The Politics of Pragmatism

by Henry Farrell on December 12, 2008

Chris Hayes has a “nice piece”: in _The Nation_ about how the term ‘pragmatism’ is used in US public debate.

In a postelection essay on Obama, George Packer noted these two strains of his campaign rhetoric and dubbed them the “‘progressive’ Obama” and “the ‘post-partisan’ Obama.”In Washington “pragmatic” is a kind of code word for the latter, and it’s that Obama the Beltway establishment is happily embracing. On the front page of the Times, in a “news analysis” (a recurring feature that might as well be titled “Conventional Wisdom Digest”), David Sanger pointed to the likely appointments of Hillary Clinton and Timothy Geithner as suggesting that “Mr. Obama is planning to govern from the center-right of his party, surrounding himself with pragmatists”–that word again!–“rather than ideologues.” David Brooks could hardly contain himself: “the team he has announced so far is more impressive than any other in recent memory,” he gushed, praising it as made of “open-minded individuals who are persuadable by evidence” and “admired professionals” who are not “excessively partisan” and, probably most important, “not ideological.”

Pragmatism in common usage may mean simply a practical approach to problems and affairs. But it’s also the name of the uniquely American school of philosophy whose doctrine is that truth is pre-eminently to be tested by the practical consequences of belief. What unites the two senses of the word is a shared skepticism toward certainties derived from abstractions–one that is welcome and bracing after eight years of a failed, faith-based presidency. …

if there’s a silver thread woven into the pragmatist mantle Obama claims, it has its origins in this school of thought. Obama could do worse than to look to John Dewey, another onetime resident of Hyde Park and the founder of the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools, which Obama’s daughters attend. Dewey developed the work of earlier pragmatists in a particularly fruitful and apposite manner. For him, the crux of pragmatism, and indeed democracy, was a rejection of the knowability of foreordained truths in favor of “variability, initiative, innovation, departure from routine, experimentation.”

Dewey’s pragmatism was reformist, not radical. He sought to ameliorate the excesses of early industrial capitalism, not to topple it. Nonetheless, pragmatism requires an openness to the possibility of radical solutions. It demands a skepticism not just toward the certainties of ideologues and dogmatism but also of elite consensus and the status quo. This is a definition of pragmatism that is in almost every way the opposite of its invocation among those in the establishment. For them, pragmatism means accepting the institutional forces that severely limit innovation and boldness; it means listening to the counsel of the Wise Men; it means not rocking the boat. But Dewey understood that progress demands that the boat be rocked. And his contemporary Franklin Delano Roosevelt understood it as well. “The country needs,” Roosevelt said in May 1932, “and, unless I mistake its temper, the country demands, bold, persistent experimentation.”

I think – and here I’m relying on a 1996 “article”: (behind paywall) in _Political Theory_ by Jack Knight and Jim Johnson – that you could go even further than Chris does here in critiquing the Beltway usage of the term pragmatism. Knight and Johnson’s piece is a stringent critique of Richard Posner’s account of pragmatism. Like Sanger and Brooks, Posner is trying to insulate a sort-of-Deweyan pragmatism from ideology – and in particular from the ideology of legal realism, which suggests that the interpretation of law is politics by another name. But as Knight and Johnson convincingly (to me) show, Posner’s account collapses under its own weight. You simply can’t get the politics out of pragmatist accounts. Furthermore, Dewey’s arguments may carry some quite radical implications. Dewey and other pragmatists lay a very heavy emphasis on the benefits of unforced inquiry as a guide to practice. Yet unforced inquiry is only possible in a society where there aren’t economic or social barriers to free engagement in discussion and deliberation. Thus – to really achieve the benefits of free debate and untrammeled inquiry – you need (where it is feasible) to dismantle barriers that prevent full and unfettered participation in the processes of discussion through which inquiry takes place. As Knight and Johnson conclude:

For the legal pragmatist, precedent or statute can constrain judicial discretion only as arguments in a process of reasoned deliberation. This process presupposes, in turn, that all relevant actors have free and equal access to relevant deliberative arenas. And, if it is to be pragmatically meaningful, this commitment demands that the pragmatist challenge social and economic barriers that distort or subvert the sort of unforced inquiry that reasoned deliberation requires. This is Posner’s predicament. The “left-wing slant” that he finds so distasteful is not a coincidental or contingent feature of legal realism. It is central to the realists’ pragmatist commitments. In this sense, legal realism, Posner notwithstanding, articulates and helps us to see the political consequences of pragmatism.



rm 12.12.08 at 5:14 pm

It’s great to see the original meaning of the word brought to the discussion. Up with C. S. Peirce and William James too. I ain’t no expert, but from what I read of Posner or Rorty, or Stanley Fish, they are claiming the heritage of Pragmatism while reasoning in very un-pragmatic ways. Pragmatism in politics is good rhetoric: consider how to persuade others who may not believe as you do to support results that you desire. Once you take action and get some results, use those results to reconsider your ideas. That’s why I still have some faith that Obama’s team may be denouncing left-wing strawmen in order to establish that left-wing goals are actually “centrist.” It would be more emotionally satisfying to make ringing declarations of a dawning new age, but given the ideological muddle of American discourse, Obama’s strategy (assuming that’s what it is) is smarter.


bianca steele 12.12.08 at 5:16 pm

Well, pragmatism was a trendy word around the turn of the last century. Legal pragmatism may or may not have much logically to do with philosophical pragmatism like Dewey’s and James’. And then there’s the ordinary sense of the word. Also, Charles Larmore distances himself from Rorty’s def of pragmatism, saying RR is using a nonstandard definition — I’ve never been certain just what he means.

