Pragmatism and American Democracy: An Elective Affinity Analysis

Norbert Wiley

(Presented at the American Sociological Association Meetings, Atlanta , Georgia , August, 2003. Thanks are due to Vincent Colapietro, Susan Hekman, James Hoopes, Fred Matthews, H.S. Thayer, David Westby and Raymond Zimmer.)

The pragmatists then were slowly solving the equality problem of the Civil War and the subsequent ethnic immigrations, even though this was not their explicit intention. Pragmatist ideas, acting as a Weberian switchman, diverted America from eugenics, social Darwinism and ethnic intolerance to the universalization of civil rights. These came first for Catholics and Jews; and later, though still in mid-stream, for blacks, women, and gays. Like Weber’s Protestant

Ethic, pragmatism had an elective affinity with and thereby substantially caused an otherwise unlikely set of institutions. Pragmatism was less clear about economic rights, however, and this form of egalitarianism is still unfinished business for American thought.

This paper has three objectives. To find pragmatism’s key insight and its effect on public affairs. To show that the notion of semiotic equality explained, for the first time in American history, what underlie moral and legal equality. And to show how pragmatism, like Weber’s Protestant ethic, acted as a switchman, diverting America into a more egalitarian civil society than might otherwise have been expected.

I will begin with an introduction in which I will define pragmatism and briefly lay out what I think are its central ideas. Then I will talk narratively about how pragmatism fits into the history of American democracy and how it led to the spreading of civil rights. And finally I will cover the same ground, though in more condensed fashion, with an elective affinity model.

I. Introduction

It is generally recognized that pragmatism is America ’s main philosophy, but there is little agreement on its central ideas. The major pragmatists, Charles Sanders Peirce, William James, John Dewey and George Herbert Mead, all had somewhat different ideas, and Peirce the founder often seemed more formal and empiricist than the other three. In fact H.O. Mounce’s recent book on The Two Pragmatisms argues that Peirce and James each founded distinct forms of pragmatism and that this duality persists to this day.

There is also disagreement on pragmatism’s contribution to American public life. In 1980 pragmatism had been in decline for perhaps five decades, and David Hollinger wrote a provocative paper on the ambiguity of its legacy (Hollinger, 1980). But few cared what its main point had been, since in any case it seemed passe. One backward glance was that it had been a timid and half-baked version of logical positivism, and with that philosophy’s decline, pragmatism would certainly remain dead forever.

The issue of pragmatism’s relevence, however, got new life when pragmatism had an unexpected resurgence in the 1980s (Thayer, 1981, Halton, 1987, Bernstein, 1992 and Kloppenberg,1998). Some of the resurgence was in a closer examination of what the pragmatists had actually said. Some was in attempts to find shared themes and common denominators. Some was in the effort to develop pragmatist ideas further. And some was in applying them to neighboring fields.

My own contribution, building on Rochberg-Halton (1986, pp. 24-40) and Colapietro (1989), was The Semiotic Self (l994). This argued that pragmatism’s main contribution was not in its theory of truth and meaning, but in its theory of human nature or the self. I found the dialogical or semiotic self to be the common denominator of classical pragmatism, and I combined Peirce’s “I-you” and Mead’s “I-me” models into an “I-you-me” triadic model. This, it seemed to me, was a unique and powerful explanation of human consciousness.

I also pointed out that the dialogical self explained ethnic sub-cultures, showing how these were merely an elaboration of semiotic plasticity and not the expression of biological traits. It is now forgotten how close to authoritarianism the United States had come in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. But there was widespread belief that the Catholic and Jewish ethnic groups were biologically inferior to the white Protestants and should not be given full public rights. Women and African-Americans were of course regarded as even lower. And homosexuals could not even be spoken of, let alone juridically empowered.

In this paper, however, I want to further develop the idea that pragmatism deepened American equality. Earlier in American history, in the Declaration of Independence and the Gettysburg address, there were important public assertions about equality. The pragmatists went deeper, though, and clarified what there was about human beings, namely their significative or symbolic cores, that explained why all are equal.

