C. Wright Mills’ Pragmatism

Often when speaking of post-war developments in pragmatism, many people tend to focus on the philosophy of the latter Wittgenstein or Rorty. However, such an exclusive focus tends to eclipse other notable contributions. In Cornel West’s genealogy of pragmatism, C. Wright Mills plays a prominent role in mid-century pragmatic developments. Mills shares this space with other notable American thinkers, Sidney Hook, W. E. B. Du Bois, Reinhold Neibuhr, and Lionel Trilling. Mills particular contribution was to apply pragmatism to sociology; to apply vision to science to use Rorty’s terms.

Mills prominence should not be surprising given his solid grounding in pragmatism: His doctoral dissertation addressed the pragmatism of the Metaphysical Club against the rise of the social sciences, and the institutionalization of critique. Mills is therefore a useful thinker to demonstrate and contrast the differences between conventional sociological methods and pragmatic methods.

By permission of the estate of C. W. Mills. Photo by Yaroslava.

Central to Mills’ sociology is his pragmatist inspired methodology. For Mills’ this takes the form of a philosophy which sets forth the right sociological problems. For our purposes, we can call this Mills dictum. He presents this in The Sociological Imagination. In the book, issues of sociological theory do not amount to Grand Theory (the term Mills used to mock Parsons’s work) or produce abstracted empiricism (a comment on Bell’s work) but rather are attentive to “historical social structures” as they come to be of “direct relevance to urgent public issues and insistent human troubles.”

To achieve relevance, Mills drew upon various general sociological ideas to guide and orientate the analysis at hand. This is how selected ideas such as Weber’s analysis of bureaucracy and Mannheim’s description of social consciousness sit side by side. They are not reconciled in a model of social change, but rather as resources in a methodological toolkit. Neither is considered correct per se, or even regarded as such. Instead, their incorporation is based upon their ability to drive an analysis that assists in understanding the human condition. In the same sense, the combination of pragmatic and analytic elements in this thesis is not held onto by because they are true, correct, or theoretically consistent, but rather for their methodological offering.

In Mills’ case the analysis took the form of combining social structure, historical change, and biography. Or to borrow the title of his collected papers, power, politics and people. This sociological imagination allows for meaning and applicability wider than scholarship, such that matters of policy and political practice can be widely debated for a true democracy. This is a point of convergence with deliberate democrats and public reason liberals. We find this sentiment neatly expressed in Mills’ aphorisms to have a politics of exposure as opposed to a science of politics. In this sense the method is humanistic in character.

As it is presented here, Mills’ understanding of theory is similar to that proposed by Anthony Giddens in New Rules for Sociological Method and Capitalism and Modern Social Theory. Giddens’ approach is to consider the classic sociological tradition as “tied together as an endeavor to construct a critical analysis of the legacy of the social theory” aiming to understand “social activity and intersubjectivity.” As Giddens writes of method, “it is not a guide to ‘how to do practical research,’ and does not offer any specific research proposals. It is primarily an exercise in clarification of logical issues.” Had Mills lived longer, there is no doubt he would have endorsed these quietist remarks.
Key to Giddens is that “social theory must incorporate a treatment of action, and must grasp the significance of language, the practical medium whereby this is made possible” Both of these concerns are evident in Mills’ early essays, some of which are collected in Power, Politics, and People. For example, in the essay ‘Language, Logic and Culture’, language is “a system of social control” and when combined with vocabulary acts as “sets of collective action” that produce norms and values. These are certainly nods to early pragmatists Dewey and Mead.

These points are crucial to the pragmatic tradition, and to any pragmatic analysis. To take language as an example; it is both a way of knowing, and a practice. A tenet then is that the transformation of linguistic expression can alter linguistic practice vice versa. The introduction of new expressions can alter practices; new ways of knowing can alter existing ways of acting. Changes in epistemology can change action. Rorty makes this observation at the beginning of Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity. He notes how during the French Revolution vocabularies “could be replaced almost overnight.” The point to which Rorty is driving at, is that new questions of concern require new vocabularies, and that old vocabularies linked to old questions being no longer of assistance, need to be discarded.

Pragmatists recognize the fluid nature of language and language practice. For this reason, pragmatists resist, on principle, the unification and codification that is required for the realization of the explanatory projects of conventional sociological method. The same principles animate C. Wright Mills questions of concern. For this one needs to safeguard the very possibilities that Mills’ social imagination offers themselves. For us, this means avoiding the institutionalization and domestication of critique.


Scott Timcke is a graduate student in communication at Simon Fraser University.


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