Meaning and Modernity

Social Theory in the Pragmatic Attitude

Eugene Rochberg-Halton

University of Chicago Press, 1986

Cover art: Fritz Janschka, Wohin gehst Du? (Where are you going?), 1947

In a review published in the London Times Literary Supplement, Charles Townshend said that (Rochberg-) Halton's, "answer to the dilemna of modernity is a still more striking synthesis, which he labels 'critical animism' (as distinct from primitive animism). Meaning and Modernity belies its conventional exterior: it is a passionate tract against the 'diabolical tyranny of the rational'...He pits his researches into the attitudes of Chicagoans to their household goods and to their city against the abstract semioticians who have emptied signs of their capacity to 'live objectively in the transactions people have with them'...Such humanism will probably strike his fellow social theorists as downright weird, but his work shows that the cracking shell of modernism will provide a rich intellectual agenda."

From the book cover: The twentieth-century obsession with meaning often fails to address the central quetions: Why are we here? Where are we going? In this radical critique of modernity, Eugene (Rochberg-) Halton resurrects pragmatism, pushing it beyond its traditional formulations to meet these questions head on.

Drawing on the works of the early pragmatists such as John Dewey, George Herbert Mead, and particularly C.S. Peirce, Meaning and Modernity is an ambitioous attempt to reconstruct concepts from philosophical pragmatism for contemporary social theory. Through a vigorous and illuminating dialogue with other perspectives in the social sciences, (Rochberg-) Halton reveals the value of the pragmatic attitude as a mode of thought, one which speaks to the contemporary hunger for significance in a world where rationalized technique has all too often severed subject and object from their living context...

Throughout the work is a sustained critique of modern culture in which (Rochberg-) Halton brings his reconstruction of the pragmatic atttude to bear on twentieth-century thought and its counterparts in the expressive arts. His engaging analysis encompasses figures as diverse as Simmel, Freud, Wittgenstein, Schoenberg, Adolph Loos, Mumford, Melville, the "Vienna School of Fantastic Realism," and Doris Lessing.

The author's semiotic approach to culture allows him to move freely and easily across many disciplines, including anthropology, sociology, communications, art, literature, and philosophy. This is a work of rare originality and power that is sure to provoke discussion, for Rochberg-Halton creates new premises for understanding the human web of meaning.

Part 1: Pragmatic Roots

Part 2: Semiotic

Part 3: A Pragmatic Theory of Culture

Part 4: Meaning, Materialism, Metropolis, and Modernism