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.