The consequence was a gradual diffusion of this idea into the culture. Eventually this idea became so taken for granted that equal civil rights gradually spread, via the judicial system, throughout all previously stigmatised social groups. This is a striking example of the power of ideas, or as Stephen Kalberg recently put it (Kalberg, 2001), a “dynamically autonomous cognitive force.” Pragmatism acted as a Weberian “switchman” in American legal history by showing why all human beings are equal and should logically all have the same rights.

Pragmatism then did a good job on moral equality, but it had less to say about economic equality. The pragmatists, like almost all other American intellectuals, were decidedly not Marxists, so they did not have any Marxian brief for material equality. On the other hand moral equality seems to require, as an infra structure, a certain amount of economic equality. And democracy tends to founder with too much material inequality (Phillips, 2002). In the conclusion I will look at the relation between legal and economic equality.

A final introductory point concerns the purposes or intentions of the pragmatists, i.e. whether they personally and consciously wanted the universalization of rights. The elective affinity argument, however, does not assume that the people who construct the social cause, e.g. the Calvinist preachers who made the Protestant Ethic or the pragmatists who theorized moral equality, foresee and intend the effect. The causal process is implicit and at the level of cultural affinity. It happens behind the backs of the intellectuals who produce the cause. Actually James, Dewey and Mead were liberals and would probably have approved the universalization of rights. Peirce, though, seems to have been a reactionary and not in favor of legal equality. In his case you have to credit the force of the ideas and not the purposes of the thinker.

2. Pragmatism and Equality -- The Narrative Argument

To show pragmatism’s impact on ideas of equality it is necessary to take a brief look at American history. The founding fathers worked with an inegalitarian theory of human nature, namely faculty psychology (Howe, 1987). In particular the faculty of passion was considered especially strong and irrational in blacks, indians and women Accordingly these groupings were, to differing degrees, given inferior political status, which was legally enshrined in the Constitution.

Earlier there was the famous “all men are equal” assertion of the Declaration of Independence. This was quietly forgotten in the Constitutional deliberations, although it remained in permanent tension with the unequal legal system. Jefferson, who was the main author of the Declaration, grounded this equality in divine creation but not in any theory of the self or human nature.

By the mid-19th century the transcendentalists were distancing themselves from faculty psychology and moving to a literary form of German idealism, although faculty psychology continued to have specialized influences (Howe, 1997). But the Civil War finished the job, causing the near demise of faculty psychology and transcendentalism as well. The war created the need for a radically new and egalitarian theory of human nature.

There were several reasons for this. The war caused a break with the entire Northern value system, including the founders’ theory of human nature. In particular the Gettysburg Address invoked a highly egalitarian picture of human nature, more like the one implied in the Declaration of Independence than in the Constitution, but Lincoln had no theory to back this up. And the slaves were now free, but there was a need to explain how they had the same human nature as everyone else.[1]

The pragmatists were beginning to appear right after the war in the Metaphysical Club in 1872 (Menand, 2001). Peirce had already published his criticism of Descartes and intuition in l868 (1868a, 1868b), and he stated his pragmatist theory of meaning in a paper to the Club in 1872. This was later published in two parts as “The Fixation of Belief” (1877) and “How to Make our Ideas Clear” (1878). These two starting points, pragmatism and anti-Cartesianism, are often thought to be two completely different and somewhat incompatible lines of thought. I will show that the former (pragmatism) leads to the latter (anti-intuition) and that the two together lead to the politically crucial idea that the self is a sign.

These two pairs of papers were central to the development of Peircian semiotics, the semiotic self and the anthropological concept of culture, and those were what led to the theory of equality. But these were merely starting points, and it would take a long time for these ideas to reach their full development and begin spreading throughout American institutions.

After the War there were also two developments that blunted the move toward equality. These were Reconstruction, which gave the South an ideological victory in the War, and Social Darwinism, which presented still a new theory of social inequality. Reconstruction returned unhampered political power to the South, and by the 1890s also allowed legalized racial discrimination in the Jim Crow System. This system was not completely dismantled until the 1960s, although when it was, the egalitarian ideas of pragmatism were a major contribution to the argument. And social Darwinism, which replaced faculty psychology as an inegalitarian theory, justified both economic and ethnic-racial inequality.

