Sinners in the Hands of an Angry System

October 25, 2015   •   By Martin Woessner

ECONOMIC INSTABILITY, environmental degradation, pervasive racism, militant fundamentalism, poverty, cruelty — everywhere we look there is plenty of evidence to suggest that ours is not the best of all possible worlds. The question is: What should we do about it? Whom, or what, do we blame for the mess we are in? How do we get ourselves out of it? Do we even have the power, or the will, to do so anymore? If you are inclined to see ignorance, selfishness, and greed at work behind those contemporary evils, you will most likely seek to promote dialogue, education, and reform. If, on the other hand, you think that our current predicament is the result of fate, hubris, or impiety, you might prefer something that resembles some form of repentance. These are not mutually exclusive outlooks, but they point us in very different directions as we confront what is wrong with the contemporary world: whereas the former asks us to promote change, the latter proposes we lament changes that have already come about. We must atone for them somehow, perhaps by renouncing the very desire to change the world.  

From the beginning, American pragmatism has sung the praises of change, and has emphasized our unique role in bringing it about. As Colin Koopman, one of its most recent proponents, has argued, the pragmatist tradition that stretches all the way from Charles Sanders Peirce and William James through John Dewey and up to Richard Rorty might best be thought of as a kind of “transitionalism,” a “meliorist” philosophical approach that helps us think of historical changes as “reconstructions, or processes of improvement, progress, and growth.” Pragmatism is, in other words, evolutionary. It is also optimistic about the human potential for adaptation, making it a natural ally of progressivism. Pragmatists tell stories about the past — the philosophical past, mainly, but also the cultural, ethical, political, and even scientific past — so as to push the present towards a brighter future, a future for which they think that we alone are responsible.  

But what if the future isn’t necessarily brighter, and what if it is beyond our control? What if history makes us more than we make history? These are the kinds of questions that animate Ryan White’s The Hidden God: Pragmatism and Posthumanism in American Thought. It is a book that, for reasons which are sometimes explicit and other times less so, calls into question the usual tendency to equate pragmatism with humanism, progressivism, and, ultimately, hope. White wants to explore that which remains “unseen, unthought, and unrevealed” in our intellectual past and stresses at every turn that things are always more complex, more contingent, and more paradoxical than we care to admit. If there is hope to be found in this story, it will have to be a hope beyond hope, a hopeless hope.  

For a philosophical outlook that emphasizes chance (Peirce), experience (James), reconstruction (Dewey), and redescription (Rorty), one might think that pragmatism is more open to complexity and contingency than most of the other philosophical perspectives currently available in what Louis Menand has called “the marketplace of ideas.” But the problem, for White, is that despite pragmatism’s intellectual flexibility, it is too firmly rooted in a conception of human subjectivity that has outlived its usefulness. In privileging praxis — our participation in the making, not finding, of truth, beauty, and, goodness — pragmatism errs in all the ways that “theory” has taught us to recognize as the sins of modernity, such as falling prey to the “metaphysics of presence” (Jacques Derrida) or failing to appreciate the dangerous undertow of the “dialectic of Enlightenment” (Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno). Pragmatism, according to this storyline, is naïve to think that what it views as positive change today doesn’t mask hidden and unforeseen dangers that will appear tomorrow.  

Indeed, one of the chief complaints White makes about the usual genealogies of American pragmatism is that they too readily praise pragmatism’s attempts to get past or beyond abstract theory — our only bulwark, supposedly, against such dangers. In praising pragmatism’s meliorism as no more than a kind of personal outlook or a way of life, such narratives seem to sidestep thorny philosophical problems having to do with the nature of language, experience, and truth. They emphasize, as Rorty once said of Dewey, the “problems of men” living in the “ordinary world” more than the timeless, transcendental puzzles of the philosophical tradition. But in speaking so much of the thinking, feeling, experiencing human subject — the “man” living in the “ordinary world” — White thinks that humanist pragmatism overlooks everything that outstrips our attempts to reach out and grasp reality, the stuff that refuses to bend to our androcentric whims and desires. This kind of pragmatism, the argument goes, leaves no room for anything else in the world but human wants and needs. It leaves no room for the non-human. It leaves no room for God.  

The Hidden God makes the case for an alternative genealogy of American thought, one that keeps a space open for God and, possibly, for many other things as well. This genealogy stretches from the Puritan theology of Jonathan Edwards through the Transcendentalism of Ralph Waldo Emerson up to and including the more abstract, logical and semiotic work of Charles Sanders Peirce. In White’s view, this tradition, if we can call it that, anticipates in interesting ways the posthumanist work of American cyberneticists such as Norbert Wiener as well as European thinkers such as Derrida and, most of all, the systems theorist Niklas Luhmann. This lineage emphasizes a paradoxical, neither-nor approach to all kinds of philosophical questions, the primacy of subjective experience first and foremost among them. It speaks the language of double consciousness and double binds, paradox and aporia — the kinds of things that are meant to instill self-doubt in the perhaps too optimistic plans that pragmatism, like modernity more broadly, has drawn up for the remaking of humanity and the world. It highlights all that is left out, whether you call it the remainder (Derrida, again) or communication (Luhmann), or something else entirely.  

