Archive for the ‘Philosophy’ Category
One of the recurring themes of pieces on Obama at UP@NIGHT is the nature of his pragmatism, which is as much philosophical as it is purely political. With three months or so to go before the election, I thought I would collect here several links to discussions of Obama’s political thought and politics from the past few years at UP@NIGHT.
The entries most relevant to philosophical pragmatism are listed first. There are a couple of critical pieces further down the list. But I think it important that we understand with whom we are dealing as we criticize Obama or his administration. We should not fault him for seeking the possible when the more desirable was out of reach.
And for those who may still not have had enough, there is a discussion of Obama’s pragmatism and cosmopolitanism in an online (read, free) “Afterword” to my new book, Transcendence: On Self-Determination and Cosmopolitanism (Stanford University Press).
After a hiatus, UP@NIGHT returns with a BIG BANG.
In the coming months, especially as the election draws near, posts will come fast and with fury. (Ok, maybe not so fast and perhaps not too furious. But at least pretty often and mildly agitated.) And not just on politics. There will be, for example, popular culture, music, satire, cultural criticism, and even some philosophy (my day job).
If you are new to UP@NIGHT, know that some of the most reliable predictions on the 2008 election were made here. Really. (See the the site’s archive.) Also, if you wondered where the Spock/Obama meme began, UP@NIGHT was the first to have a post dedicated to the topic, as far as this blogger can discover. “Obama, Spock, and the New Star Trek Generation.”
Enjoy (and comment soon)!
This is a, “I told you so” blog. I have been arguing here and in other venues that Obama is a philosophical pragmatist and not just a political one. At his press conference yesterday, in which he defended his compromise with the Republicans over taxes, he directly confronted a question about his core values. He specifically placed his values in a wider framework, one that is clearly congenial to philosophical pragmatism.
Why is this important? We need to understand the man if we are going to be able to work effectively for change. Obama has a set of values that one might call “progressive” (and other values that might be termed “moderate” or even mildly conservative). He is going to act on his (mostly) progressive views within a broader framework, which is his commitment to philosophical pragmatism. This is not a sell out. It is not a weakness in itself. It is different from what we have seen in quite some time. (This is NOT merely Bill Clinton’s political pragmatism, for example.) Listen to how Obama defends his initiatives by citing the history of social security in the clip below. There is passion here. And not the passion of someone defending a merely expedient outcome. His commitment to pragmatism may often make him appear more conservative than he actually is. For him, it’s about getting the best outcomes over the long term. This is not to say that he hasn’t made tactical errors or errors in judgment and timing. He certainly has. It’s only to place his specific values in a broader context.
For those interested in learning more about the connection between Obama and pragmatism, there is James T. Kloppenberg’s new book, Reading Obama. The Afterword to my new book, Transcendence: On Self-Determination and Cosmopolitanism (Stanford) is on-line. It discusses Obama’s pragmatism. There is also the web site Barack Obama’s Pragmatism.
So I was debating whether to announce my latest book, Transcendence: On Self-Determination and Cosmopolitanism, in a blog on UP@NIGHT (as opposed to just mentioning it in the “About” section). There is enough shameless self-promotion on the web. Then I received the following comment on TPM about my (playfully critical) blog on Thomas Friedman (which can also be found on UP@NIGHT). I thought it nice that TPM had recommended it. The blog was meant to be pretty light reading, dashed off in a moment of agitation. Obviously this fellow found something galling about it or me.
Difference between you and Friedman. You’re blogging at TPM (sic) he has three best sellers. Yeah, he really should get on your bandwagon.
The comment of this blogger pushed me over the edge. I may not write bestsellers, but I hardly think that this is a criterion for condemning someone’s work, whether it is blogs or books written for specific audiences.
P.S. I really don’t have any desire to see Thomas Friedman on my bandwagon, that is, if I had one.
Since the days of the Federalists and Anti-Federalists our Republic has always been, more or less, a house divided, and it will continue to be so for the foreseeable future. Even wars don’t typically unite us. To move the nation often requires an economic crisis, and then we argue about how to respond. What then is a politician to do if he or she believes that change is necessary, for example, in health care? Move too far to the right or left at any given time–unless there is a grave crisis, for example, the Depression–and your legislation is unlikely to make it through Congress or face repeal down the road. And even if it isn’t repealed, there is the risk that it will not generate enough support to move the legislation off the books and into the real world.