In other words the overt flow of events after the Civil War was not at all egalitarian. And with the turn-of- the-century New Immigration, largely of Catholics and Jews, there was a backlash in the eugenics and Americanization movements. Yet beneath these inequalitarian institutions the ideas of the pragmatists were slowly taking shape. To explain this I have to look at the two early sets of papers by Peirce and their connection.

Let me begin with the 1872 ideas on pragmatism. Peirce defines the pragmatic theory of meaning as follows. “Consider what effects, which might conceivably have practical bearings, we conceive the object of our conception to have. Then our conception of these effects is the whole of our conception of the object” (1986, p. 266). This definition looked to some like logical positivism’s principle of verification, in which meaning was exclusively the preserve of physical science (Edwards, 1967). But Peirce did not conceive the words “effects” and “practical bearings” in a purely physicalist manner. He did emphasize practical life and our willingness to “bet” on these effects, but he also constantly tinkered with the formulation, finally settling on the rather loose notion that the meaning of something is in the habits with which we respond to it (Gallie, 1952, pp. 165-180).

Moreover meaning in the pragmatist maxim was determined slowly and deliberately through a dialogical method, both the kind we have privately in our minds and the more public kind that proceeds among members of the community. Meaning then was in consequences that were relevant to behavior, including cultural as well as purely physical behavior. Notice, meaning is now getting a semiotic component, both in the sense that we are decoding signs and that we are doing this in deliberation and discussion.

For William James meaning could sometimes be produced entirely by individuals,

by dint of the will to believe. James felt he had proved both his own free will and the existence of God by this method. Peirce disagreed with this, holding that meanings come primarily through a process of social, not individual, interpretation, and usually over a long period of time.

In “Questions Concerning Certain Faculties Claimed for Man,” the first of the l868 papers against Descartes, Peirce argues against intuition, defining it as “cognition not determined by a previous cognition” (1868a, p. 193). Descartes had said we have intuitive knowledge of the self in “cogito ergo sum.” We do not have to reason to our awareness of the self. It is just there, immediately and without any determination “by a previous cognition.” Peirce disagreed and said a child is initially not aware of his or her self. This awareness comes gradually, usually by reality testing and finding one’s limits. We can say “cogito ergo sum” only later, after we have already discovered the self in a more laborious and non-intuitive process.

Peirce generalized this anti-intuitive argument, saying that all knowledge is mediated. There are no immediate certainties; only the reading of indications and signs. This is what goes on in the internal dialogue, which is the pragmatist explanation of the thought process. When we think about something via inner speech, or the community deliberates by way of interpersonal dialogue, this is a process of semiotic or sign-reading interpretation. Rather than intuiting clear and distinct aspects of reality, humans must chew on and interpret vague signs and indications from reality (Hoopes, 1991).

Getting back to the pragmatic maxim, the meaning of something is in its consequences. And these consequences are interpreted semiotically in a dialogical process, both intra- and inter-personal. In this way Peirce’s two starting points, the pragmatic maxim and the anti-intuitive arguments come together.

A number of important conclusions follow from these starting points.

1. Knowledge is semiotic, i.e. rather than being the intuition of clarities it is the interpretation of vague significations. Both ordinary common sense and the specialized sciences proceed in this manner.

2. All cultures are semiotic (Geertz, 1973), which gives, within limits, a loose, somewhat relativistic character. Cultures are not better or worse but same and different.

3. Humans are semiotic, meaning they are signs or “glassy essences.” They can and do become almost anything, and this explains how there can be so much cultural and ethnic variation.

To expand on the last point, the glass here is not a window but a looking glass, replete with shiny backing. Humans can reflect, i.e. represent, anything, but in vague signs, not clear intuitions. These glassy essences are mirrors all right but crude ones, representing not with precision but “through a glass darkly,” as early mirrors did. Glassy essence then mean semiotic to the core. Humans are filled with signs, and underlying this fullness, there is a universal sign or semiotic mirror (Perinbanayagam, 1991, pp/ 5-25).

These conclusions, while semi-technical, were gradually translated into more ordinary ideas in the popular culture. In particular they led to a much sharper distinction between heredity and environent than had previously been available. This in turn lead to the notions of learning and habit as explanations of why ethnic groups differed from each other.

