Dewey, Mead, John Ford, and the Writing of History: Pragmatist Contributions to Narrativism

The second half of the twentieth century has been witness to a blooming
of reflections on the status of historical narrative. One of the main achievements of a narrativist philosophy of history (NPH) consists of having reinforced the worth of an autonomous historical knowledge
vis à vis standard conceptions of science
which made history appear as nderdeveloped. Although NPH does not dismiss the importance of documentary evidence, it did not produce an integrative account of
both dimensions (the work of writing and the work with evidence), being slave of a number of epistemological dualism. On one hand, NPH seems to remain in the representationalist paradigm in the case of evidence, while, on the other hand, it
only admits pragmatic evaluation in the case of narrative discourse. In this paper, I sustain that John Dewey’s and George H. Mead’s reflections on our knowledge
of the past offer NPH good reasons to assess the role that literary theory can play in reconstructing historical controversies, without neglecting the importance of empirical research. For instance, Dewey holds that historical writing is a case of the judgments produced in response to problematic research situations. By virtue
of this, the meaning of judgments referred to the past (that is, historical narrations) “have a future reference and function,” and thus understanding their meaning involves displaying the consequences that follow from such judgments. Mead, for his part, has argued that by appealing to the independent reality of the past as ground for our beliefs about it, rather than contributing to the rational resolution
of our historical problems, we stray towards the search of something which is by definition unattainable. As a consequence, I shall show the urgency of advancing in the development of a narrativist, pragmatistically-informed philosophy of history.
My considerations will be illustrated through the analysis of a controversial case
about a past event: the main plot of the memorable film The man who shot Liberty
Valance, by the equally memorable John Ford.