Final Class Comments

One of the criticisms of philosophy classes is that we just talk and talk and never come to any conclusions.  For that reason I’ve gotten into the habit of handing out some comments in the last class:  a few thoughts about what conclusions we can take away from the previous weeks’ work.  Here’s the handout I distributed last week:

Obama’s Pragmatism

As we’ve seen, Obama is often described as “pragmatic”:  for example, the May 2, 2009 New York Times ran a front page story entitled “As a Professor, Obama Held Pragmatic Views on Court.”  The question, of course, is what it means to be pragmatic. “Pragmatism” means many different things both in its ordinary sense (which is how most commentators use it) as well in its more technical, philosophical sense.

In its ordinary sense, to call Obama “pragmatic” means that he places an emphasis on results as opposed to ideological purity.  Less positively, it may mean that he lacks overarching principles but instead does whatever is expedient, not necessarily what is right in a deeper, moral, sense.  This ordinary sense of pragmatism is also open to a fairly serious charge:  if Obama is committed simply to doing “what works” what, then, are his criteria for “working”?  In other words, if he is only pragmatic in this ordinary sense, then this just defers the deeper question of how he decides what works:  and if there’s no answer to that question then his decisions will seem ad hoc and erratic.

And that, in a nutshell, is why we also want to look at more philosophical accounts of pragmatism.  After all, pragmatic philosophers are in the business of working out the foundations of pragmatism and, we would hope, would have some answer to what, ultimately, decides whether a course of action works or not.  So, even if Obama has never read a pragmatist (which is unlikely, given his personal acquaintance with several contemporary pragmatists), there’s still value in looking at what sorts of theories are at his disposal.

In this context it is also useful to see how pragmatism has developed over the last century or so.  As we saw, James’ version of pragmatism was highly individualistic and focused on large, metaphysical issues such as the existence of a god, etc.  Dewey’s pragmatism, in turn, was more a social philosophy deeply committed to the importance of democratic ways of life.  For Dewey, James’ insight that meaning is not inherent in an object but instead dependent on us and our purposes meant that we had to be democratic in our behavior toward others.  Again, because there is no fundamental meaning outside human experience, no ultimate reality that we need to get in sync with, we need instead to make sure that we are attentive to others experiences, both for our own good and for theirs.

According to Dewey, this has several concrete consequences:  we should, he argued, educate children so they can be full participating members of a democratic society; we should encourage social arrangements that promote interaction and participation among people; and, finally, we should favor policies that allow people to “grow” and expand their experiences.  For Dewey, then, “growth” is a fundamental good whose value is practically beyond question.

Contemporary pragmatists have expanded on Dewey’s themes in various ways.  As we saw, Richard Posner proposes a conservative, libertarian pragmatism that is skeptical about government intervention and people’s ability to participate deeply in democratic ways of life.  Roberto Unger, in turn, proposes a more left-wing pragmatism that suggests several concrete policies governments could adopt to radically transform modern democracies.  Richard Rorty suggests a “liberal bourgeois” pragmatism that seems to take a live-and-let-live attitude toward other cultures and political ideologies, while Cornel West proposes a “prophetic” pragmatism that more fully embraces the tragic (and comedic) aspects of life and, he says, resonates with the blues, jazz, and the African-American Christian tradition.

Where does this leave Obama?  Well, first of all, it means that it is possible to be a pragmatist and have criteria for what works.  According to Dewey, what works is what encourages democratic ways of life and growth.  According to Posner, what works is generally what has the best economic outcomes.  And for West, what works is what does the most to relieve oppression and provide comfort to tortured souls.  (On the other hand, Rorty would argue that our standards of what works are simply our standards and cannot really be argued for.)

What kind of pragmatist is Obama?  It’s risky to make any definite pronouncement so early in his presidency, but I’d say it’s clear that he doesn’t agree with Posner either on the priority of economics or on the limits of democratic involvement:  his writings and experience as a community organizer show this pretty clearly.  Beyond that, there are clear resonances with the work of Dewey, West, Unger and, to a lesser extent, Rorty.  Like the first three, Obama seems to recognize that a pragmatic approach to decision-making commits one to an expansive, participatory understanding of democracy:  democracy because more than just an exercise in voting but, as Dewey put it, a way of life.  Like West, Obama finds important resources in the Christian tradition.  And, like Unger and Dewey, he sees government as a means for transforming lives.

Finally, it is worth remembering that pragmatism is a self-consciously modest philosophy.  (West, after all, calls it an “evasion” of philosophy.)  While other philosophies may fret about finding absolute foundations for our philosophical, ethical, and political beliefs, pragmatism is anti-foundational.  On the other hand, it is committed to a richer-than-normal conception of human experience that can then play a quasi-foundational role.  For example, if someone questions the value of growth or democracy the pragmatist can say a few words about why these are good things.  But beyond a certain point further argument will be impossible (a point Rorty makes well).  At that point the pragmatist can simply point to our experience:  we value growth, for example, because we experience it as a good thing.  As a result, expanding and deepening our range of experiences, and supporting policies that make this possible, is one of our fundamental responsibilities.  Philosophers can continue arguing this theoretical point, but the real goal is to make a practical difference.

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