In the early 20th century the Catholic and Jewish ethnic groups, along with African-Americans, were being labelled as criminal and deviant by the going -- i.e. white, male Protestant -- standards. These groups did not actually have high crime rates, but this was the belief at the time, and this alleged deviance was explained as hereditary and biologically determined. This is what led to proposals to reduce the political rights of these groups.

Peirce’s pragmatist ideas, which were being developed and modified by James, Dewey and Mead, gradually sharpened the notion that cultures were based primarily on environment rather than heredity -- or nurture rather than nature. This development occured largely through the spread of pragmatist ideas to the sciences of anthropology and sociology, two fields that had a wide popular impact on American thought. Franz Boas, the founding father of American anthropology, also worked with a concept of culture which he developed from German sources (Lowie, 1937). But he was in communication with the pragmatists, especially Dewey at Columbia . And the two notions of culture, the pragmatist (Dewey, 1911-13) and the Boasian, were so alike that they gradually merged. The pragmatists’ approach was micro, based on the sign as the unit of culture (White, 1949). The Boasian approach was macro, based on whole societies and their languages. But both approaches saw culture as supra-biological, i.e. as learned, shared and transmitted.

Sociology, for its part, was largely centered at the University of Chicago , where the presence of George Herbert Mead in the philosophy department gave pragmatism an enormous influence on sociology. Many sociology graduate students took Mead’s social psychology seminar, and his ideas of the sign, the self and communication, gradually permeated sociological theory.

Pragmatist ideas also spread through the American institutions and professions generally, including the press, public school teachers, social workers, lawyers, politicians, mass media and religionists. What began as rather arcane thinking for Peirce, was developed and communicated by the other pragmatists and finally became part of the American conventional wisdom. As Kloppenberg put it, although pragmatism declined in philosophy departments, “in the broader culture pragmatism remained a vital presence. . . . Outside departments of philosophy pragmatism never disappeared” (Kloppenberg, 2002, p. 93).

The securing of full political rights for Catholics and Jews did not require any specific government actions, although they did benefit from labor legislation. The problem was that there was widespread feeling, including among American elites, that these two groups might have to be placed in a subordinate political status. A test case was the forbidding of private, including Catholic, schools in the State of Oregon (Compulsory School Bill, l922), a law that was later struck down by the courts. And there was plenty of informal discrimination against Catholics and Jews. The important thing for civil rights was the prevention of legal discrimination against these groups, even though there was widespread sentiment for such discrimination.

In contrast the civil rights of women, African-Americans and homosexuals have had to proceed by positive actions of legislatures and courts. These political actions, from the 1950s to the present, have relied on the pragmatist idea of the self and sub-cultures. The equality of women with men and blacks with whites has been based squarely on the semiotic self or “rubber band.” These groups are fundamentally the same, i.e. equal, and their differences are largely do to the way the rubber band has been stretched. The rights of gays are being argued from a more complex base, which often includes some crediting of biological influences on sexual orientation. Yet even for gays the notion of sub-cultures is legitimizing.

Closely related to the rights revolution has been the expansion of privacy for intermarriage, contraception, abortion and, again, gay rights. Privacy law has not yet been well theorized in American jurisprudence, but it clearly draws on the internal privacy of the pragmatists’ dialogical self (Wiley, 1997). When the American Supreme Court gave gays and lesbians their biggest gain in civil rights, June, 2003, a major legal argument was based on privacy.

The broad picture I am drawing then is of how a set of ideas gradually permeated and shaped American institutional life. America began as a democracy, but one in which political rights were far from universal. Indeed there was something of a caste system. By the time of the Civil War, which was over this very caste system, Lincoln tried to place equality at the core of American values, in effect by finally inserting it into the Constitution. This phrasing in the Gettysburg Address unfortunately remained little more than a nice-sounding memory for a long time, much as Jefferson ’s “all men are equal” was little more than a memory. Instead the country turned to Reconstruction and social Darwinism, which were strong forces of inequality.

