In a recent column in The Stone, Harvey Cormier considers the political oomph of pragmatists through a nice presentation of some central thinking of William James. The occasion for the piece is a recent spate of writings characterizing Obama as "a pragmatist politician." What I like best about Cormier's article is his refutation, through James, of the lame but pervasive equation of pragmatism with weak-kneed inaction. Pointing to James, he emphasizes that pragmatism is compatible (even essential) to genuine truth-seeking by being incompatible with ideology:
Still, while James did want us to believe, he also wanted us to give up “ideologies.” He called pragmatism “[t]he attitude of looking away from first things, principles, ‘categories,’ supposed necessities; and of looking towards last things, fruits, consequences, facts.” Pragmatists can have principles but not self-verifying ones; they renounce any certainties that are based on claims of universal necessity. In our world of chance and change, things may not go the way we want either intellectually or practically, so we have to look to the developing world of actions and results for support of, and challenges to, our most cherished faiths. The final test of even our logic is how well it leads us to act and live. Pragmatists therefore think, and act, provisionally, or subject to later changes in course. Still, provisional action is action, and particular actions are sometimes irrevocable. Moreover, “provisional” need not mean “timid.”
Another point to be made is that pragmatism does not equate to Machiavellian opportunism, either in politics or in science. Pragmatism, as James and Dewey and Peirce (and Rorty for that matter) have it, points toward the necessary adaptability of any truth-seeking that includes letting new things about the world into our understandings. Figuring-out means both that we come to the inquiry with notions in hand, but also that we are open to revisions and adaptions of those notions as what we learn sifts through our understanding.
Cromier points out others (e.g., Menand, author of The Metaphysical Club) who claim that pragmatism belies any possibility of actually changing anything about the world, phrasing the charge as “pragmatists have nothing that they would die for,” hence, they’d never be proponents of “radical change.” Implicit in such a claim is the misleading equation of pragmatic thoughtful adaptability with a simple-minded Darwinian/Hobbesian notion of self-preservation at all costs. Pragmatism includes being convinced of the rightness of an idea or the necessity of a moral action that would lead to change. It includes steadfastness that does not descend into mere stubborn adherence to principles and ideas for the sake of themselves. Such stubbornness, the hallmark of constipated ideologues throughout the world, is a self-constructed philosophical pit of despair from which there is no escape.
amen, is Dewey on the down the road reading list?
Dylan Casey says
The list is regularly evolving, but Dewey is high on my own list. I need to get something that’s manageable — not just reading all of Experience and Nature or something. Any suggestions?
Experience&Education might be a nice tie in with the theme of life long learning that underlies much of the work you guys do.
some bits of How We Think:
Mark Linsenmayer says
I should point out that Cormier was at U Texas during my stint there (not sure if he was officially in philosophy… I took his course as “American Studies” to fulfill an out-of-department credit requirement, though it was cross-listed as philosophy, meaning I was gaming the system by signing up for a phil course under its non-phil-course designation), and I took pragmatism from him, which included my only academic experience reading Cornel West.
The “claim that pragmatism belies any possibility of actually changing anything about the world” just boils my blood. It is the exact opposite: being a slave to an established system that already thinks it has all the answers is what prevents positive change.
I keep wanting to write a blog post about my favorite pragmatic philosopher, but never seem to make the time. Perhaps this will motivate me.
I do often wonder though about the compatibility of pragmatism with “radical change.” are pragmatists always reformists, never revolutionaries? in theory, I feel like it should be possible for a pragmatist to advocate for radical change, so long as the basis for that change is not “utopian.” but what would that look like? are there any examples of such a thinker? all the pragmatist philosophers, when they dealt with politics, seemed to be staunchly reformist progressives.
Cornel West advocates for change along the lines of Gramsci is that not radical enough?
Also I’m not sure how you are defining utopian but in his book on faith Dewey is well within the utopian genre of philosophy.
wow, how could I forget Cornel West?! thanks for pointing out my oversight.
I found a copy of that Dewey book for $1 recently and snatched it up, but haven’t read it yet. your description makes me more eager to, but I’m surprised by it. Dewey’s politics always seemed to me to be grounded first and foremost in their anti-utopianism (where utopianism would be defined as having a pre-formed vision of what a future society should look like and then attempting to bring reality in line with that vision). though I suppose I’m making a mistake by implicitly equating utopianism with revolutionary politics – Marx and Engels (despite how they were later interpreted) saw themselves as opposing utopianism (see “Socialism: Utopian and Scientific”), but still advocated for revolution
Dewey was a committed Hegelian at one point and so there are parallels, but the idea, the hope, of common Ideals/Goals remains, not unlike the theme from Obama/MLK of a more perfect Union (if not a workers’ paradise) one which lives up to its ideals. Where folks often differ is in terms of the means of achieving these ends, especially the role/value of armed revolt. One can see parallels with the Social Gospel (Rauschenbusch was Rorty’s grandfather) and of course the works of Josiah Royce. The debate between Dewey &Lipmann should be taught in all high-schools.
I don’t know directly of any pragmatic political thinkers, perhaps because I am not that political (perhaps because I am a pragmatist?). But I imagine that you won’t find such thought within any political party or politician. Parties and Ideologies only serve to crystallize what was once fluid. Good ideas that worked at a particular time, for a particular group, become doctrine. Doctrine becomes the unquestioned Gospel truth, and those who proclaim to be “principled” are merely those who approach every situation already knowing the solution before they take the time to understand the problem.
David Buchanan says
Chris Mullen posted a link on the facebook page the other day and I was slightly thrilled with Cormier’s article. There is more than one way to use the word “pragmatism” but the common sense version and the philosophical version really do share an anti-ideological stance. The point of pragmatism, James said, was “to loosen up our theories”. Ideas are not to be taken as “resting places”, he said, but rather “programs for more work”. This attitude doesn’t change very much when it is applied to politics. It doesn’t translate into unprincipled whateverism or spineless compromise but rather a willingness to test ideas on the ground where the rubber meets the road. Broadly speaking, this is not wishy-washyism. It’s empiricism.
“Harry Truman, of all people, comes to mind, when he said, concerning his administration’s programs, ‘We’ll just try them — and if they don’t work — why then we’ll just try something else.’ That may not be an exact quote, but it’s close. The reality of the American government isn’t static, he said, it’s dynamic. If we don’t like it, we’ll get something better. The American government isn’t going to get stuck on any fancy doctrinaire ideas. The key word is ‘better’ – Quality. …And what Harry Truman said, really, was nothing different from the practical, pragmatic attitude of any laboratory scientist or any engineer or any mechanic when he’s not thinking ‘objectively’ in the course of his daily work.” Robert Pirsig in Zen and the Art
From Harvey Cormier’s article: “In 2006, Obama, then the junior senator from Illinois wrote in his memoir “The Audacity of Hope”, that the Constitution, rather than being a dead document based on settled principles, is “designed to force us into a conversation” and offers “a way by which we argue about our future.” And he criticized his own Democratic party for failing to bring new ideas to this argument, having become “the party of reaction”: “In reaction to a war that is ill-conceived, we appear suspicious of all military action. In reaction to those who proclaim the market can cure all ills, we resist efforts to use market principles to tackle pressing problems. In reaction to religious overreach, we equate tolerance with secularism and forfeit the moral language that would help infuse our policies with a larger meaning.” Obama challenged both parties to leave behind their ideological boilerplate and develop something new, something that all Americans can come to believe in.”
Guess I’m preaching to the choir.