Category Archives: Pragmatism

Obama’s Pragmatism in Choosing Justices

–Posted by Jesse Knoth

Here is a recent article from the New York Times about Obama’s pragmatism in regards to dealing with the courts.


Obama’s Inaugural Address

Posted by Peter Erickson

I just wanted to link everyone to the video and transcript of Obama’s Inaugural Address:

Specifically relating to what Dewey suggested about living our day-to-day lives democratically, Obama claims, “we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals.”  He sees that the values involved in both the means and the ends are important, and elaborates that, “Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience sake.”

Also, I wanted to comment quickly on his opponents’ counter-argument to this claim; specifically, that Bill O’Reilly said shortly thereafter, “I didn’t like the line about ‘we don’t need to compromise our values to protect ourselves.’ I think sometimes we do.”  It shows the divide between liberal pragmatism that Obama represents and the absolutist, ends-justify-means conservative agenda of the Bush Administration.  Not to make humor of the point, but I think Jon Stewart summed it up nicely: “If you don’t stick to your values when tested, they’re not values! They’re hobbies.”  I think John Dewey would agree fervently with this point.

Obama’s Pragmatism

We’ll be handing out the first essay assignment on Thursday.  One of the questions refers to a couple recent articles that mention Obama’s pragmatism.  The first is from the New York Times Magazine of September 19.  In an article entitled “Case Study” Alexandra Starr quotes a former student of Obama’s who calls his philosophy “ruthless pragmatism.”  The article is here.

Second, Cass Sunstein has an article in The New Republic where he, too, tries to shed some light on Obama’s pragmatism.  The link to that article is here.

Cass Sunstein

Cass Sunstein

Sunstein, incidentally, was Obama’s colleague at Chicago Law School and is pretty well known both for his academic and semi-popular work.  Sunstein has also been called the “Kevin Bacon of law”:  everyone’s connected to him.  Finally, according to the Wall Street Journal, he’s been tapped to be Obama’s chief administrator in the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs.

James v. Dewey

Last Thursday we discussed some of the strengths and weaknesses of William James’ pragmatism.  One weakness, I argued, is that it doesn’t have a well-developed social or political theory behind it–or to the extent that it does, it boils down to a rather crude form of individualism.

As we’ll see this coming Thursday, the same can’t be said of Dewey who always emphasizes the communal and social.  (People say that Dewey thought about politics as a grand New England town hall meeting, hence the Rockwell painting to the right.rockwell_speech)

In “The Moral Equivalent of War,” James argued for the importance of taking on some sort of strenuous project in your early 20s:  something like war, but without the bloodshed.  Perhaps working on a fishing boat, or being a lumberjack:  you get the idea.

Dewey, in a letter, gives exactly the right response, one that, in my opinion, gets to the heart of the two men’s differences.  Dewey writes:

[“The Moral Equivalent of War”] seemed to me to show that even his sympathies were limited by his experience; the idea that most people need any substitute for fighting for life, or that they have to have life made artificially hard for them in order to keep up their battling nerve, could come only from a man who was brought up an aristocrat and who had lived a sheltered existence.

Dewey’s point is valid, especially in light of last week’s discussion:  James does have a blind spot when it comes to recognizing our interdependence and one likely reason for that, honestly, is is privileged background.