In the meantime, however, the pragmatists, especially Peirce, were putting together a set of ideas that would become something of a second American Constitution. These ideas would not only echo Jefferson and Lincoln in saying all are equal. In addition they would explain how and why all were equal. Humans are sign templates, because, much like Sartre’s self-as-nothingness, they are capable of becoming anything. It is this very “anythingness” that constitutes the semiotic self and explains the fundamental similarity among all human beings. Of course once an infant is socialized into its family and sub-culture, an elaborate set of habits guides and strucdtures its selfhood. Once this happens there is anything but plasticity. But at birth, which is where humans are most plastic and equal, the infant has the malleabiliky to take on any set of signs and thereby become “anything.”

If thought were intuitive, to return to the epistemology of the argument, there would be a clearer factor of truth and falsity, and the moderate relativism I am arguing for would be indefensible. Cultures would be hierarchical because they could be evaluated and ranked by clear standards. And the ethnic hierarchy of turn-of-the-century America -- with white Protestants on top, then Catholics, then Jews, then the dark minorities, with women inferior to men at each level -- might have been based on truth. The American bigots of the time certainly thought it was.

I am calling this relativism moderate because it operates only to a degree, and it is more true of some features of culture than others. Ethnic prejudice is based largely on the life style aspect of culture and particularly on how people consume and take liesure. Patterns of work are more peripheral. In Marx’s terms it is the superstructure more than the infra structure. And in Max Weber’s terms it is the order of status more than those of class and power.

In the early Twentieth century the white Protestants looked down on the Catholics, Jews and African-Americans for the way they “lived,” meaning how they expressed themselves in the status order. It was clothing, music, drugs of choice, dance styles, cuisine, speech peculiarities, patterns of liesure, home decorations, sexual behavior, body language, etc. This is the house of life style or status. And it is these orders that are most plastic, semiotic and relativistic. On the other hand they had an emotional punch that revolted people of other sub-cultures, making them certain of who was better or worse. To create tolerance or at least a theory of tolerance in turn-of-the-century America required an idea that justified egalitarianism. And if the ethnic sub-cultures, offensive as they seemed to some, could be shown to be just so many relativistic systems of signs, the spirit of tolerance might gradually make some headway.

In other words although the order of status or life style was the emotional touchstone of ethnic prejudice, it was also the most vulnerable to a semiotic deconstruction. What was needed was an epistemology that explained how the status order was based, not on truth, but on a kind of aesthetic, with each sub-cultural system being essentially as good (and true) as the next one.

There is a parallel here with freedom of religion, and indeed religion was often one of the most offensive aspects of an ethnic group. But the American Constitution guaranteed the separation of church and state along with freedom of religion, and this agreement to disagree gradually became a working rule in American life.

Something similar happened for the ethnic sub-cultures in the Twentieth century. People began to agree to disagree over the way they “lived.” Sub-cultures were accepted as for-all-practical-purposes relativistic, and an important foundation for ethnic tolerance was established. Of course the foundation had to include some legal protections, as I will show.

This set of ideas, which gradually spread through American life, was what democracy needed to clarify the universalization of rights. It is true, England and especially France , being more homogeneous than the United States , may not have needed this juridical foundation, or not as much. But the United States , given its specific ethnic history, needed it badly. And it was pragmatism that gave this country the ideas that enabled a completion of the democratic revolution.

As I mentioned earlier, this argument does not assume that the pragmatists foresaw and intended their effect on legal rights. Meanings develop in a much more indirect and hard-to-foresee way than this. And they connect at cultural contact points, not necessarily involving individuals and their personalities. In addition this argument does not assume that the pragmatists, especially Peirce, were right in what they held. Maybe there is intuition and maybe meaning should be determined in some way other than the pragmatic maxim. I am merely arguing that this is what did happen, not that the ideas were inherently true.

3. Pragmatism and Equality: The Elective Affinity Argument

The previous section was narrative, which means the argument diffused throughout the text. I used many little arguments and tried to fit them together into one big one. In this section I will become more focused and concentrate on one big argument. This is the elective affinity method, popularized by Max Weber. To show how it works I will look at Weber’s use of this method.

