To Bear the Past as a Living Wound: William James and the Philosophy of History

In: Journal of the Philosophy of History
Bonnie Sheehey Montana State University

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Philosophers generally recognize pragmatism as a philosophy of progress. For many commentators, pragmatism is linked to a notion of historical progress through its embrace of meliorism – a forward-looking philosophy that places hope in the future possibility of improvement. This paper calls pragmatism’s progressivism into question by outlining an alternative account of meliorism in the work of William James. Drawing on his ethical writings from the 1870s and 1880s, I argue that James’s concept of hope does not imply an embrace of historical progress, but remains detached from such a notion precisely insofar as it relies on a non-progressive temporality that encourages a rethinking of historical change. This form of hope is significant, I suggest, for the work of conceptualizing a non-progressive pragmatist approach to history and historiography.

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