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Pragmatism’s Evolution

Organism and Environment in American Philosophy

Publication supported by the Bevington Fund

In Pragmatism’s Evolution, Trevor Pearce demonstrates that the philosophical tradition of pragmatism owes an enormous debt to specific biological debates in the late 1800s, especially those concerning the role of the environment in development and evolution. Many are familiar with John Dewey’s 1909 assertion that evolutionary ideas overturned two thousand years of philosophy—but what exactly happened in the fifty years prior to Dewey’s claim? What form did evolutionary ideas take? When and how were they received by American philosophers?

Although the various thinkers associated with pragmatism—from Charles Sanders Peirce to Jane Addams and beyond—were towering figures in American intellectual life, few realize the full extent of their engagement with the life sciences. In his analysis, Pearce focuses on a series of debates in biology from 1860 to 1910—from the instincts of honeybees to the inheritance of acquired characteristics—in which the pragmatists were active participants. If we want to understand the pragmatists and their influence, Pearce argues, we need to understand the relationship between pragmatism and biology.

384 pages | 12 halftones, 5 tables | 6 x 9 | © 2020

Biological Sciences: Evolutionary Biology

History: History of Ideas

History of Science

Philosophy: American Philosophy


“Offers a detailed study of what exactly that connection looked like, adding both breadth and depth through an impressive collection of sources . . . . Pragmatism’s Evolution is about the role of evolution, as a theory, in American pragmatism, as well as the early evolution of pragmatism itself. Although Pearce’s intellectual historical analysis is intentionally held apart from social, cultural, or political considerations, it raises important questions for future projects that might draw on these connections.”


"The merit of [Pearce's] book lies in the huge amount of historical information and precision he brings to a familiar story. . . . His contextualist approach provides even more substance by drawing attention to correspondence, courses, conversations, institutions and venues in addition to published books. . . . Pearce's book is rich in detail, well-delivered and well-written. It will be invaluable to both scholars of pragmatism and historians of science alike and certainly proves the usefulness of the history of science in increasing our understanding of pragmatist theses, whether in metaphysics or ethics, beyond a vague ritualistic reference to Darwin. . . . Pearce has done a superb job."


"[An] important book."

Acta Biotheoretica

"Meticulously researched and convincingly argued. . . . Pearce's method is historical and contextualist in the capacious sense, carefully focusing on how context informs content, and eschewing simply reconstructing a particular thinker's arguments in favor of a more nuanced focus on the diverse way these pragmatist thinkers engaged with biology, including correspondence, lecture notes, minutes from formal and informal clubs, newspaper articles, journal publications, and professional debates. Using a cohort approach based on the year each cluster of thinkers he discusses graduated, Pearce shows how evolutionary ideas were debated and appropriated from one generation to the next. A significant and edifying work, this book will interest students and academics alike, particularly philosophers and historians of biology but also those who appreciate nonreductive applications of evolutionary ideas to philosophy. . . . Recommended."


"[Pearce] brings a historian's appreciation for, and training in handling, material and textual evidence, along with the philosophical analysis. . . . Pearce's work provides far greater detail than was previously possible. . . . A major contribution to pragmatism and its evolution."

History: Reviews of New Books

"A major contribution to our understanding of the history of pragmatism, the specific influences, developments, and consequences. . . . [It] should be on the reading list of anyone interested in the history of American philosophy."

The Quarterly Review of Biology

"There is much to recommend Pearce's comprehensive and engaging study, which shall provide a valuable resource to all scholars and researchers working on late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century American philosophy. . . . The attention which Pearce gives to the British idealists and to Spencer, in particular, is an especially welcome feature of his excellent monograph. . . . Amongst its many other virtues, then, Pearce's text represents a welcome contribution to efforts at extending the pragmatist canon beyond the familiar trio of Peirce, James, and Dewey—which is not to deny that these figures receive the attention they merit in any history of pragmatism. As such, Pearce's text deserves to be very warmly received amongst scholars of pragmatist philosophy."

Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews

"Pearce has done something remarkable and all too rare: written a book at the intersection of philosophy, science, and history that is equally excellent in all three respects. Scholarly, path-breaking, and not beholden to any received dogmas of pragmatist scholarship, Pearce goes where the historical evidence, his scientific knowledge, and keen philosophical sense take him. . . . Pearce not only provides an excellent way to unify the historical pragmatist tradition, but also to broaden it beyond the typical list of white male figures. . . . Pragmatism's Evolution should be read by everyone interested in pragmatism, the history and philosophy of biology, and/or late 19th and early 20th century American intellectual and social history. It is an excellent book, in every respect, and pragmatist scholarship must surely adapt to its evolutionary progress—or die."

International Journal of Philosophical Studies

"Trevor Pearce’s Pragmatism’s Evolution proves that there are still new and interesting things to say about a philosophical movement and method often cited as distinctly ‘American’. . . . Pearce provides a detailed overview of pragmatism that takes a fresh look at some well-trodden ground. As such, it will surely engage ‘historians of philosophy . . . [and] historians and philosophers of biology’, no less those claiming an interest in pragmatism more generally."

Philosophy in Review

“When 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 nineteenth 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.”

European Journal of Pragmatism and American Philosophy

"This rich study should provide the starting point for future researchers interested in the connections between the early pragmatists and the biological sciences of their day. But it does much more: it places the key pragmatist thinkers within various intellectual contexts and reminds us of the importance of thinkers such as Herbert Spencer and August Weismann for understanding evolutionary theories at the end of the nineteenth century. Whereas most accounts of Pragmatism and evolution focus on Darwin, Pearce reminds us that evolutionary theory was very much a debate during this period, and the terms of the debate shaped Pragmatism in ways that Pearce’s book helps us to better understand."

Dewey Studies

“Pearce provides an important and exhaustive set of facts for future researchers in multiple fields.”

American Journal of Theology and Philosophy

“Pearce’s book is compelling and valuable for a number of reasons. First, the historical analysis is based on a fruitful connection of institutional setting and a variety of documents that provides a deep insight into the different stages of the story. Second, Pearce convincingly points out the importance of British and Continental European sources and the way these were originally elaborated by pragmatists. The different experiences abroad of key figures of American philosophy and the constant flow of texts—of Darwinian thinkers, of neo-Kantian philosophers and psychologists, of British idealists—provides a substantial background for the proper understanding of the rise and original character of American pragmatism. Pearce’s book presents fresh insights concerning this story. Finally, the book wants to investigate ‘a model of how biological ideas, suitably reframed, can ground a nonreductionist evolutionary account of mental and moral life’ and manages to establish a promising background for this future research.”

Journal of Interdisciplinary History of Ideas

“Pearce’s book adds a welcome new dimension to discussion of the history of pragmatism. His treatment of the movement’s early years includes an expanded range of characters, some of them fascinating but neglected, others who are recognized as leading figures but not usually linked to pragmatist philosophy. Pearce also shows the influence on pragmatism of an unruly, speculative, and rich collection of ideas about biological evolution and historical change. The book is meticulously researched, very well written, and full of surprises."

Peter Godfrey-Smith, author of Theory and Reality: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Science

"This book is an important contribution to the history of philosophical discussion of biology. I do not know of any other book that covers the material so thoroughly. It will be invaluable to anyone interested in the history of pragmatism and the influence of biology and evolution on pragmatic thinkers."

Richard J. Bernstein, The New School for Social Research

Table of Contents

List of Tables and Figures
Abbreviations of Manuscript Sources
Abbreviations of Scholarly Editions
Note to the Reader


Chapter 1: The Metaphysical Club and the Origin of Species

Chapter 2: Products of the Environment: Spencer’s Challenge
Spencerian Evolution
Spencerian Psychology
Spencerian Sociology

Chapter 3: Evolution at School: Educating a New Generation
Evolution in College
Evolution in Graduate School
Teaching Evolution

Chapter 4: “Hegelianism Needs to Be Darwinized”: Evolution and Idealism
Hegel and Evolution
The Organism-Environment Dialectic
Evolutionary Strivings

Chapter 5: Weismannism Comes to America: The Factors of Evolution
The Reception of Weismann
Peirce and Neo-Lamarckism
Dewey and the Spencer-Weismann Debate

Chapter 6: Pragmatist Ethics: Evolution, Experiment, and Social Progress
Fieldwork in Ethics
Organism and Environment in Social Reform
Social Science and Social Evolution
Eugenics and Civilization

Chapter 7: Pragmatist Logic: Evolution, Experiment, and Inquiry
The “Natural History” Approach
Evolutionary Experimentalism


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