When Obama said that he offered change that we can believe in, most on the right and left took him to mean change that was so different, we could believe in it. The argument seemed to be about whether we wanted dramatic change. But this is not what someone with his temperament and political philosophy would emphasize. It wasn’t the dramatic nature of the change that we were being asked to believe in, but its staying power, its resiliency, its endurance.
Am I pleased with all of the moves that Obama has made. No. Do I think that he has gone back on his campaign pledge? Hardly. What he asked us, and is asking us, to believe in is legislation that will stick, in policies that will have staying power, ones that will take root over time and lead to other changes. But this is the route of the sell out, those on the left say. Of one who has given up on principles. No. It is a reasonable way of trying to get as much of the cake as possible given the nature of our political and economic system, which is not changing in a fundamental way any time soon. Of course those on the left may disagree about how much of the cake might be acquired. This, however, is a debate about the possible, which is just how Obama approaches these matters. In this regard, the slogan was always there for all to see. Come the next presidential election I don’t doubt that one of Obama’s major themes will be: I brought you change that was positive and sustainable. (If you think it is a weak message, I ask you to consider how many “mainstream” Republican politicians are furious about health care. I submit that one reason, and a big one, is that they know his plan can stick and it will be a game changer, and not a good one for them over time.)
Albert Einstein……………………………………………………John Dewey
Well, it turns out that while physicists and poets can kiss their most productive years good-bye when they are barely out of adolescence, philosophers and other types of humanists just keep ticking…peaking in their late 40′s and 50′s but with hardly any drop off after that. At least so says Dean Simonton, a psychologist at UC-Davis. The lead on this comes from a post on Andrew Sullivan’s site today,“The Age of Brilliance.”
Sullivan quotes a piece by Jonah Lehrer:
While physics, math and poetry are dominated by brash youth, many other fields are more amenable to middle age. (Simonton’s list includes domains such as “novel writing, history, philosophy, medicine”.) He argues that these fields show a very different creative curve, with a “a leisurely rise giving way a comparatively late peak, in the late 40s or even 50s chronologically, with a minimal if not largely absent drop-off afterward” (italics added).
Do I believe it? I guess it depends on how one measures “productivity,” among other factors. But it’s nice to know that one researcher in this area thinks that the twilight years can still be golden years for those engaged in studying philosophy or writing novels. (But then again, there are poets who have done their best work later in life. Perhaps we shouldn’t leave it to psychologists to evaluate these matters.)
Btw, John Dewey was in his mid-seventies when he wrote and published Art As Experience, which is considered by many to be one of his most important books. He published his, Logic: The Theory of Inquiry, a work of more than 500 pages, when he was nearly 80. Einstein, best work in his 20′s through his mid-30′s.
In a recent post I suggested that liberal arts majors, and philosophers in particular, should not despair as they face a difficult economy. Well, if the “Jobs Rated” section of CareerCast is to be trusted at all, philosophers and historians are in the top 12 of a ranking of 200 jobs for 2010, which includes the outlook for new positions through 2016, as well as other factors. Do I believe it? “When you wish upon a star….”
For the two hundred jobs and more detailed information about them click the link below. The methodology is also discussed.
2. Software Engineer
3. Computer Systems Analyst
7. Paralegal Assistant
10. Dental Hygienist
If you were wondering about everyone’s favorite profession, lawyers are at #80. Money, it seems, can’t buy happiness, although #80 isn’t bad.
Philosophy (Plato and Aristotle) versus The University of Louisiana, Lafayette (President Joseph E. Savoie)
Adios Plato, and Aristotle, and Kant, and Hegel, and Dewey, etc. I heard the news, today, oh boy. According to the New York Times article, “Making College ‘Relevant’,”
The University of Louisiana, Lafayette, is eliminating its philosophy major, while Michigan State University is doing away with American studies and classics, after years of declining enrollments in those majors.
So you’re not impressed. Who cares about some backwater school in the state that elected Bobby Jindal its governor. Perhaps, dear reader, there are some facts that you should know about The University of Louisiana, Lafayette, for they may reveal how serious the situation is for philosophy and philosophy majors. Fall enrollment was 16,320 at Lafayette, according to its web site. Also, according to its web site:
- The University of Louisiana at Lafayette owns a total of about 1,400 acres. Its main campus consists of 137 acres; the athletic complex and Cajundome sit on 243 acres; University Research Park has 148 acres; the Center for Ecology and Environmental Technology has 51 acres; and the Equine Center is comprised of 100 acres.
