Author Archives: johncapps

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.

Obama’s Legal Pragmatism

Following up on Jesse’s post, below, it’s worth highlighting a few passages from the New York Times article on Obama’s pramgatic legal philosophy.

Former students and colleagues describe Mr. Obama as a minimalist (skeptical of court-led efforts at social change) and a structuralist (interested in how the law metes out power in society). And more than anything else, he is a pragmatist who urged those around him to be more keenly attuned to the real-life impact of decisions. This may be his distinguishing quality as a legal thinker: an unwillingness to deal in abstraction, a constant desire to know how court decisions affect people’s lives.

There’s also a passing reference to Richard Posner:

Mr. Obama often expressed concern that “democracy could be dangerous,” Mr. Stone said, that the majority can be “unempathetic — that’s a word that Barack has used — about the concerns of outsiders and minorities.”

But when a student asked Mr. Obama to name the circuit judge he would most like to argue in front of, he named Richard Posner, a conservative. Judge Posner was smart enough to know when you were right, Mr. Obama told the class.

Despite their differences, Posner and Obama are both pragmatists.

NYT on Obama’s Pragmatism

This is a bit old, but The New York Times had a recent piece on Obama’s “pragmatism.”

Here are some of the references:

In some of his earliest skirmishes, Mr. Obama eventually chose pragmatism over fisticuffs.

….And Thursday, Mr. Obama suggested that he would not fight in Congress to renew an assault weapons ban that expired in 2004. It was the latest example of the pragmatic approach he adopted after winning the presidency by promising to challenge entrenched interests and put the public good ahead of political expedience.

….Pragmatism, they add, is an Obama hallmark, and among the changes he promised — and has delivered — is a break from his predecessor’s often uncompromising style.

Posner’s New Book and Free Markets

In light of our discussion a few weeks ago on Posner and libertarianism, this review of A Failure of Capitalism is illuminating. posner1

As the author, Marcus Baram, points out, Posner seems to have changed his tune significantly over the last few months, recognizing a larger role for government intervention in markets.  In other words, Posner seems to be softening his libertarianism.

Obama and Latin America

From Jim Johnson’s (Notes on) Politics, Theory and Photography blog, this post entitled “The Summit Challenges Obama’s Pragmatism.”galeanocover

Johnson points out that pragmatism isn’t just about predicting the future but about learning lessons from the past.

Johnson starts out by discussing this book, given to Obama by Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez.

New York Times Reference to Dewey and Rorty

This is from a recent review by Charles Morris of Richard John Neuhaus’ American Babylon.  The link to the review is here.  It’s interesting for a few passing references to Dewey and Rorty.

The book apparently raises issues we discussed yesterday:  what is the connection between morality and politics?  Does morality have a place in public life?

Neuhaus starts with Dewey and even refers to American exceptionalism:

Violently compressed, Neuhaus’s argument proceeds as follows: Political entities come with a narrative and, usually, a sense of purpose. The original, religion-drenched narrative of America — the “New Israel” —was later secularized by people like Walt Whitman and John Dewey. But as Neuhaus notes, Dewey was “only one step away from the Protestant pulpit” and was very much in the tradition of “American exceptionalism.” America wasn’t just a geographic location but an entity with goals it was marching toward, and goals come infused with an ought.

In contrast, Richard Rorty takes a much more cynical (or realistic) approach toward morality:

The fulcrum of “American Babylon” is, in effect, a simulated debate between Neuhaus and the American philosopher Richard Rorty (who died in 2007). Rorty argues precisely that we do just make up morality, and that there is no way to privilege one citizen’s first principles over any others….

Richard Rorty

Richard Rorty

Rorty holds that, as with Oakland, Calif., there is no there “out there.” The smartest people are therefore “ironists.” The ironist believes that we know nothing except our own vocabularies, that “nothing has an intrinsic nature, a real essence,” that concepts like “just” and “rational” are simply “the language games of one’s time.” An ironist may worry “that she has been . . . taught the wrong language game,” but “she cannot give a criterion of wrongness”….

Rorty concedes practical problems with his position. No society would want to bring up its children so as “to make them continually dubious” about their upbringing. So he suggests that ironists consciously separate their public and private vocabularies. Neuhaus is hugely skeptical, for elite values have a way of colonizing the rest of society. “Contemporaries beyond numbering,” he writes, “most of whom have never heard of Richard Rorty, are living their lives in the mode of the . . . ironism he depicted with such rare and chilling candor.”

That’s a good example of why people have a problem with Rorty, and why Dewey and Rorty continue to be important figures for understanding American thought.

Richard Posner

We’ll be reading Richard Posner on Tuesday, so a few words are in order.

Posner is known as a legal pragmatist; he’s also known for combining law and economics.  As  I mentioned in class, he has a reputation for cutting across standard political distinctions.  His wikipedia entry is here.posner-r1

It’s important that he isn’t just a legal scholar but a real, honest-to-goodness judge, serving on the U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals.  Like the early pragmatists, he combines his theorizing with first hand knowledge of what he’s talking about.

He’s also a senior lecturer at the University of Chicago Law School (his home page is here) where Obama also taught.

And, finally, he somehow finds time to contribute to a blog that he shares with Gary Becker, the Nobel prize winning economist.

Posner is important for a couple of reasons:  first, he anchors what is probably the more conservative end of pragmatic philosophy; second, he has probably had the most real effect of any living pragmatist.