Latour, in Reassembling the Social, reports this opening statement from a 1914 lecture* of Durkheim’s on the challenge posed by the arguments of pragmatism, which were then a relatively new presence in the academic landscape:
We are currently witnessing an attack on reason which is truly militant and determined…
While Durkheim acknowledges “the need for a reform of traditional rationalism,” he says pragmatism is a “form of irrationalism” that goes much too far. He says that the task of resisting pragmatism is
of philosophical importance…the entire philosophical tradition, right from the very beginnings of philosophical speculation, is inspired by rationalism. If pragmatism were valid, we should have to embark on a complete reversal of this whole tradition.
It is revealing to see just how existential the establishment thought pragmatism’s challenge to the philosophical order was. I have a tendency to think of people like Rorty or Deleuze and Guattari as engaging in a project of radicalizing the ‘traditional’ pragmatists, taking them in dangerous new directions. Moments like this remind me again not to underestimate the radical challenge people like Dewey and William James were offering.
Durkheim’s words are also timely because my students just read Books IV and V of The Republic, where Socrates lays down those “very beginnings” of rationalism Durkeim is talking about.
*Latour cites: Durkheim, E. (1955) Pragmatisme et sociologie. Paris: Vrin.