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Feminist Prophetic Pragmatism
The Journal of Speculative Philosophy (2009)
  • Maurice Hamington, Portland State University
Cornel West, one of the most well-known and recognizable contemporary intellectuals, has, since his first book in 1982, Prophesy Deliverance: An Afro-American Revolutionary Christianity, attempted to integrate American philosophy, Christianity, and Marxism into a reflective social analysis. In his 1989 The American Evasion of Philosophy: A Genealogy of Pragmatism, West named this social analysis “prophetic pragmatism.” For West, philosophy ideally provides “a circumscribed quest for wisdom that puts forward new interpretations of the world based on past traditions in order to promote existential sustenance and political relevance”. As an extension of this definition, West constructs prophetic pragmatism as the integration of social criticism found in the prophecy tradition of Judaism and Christianity with the critical questioning character of American philosophical thought. Prophetic pragmatism is what West describes as “pragmatism at its best because it promotes a critical temper and democratic faith without making criticism a fetish or democracy an idol”. West's provocative claims regarding the need for prophetic pragmatism have been appropriately scrutinized and challenged. For example, Dwayne Alexander Tunstall raises concerns that West's version of pragmatism is too tied to a religious tradition. In a comprehensive critique of prophetic pragmatism, Mark David Wood makes a compelling argument that West's work is not as revolutionary as one might think or even as West believes: “Prophetic pragmatism, one of the most fully elaborated and progressive expressions of post-Marxist politics in the present era, appeals to academicians, politicians, and business leaders precisely because it poses no serious threat to the class of individuals who control and appropriate the lion’s share of the Earth’s resources and humanity’s collectively generated wealth”. For Wood, despite West’s inclusion of Marxist analysis, prophetic pragmatism lacks a serious challenge to systemic hierarchies of power to support radical social transformation. Iris Young’s analysis differs from Wood’s in that she finds West’s social analysis sufficiently challenging but finds his gender and family reflections inconsistent. This article extends Young’s analysis, introduces the notion of feminist prophetic pragmatism, and explores whether it is a serviceable concept. This project is motivated by two observations: 1. West lacks consideration of gender in his American genealogy of philosophy, and he is inconsistent in taking account of gender in his application of prophetic pragmatism. West missed an opportunity when he did not recognize a feminist strain of prophetic pragmatism in the work of Jane Addams, who was in fact a better model for West's ideals than Dewey. Women's voices and ideas are erased in West's formulation of prophetic pragmatism. 2. Aside from an alternative to West's approach, feminist prophetic pragmatism offers a novel strategy for feminist intellectual engagement with religious narratives. Present-day popular criticisms of religion by Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and others, while rationally compelling, tend to be psychologically thin in their lack of mechanisms for engaging religious constituencies. Perhaps not coincidently, this public round of religious criticism does not include many feminist voices. Feminist prophetic pragmatism offers a balanced method for feminists to engage the current debate over religion/atheism. Radical feminists such as Fanny Wright, Mary Daly, and Sonia Johnson long ago eschewed organized religious traditions as so steeped in patriarchy as to be unredeemable. By contrast, contemporary Christian feminists attempt to hold strongly to dual identities that may provoke internal reforms but are unlikely to radically transform institutions and their power structures. Feminist prophetic pragmatism may provide feminism with the intellectual space for those who wish to engage the tradition while maintaining a critical distance from it. After describing what I propose as feminist prophetic pragmatism, I will explore how Jane Addams might contribute to West's original understanding and how contemporary discussions of religiosity might benefit from this perspective.
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Citation Information
Maurice Hamington. "Feminist Prophetic Pragmatism" The Journal of Speculative Philosophy Vol. 23 Iss. 2 (2009)
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