whose highest flight of metaphysics always terminated with a social and practical turn, and not to the artificial Plato constructed by unimaginative commentators who treat him as the original university professor."7

Dewey’s pragmatism, though not explicitly Hegelian, retains certain shared qualities. The division of primary and secondary experience, as a temporal and mnemonic component to the pattern of inquiry largely reflects the dialectical movement of Hegel. We also find in this pattern, which is at the root of his experimentalism, an attempt to “elevate” beyond the hypostatized epistemological categories of subject and object towards a philosophy being and living. Like James, Dewey becomes interested in experience, not as an epistemological category, but as a historical, existential, and organic unity in course of life.

More to come.

By Matt Bower

Unless otherwise stated, the content of this page is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 License