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Book Reviews and Critical Notices

Review of Trevor Pearce, Pragmatism’s Evolution: Organism and Environment in American Philosophy

Chicago, The University of Chicago Press, 2020
Fabienne Forster
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Trevor Pearce, Pragmatism’s Evolution: Organism and Environment in American Philosophy, Chicago, The University of Chicago Press, 2020

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1After Darwin, at the latest, the philosophical demand for absolute certainty had become problematic: How can we hold on to certainty when our abilities to acquire knowledge are the product of an ongoing evolutionary process of adaptation? It becomes apparent here that the rejection of epistemological fundamentalism as a core element of pragmatist philosophy can be interpreted as a reaction to the debate Darwinian theory of evolution evoked. Indeed, the close connection between the emergence and development of pragmatism and the controversies surrounding the theory of evolution in the second half of the 19th century are undisputed. It is all the more surprising that this central scientific and cultural context has not received sufficient attention in research literature on the history of pragmatism. Because of this lacuna, voices were raised from reserachers of history of science, calling for “a new good book on the subject” (Ruse 2009: 554). Trevor Pearce’s Pragmatism’s Evolution takes on this challenge and successfully closes this gap in research.

2As a historian and philosopher of science, focusing especially on biology, Trevor Pearce has, in earlier works, already dealt with systematic and historical aspects of the relationship between pragmatism and biology. Drawing on an array of sources for this book, e.g. university course catalogs, notebooks and records of library borrowings, he continues to analyze in detail how the early pragmatists in the 19th century were closely engaged with the life sciences. In particular, the book addresses how they initially received the theories of Charles Darwin and Herbert Spencer and later – after the evolutionary account of natural history was widely accepted – what explanatory scope they attributed to different evolutionary factors. It also discusses how debates and concepts in biology were carried into philosophical discussions of pragmatists’ academic environment, shaping, for example, new, “darwinized” varieties of idealism. Furthermore, Pearce’s study investigates how evolutionary thought, and the idea of evolution as social progress, were crucial for pragmatist efforts to advocate social reform. A key thesis in the book holds that the pragmatists owed the organism-environment distinction as the central precondition of their notion of social change to Herbert Spencer: He was the one who popularized the concept of environment, and who made “organism” and “environment” key concepts to characterize these fundamental entities for the analysis of life. Ironically, this means that the pragmastists actually owe a great deal to the figure who was the target of pragmatist polemical criticism like no other.

3Pearce uses the cohort, a concept he takes from the social sciences, as a structuring principle for his history of philosophy: “Cohorts are determined not by shared doctrines but by shared experiences at a similar life stage (9). In Pearce’s study, cohorts are determined by college graduation years. He explains his choice with the theory that key events and discussions in the history of biology are reflected in the academic experiences of the pragmatists – be it as students or as lecturers. One advantage Pearce sees in this approach is that it allows not only to include “self-declared pragmatists” but also “historical and conceptual associates” (9). Thus, in addition to the usual suspects such as Peirce, James, and Dewey, other intellectuals such as W. E. B. Du Bois come into view. The cohort model therefore addresses a critique articulated with regard previous accounts of the history of pragmatism: it has hitherto not sufficiently included the contributions of thinkers pertaining to marginalized groups. Pearce presents four distinct cohorts during the period of 1851 to 1939. However, the book only investigates the first two cohorts: The first cohort encompasses the graduating classes of 1851-69, which include, among others, Chauncey Wright, Charles Sanders Peirce, and William James. The second cohort consists of the graduating classes of 1875-98. It includes John Dewey, Jane Addams, George Herbert Mead, and W. E. B. Du Bois. The two remaining cohorts, already situated in the 20th century, are intended to open up to the possibility of subsequent investigations using the proposed model.

4As shown in chapter 1, what shaped the experience of the first cohort was the initial debate around Darwin’s On The Origin of Species (1859) during college education of the 1860s and 70s. In the intellectual environment of Harvard University, Louis Agassiz, one of the most prominent opponents of Darwin at the time, dominated the debate. Pearce illustrates how the young first-cohort-pragmatists, in the context of this intellectual opposition, soon publicly affirmed Darwin’s theory and declared their support for the theory of evolution (Peirce being an exception). But as expanded on in chapter 2, Herbert Spencer, probably the most prominent “evolutionist” at the time, is no less important for pragmatism’s involvement with evolutionary theory than Darwin. The chapter discusses the critical positions that the pragmatists took toward the omnipresent ideas of the then-famous thinker. For James, for example, the allegedly Spencerian externalism (a characterization Pearce takes from Peter Godrey-Smith) was a particular provocation. According to this Spencerian view, organisms are primarily shaped by their external environment. James, in contrast, wanted to grant the mind an active role in shaping at least the human experience of the world.

5Chapter 3 turns to the second cohort, focusing on Dewey, Addams, Du Bois, and Mead. According to Pearce’s model, the difference between the first and the second cohort can be seen in that college education of the late 1870s and 80s already applied evolutionary theory as textbook knowledge. Pearce reconstructs the positions and debates the pragmatists of the second cohort encountered via their teachers or through textbooks. Their thought was thus from an early stage guided by the debates on problems concerning natural evolution. It is remarkable here, how significant the influence of European researchers, such as Wilhelm Wundt, was on the young pragmatists of the second cohort, many of whom had also spent some of their studies in Europe. Chapter 4 then examines the link between idealist and naturalist pragmatism the second cohort made. Pearce shows that the two projects did not necessarily contradict one another. He characterizes the tradition that intertwined the organism-environment relationship with the dialectical figure of thought as “biological idealism or dialectical naturalism” (169).