As an alternative genealogy of posthumanist theorizing, The Hidden God offers a number of compelling and insightful observations, not the least of which is that contemporary posthumanist discourse sounds a lot like pre-modern, Puritan theology, which also highlighted the dangers of unbridled humanist hubris. But as an account of American intellectual history, White’s thought-provoking book begs a number of questions. Given that Edwards and Emerson predate pragmatism, for example, and that Peirce rejected pragmatism in favor of what he eventually came to call pragmaticism — a name he thought “ugly enough to be safe from kidnappers” like James, who ran off with pragmatism and stripped it of its logical rigor — one has to ask whether White’s account can be read as a genealogy of pragmatism at all, even an alternative one. Furthermore, even if there is a tradition of posthumanist pragmatism to be unearthed from our historical past, The Hidden God refrains from telling us why, exactly, it should be excavated.  

If the choice before us is between humanist and posthumanist pragmatism, between an outlook centered around human subjectivity and another privileging systems and networks, I’m not sure that White gives us much of a reason to choose the latter over the former. In a series of interlocking essays — more like variations on a theme than a historical narrative — The Hidden God makes an interesting case for reconsidering the posthumanist threads woven into American intellectual history, be they Edwards’s theological remarks about the “hidden God” who necessarily remains unrevealed to human minds or Peirce’s conception of semiotic “thirdness,” which introduces a certain amount of indeterminacy and openness into our understanding of how language, and by extension, meaning works. But White never really explains why these threads are important or necessary today. Why posthumanism, in other words? Why now?  

Proponents of what these days gets called “speculative realism” and “object-oriented philosophy” have suggested that, in the age of environmental degradation, only a posthumanist perspective allows us to appreciate the full scale of the coming disaster. The moral here is that global warming is a result of humanist overreach and that the first step towards confronting this might be to find a way to get behind or beyond humanism somehow — to see things from another perspective, if not to jettison the whole idea of “seeing things as” this or that entirely.  

Still others, such as Cary Wolfe (with whose work White’s book is very much in dialogue) have turned to posthumanism as a way to argue on behalf of non-human creatures — animals, mostly, whether pets or livestock — who are routinely banished from moral consideration because they do not seem to exhibit the prerequisite capabilities or qualities, such as the ability to reason, that might entitle them to our full ethical care and respect. If humanism means lording over the animal kingdom and destroying the environment, the argument goes, then good riddance! Though he is too much of a humanist to fit the bill, novelist J. M. Coetzee sometimes gets attached to this line of argument, thanks to the success of his 1997–98 Tanner Lectures at Princeton, The Lives of Animals, in which his fictional alter ego Elizabeth Costello railed against the delusion that “man is godlike, animals thinglike.”  

But are the evils of environmental degradation and cruelty towards animals the result of too much humanism, or of too little? Is environmental collapse the result of human will, or of systems — be they economic, technological, cultural — that have spun out of human control? These are big questions, of course, and they have animated decades of (mostly) academic infighting, which is only now being historicized and reconstructed, in books like Andrew Hartman’s A War for the Soul of America and Mark Greif’s The Age of the Crisis of Man. But as the practice of historical reconstruction or redescription suggests, the story you tell is bound to reflect your reasons for telling it in the first place.  

The Hidden God presents us with a kind of sibling rivalry between a humanist, discursive, politically inflected pragmatism on the one side and a posthumanist, cybernetic, systems-theory-like pragmatism on the other. Like all sibling rivalries, though, this one may be about something other than what it first appears to be. It may have nothing to do with the value of “theory,” and everything to do with politics, with how we view ourselves in relation to contemporary social problems on both a local and a global scale. We may be cogs in machines that surpass our abilities to control them — to the world of the internet I am nothing more than data; to Madison Avenue a mere collection of desires to be quantified and manipulated; to Hollywood just another potential Nielsen rating — but why should we choose to adopt this perspective of ourselves? Is subjectivity so easily foresworn? Is responsibility for our actions so easily sloughed off? 