- UL Lafayette has a 600-acre farm/renewable resources laboratory with a 30-acre pond for crawfish and catfish culture in Cade, La.
- The Carnegie Foundation has designated UL Lafayette as a “Research University with High Research Activity.” That puts UL Lafayette in the same category as Clemson, Auburn and Baylor universities. The only other Louisiana institution in the same category is the University of New Orleans.
- The University of Louisiana at Lafayette is accredited by the Commission on Colleges of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools.
- UL Lafayette offers 78 undergraduate degree programs.
And it’s not as if the regents for the University care only about crawfish and catfish ponds and not philosophy. According to the Times:
When Louisiana’s regents voted to eliminate the philosophy major last spring, they agreed with faculty members that the subject is “a traditional core program of a broad-based liberal arts and science institution.” But they noted that, on average, 3.4 students had graduated as philosophy majors in the previous five years; in 2008, there were none. “One cannot help but recognize that philosophy as an essential undergraduate program has lost some credence among students,” the board concluded.
As a former chair of philosophy departments, and currently director of a Liberal Arts program, I can tell you that it would be rough to defend a major, any major, if there weren’t any majors. But here’s the thing. I simply can’t fathom how a campus with over 16,000 students did not have one philosophy major graduating in 2008. Usually universities offer dual majors and some students interested in philosophy take advantage of this opportunity. Also, philosophy is often the major of choice for students hoping to go on to law school. (None in Lafayette?) So either philosophy is on its death bed, which might be possible, and/or the people in Lafayette simply aren’t working very hard or in the right way to produce majors. (I counted four full-time faculty members in Lafayette’s Philosophy Department, which works out to approximately one philosophy professor for every 4,000 students. I can see that this is an institution that has worked diligently to make philosophy available to its students.)
And what about Michigan State? Well, it’s in Michigan, a state whose economy is currently as cold as its winters. (Aristotle claims that we turn to the study of philosophy only when the necessities of life have been addressed. Or in Feuerbach’s words, “Eat first, philosophize later.”) But the problem is not just down in Lafayette or up in Michigan.
I recently attended the Eastern Division Meeting of The American Philosophical Association and can report that things are indeed bleak in philosophy on the job front, that is, if you wish to become a professor of philosophy. And this is especially true for young people. Typically a very large number, if not the majority, of graduate students on the market gather for job interviews at this meeting. It is as much a professional gathering as it is a jobs fair. But fair it is not. The swings in our economy can make the conference feel more like Vegas in any given year than a symposium at Oxford.
I have no doubt that other liberal arts disciplines have seen a serious decline in new positions this year. Why should large swaths of academia be any different from the rest of the economy? But liberal arts majors should not despair, for the vast majority of them will never seek employment as professors. (And even those who want to become professors should remember that the market does change, even if it’s rarely very good, as it was in the 1960′s.) It seems that what we have been hearing for years–namely, that the liberal arts supply critical skills and tools that many employers appear to want–remains true. This too is spelled out in the article.
There’s evidence, though, that employers also don’t want students specializing too soon. The Association of American Colleges and Universities recently asked employers who hire at least 25 percent of their workforce from two- or four-year colleges what they want institutions to teach. The answers did not suggest a narrow focus. Instead, 89 percent said they wanted more emphasis on “the ability to effectively communicate orally and in writing,” 81 percent asked for better “critical thinking and analytical reasoning skills” and 70 percent were looking for “the ability to innovate and be creative.”
It’s possible that these prospective employers were telling the researchers what they wanted to hear, but for many good reasons, I think not. The fact is that the skills listed above are crucial to many, if not most, of the better paying jobs that will be available in the coming years. (Just speak with well-placed business executives and ask how important communication skills are for good positions in their companies.)
Of course none of this addresses the intrinsic value of studying the liberal arts, often something that people learn to appreciate only when they grow older (as the Times article points out). In this regard there is some good news for liberal arts and philosophy types: it seems that a lot of current students are interested in developing a meaningful philosophy of life. The author of the Times article, Kate Zernike, uses a UCLA survey to show how in the last four decades finances have become more important to entering freshmen than philosophical questions. But I prefer to see the glass half full. After years of being socialized into a hyper consumer based economy, almost half of the freshmen are still interested developing a meaningful philosophy of life.
