H.G. Callaway <hgcallaway <at> live.com>
2009-01-19 16:18:41 GMT
January 19, 2009
Joe & list,
I hesitate to get too involved in a thread quite this political. I should say, to start as well, that I am a big Obama fan. I supported his candidacy both financially (within limited means) and in many discussions here in Philadelphia and elsewhere. I strongly preferred Obama over Senator Clinton and over the Republican candidate--though I though McCain the best among the Republicans. Obama is a man of vision, as I see the matter, and I like his high rhetoric. I say this not to open a discussion on these points but merely to indicate my own overall perspective. I am a committed Independent and I belong to no political party. (By the way, I like Senator Clinton as Secretary of State, so long as Obama is calling the shots.)
What struck me as important is the degree to which Obama is "pragmatic" by being anti-ideological. That seems one firm point in attempting to define or get at what is meant by calling him pragmatic--on the working assumption that defining or understanding what is meant in calling him pragmatic may ultimately be fruitful. That he is anti-ideological seems one of the great positive points about him. (Let's finally end the "culture wars.") It amounts to a general advocacy of principle. In contrast to this, the prevalent notion that one must be ideological in order to be effective, seems to have lost some ground. I take it that people doing this sort of thing know the damage it does intellectually and morally, but have seen no alternative, or were not greatly concerned by acting without principle; but I also think that this is, in fact, a very damaging type of practice. I have particularly noticed the emphasis on expediency in the common phrase, which I have heard reiterated endlessly, in word, on bumper stickers, and even on refrigerator magnets: "Whatever it takes." That is the popular expression of the cult of expediency, and it exists as well in every ideological coloring. Particularly in the primaries, Obama seemed to make a clear stand against "whatever it takes." That, at least, was my firm conviction and perception of his stand.
The issues that repeatedly arose concerning Obama's relationship to the pastor of his long-time congregation is perhaps a good talking point in relation to the theme of expediency and principle. I thought that Obama did well to stand by the fellow as long as he did. He demonstrated loyalty and conviction in doing so. He saw it as an issue of principle. But I think he was also right to finally distance himself from the pastor's public pronouncements. The entire affair strikes me as somewhat like the brief issue of Obama's flag pin. It seemed clear to me that if Obama couldn't have put on his flag pin, then, though he might still have been elected and he would have pleased some on the left of his party, it would have greatly diminished his ability to govern. I suppose that Obama didn't change his religious beliefs in distancing himself from the pastor, that he indicated his willingness to listen to the sort of thing which made the pastor a doubtful advocate of Obama, and in the end, he saw that being seen as a man who could be the President of the entire country, as contrasted with its leftward critics, was more important. Obama is calling for unity, and I believe that is the right thing to do. That implies being willing to listen to all sides, but being unwilling to engage in ideology and "movement" psychology--as contrasted with drawing on the best in traditional American values and commitments. If the word "pragmatic" is to ultimately be properly in place, then it must be a principled pragmatism.
I am much encouraged that the Attorney-General designate knows the meaning of the word "torture." This point doubtlessly helped him get through the Senate Judiciary Committee. The prior, unprincipled quibbling, was a crucial part of a very big mistake in U.S. policy. I hope we will now also recall the damage done, to M. L. King in particular, by indiscriminate federal government wire-taps on citizens. Down with the snooper-state!
> From: joseph.ransdell <at> yahoo.com
> To: peirce-l <at> lyris.ttu.edu
> Subject: [peirce-l] Is Obama a pragmatist?
