Here is a prediction: the culture wars will be left by the wayside as we enter a seemingly new land, the land of the tactically minded chief executive, whose tactics are the tip of a philosophical iceberg.  The executive is Obama and the iceberg is Pragmatism.

Comments regarding Obama’s pragmatism constitute something of a cottage industry. These discussions usually involve contrasting Obama’s pragmatism, for example, in choosing his cabinet, with the ideological approach of Bush and the neo-cons.  Here the term pragmatism is meant to denote political flexibility, comfort with the expedient, and a willingness to compromise.  For critics it is meant to suggest an unprincipled orientation toward questions of great moment. Given Obama’s willingness to label himself a pragmatist, many have been mystified by his commitment to specific values, finding him not only unclassifiable in accepted political categories, but mystifying as a person.  For example, in a recent article in Harpers, “The American Void,” Simon Critchley treats Obama as, well, a void.  He just can’t figure the guy out.   In fact, as I have noted elsewhere (PBS site), there is nothing strange about Obama’s political views for those who are familiar with the American philosophical tradition of Pragmatism or the Social Gospel Movement. Interestingly, Critchley makes much of Obama’s mother being an anthropologist, but what he fails to mention is that Ann Dunham’s thesis director was Alice G. Dewey, John Dewey’s granddaughter.  (John Dewey was perhaps the most famous Pragmatist of the twentieth century.) This is no accident. Obama’s thought and practice can be located in the tradition of American Pragmatism (pragmatism with a capital P) and in the liberal Social Gospel Movement that was influential in Chicago during the early part of the 20th century. The latter is still influential in some Chicago churches and community groups, especially those that would have most engaged Obama’s attention as a community organizer.

One of the few commentators who has begun to tease out the differences between Obama’s pragmatisms is Chris Hayes. He writes in The Nation, “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. . . . And 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….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.’ ” The Nation, Dec 10, 2008

Hayes is moving in the right direction.  I would take his claims a step further.  There is no understanding of Obama without an understanding of Pragmatism. Take for instance the question of whether one can have principles and still be a pragmatist.  From the vantage point of philosophical Pragmatism, the question is non-starter.  The use of principles to address philosophical and political issues extends back to Plato and Aristotle, and migrates through Kant’s deontological ethics into the twentieth century.  But the Pragmatist wants to bypass this mode of thinking, one that requires us to believe that affirming values requires a principled affirmation of values.  Principles are in fact problematic and counterproductive.  Dewey, for example, railed against Kant during WWI, claiming that the rigidity of his ethics of principled imperatives was reflected in the dictatorial and undemocratic mindset of the German regime.  People who believe in democracy should be suspicious of permanent truths and principles.  As Hannah Arendt argues, debate is at the heart of political life, and Truth (with a capital “T”) kills debate. (Obama’s father was a man of principle to the point of stubbornness.  He had a failed career and a led a troubled life.  It is hard to read Dreams of My Father and not conclude that Obama came away from his “journey” with a lasting distaste for principles. His mother, on the other hand, was the epitome of a Deweyan in her love of experience, experimentation, novelty, change, and belief in the transformational power of education.)

In the “Epilogue” to Dreams of My Father, Obama reports a conversation that he and his sister, Auma, had with Dr. Rukia Odero, a professor of history.  A central question in the discussion: how should Africans adapt to the values that Westerners have brought to Africa?   That Obama chose to report the conversation is telling.  Rukia, I would argue, is meant to give voice to Obama’s views.  She states, “I suspect that we can’t pretend that the contradictions of our situation don’t exist.  All we can do is choose.”  And after discussing the complexities of the issue of female circumcision, she goes on to say, “You cannot have rule of law and then exempt certain members of your clan.  What to do?  Again you choose.  If you make the wrong choice, then you learn from your mistakes.  You see what works.”  (Dreams from My Father, New York: Crown, 2004, p. 434)  “Seeing what works” is indeed the mantra of Pragmatism.  Yet as in existentialism, this doesn’t mean that one doesn’t feel the weight of moral and political decisions.  It means that one can’t appeal to principles in advance to justify one’s decisions or “what works.”

