The French Reception and Transformation of Pragmatism
The early 20th century bore witness to vibrant transatlantic travels of ideas, and in France, the controversy surrounding Anglo-American pragmatism soon took center stage. In 1913, Émile Durkheim opened his lecture on Pragmatism and Sociology at the Sorbonne in which he investigated a then still somewhat recent philosophical tendency that sought to evaluate concepts with regard to their practical effects. According to Durkheim, pragmatism would not only challenge traditional rationalism, but also French culture and philosophy in general. “If pragmatism were valid,” he concluded, “we should have to embark upon a complete reversal of this whole tradition.” Durkheim’s choice of words reflects a sense of irritation that pragmatism caused across some spheres of European thinking.
However, while some perceived it as a threat, others saw pragmatism as a chance for renewal, a means to develop an “image of thought” that would better suit the reality of subjectivities constituted in the world (and not in an abstract space of radicalized doubt). More than 50 years later, in an essay titled “On the Superiority of Anglo-American Literature,” for instance, Gilles Deleuze remarked that in his personal philosophical upbringing, the most important philosopher in France besides Sartre was Jean Wahl, who had introduced his generation to English and American thought. Deleuze’s characterization of the French reception of pragmatism and Anglo-American thought builds on observations by Henri Bergson, Wahl, and Édouard Le Roy: they recognized its potential to reactivate a philosophical creativity which had been blocked by a sterilized academic discourse.
This dissertation project analyzes the importance of classical American Pragmatism and the closely intertwined “radical empiricism” within the development of French philosophy throughout the 20th century. It aims to study more closely the pragmatist constellations and paths of reception which have so far been easily overlooked, especially when compared to German philosophy. Thus, the project will explore the transatlantic “social life” of ideas with regard to the current renaissance of pragmatism in France, which challenges dominant narratives of national philosophical unity and ultimately reduces them to absurdity.