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Justice You Shall Pursue: Jewish American Pragmatism




Ferriter, Courtney

Type of Degree

PhD Dissertation




Pragmatist thinkers like Jane Addams, W.E.B. Du Bois, and John Dewey advocated for greater inclusivity in our democracy, urging Americans to an understanding of democracy as process. Nevertheless, pragmatist philosophy has sometimes been accused by critics and adherents alike of being insufficiently political, particularly where racism is concerned (West 1989, Hart 2006, Muyumba 2009). While some scholarly work has identified and traced an African American pragmatist lineage (Posnock 1998, Glaude 2010), pragmatism is still largely associated with white male philosophy, considering that the most well-known pragmatist figures—C.S. Peirce, William James, and John Dewey—were all white men. However, scholarship to date has not addressed the central question of pragmatism’s political power, particularly regarding social justice. My project, Justice You Shall Pursue: Jewish American Pragmatism, remedies this gap by analyzing the socially and politically conscious impact of Jewish writers and thinkers on the development of American pragmatism. Chapter 1 identifies two major concerns of twentieth century Jewish pragmatists: a developing Jewish identity politics in the first half of the century and calls for inclusive democracy in the latter part of the century. Chapter 2 explores politics of feeling in the work of Gertrude Stein and Anzia Yezierska, which contributes to an evolving discussion of identity as essentialist vs. constructed in the early part of the twentieth century by suggesting that neither viewpoint is wholly accurate. Chapter 3 details the post-Holocaust focus of Bernard Malamud and Cynthia Ozick on Jewish dignity and collective Jewish responsibility as well as Ozick’s push for Jewish identification over assimilation. Finally, Chapter 4 discusses the Deweyan democratic visions of Malamud, Grace Paley, and Tony Kushner, who champion the cause of a more inclusive democratic community in their work. I conclude that, like African American pragmatism, Jewish pragmatism maintains a focus on social justice as central to democratic progress, and I propose additional areas of research for reading other multicultural writers using pragmatist philosophy. Far from being politically powerless as some critics have claimed, my research reveals that pragmatism is politically active when engaged by marginalized groups, which demonstrates the importance of both Jewish and African American (as well as other multicultural) writers to the continued development of historically white-centered theory.