But doesn’t being a pragmatist, in both senses of the term, just make Obama a relativist?  No doubt for the ideologically committed, those who fear a leader without a moral compass, this would be a central concern.  But once again this is to frame the issue in the wrong fashion.  Relativism is a problem for moral absolutists.  Without a lasting commitment to absolutes, there isn’t a problem of relativism.  Instead there is the problem of deciding what values to hold.  To frame the discussion in terms of absolutism versus relativism is already to accept the framework of the religious right, which is what the Republicans have been notoriously successful in doing for two generations.  However, the choice is not between absolutism and relativism.  It is between different values. Commitments to values arise from numerous sources, including thoughtful deliberation and prudential considerations.  And it is in the realm of “prudence” that one finds a symmetry between upper and lower case pragmatism.  For the Pragmatist prudential considerations do not always trump other values, but sometimes they do, because prudence or tactical maneuvering may be required to realize successfully a greater good.  As a matter of fact, a thoughtful political agent doesn’t make dogmatic, read absolutistic, decisions in advance regarding what values and tactics may be the most vital and relevant.

The culture wars have depended on disagreements over specific values and the belief that principles are central to morality.  Or at least this is the way that the religious right has sought to frame the controversy, a perception that neo-cons have used to reinforce their political agendas.  When Obama speaks of being post-ideological, of being a pragmatist, I read him as trying to address logjams over values by avoiding divisive discourses based on principles.  How does one accomplish this?  Well, one way is to sound as if one is not ideological, for example, by showing flexibility on specific moral and political questions.  By so doing Obama is not simply maneuvering. He is not being disingenuous.  He is behaving as if he is a committed Pragmatist, and as such he is seeking to change the ground rules for political discourse.

Obama may very well succeed with a little help from his (several million) friends, and realities on the ground, namely, a serious financial crisis that suddenly has life-long, dogmatic free-marketers running for cover.  He may also succeed because he is attuned to something very basic about the American psyche.  It is no accident that Pragmatism is the most significant philosophy that America has produced.  There is something deeply American about it.  But is it Left, Right, or Center? Once again, this is to ask a misleading question.  Its tent is large enough to contain persons from across the American political spectrum, if one judges political commitments by specific values.  Yet in an American context Obama’s Pragmatism presents a much greater challenge to the ideological Right than to the ideological Left.  How so?  If the conversation is shifted away from absolutes, the Right in America will lose the ground from which it has hurled its most potent missiles.  Some on the Right are beginning to recognize the threat that Obama poses.  Some still believe that they can bring back the days of the culture wars. The latter, however, are predicated on the “principled versus pragmatist” distinction, one that is becoming less consequential with each passing day.  So, I wish the dogmatic Right lots of luck. They will need it.  As for the non-dogmatic Right, if debate is crucial to a thriving democracy, I wish them well, and so does the Pragmatist Obama.


Obama on pragmatism (with a small p) and the dangers of certainty (which relates to philosophical Pragmatism).


UPDATE, January 5, 2010:  I discovered through a reader’s comment that this video is no longer available.  I don’t know when it was made  unavailable or why its presence on YouTube constitutes a use violation.  I assume that NBC must have pulled it.   It was a nice clip because it showed the kind of fallibilist sensibility that one finds in Pragmatism.

14 thoughts

  1. (I missed them. I will check and respond. Thanks for letting me know.)

    David, I found your comment. I have responded on TPM, but the blog is no longer posted on the site. It can be found at:

    Here is my response:


    Sorry I missed your comment. Thanks for the note on my web site. I hope that the remarks below are helpful.

    The term “principle” is loaded with a great deal of philosophical baggage. While it may very well be the case that pragmatists, like others, use the term “principle” loosely, philosophers such as Dewey want to make a statement by challenging us to avoid thinking in terms of principles. In the history of philosophy, especially since Kant, the term has carried with it the idea of a priori truths, that is, truths that are somehow prior to experience. They are truths that can be known with certainty. The move that pragmatists generally make (and not all pragmatists think exactly alike) is to say that we can have truth or warranted assertions without guarantees of certainty. It is the latter that gets us into trouble, whether in science or politics. (See my remarks on the term “principle” in response to another comment below.)

    Yes, you are absolutely correct when you say that pragmatists look to consequences. The mistake of certain deterministic models is that they pay attention only to prior “causes” and don’t pay attention to how human beings can evaluate and deliberate about the (possible) consequences of their actions, and therefore “control” (to some degree) their futures.