> Date: Mon, 19 Jan 2009 08:23:14 -0600
> Dear list:
> I'm picking up here on an earlier thread on the topic of Obama as pragmatist
> -- (True or false? and if true to what extent, in what sense, etc.) -- which
> was initiated by Gary Richmond a month or two ago. It seems worth continuing
> or attempting to resuscitate that thread because of the remarkable extent to
> which Obama's putative pragmatism has come to be taken for granted in
> current mass-media, and because of the likelihood that there are others on
> the list who have yet to weigh in on this topic who might very well have
> some important and interesting comments to make on this. It is not the sort
> of issue which necessarily tends toward degeneration into purely persuasive
> rhetorical (partisan, ideological) discourse since it is certainly possible
> to agree or disagree with this characterization of Obama's views and
> attitudes regardless of whether or not one thinks this is an accurate
> description of them. This is because what is primarily of interest here on
> this particular list is understanding what is, can be, or should be meant by
> talking about pragmatism, the pragmatic, the pragmatist, etc., to begin
> In his later attempts to come to grips with the problem that James' adoption
> of the term for his own view posed for him, Peirce seems finally to have
> come to think that the best bet was simply to accept a much looser or more
> vague use of the term "pragmatism" that could legitimate its application to
> the many somewhat differing forms it was being used to reform to at that
> time, while, of course, limiting the "uglier" term "pragmaticism" to
> reference to Peirce's view in particular. (I am thinking of this in
> contrast with the view that only an authentically Peircean understanding
> should be referred to in speaking of something as being "pragmatic".) How
> to characterize this more vague sense has yet to be specified here, but
> perhaps we can work out a general but vague characterization of it here,
> while at the same time getting clear on what distinguishes Peircean from
> Deweyan, Deweyan from Jamesian, and even, perhaps, what could fairly be
> identified as a Rortyan form of pragmatism. If Peirce enthusiasts can't do
> that, who can? -- and that could be very useful, both for philosophical and
> for practical political purposes.
> What I find most remarkable about this is that doing so in connection with
> Obama, the practical politician, actually seems feasible without much real
> danger that the attempt to do so will degenerate into the kind of political
> discourse which would make it not worth discussing here at all. I would
> have thought that quite impossible before now. When I was in graduate
> school back in the early 1960's at Columbia U in New York, I became
> convinced that the word "pragmatism" (and its conjugates and cognates) was
> definitively corrupted in popular usage to the extent that there was simply
> no hope for rehabilitation of its use. What it meant then, in popular
> discourse, was roughly the same as "expedient", where this was construed in
> the narrowest way as roughly the same as "unprincipled". It meant, roughly,
> what is usually meant by "sophistical" in the sense given to that by the
> figure of Thrasymachus (cf. Karl Rove, Roger Ailes), the sophistical
> king-mater in Plato's Republic, or the figure of Kallikles (the prospective
> king-to-made) in the Gorgias dialogue. Richard Nixon was (rightly or
> wrongly) regarded as the paradigm pragmatist in this depraved sense of the
> word -- rightly, in my opinion, but one can disagree with that and still
> agree with my point, I think -- given Nixon's bad reputation among those who
> disapproved of him strongly. Thus Nixon's arch-rival Kennedy might at that
> time also be accused -- and "accused" is the appropriate word for it -- of
> being a pragmatist, for example, but this was understood to mean that he was
> really no different from Nixon or any other pure opportunist, quick to make
> the most politically expedient move regardless of further consequences:
> completely "unprincipled", as we might say. This meaning seemed to me, at
> least, to be so deeply associated with the word "pragmatist" that it would
> be quite unrealistic to expect that it could ever recover from that
> debased usage. But it now seems to me that it has recovered from it and I
> don't get the sense now that people have that in mind at all when they refer
> to Obama as "pragmatic". Thus conservatives and liberals seem to feel
> equally at ease in so characterizing him.
> It is also true at present, I think, that the terms "conservative" and
> "liberal" are being increasingly regarded as inappropriate for capturing the
> major political oppositions in the U.S., and even that "right" and "left"
> are somehow more and more off the point now, though not so much so as
> "conservative" and "liberal". "Pragmatic" and "ideological" seem to be
> sliding into place for the kind of contrast felt to be most appropriate,
> though "ideological" has negative and not merely oppositional connotation, I
> think. The more partisan Obama devotees seem also to be increasingly making
> use of the term "progressive" -- I've seen Obama referred to a number of
> times as a "pragmatic progressive" in the past couple of weeks -- but
> pursuing these verbal contrasts might get into unprofitable subtleties too
> ephemeral to be worth working with.
> Perhaps the best way to go instead would be to focus on the relevant
> difference between Dewey and Peirce, and it occurs to me that the most
> pertinent verbal distinction to be drawn in this connection might be Dewey's
> distinction between the public and the private, i.e. the idea that political
> government is properly concerned with and only with what is a matter of
> genuinely public concern. But I am sure that there are others on the list
> who understand that distinction, as Dewey draws it, better than I do and I
> won't say anything further on that in the present message.