Weber seems to have been the first to use the concept of elective affinity in social theory. Earlier it had been used in l8th century chemistry to mean what is now called the valence (“mutual attraction”) among particles. It had also been used in literature, notably in Goethe’s Elective Affinity, to designate the mutual attraction (the “chemistry”) that sometimes exists between a man and a women. And the term was also used quite loosely in philosophy, especially in German idealism. But Weber’s use of the term, particularly in his sociology of religion, was the first in sociology (Howe, 1978; Thomas, 1985; Treiber, 1985).

Weber never gave a formal definition. He simply used the term to describe the relationship between various socio-cultural elements, although the definition was somewhat implied by the context. The relationships were usually between groups and ideas, but sometimes simply between ideas. In explanatory or logical style the relationships were not causal in the positivistic sense or even functional but rather interpretive or meaningful.

In addition Weber had both simple (cross-sectional) and complex (longitudinal) uses of the term. In the simple version, the relation was one of mutual attraction, with varying degrees of mutuality, during a single period in time (for a skillful application see Jones and Anservitz, l975). The import of this version was primarily to dissent from an over-simplified variant of Marxian economic determinism, in which ideas always reflect and are caused by the interests of the ruling class (Gerth and Mills, l946, p. 62-63). Weber’s point was that the influence was sometimes two-way.

In the complex version the relation was a temporal process beginning with an initial stage of mutual attraction, developing into a phase of disaffinity in which the intellectuals modified the ideas in some manner, and terminating in still another stage of affinity, in which the group re-aligned its interests and life style to mesh with the now altered ideational element (Wiley, l987, pp. 18-19).

The argument in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism was one of complex elective affinity. The Calvinist theologians interpreted predestination in such a way that salvation became available to those who worked hard, sought efficiency and saved the profits. This gradually altered the class interests of the factory owners so that instead of seeking profits and pleasure both, they now sought to maximize profits and minimize pleasure. This economic practice was mean to maximize their ideal interests, namely to get into heaven (Warner, 1970, 1972).

This argument is controversial and almost nobody accepts it without qualification. I think it has some truth value, but for present purposes I don’t care if it’s true or false. All I want is to borrow the logic and apply it to my case. The logic is separate from the substance and its veracity.

In the complex case the crucial stage is when the priests or intellectuals start chewing on core ideas in such a way that these ideas take on a life of their own. They develop in response to their own internal logic. At this point these ideas can no longer be controlled, either by the elites who sponsored the intellectuals or the intellectuals themselves. In effect truth has changed, carrying both the intellectuals and the elites along with it. In the Protestant Ethic case it’s the truth of how one becomes saved. In the pragmatist case its the truth of why all should have equal rights.

When the ideas, normally religious for Weber, begin developing on their own, they are somewhere in the collective unconscious so to speak. Actually when culture develops on its own it’s not really unconscious. It’s merely at another ontological level, the cultural rather than the psychological. But for all practical purposes its down deep, cooking somewhere and who knows how it will taste. At any rate this is the way I see pragmatism developing throughout the l9th century.

Peirce himself was a conservative, and there would be no reason to expect him to produce ideas that lead to liberal egalitarianism. In 1910, referring to people who misunderstood him, he wrote

If they were to come to know me better they might learn to think me ultra-conservative. I am, for example, an old-fashioned christian, a believer in the efficacy of prayer, an opponent of female suffrage and of universal male suffrage, in favor of letting business-methods develop without the interference of law, a disbeliever in democracy, etc. etc. (Unpublished Manuscript 645)

Even if we allow for some exaggeration and shock value in that statement, the biographers are clear that Peirce leaned toward the conservative side (Brent, 1993; Corrington, 1993, 1-26).

But nevertheless his ideas did lead to egalitarianism, albeit slowly and with many complexities. By the mid-Twentieth Century pragmatism had such moral power that it lead to the rights revolution of the Warren court. Just as predestination could have gone either toward fatalism or, as it did, toward the Protestant Ethic, pragmatism could have could have stayed just as conservative as Peirce intended. But his ideas of the semiotics of meaning, the self and culture grew in a liberal direction on their own. These ideas would inevitably make equality a more central American value. Of course James, Dewey and Mead were all moderately liberal on their own, and they did not oppose the drift of these ideas.

The elective affinity argument for America then seems to work like this.