6Pearce’s book demonstrates that it is important not to treat the entanglements of pragmatism and evolutionary theory as a simple historical complex, since many different theories were discussed under the catchword of evolution. This becomes particularly clear in chapter 5. This chapter illuminates the discussion that August Weismann’s new theory of heredity sparked in the 1890s. Under the label of neo-Darwinism, Weismann advocated a theory of evolution that was more “Darwinian” than that of Darwin himself. For Weismann argued in a strictly anti-Lamarckian manner. Spencer became known as his primary opponent in the so-called Spencer-Weismann debate and the pragmatists of both the first and second cohorts became involved: Peirce took a neo-Lamarckian stance, James embraced neo-Darwinism. The potentially discouraging Weismannian outlook that biological variation results solely from advantageous variation, led to a strengthening of the alternative idea of social inheritance in Du Bois and Dewey.

7In the late 19th century, the second cohort of pragmatists reveal the relevance of the organism-environment distinction for moral and social philosophy. Chapter 6 illustrates how the distinction between organism and environment provided the framework for the second cohort to find approaches to social theory and philosophy: “They [the thinkers belonging to the second cohort, FF] suggested that modern social tensions should be interpreted as a mismatch between present habits, institutions, and codes, on the one hand, and a changed social environment, on the other” (275). This mismatch gives rise to the demand for readaptation – or social change. Additionally, this framework also opens up the experimental notion of social and moral evolution, which also found application in social experiments such as Addams’ “Hull House,” one of the first social settlements in the United States. What Pearce calls pragmatists’ “experimental-evolutionary program” (336) also includes their different approaches to scientific inquiry. The connection between evolution, experiment, and inquiry is explained in chapter 7. There is a major difference between Peirce on the one hand and James and Dewey on the other, regarding the question of whether evolution is directed to an end. Still, they all link their experimental approach to scientific inquiry to evolution. In Peirce’s work, for example, the link between logic and evolutionary theory becomes apparent when he explains the ability to make abductive inferences with evolution: “[...] Peirce’s implication [from evolution by chance] was that we are all abduction engines, built by evolution” (311).

8As an account that draws not only from philosophical texts but from a wide range of sources with rich empirical coverage, Pearce’s book can function as a reference work for research in both history of science and the history of philosophy. It is thus an example for the value of historical contextualization for the history of pragmatism as it shows how illustrative historical embedding of a school of thought draws not only from the systematic reconstruction of arguments from texts but also from the reconstruction of a particular situation in the history of science. Pearce demonstrates how central pragmatist considerations only become intelligible in response to debates around evolution. His project therefore invites to reflect on the role of contextualization in the history of philosophy. At the same time, the cohort model does not provide us with further insight on the topic. But perhaps it is exactly the methodological slimness of this model that allows the book to remain accessible to different disciplines.

9When compared with affirmative-genealogical accounts on the history of pragmatism, an exemplary strength of contextualizing comes to light in Pragmatism’s Evolution: genealogical accounts target a specific variant of present pragmatism as the goal of historical narration – subordinating the depiction of past efforts to this goal. But the thoughts of the 19th century pragmatists do not have to serve the goal of justifying any specific branch of contemporary pragmatism, as Pearce’s study shows. The result of his investigation is a very differentiated and nuanced mapping of relations, whereby intellectual connections that need to be problematized are also revealed. As an example, the association of pragmatism with ideas of eugenics or the idea that social progress is related to a “civilizing process” of “less developed groups,” can be mentioned here. “How should historians of philosophy react to these unsettling views?,” Pearce asks (287). His strategy is to give an account that neither neglects these problematic connections, nor disregards pragmatist philosophy as a whole. This seems to be an honest way of handling the material from a history of philosophy standpoint.

10Pearce’s study reveals how the concepts of evolution, development, and progress were thought to coincide in the 19th century. Yet, the author suggests “to look to other aspects of pragmatism for resources” (287) when confronted with views that have become problematic for us – such as equating evolution with linear progress. Perhaps for one such resource we can turn to a pragmatist voice critical of progress: Chauncey Wright. Wright believed that evolution signifies, first and foremost, an ongoing process that knows no direction or progress and is in constant change. Since Pearce’s book provides us with many quote treasures, this non-linear idea of evolution can be expressed here in Wright’s own words: “Nothing is exempt from change. Worlds are formed and dissipated. Races of organic beings grow up like their constituent individual members, and disappear like these. Nothing shows a trace of an original, immutable nature, except the unchangeable laws of change” (66 / orig. Wright 1865: 454-5).

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Ruse Michael (ed.), (2009), Philosophy after Darwin: Classic and Contemporary Readings, Princeton, Princeton University Press.

Wright Chauncey, (1865), “The Philosophy of Herbert Spencer,” North American Review, 100, 423-76.

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Electronic reference

Fabienne Forster, Review of Trevor Pearce, Pragmatism’s Evolution: Organism and Environment in American PhilosophyEuropean Journal of Pragmatism and American Philosophy [Online], XIV-2 | 2022, Online since 17 October 2022, connection on 28 March 2023. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Fabienne Forster

ETH Zurich

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