> Joe Ransdell
> Joseph Ransdell
> ransdell <at> cspeirce.com
> ARISBE website: http://www.cspeirce.com/
> PEIRCE-L archives:
> -----Original Message-----
> From: Gary Richmond [mailto:garyrichmond <at> rcn.com]
> Sent: Saturday, December 13, 2008 3:51 PM
> To: joseph ransdell
> Subject: Joe, this is the article (on the Hayes piece) I meant to send you,
> rather than the Czech attachment.
> What Kind of Pragmatism?
> December 13th, 2008 http://toojb.com/what-kind-of-pragmatism/
> Christopher Hayes has an article in the Nation on Obama's pragmatism
> (h/t Ron Chusid). I like two things about this piece:
> 1) It identifies the ambiguous nature of the term, and lists several
> theories meant by the word and
> 2) It concludes that the kind of pragmatism compatible with
> progressivism is that espoused by John Dewey, whose work is heavily
> based on Charles Peirce.
> I've written before on both of these claims.
> The problem with the Hayes piece is that it doesn't come to the "right"
> kind of pragmatism until the end. This leaves Hayes trying to discuss
> pragmatism before defining it coherently, and leaves him opens to
> criticisms like this one from Ron Chusid:
> Hayes looks at the view that Barack Obama is a pragmatist as opposed to
> an ideologue. The problem with this evaluation is that the choice is not
> one of pure pragmatism versus pure ideology. Obama does not appear to be
> an ideologue such as George Bush and the Republicans who governed based
> upon their ideology regardless of whether the facts showed that their
> policies were wrong. This does not mean that a pragmatist is, or should
> be, acting without any principles.
> If by 'pragmatism' Hayes means one of the first definitions he posits
> that is actually closer to Machiavellianism, then Chusid is right. But
> the definition of pragmatism that Hayes likes isn't "without
> principles," rather, it just determines what those principles are via
> the pragmatic method. I've previously discussed the relationship between
> pragmatism properly defined and ideology:
> Ideologies are theories of politics that present certain assumptions as
> answers to empirical questions. In that sense, pragmatism can be
> considered to be opposed to any ideology. On any given topic, however,
> pragmatism admits that it is an open and empirical question as to what
> the 'best' solution is, and therefore might or might not agree with any
> given ideology.
> I still think this claim is correct. Moreover, it responds to Chusid's
> claim that pragmatism is opposed to ideology.
> The problem for Hayes, myself, or anyone else trying to describe exactly
> what flavor of pragmatism Obama endorses is that there's not much real
> evidence. Basically, people are trying to put a unique interpretation on
> Obama's cabinet appointments and forgiving of Liebermann when these few
> events are equally amenable to interpretations of pragmatism proper and
> Machiavellianism, among other themes. Like I've said, there just isn't
> enough evidence out there to offer a unique interpretation, and we
> really just have to wait until Obama's actually in office making policy.
> One thing we writers/pragmatist groupies can do right now to clarify
> this debate when it happens is cease to be equivocal or ambiguous about
> what we mean by 'pragmatism.'
> Peirce, later in his life, renamed his philosophy 'pragmaticism' because
> he famously claimed it was a name so ugly that it would not be usurped
> by those who disagree with him. Peirce was prescient: the term
> pragmatism has come to refer, even within philosophy, to ambiguous
> ideas. Richard Rorty, for instance, really did argue that the truth is
> 'what works' in a crude sense, based on 'solidarity' which is basically
> communal agreement rather than understanding the necessity of a
> community to balance out the systematic irrationalities of the
> individual, as Peirce did. And he called his philosophy pragmatism,
> although it is really nothing like that of Peirce, Dewey, or William James.
> I can only speak for myself, so I promise that when I discuss pragmatism
> either as a philosophical school of thought or a descriptor for the
> Obama Administration, I will use it following Peirce, James and Dewey.
> By pragmatism, I roughly mean just that the best epistemic method is the
> scientific method. I'll refer to Rorty, or the colloquial
> Machiavellianism as pseudo-pragmatisms.
> Message from peirce-l forum to subscriber hgcallaway <at> live.com
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