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Pragmatism Symposium: Humboldt, Darwin, and Pragmatist Worldviews


From: Friday, March 08, 2019, 01:00pm

To: Friday, March 08, 2019, 05:00pm

The Pragmatism Working Group sponsors a symposium, "Humboldt, Darwin, and Pragmatist Worldviews," featuring Laura Dassow Walls (Notre Dame), Steven Meyer (Wash U, St. Louis), Jonathan Elmer (Indiana), George Levine (Rutgers, emeritus), and Joan Richardson (CUNY).

Sponsor: CCA Working Group on Pragmatism

Cosponsors: Departments of English, History, American Studies, Spanish and Portuguese, and Comparative Literature, the Americanist Seminar, and Natura: Science and Epistemology

1-5pm. Coffee and snacks served; reception to follow.

We invite you to join a discussion of the connections between the work of Alexander Von Humboldt, Charles Darwin and that strain of philosophy initiated by the likes of Charles Peirce and William James known as Pragmatism. The question at hand, springing from new attention to the problem of determining truth in a divided world, concerns what kind of “worldview” is possible in a pluralistic universe. Last Fall, the CCA Pragmatism Working Group took up Humboldt’s Views of Nature, a foundational work for thinkers ranging from Goethe and Thoreau to Boas and Darwin. Humboldt was a scientist, travel writer, explorer and humanist, and his sense of the vital relations between the natural world, our perception of it, and our participation in it has proven newly relevant to environmental and ecological thinking. Our discussions of Humboldt have invoked new hemispheric approaches to the Americas as we focused on his significance to studies of Latin America and his complicated relation to global capitalism, imperialism, and liberation movements. As for Darwin, we are interested both in connecting him back to Humboldt and forward to Pragmatism. John Dewey argued that Darwin’s importance to philosophy came from signaling a transition to a new logic of truth, which was not permanent and fixed but in flux and subject to chance. Such an understanding, of course, implies new responsibilities, or as Dewey wrote “a method of locating and interpreting the more serious of the conflicts that occur in life, and a method of projecting ways for dealing with them.” The session planned for March 8 brings together some of the most important scholars currently working on Humboldt, Darwin and Pragmatism for an informal working session meant to develop a better sense of the relations between them and the kinds of questions that follow.



Jonathan Elmer, Professor and Director of the College Arts and Humanities Institute, Indiana University. A specialist in American literature, Elmer has explored the figurative imagination in relation to a host of historical, psychological, political, and conceptual problems. His is the author of On Lingering and Being Last: Race and Sovereignty in the New World (2008) and Reading at the Social Limit: Affect, Mass Culture, & Edgar Allan Poe (1995).

George Levine, Professor Emeritus of English, Rutgers University. Founding director of the CCA and renowned specialist on the writing of Charles Darwin, Levine is the author of numerous books on aesthetics, nineteenth-century literature and culture, the relations between literature and science, and problems connected with the condition of the profession. These include most recently Reading Thomas Hardy (2017), The Joy of Secularism: 11 Essays for How We Live Now (2011), Darwin the Writer (2011), Darwin Loves You: Natural Selection and the Re-enchantment of the World (2008), and a volume of collected essays, Realism, Ethics and Secularism : Essays on Victorian Literature and Science (2008). He also wrote introduction and notes for The Origin of the Species (2004).

Steven Meyer, Associate Professor, Washington University in St. Louis. Meyer is a specialist in literature and science, literature and philosophy, and twentieth- and twenty-first-century poetry and poetics. He has most recently edited the important Cambridge Companion to Literature and Science (2018), which weaves together theory and empirical studies of figures ranging from Shakespeare and Henry James to Darwin and Whitehead. He also edited a special issue of Configurations, titled Whitehead Now (2005) and is the author of Irresistible Dictation: Gertrude Stein and the Correlations of Writing and Science (2001).

Joan Richardson, Distinguished Professor of English and Comparative Literature, CUNY. Richardson. Richardson is most recently the author of How to Live, What To Do: Thirteen Ways of Looking at Wallace Stevens (2017), a meditation on the “difficult wonder” of thinking, the subject of Steven’s poetry. A longtime friend of the CCA Pragmatism Working Group, she is also the author of Pragmatism and American Experience (2014); A Natural History of Pragmatism: The Fact of Feeling from Jonathan Edwards to Gertrude Stein (2007), and a multivolume biography of Wallace Stevens.

Laura Dassow Walls, William P. and Hazel B. White Professor of English Graduate Program in History and Philosophy of Science, Notre Dame. Walls is most recently the author of Henry David Thoreau: A Life (2017), the first full-length, comprehensive biography of Thoreau in a generation. Her prize-winning book The Passage to Cosmos: Alexander von Humboldt and the Shaping of America (Chicago 2009) traces the Humboldt network from Germany to the Americas in science, politics, literature, and the arts. Her earlier books include Seeing New Worlds: Henry David Thoreau and Nineteenth-Century Natural Science (Wisconsin 1995), Emerson’s Life in Science: The Culture of Truth (Cornell 2003), and a volume coedited with Joel Myerson and Sandra Harbert Petrulionis, The Oxford Handbook of Transcendentalism (2010).


1-1:15  Welcome and Introduction: Brad Evans, Rutgers University

1:15-3 Session 1: Humboldt, Darwin, Pragmatism
Moderator: Chris Ianini, Rutgers University
Laura Dassow Walls, Notre Dame, "The One and the Many from Humboldt to Thoreau: Steps towards a Pluralistic Universe”
Joan Richardson, CUNY: “The Darwinian Information”
George Levine, Rutgers University: “Sexual Selection: What's Useful about the Useless?

3:30-5 Session 2: Pragmatist Worldviews and the Literary
Moderator: Jorge Marcone, Rutgers University
Jonathan Elmer, Indiana University, "Poe, Peirce, Protoplasm”
Steven Meyer, Washington University, "Physiognomy of Nature' Revisited: Humboldt, Stein, Gaia"

Suggested Background Reading (PDFs available, write to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
Humboldt, "Ideas for a Physiognomy of Plants," Chapter 5, Views of Nature
Darwin, "Laws of Variation," Chapter 5, Origin of the Species (recommend 2nd edition)
Dewey, "The Influence of Darwin on Philosophy"


Academic Bldg West Wing, Room 6051
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New Brunswick, NJ, 08901


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Events sponsored by the Center for Cultural Analysis are free and open to the public, unless specifically noted

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