Consider the change captured in the annual survey by the University of California, Los Angeles, of more than 400,000 incoming freshmen. In 1971, 37 percent responded that it was essential or very important to be “very well-off financially,” while 73 percent said the same about “developing a meaningful philosophy of life.” In 2009, the values were nearly reversed: 78 percent identified wealth as a goal, while 48 percent were after a meaningful philosophy.
As a professor of liberal arts and philosophy, I’ll gladly take 48% and run with it…..
There appears to be a growing cottage industry that is addressing whether Obama is merely a pragmatist, in the narrow sense of the term–that is, one who places strategic considerations first–or whether he is philosophical pragmatist. In my view, Obama is indeed a philosophical pragmatist. If you are interested in understanding what makes Obama tick and how he might maneuver politically, this question is worth your time. And for your convenience, there is now a site dedicated to discussing the issue of Obama’s pragmatism. (See “Barack Obama’s Pragmatism.”)
In several blogs on UP@NIGHT and on other sites, I have mentioned that Obama’s mother studied with the granddaughter of John Dewey, perhaps the most famous pragmatist of the twentieth century. Of course one would not want to make too much of this connection. On the other hand, it is not meaningless, especially when Alice Dewey addresses Obama’s pragmatism in the context of his idealism. The passages below are from an article in the Star Bulletin (Hawaii), “Strong Women Lead Obama.”
At his homecoming rally Friday, Barack Obama paid tribute to his late mother, a single mom who sacrificed to ensure he received the best education. His next stop was to visit his 85-year-old grandmother.
These two strong women each were pioneers in their fields and helped shape the presidential candidate’s outlook on life. “Like his mother, Barry is a pragmatic idealist,” said Alice Dewey, an emeritus professor at the University of Hawaii and family friend. “If you have ideals and want to accomplish things, you’ve got to be pragmatic about it.”
…. “Ann’s work was almost entirely in villages,” said Dewey, her friend and thesis adviser. “Barry found his feet in the streets of Chicago. It was urban, but it was the same thing, get out there to talk to people, listen to their needs and try to put together something that will work. Like Ann, he was thinking, how do you help the folks who need it?”
If these statements were coming from someone other than the granddaughter of John Dewey, and from someone who was not academically trained, I would be inclined to equate “pragmatic” with “strategic,” and to view the phrase, “try to put together something that will work,” in the same light. And surely this is part of their meaning. But given that Alice Dewey knew that she was being interviewed for a newspaper article and not an academic audience, and that she used the phrase “pragmatic idealist,” which sounds like an oxymoron to most of those unaware of the tradition of philosophical pragmatism, I suspect that this was her way of telegraphing that Obama is not merely a strategic pragmatist. He is something more. Perhaps a philosophical pragmatist. (Yes, she could have meant that he was merely a smart idealist, but the passage discussing what “works” counters this interpretation.)
Ultimately the evidence for Obama’s philosophical pragmatism will have to come from his words and deeds. For those interested in pursuing this connection, check out the web page on Obama mentioned above and click “links.”
P.S. For those who read Spanish, you may be interested in a piece that appeared recently in the most important paper in Lima, Peru on Obama, pragmatism, and John Dewey. “Obama contextualiza decisiones” by Gregory Pappas.
In declaring his criteria for a Supreme Court nominee when Justice Souter announced his departure, Obama mentioned empathy and real world experience, in addition to a deep knowledge of the law. At the time, right wing ideologues started screeching about how the term “empathy” was merely a code word for a liberal activist judge. The fact that Obama has emphasized the importance of empathy in numerous contexts, not just with regard to the Court, was ignored. Since empathy must equal “activism,” these ever so sharp right wing talking heads were prepared to shout in unison, “gotcha.”