    Pragmatists have used the notion of “what works,” but this must not be reduced to a trivial “I’ve got a better monkey wrench than you do.” Science can be understood in terms of “what works,” but in doing so one must understand that science includes complex theories as well as experimentation and techniques. In terms of morality, “what works” is not just about getting to a given end in the most expeditious fashion; it is about thinking about ends and means, and considering the importance of both. Pragmatists are not immoralists. They just don’t think that moralities of principle, such as Kant’s, are conducive to human flourishing. We may feel certain that our moral convictions are true, and we should act on our convictions. But we should remain fallibilists, that is, open to the possibility that we could be wrong. Stick to your values but value their reevaluation.

    In terms of politics from the bottom up, this is very much a Deweyan sensibility, as is the value and importance of communication. (See his “The Search for the Great Community” in his book, The Public and Its Problems). And this brings us back to Obama. Both Dewey and G.H. Mead looked on Chicago as something of a laboratory for what could be accomplished at the local level in terms of organic democracy. Specifically, in terms of community organizing, both were friendly with Jane Addams and supported the work of the Hull House in addressing poverty. I would argue that Obama’s political sensibilities are reformist and populist, and fit within a tradition of what might be called left pragmatism, which is going to frustrate some traditional leftists, but it is going to frustrate the right much more, especially when they figure out what he is up to.

  2. Well, I’m familiar w. the existence of physics-envy in much of modern philosophy/theology. I prefer to use evolutionary metaphors for the latter.

    My understanding is that Pragmatism comports w. a Moral Realism that holds there exists “principles” that exist a priori to human experience but that we are never innocent of what is or our experiences in our ability.

    I know how a desire for certainty can either result in paralysis or brutality, like “torture the infidel so as to save their eternal soul from perdition”.

    I’d say that one can be a consequentialist and affirm that we see but in part as thru a mirror darkly and that one of the most important consequence we should value is what sorts of person we and others in our communities become as a result of the choices we make.

    My interp re values is that they impinge on the role of the person more gifted with discernment as being more of a reliable communicator for their community about the choices they face and their likely consequences than a high-priest pointing to that which has, is and always will be true. This comports well w. the Christian belief in the priesthood of the believers, when one makes an appropriate distinction between teaching and administrative authority and do not insist that the former entails the latter.

    I think fallibility makes community even more import and it calls on us to affirm the other or outsiders amongst us. This is why I want to enable the proliferation of local third parties thru the incorp of proportional representation into state legislative elections. We can still hold to the importance of stability and $peech in our democratic capitalism, while giving more people more voice on more issues and making it somewhat harder for one of the major parties to get a “permanent majority”.

    I’m more of a fan of John R. Commons-style conservative activism. Though, I think you do need downward mobility and commitments to relocation, reconciliation and redistribution by communities(as described in John M Perkin’s “A Quiet Revolution”.


  3. I have a question for you about the relationship of prior principles to Pragmatist decision-making. I completely agree that O is a capital P, but I think that his Pragmatism is intertwined with certain systems of ethical principles as well, notably Protestant Christianity. These principles seem
    to limit what experiments one can pragmatically engage.

    For instance, O¹s belief that marriage is between one woman and one man is clearly a prior principle derived from custom and religion. Therefore, he does not advocate gay ³marriage,² though he does support civil unions. There will be no experiments about what marriage means.

    The Social Gospel, modified by post-60s Black liberation theology, also limits experiments by the free market. It is not permissible to let the poor
    starve, therefore there is a limit on the freedom of markets.

    What is your take on the relationship between Pragmatism and prior principles. Is Pragmatism always symbiotic with other systems of value, or is it possible to be a “pure” Pragmatist, as Obama seems not to be?

    P.S. I just want to say that the idea that Bush is a DILF is really repugnant, though I don¹t doubt that¹s how his appeal worked for some people.

  4. Good question. One could write a book in response. Here is a very abridged version.

    If the term “principle” is being used as substitute for values, certainly pragmatists draw on a variety of sources for their “values.” Doing so is not a problem for the pragmatist. It is for the Kantian, for example, who wants to invoke a fundamental “principle,” discoverable by reason, to guide all of our actions. One of the strengths of pragmatism is that it recognizes that there are multiple sources for values, and that sometimes our values will come into conflict. How we resolve these “conflicts” is a key question, and pragmatists hope that deliberation and compromise can play important roles. But there is no question that prior experiences and beliefs inform our current values.

