The Revival of Pragmatism
New Essays on Social Thought, Law and Culture
Edited by Morris Dickstein
Duke University Press
Pragmatism as Romantic Polytheism
”Polytheism, in the sense I have defined it, is pretty much coextensive with romantic utilitarianism. For once one sees no way of ranking human needs other than playing them off one another, human happiness becomes all that matters. Mill’s On Liberty provides all the ethical instruction you need-all the philosophical advice you are ever going to get about your responsibilities to other human beings. For human perfection becomes a private concern, and our responsibilities to others becomes a matter of permitting them as much space to pursue these private concerns-to worship their own gods, so to speak-as is compatible with granting an equal amount of space to all. The tradition of religious toleration is extended to moral toleration.
This privatization of perfection permits James and Nietzsche to agree with Mill and Arnold that poetry should take over the role that religion has played in the formation of individual human lives. They also agree that nobody should take over the function of the clergy. For poets are to a secularized polytheism what the priests of a universal church are to monotheism. Once you become polytheistic, you will turn away not only from priests but from such priest-substitutes as metaphysicians and physicists –from anyone who purports to tell you how things really are, anyone who invokes the distinction between the true world and the apparent world that Nietzsche ridiculed in The Twilight of the Idols. Both monotheism and the kind of metaphysics or science that purports to tell you what the world is really like are replaced with democratic politics. A free consensus about how much space for private perfection we can allow each other takes the place of the quest for ‘objective’ values, the quest for a ranking of human needs that does not depend upon such consensus.”