In an odd twist of historical storytelling, The Hidden God, which reminds us at every turn of the importance of considering the unthought and unrevealed, itself hides alternate genealogies of pragmatism that might be equally, if not more relevant today — ones that stress the intersubjective rationality of human communication more than the posthuman perspective of systems and cybernetic networks; ones that implore us to take responsibility for our words and actions before the judgment of our fellow human beings, ones that treat human discourse as something other than an elaborate fabric of feedback loops. If White’s argument mobilizes the work of Luhmann to help us see Edwards, Emerson, and Peirce in a more impersonal light, it is worth remembering that others have turned to pragmatism with very different, and far more personal, intentions.  

To take just one example, there was a time after the Second World War when German thinkers looked to American pragmatism as a resource for combating some of the worst excesses of a tradition of anti-Enlightenment, anti-humanist thought that had taken root there during the interwar years. Luhmann wasn’t among them. With so much of their indigenous philosophical tradition implicated, if not to say tainted, by associations with National Socialism — from Carl Schmitt, who wrote Nazi legislation, to Martin Heidegger, who composed Nazi philosophy — figures such as Karl Otto Apel looked to none other than Peirce for help in establishing what he came to call discourse ethics. What he came up with was a weird hybrid of German transcendental philosophy and American pragmatism — “Transcendental pragmatics” is what Apel ended up calling it — but its political motivations were undeniably pure. For a country emerging out of years of totalitarian terror and propaganda-laden pseudo-speak, free and rational discourse had to be the starting point of any future philosophizing. Apel, who eventually wrote a monograph on Peirce and was even elected president of the Charles S. Peirce Society in America at one point, was joined in these efforts by Jürgen Habermas, whose notions of communicative rationality and the public sphere have since become cornerstones of contemporary critical theory, both in Europe and here in North America.  

What does it say about White’s pragmatist posthumanism that it takes as one of its guiding lights not Apel or Habermas, but Habermas’s intellectual sparring partner, Niklas Luhmann? (In fact, Habermas gets a quick dismissal towards the end of the The Hidden God.) Is there an underlying suggestion here about the best way forward? We could say that the transatlantic back-and-forth that has defined the history of pragmatism — from Emerson, Peirce, James, Dewey, Rorty, and, most recently, Robert Brandom going one way to Kant, Hegel, Apel, Habermas, and Luhmann going in the other — is simply a complex and complicated affair, one which can be narrated in any number of ways. We shouldn’t be surprised, in other words, when someone chooses these heroes to celebrate over those, or those over these. Not only is pragmatism open to many different interpretations, it seems to welcome them. If you like your pragmatism personal and introspective, you’ll turn to James; logical and quasi-mystical, then Peirce is for you; nobly democratic but maybe a little dull, then it has to be Dewey; ethical and transcendental, you’ll surely reach for Apel or Habermas; witty and irreverent, then Rorty’s your guy. But all this presupposes that persons and personalities, along with their various moods and needs, are important in the history of ideas, which is precisely what White’s argument asks us to call into question. Our allegiance shouldn’t be to any particular thinker, or even to any particular thought, but to that which remains “unseen, occluded, and radically unavailable.” 

Ask not what systems theory can do for you, but what you can do for systems theory — that, more or less, might be an appropriate motto for The Hidden God, which calls upon us to suspend the very subjectivist humanism that has come to define pragmatism in all its various permutations, both here and abroad. In the same way that Puritan theology reminded the faithful of their spiritual limitations and their intellectual shortcomings — “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” remains Jonathan Edwards’s most well-known sermon — a posthumanist pragmatism would have us remember that language and knowledge, experience and selfhood, are never as transparent nor as complete as we might think or wish them to be. But pragmatism never promised us completeness or finality, which is why allying it with posthumanism may not really be necessary. If pragmatists have spoken of final truths or utopian harmony, it is only as something to be achieved at some far off point in the future, provided we try to work together and tackle worldly problems rather than philosophical ones. Or as Rorty, the grandson of a social gospel theologian, was fond of saying: “Take care of freedom and truth will take care of itself.” 

Change in any form is more than a little frightening. Hence our innate desire to keep things the way they are, or to go back to the ways things were once before. But change happens; all that we can do is work to ensure that when it does it entails growth and progress rather than — or at least more than — cruelty and harm. “Growth,” according to Peirce, “comes only from love.” At least in my experience, systems aren’t very lovable, even if we liken them to hidden gods. But dogs and cats, whales and trees, oceans and skies, not to mention people, of course, whether they are neighbors or enemies, gay or straight, rich or poor, giving or needy — all these creatures, all these living things, are very loveable indeed, and in tending to one of them we take a vital step towards serving all of them, as well as a not-so-hidden God. In the words of a contemporary thinker who may prove himself to be a pragmatist yet, Pope Francis: “Everything is connected. Concern for the environment thus needs to be joined to a sincere love for our fellow human beings and an unwavering commitment to resolving the problems of society.”


Martin Woessner is Associate Professor of History & Society at The City College of New York’s Center for Worker Education.