    For example, in his Ethics Dewey states,

    “The results of prior experience, including previous conscious thinking, get taken up into direct habits, and express themselves in direct appraisals of value. Most of our moral judgments are intuitive, but this fact is not a proof of the existence of a separate faculty of moral insight, but is the result of past experience funded into direct outlook upon the scene of life.” (p. 266, Dewey Later Works, 1932)

    Of course Obama is going to have bottom line values, as we all do. They are prior in the sense that he is guided by them, but if he is a Pragmatist, they should not be viewed as “a priori,” that is, grounded in something prior to experience, which guarantees their certainty. The distinction between values and “a priori principles” is crucial. We can not function without “values,” and they are going to limit the “experiments” we are willing to engage in, that is, if we take our values seriously. But the question is how we take them seriously. Pragmatists are fallibilists. This implies that even for our most cherished beliefs, even if the odds are extremely small that we would ever change them, we remain open to the possibility that we might. (As I put it in a previous response, “Stick to your values but value their reevaluation.”) This breeds a tolerance for the views of others, knowing that any of us can be wrong, even as we struggle to see our own views “win out.”

    Tolerance and compromise are key virtues for pragmatists, but as pragmatists they recognize that at times they may have to fight for bottom line values. The Nazis were wrong and they needed to be defeated, etc. This “fact” does not undermine the pragmatist’s general commitment to fallibilism; it just acknowledges that at times we must act as if we are certain in order to assert our values. (It’s called Pragmatism for a reason.) And yes, even our commitment to fallibilism must remain open to question for the sake of consistency, but in practice we should not abandon it. (Just think where we would be in the sciences if scientists weren’t fallibilists, at least some of the time.)

  5. Okay, I see how the word “principle” evokes the notion of philosophy as a Euclidean exercise, and why that is unsavory to Pragmatists. But I would like to suggest that, as a Christian, Obama almost certainly does hold to certain ethical rules that are, in fact, prior to his individual experience, such as “Love thy neighbor.” I don’t see why calling such rules “values” extricates us from the original difficulty, which was the question of Pragmatism’s relationship to other systems of belief and understanding. I doubt that Obama treats rules like “Love thy neighbor” as guides to behavior that could, even in theory, be abrogated by further experience, because they emanate from a non-human source of ethical authority, i.e. God, that is more authoritative than the individual subject. If this is the case, would we not have to call him something like a “Christian Pragmatist”? If this is not the case, can you give an account of the relationship between his Pragmatism and his Christianity that explains more clearly than I have the encounter between his philosophical and his religious methods?

    I think it is a mistake to secularize Obama; specifically, I think it is a mistake that the Left is prone to, and must avoid. This is what I am asking you not to do in any future explanation of his Pragmatism.

  6. Thank you for your comment. I can see that you share a concern of many, namely, that pragmatism is irredeemably secular. Not to worry.

    If you return to my original blog, you will notice that in addition to referring to Obama as a Pragmatist, I mention that his thought and practice can be linked to the Social Gospel Movement. Perhaps I should have made it clearer that those involved in this tradition were Christians, liberal Protestant Christians. Figures such as Walter Rauschenbusch and Jane Addams, who worked with John Dewey and G.H. Mead, were involved in this movement. (Btw, Rauschenbusch was Richard Rorty’s grandfather, and a figure who influenced Martin Luther King. I don’t typically recommend Wikipedia, but in this case, not a bad place to start. Charles Peirce, who many view as the “founder” of modern Pragmatism, was a religious individual. A contemporary religious thinker who is also a pragmatist is Cornel West.