1. Initial Stage. Initially American elites, economic and political, sponsored universities, both for their contribution to religious interests and for their secular scholarship. Universities would help modernise the country, providing scientific, technical and cultural resources as well as addressing social problems. Peirce, James, Dewey and Mead were all competent thinkers, and they would each add enormously to American culture. Peirce who was the most unconventional of the four could not get a University position and ended up quite poor. Still his personal politics remained close to conservative America.

2. Development of the Switchman. Pragmatist ideas would go through a multi-decade development, gradually becoming clearer about the foundations of equality. This can be clarified with John Searle’s distinction between the “two rules,” regulative and constitutive (Searle, l969, 33-34; see also Rawls, 1955). Since this distinction is not usually used in social theory, I will quote Searle at some length:

Regulative rules regulate antecedently or independently existing forms of behavior; for example, many rules of etiquette regulate inter-personal relationships which exist independently of the rules. But constitutive rules do not merely regulate, they create and define new forms of behavior. The rules of football or chess, for example, do not merely regulate playing football or chess, but as it were they create the very possibility of playing such games. The activities of playing football or chess are constituted by acting in accordance with the appropriate rules. Regulative rules regulate a pre-existing activity, an activity whose existence is logically independent of the rules. Constitutive rules constitute (and also regulate) an activity the existence of which is logically dependent on the rules.

The constitutive rules are usually simply called definitions, for they state what a thing is. The regulative rules are usually called mores or norms in sociology, for they state what ought to be done. They draw on the constituent rules as values draw on beliefs or the “ought” draws on the “is”.

The universalization of legal rights, which pragmatism led to, was a cluster of regulative rules. But underneath them and creating their possibility was a set of constitutive rules concerning the semiotics of meaning, self and culture. These latter rules defined human beings in such a way that universal rights were an implication. If humans are morally equal, as pragmatist ideas said, then it follows easily that they should all have the same rights. You need the constitutive rules to make the regulative rules have any sense.

Jefferson and Lincoln had ringing declarations of the regulative rule of equality, but no constitutive rules, explaining and justifying this regulation. Jefferson had invoked divine creation, and Lincoln merely harkened back to Jefferson . Of course the invention of the constitutive rules would not necessarily have brought new rights on its own. There was some historical readiness and plenty of public protest behind the rights revolution.

Elective affinity does not argue that the intellectual cause could have done it on its own. But it can be a necessary condition to a particular historical development. I think, given all the conservative forces, ideas and organizations that wanted to control American modernization, it was no mean feat that pragmatism was as successful as it was. In other words it looks like pragmatism was a necessary condition to the spread of rights, and without it, egalitarianism would have moved much more slowly if at all.

3. The New Moral Equilibrium In the last, re-balancing stage there is again an equivalency between the interests of elites and those suggested by the new constitutive rules. The intellectuals have redefined moral reality, and elites must conform to this new cultural wave. In the American case the universalization of rights had disrupted many values and interests. There were plenty of protests on both sides of these issues. But the rights revolution had modern thought on its side, not just what’s taught at universities but also what, by now, has been absorbed by the culture generally. Pragmatism first spread into the conventional wisdom and then had increasing influence on the legal institutions.

To clarify the elective affinity process I will make a formal comparison (Table I) of Weber’s Protestant Ethic and American pragmatism.

I will go through the Table and clarify as needed. Both cases are complex modes of elective affinity. A simple mode is a mutual attraction that creates some sort of merger or combination, which may or may not change over time. Both pragmatism and the Protestant Ethic developed over long periods of time. And then they both acted as switchmen to change the moral rules.

In neither case was the result intended. It came out of the logic of the whole situation, including the logic or ideas. Elective affinity works at the supra-personal levels of the society and the culture. These processes do not necessarily entail human awareness, let along human guidance.

The rules differed between the two cases. The case of pragmatism, as I explained, entailed new constitutive rules that brought about new regulative rules. The case of the Protestant Ethic was one in which one set of regulative rules produced another. The new rules were initially elaborated theologically, including the practical theology of pastoral guidance, in the Protestant Ethic. These rules were then embedded in another cultural order, that of the economic ethic or spirit of capitalism. I will not stop to elaborate this distinction, except to say it makes the two cases interestingly different.[2]

In both cases the class interests of elites were changed, but in the Protestant Ethic they were changed in specific economic ways, and in the pragmatist case they were changed more generally to preserve cultural integrity and social peace.