Haven’t read Hayes’ essay yet, have had it in my to-read tabs since last night.


Ben Alpers 12.12.08 at 11:23 pm

Many inside-the-beltway uses of the word “pragmatism” to (more or less tautologically) describe “centrists” are intended to avoid dealing with the fact that many centrists are incredible ideologues, especially when it comes to Washington Consensus economics and militarist foreign policy. They seem utterly uninterested in listening to those questioning the received wisdom of our policy elites…especially when those doing the questioning are to their left (but of course if all those leftist are, ipso facto, “ideologues,” then they’re probably not worth listening to anyway).

On a related topic, this now all-too-commonplace account of what Obama is up to…

I still have some faith that Obama’s team may be denouncing left-wing strawmen in order to establish that left-wing goals are actually “centrist.”

…would be a lot more convincing if Obama and his team had ever given any indication, during or since the campaign, that they were pursuing left-wing goals.

Obama is appointing centrists, some of them ideologues, because he’s a centrist. He campaigned as one and intends to govern as one.


JJ 12.13.08 at 3:41 pm

Thanks for the plug Henry!

Among the problems with neo-pragmatists of various sorts – especially Rorty & Posner – is that they think pretty much everyone is a pragmatist. Rorty includes Heidegger, Posner Schumpeter … now there is no denying that there may be some family resemblance between some of the views those two endorse and the views central to pragmatism. But the Richards then draw the conclusion that pragmatism as a philosophical or theoretical view has no political implications. That is just plain silly. It requires that we ignore explicit (and I think persuasive) arguments by Classical Pragmatists. By my lights the Richards don’t like the political direction that pragmatism pushes them so they fabricate allies and caricature pragmatists in order to evade the consequences of pragmatism. The Knight/Johnson piece you mention takes Posner to task for precisely that reason.

In any case, for readers interested in all this, I highly recommend a recent collection of essays by my colleague Robert Westbrook – Democratic Hope ~ Pragmatism & the Politics of Truth (Cornell ’05). Robb has forgotten more about pragmatism than I’ve ever learned (I also recommend his earlier, definitive book on Dewey). In any case, especially in the opening chapter of Democratic Hope, he simply demolishes the propensity to identify pragmatism of the Dewey-Pierce-Putnam etc. variety with inside-the-beltway view of pragmatism that Obama seems to be embracing.
The problem is not that Obama is a pragmatist; the problem is that he is a clone of Clinton and other DLC types. He is not now and never has been a progressive. So he is not compromising his principles an d policies by appointing the re-treads. He is expressing his principles and values by doing so. Perplexity resolved.


John Emerson 12.13.08 at 3:58 pm

In foreign policy, “pragmatism” is a code word for Realpolitik — tough-minded, expedient realism. (My suggestion is that the word “realism” should just be retired in this context, since it also can mean the metaphysical position the pragmatists specifically attacked.)

In the anthology Menand put out, Oliver Wendell Holmes speaks for a kind of cynical, non-ideological realism. He started the Civil War as an abolitionist and returned to battle twice after recovering from wounds. (Henry Adams also seemed to have learned cynicism during his Civil War experience in the diplomatic service.) Posner picks up on Holmes, I think, though I’m not a legal scholar.

Dewey was on the far left in American politics and opposed US entry into WWII. Between the militarization of the intelligentsia during WWII and McCarthyism, that kind of pragmatism ended up being progressively squeezed out of the American university in favor of something less engaged. (The marginalization of C. Wright Mills and his students and of JK Galbraith and his students are other examples.)

Aaron Preston has argued that analytic philosophy is a paradigm rather than an idea or a group of ideas, and that the difference is that paradigms are given and enforced, and are not to be examined or argued about. This could apply to most academic disciplines. Dewey and James at least did not believe that there are things that should not be discussed, and they also did not believe that philosophy or science should be an expert specialist activity excluded to the public and from political debate. Dewey especially dedicated his attention to the two way dialogue between philosophers and the rest of the world.

Jeff Schmidt, in a book everyone should read, has argued that obedience to unexamined paradigms is the main lesson taught in universities, and defines a class of highly skilled experts and professionals who will always be at someone else’s service — i.e., obedient to management. One of the reasons why Democrats lose is that they mostly have a rule-following professional orientation and have not learned the more aggressive, competitive, and assertive management skills, which are quite different.

Sources: Philip Mirowski, “Machine Dreams”; John McCumber, “Time in the Ditch”; George Reisch, “How the Cold War transformed Philosophy of Science”; Deborah Redman, “Economics and Philosophy of Science”; Aaron Preston, “Analytic Philosophy: the History of an Illusion”; Jeff Schmidt, “Disciplined Minds”.


John Emerson 12.13.08 at 4:06 pm

In short, “pragmatist” is wrongly used to label anyone who accepts the political paradigm of the moment and doesn’t try to change it, whereas “ideologue” is used to label anyone who’s trying to replace or change the paradigm. That’s what “you interpret reality; we make reality” is all about. (“The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it. “)

All the evidence is that Obama rally is that kind of pragmatist, and that the centrists are right to praise him.


John Emerson 12.14.08 at 2:16 am

Well, sorry I said anything. At ease. Proceed with your normally-scheduled activities.


Bruce Baugh 12.14.08 at 3:03 am

I very much appreciate it, John, as usual.

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