    My point here is that there isn’t any reason why one can’t be religious or have ties to religion and be a pragmatist. The confusion seems to stem from the notion that if you are religious, you must have certain non-negotiable beliefs, and that having such beliefs places you outside of the pragmatist fold. But pragmatists start from the assumption that we all have webs of beliefs and habits and most of these go unquestioned. We couldn’t function in the world if this were not the case. The question is how we hold beliefs in the face of challenges. Here is where the pragmatist wants to ask, in rather playful language, what’s the “cash value” of such beliefs (William James’s formulation). Asking about their “cash value” has two implications: 1)We are willing to consider the possibility, however small, that we could be wrong. (Maybe there is no God, even as our faith tells us to believe. Or possibly God is different from our conception of God. Or perhaps we don’t fully understand what it means to believe in God, etc.) Beliefs don’t have to be held dogmatically to be believed. And 2) we need to ask what the belief we hold actually means in practice. I have spoken about #1 in some of my earlier responses. Let me focus here on #2.

    It is well and good to pronounce a maxim like, “love thy neighbor.” I assume that George Bush holds to this rule, as does Obama. But what do their actions tell us about what the words mean? This is a question that a pragmatist would ask. Beliefs are read through a willingness to act on them. And we all don’t act in the same way on allegedly the same beliefs. Yes, certainly Obama has rules that he follows. But the pragmatist would want to know how he acts on these rules in practice. It is the practices that tell us about the meaning. If we rely on maxims, we end up with platitudes that cover a host of contrary actions.

    In other words, saying that one has rules that one always brings to the table is just too easy. The rules don’t always tell us that much about the way people hold them. And the latter includes the different ways that people act on them, as well as how ideological, in the narrow sense, people are about their convictions. And this brings us back to point #1, our willingness to have our beliefs challenged.

    I would bet you an apple pie that Obama, even if he holds to the conviction that one must “love thy neighbor,” when pressed would avoid a dogmatic commitment to these words. He would be committed to them, and he might believe that they stem from a Higher authority, but he would understand that they still remain a belief, as opposed to a dogma that is beyond question and discussion. (For example, some religious individuals have argued that it would be better if we didn’t follow the maxim “love thy neighbor as oneself,” because this formulation of “love” entails too much thought about self and reciprocity. And of course there are those who tell us that the maxim is a cop out, namely, Freud. It is so universal that it leaves us with little to go on. But Freud’s an atheist, and certainly not a pragmatist. In any case, I would also bet that Obama would be interested in having serious discussions with those holding these different views. )

  7. One could ask, “Why does Obama not endorse ‘Gay Marriages’?” I’m guessing because as a cultural war issue, people have a tendency to associate the specific legal niceties with much wider issues that are practically-speaking not seemingly going anywhere. So with civil unions, you can give homosexual couples more rights and privileges without having to evoke as much opposition.

    I’d say that one can make a distinction between the Christian ideal of Marriage and the cultural institutions that surround marriages and are not god-given and do accomodate our fallenness. As such, I do not favor legal marriages for homosexuals because I take as a given that both sides of the issue hold to the view that legalization is a matter of social approbation and extend what is at stake to a whole host of issues. I do believe they should be able to have civil unions, as to affirm that I need not deny the ideal. This is the same reason I can affirm the right for divorcees to remarry.

    I think that the sorts of commitments inherent in pragmatists leave several metaphysical questions open and less important than many have thought they were for quite a long time.

    I don’t care about whether God exists, I care about the implics for my life of believing in the covenantal/creator God of the OT, YHWH, that Yeshua was willing to be emptied of power and humiliated for the sake of humanity and the ways we were supposed to advance the kingship of God.

    I find I can affirm these along with fallibilism and that the latter enables me to distance myself somewhat from the ugly history of Christendom(particularly the terrible situation in the wake of the 30 years war) and the views/practices of traditional USAmerican Christianity.

    The command is to love your neighbor as yourself and when asked “who is my neighbor?”, Jesus’s answer is clear: it is every person who’s life intersects with our own. As such, this ideal is practically speaking impossible, not unlike the Torah. So we typically end up setting up institutions for ourselves that enable us through community to grow towards the ideal.

    It’d be less of a cop out if Christianity had not grown to possess increasing amounts of hierarchy and political sway. In Romans 12, the followers were called to be counter-cultural and to overcome evil with acts of self-sacrificial love without hypocripsy. This precedes Paul’s utopic appraisal of the state as ultimately also helping to advance God’s kingship via stymying the corruptions of human nature.
    It seems the problem may be a conflation between the ideal and the working-rule(s)…

    1. Hi thanks for letting me know. I will check into it. I wasn’t aware that there was any copyright issue.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.