If there are functions or useful outcomes for the two cases, the Weberian one seems to be economic development. What better way to expand an industrial economy than to advocate hard work, careful attention to method and the kind of restricted consumption that would allow savings (and reinvestment). Of course modern capitalism also had numerous bad effects, but these are not relevant to the present discussion. The function of the American rights revolution was to promote social peace as well as legal uniformity.

The Protestant case as such did not carry significant social protest, although there was plenty of industrial protest for more specific reasons, such as wages and hours. The American universalization of right did entail considerable social protest, and, given that this process is still incomplete, there may be considerably more social protest.

From a religious point of view the Weberian case did involve central religious ideas, namely how to be saved, although there were also important secular effects. The pragmatist case was not expressly religious in any respect, although religious ideals may have coincided with pragmatist universalism. Instead the pragmatist case involved the jump from constitutive to regulatory rules, or from “is” to “ought,” both sides being defined in non-religious terms.

Table I, then, is a useful way of showing how the two cases of elective affinity are alike and how they differ. The concrete historical materials are quite different, but the inner logic of ideas is about the same.

The elective affinity argument, then, covers about the same ground as the narrative argument, but the emphases are different. Taken together it would seem they are stronger than either would be alone.

5. Conclusion

The major conclusion is the central idea of the paper, that pragmatism enabled and justified the universalization of civil rights in the United States . In the early 1920s when the Ku Klux Klan was riding high in the North it looked like anything could happen, including a slide toward fascism. And in anthropology there was a tough fight between the wing that advocated biological determination and the one that advocated the idea of semiotic culture (Stocking, 1968). There were also constant battles between left and right in the popular culture and around the immigration laws. By 1930 it looked as though the conservative side might lose, and when Hitler came to power and showed what fascism was really like, the position of the pragmatists started looking even better.

Another conclusion is that ideas sometimes have power. The influence of ideas is subtle and often not direct, but with the proper method, these influences can be found and understood. In particular, ideas often seem, for all practical purposes, to develop on their own, and they sometimes take turns that were completely unpredictable.

Finally the American rights revolution has stopped short of economic equality and is now actually going into reverse. In the last twenty years the income and wealth distributions have become more unequal rather than less. The easiest rights to tease out of the pragmatist self were the civic or non-economic ones. But these rights presume a certain amount of economic equality, for it takes material resources to use and defend civil rights. The pragmatists stopped short of theorizing economic equality, and one of the few philosophers that worked on this question was the utilitarian, John Rawls (Rawls, 2001). Until economic equality is better understood and also secured, the universalization of civil right will not be secure either.

Nevertheless the pragmatists did us all a big service by explaining why everyone has equal moral rights. This did not create the good society but it did go a long way toward deepening democracy.


1. Menand (200l) too says pragmatism was a response to the Civil War, but he says it was a response to the excessive certainties of the two sides, abolition and slavery both being intensely held ideologies. Menand thinks pragmatist ideas like uncertainty and probability were the philosophical response. This may be true, but my point is that something deeper was also going on. Inequality had been the great cognitive dissonance for the United States from the beginning, and with the Civil War and Lincoln ’s Gettysburg Address, it became a festering wound. Pragmatism responded to this problem, but implicitly and quietly, as the flower turns to the sun. Still, if there is a question of what pragmatism was all about, I think equality was what it was all about.

2. Durkheim’s thesis (1995) that religion is a symbol of society or “society in disguise” also seems like an elective affinity argument, although the rules for both cause and effect are constitutive, not regulative. In the central seventh chapter of The Elementary Forms of Religious Life Durkheim describes a set of traits shared by religion and society, suggesting their mutual causality. Swanson (1968, 189) clarified Durkheim’s argument by teasing out the following list: invisibility, immortality, pervasiveness, unknownness, inescapability and control over conduct. This list functions much like Weber’s list, i.e. thrift, method, punctuality, etc. linking the Protestant Ethic and the spirit of modern capitalism, except that Weber’s rules are regulative and Durkheim’s are constitutive.


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