Date of Award

Fall 1996

Project Type


Program or Major


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

First Advisor

Thomas Newkirk


In their critique of the autonomous individual of foundationalism, postmodernists have rejected the epistemological assumption that a knower directly perceives reality in thought then expresses these perceptions through language. Yet as these theorists have asserted the influence of language upon an individual's thinking, they have been unable to explain an individual's agency--the ability to create, assert, examine, and maintain/or modify a belief. Once considered to be situated in prior discourses, the individual has been conceived as a postmodern subject dominated by language. Yet the subject's ability to influence as well as be influenced by discursive practices has not been explained by postmodern theorists. An impasse has been reached as the previous explanation of an individual's agency has been rejected yet no tenable alternative has been advanced.

Within contemporary composition studies, this postmodern emphasis on language's influence upon thought has led to an epistemological divide between those writing pedagogies which are believed to assume an autonomous foundational author and those that acknowledge a writer's discursive position. Yet this divisive categorization risks rejecting the valuable writing process practices of Donald Murray and Peter Elbow because their pedagogies have been miscast as individualistic, neo-Romantic expressivisms. Fortunately, a reconsideration of Murray's and Elbow's process pedagogies is already underway; Thomas Newkirk, Stephen Fishman, and others have started to articulate what Janet Emig first termed John Dewey's "tacit tradition" within writing process theories. As this dissertation defends Murray and Elbow by reconceiving them as pragmatist composition theorists, this tacit tradition will resound in its relevance because Dewey's pragmatic philosophy also draws a direction beyond the postmodern problem of agency.

Deweyan pragmatism can explain an individual's agency--the ability to create, assert, examine, and maintain/or modify her beliefs--even as it acknowledges discursive influences upon those beliefs. By reconceiving such fundamental philosophic terms as experience, knowledge, and language, Dewey provides an alternative, non-foundational account of agency as well as a theoretical explanation of the best practices of writing process and postmodern composition instruction. This dissertation reconstructs and synthesizes writing process and postmodern pedagogies beyond the impasse over agency.