Sonia Sotomajor may be a left leaning centrist, but she is certainly no left wing radical. The reasons Obama gave for choosing her fall right in line with his version philosophical pragmatism, which is related to his insistence that empathy is a legitimate criterion for selecting a member of the Supreme Court. Failure to understand that Obama is a philosophical pragmatist, as opposed to simply a political one, explains much of the confusion about his approach to selecting nominees and advisers. When Obama talks about the importance of experience, when he talks about consequences (as opposed to abstract principles), when he talks about fallibilism, when he talks about consultation and cooperation, and when he talks about what works, he is using well known catch phrases of this tradition. And he knows it. Unfortunately, political commentators, left, right and center, don’t.
Obama’s commitment to philosophical pragmatism was highlighted this week when he invoked the words of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. in announcing his selection of Sotomajor. Obama and Holmes are on the same wave length in how they understand the role of law in society (and society in law). And Holmes was deeply indebted to the pragmatist tradition and counted among his closest friends the leading pragmatists of his day. ( See, “Obama: Conservative, Liberal, or Ruthless Pragmatist?”) Holmes’s most famous statement about the law is indicative of his pragmatism, and Obama cited it in order to help explain one of the most important decisions of his presidency.
So I don’t take this decision lightly. I’ve made it only after deep reflection and careful deliberation. While there are many qualities that I admire in judges across the spectrum of judicial philosophy, and that I seek in my own nominee, there are few that stand out that I just want to mention.
First and foremost is a rigorous intellect — a mastery of the law, an ability to hone in on the key issues and provide clear answers to complex legal questions. Second is a recognition of the limits of the judicial role, an understanding that a judge’s job is to interpret, not make, law; to approach decisions without any particular ideology or agenda, but rather a commitment to impartial justice; a respect for precedent and a determination to faithfully apply the law to the facts at hand.
These two qualities are essential, I believe, for anyone who would sit on our nation’s highest court. And yet, these qualities alone are insufficient. We need something more. For as Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes once said, “The life of the law has not been logic; it has been experience.” Experience being tested by obstacles and barriers, by hardship and misfortune; experience insisting, persisting, and ultimately overcoming those barriers. It is experience that can give a person a common touch and a sense of compassion; an understanding of how the world works and how ordinary people live. And that is why it is a necessary ingredient in the kind of justice we need on the Supreme Court. New York Times, May 26, 2009 (empahasis added)
“How ordinary people live,” this too has been a great concern of pragmatists, which brings us back to empathy. There is a misunderstanding about the term that stands behind many of the misguided attacks. It has two major components, and they have been conflated in the MSM. The first is the ability to, shall we say, stand in the shoes of the other guy. Obama often speaks about empathy in this way. George Herbert Mead, an important pragmatist of the early 20th Century, spoke about the importance of taking the perspective or role of the other. To function as social beings we must be able to see the world through the eyes of others. (Mead was close friends with John Dewey, perhaps the leading pragmatist of the 20th Century. Dewey’s granddaughter was Obama’s mother’s graduate school adviser.) Usually when we think of standing in the shoes of the other guy, we also think about being compassionate. This is the second component of the term. But these two aspects of empathy are not identical. We sometimes find ourselves standing in the shoes of the other guy and still not feeling very compassionate about his or her actions. But to understand this person, to make certain kinds of evaluations, which may even be negative (he’s a cold-blooded killer, and that’s what it feels like standing in his shoes), we must be able to take the perspective of this person. Yes, doing so often leads to compassion, but it doesn’t have to.
I am convinced that Obama is a sophisticated enough thinker to understand these basic features of empathy. He is not confusing justice and mercy, as several conservative pundits have claimed, when he invokes empathy as a criterion. He is not eliminating (judicious) judgment in favor of some sort of political correctness. (He specifically mentioned “impartial justice” in his remarks.) Obama has a view of the law that respects its internal “logic,” but understands that this so-called logic requires interpretive skills and a historical sensibility. It is not a transhistorical logic. In other words, there is no view from the mounatintop when dealing with human creations such as the law. Justice requires a rich understanding of legal precedent, of legal argument, but also of people and of people’s current circumstances, and for the latter, we must be able to stand in their shoes. Justice is a balancing act. It requires judgment, not simply deduction from set principles. That’s why we call those who interpret the law judges and not deducers.
For Obama, empathy and experience go hand in hand, because experience entails social interaction, and social interaction devoid of empathy is, well, inhuman, in both senses of the term (not human, not humane). The kind of justice who will best serve us on the Supreme Court is one who understands that the life of the law is not logic but experience, which in turn entails empathy.