Pragmatism, Philosophical and Political

After eight years in which ideology reigned supreme, President Obama, it is often said, will bring a welcome pragmatism to Washington. It is worth asking just what this means, or is likely to mean. What, for example, is the connection between being a pragmatist in politics and being willing to compromise? Must a self-styled pragmatist have no ideological commitments? It is also worth recalling that “pragmatism” names what was, until fairly recently, the dominant trend in contemporary philosophical thought. And so it is also natural to ask: what, if anything, do the philosophical and political uses of the term have to do with one another?

Pragmatism, when it names a school in philosophy, is a somewhat slippery term. In particular, those who call themselves pragmatists vary enormously in how “realist” they are when characterizing what they are talking about. But the main ideas that all would share grow out of a certain way of understanding science and language that, for most English-speaking philosophers, is associated with the arguments of W.V. O. Quine (and in a somewhat different way, Ludwig Wittgenstein). Quine argued that it was a mistake to think of claims about the world, whether they were ordinary common sense claims like “the stove is hot,” or theoretical claims like “temperature is mean kinetic energy,” as having their meaning “individually,” as individual sentences, and as such, describe some bit of the world they could be matched or tested against. Rather, all our remarks about the world, from ordinary observations through theoretical posits (“that’s gravity for you!”), even including the very abstract laws of logic, had to be thought of as enmeshed within one smoothly interrelated scheme, a single “web of belief,” and when trouble strikes, when the experiment or observation does not go as we predict, it is entirely up to us to adjust the scheme wherever we wish. It will be for pragmatic reasons that we choose to leave the observation claim intact and look to theory for adjustment, and equally, it is merely for pragmatic reasons (not out of any misplaced sense of “necessity,” for in this view, there is no such thing) that we will probably choose to leave the laws of logic alone too. So when the experiment regarding the speed of light goes differently than we thought, what follows? We could affirm all our Newtonian theory and deny the observation, adjusting our web of belief there; or we could affirm it all and alter our logic, alter say the law of the excluded middle. The right choice would seem to be Einstein’s alternative conception of light and time—but that is just because that revision causes the least disruption in the scheme overall. It is, pragmatically, the most sensible change to make, that’s all. To say Einstein’s view “is true” is just to say the overall scheme we like best—the scheme we choose for pragmatic reasons—includes it.

Now for some, such as Richard Rorty, this was just the start of the argument. Rorty thought we could not speak of “the world” (or any part of it) apart from the conceptions by which we picked it out, and so we could not be realists about what we spoke of, or referred to. This strand of the argument has roots that reach back to Kant: we know the world by the concepts we impose on it, and so any talk of “the world” apart from those concepts must be impossible, self-contradictory. Thus Rorty represents a strand of anti-realism in pragmatism, and this is the strand most closely associated with continental thinkers such as Barthes and Derrida too. Language one might say, in this view, runs all the way down. The things we speak of have the character they have because we characterize them as we do. Alternative characterizations are certainly possible—for reasons of habit or culture (or if we are speaking of political institutions, it is typically said, for reasons of power) we use the ones we do, but it is a mistake to see the descriptions or characterizations we do use as “driven by” or “determined by” the world as it is apart from us. How could that be? Since we cannot pick out any bit of “the world” without employing some conceptual scheme or other, how can we speak of the scheme we do employ as vindicated by some neutral nature, by how the world is apart from us—or, to use Rorty’s useful and mocking phrase, by how Nature would describe Herself if only She could speak? Ironically, though the word “pragmatism” has connotations of the sensible and familiar, when used to stand for this set of arguments, it refers to a puzzling anti-realism, and it is this strand of pragmatism that is no longer as highly regarded as it was twenty years ago. Philosophers today tend to be very wary of a view that cannot make sense of our causal relation to the world as giving us genuine knowledge of how the world is. It seems just flat out wrong to think that I do not detect an actual difference in actual temperature when I put my hand on the stove. But the idea that our claims about the world must be understood holistically, that no sentence can be thought of as facing the world “on its own”—this strand of philosophical pragmatism remains intact.

Now when the term is used politically, “pragmatism” tends to mean something like “driven largely by regard for good consequences.” The good pragmatist, it is said, will be indifferent to which side of the political spectrum champions a policy, and asks only how well will the policy work. The current bailout proposals are good examples. Though strong government involvement in an economy might be favored by New Deal Democrats and decried by proponents of a pure free market, the pragmatist could not care less what the pedigree of an idea is, who likes it, who doesn’t, and why. A pragmatist in this sense of the term just wants evidence of its likelihood to succeed or fail given a set of facts in the background. If it works well, generates good results, fine; it will be embraced. If not, it is cast aside. There is no interest in ideological purity, and no embarrassment if one uses one policy against one set of facts and what might in some ways be a contrary one against another.

Now, two things are left out of this account so far, and these things are uncertain as we look towards the future under Obama. The first is what the political goals or aspirations will be. “Political pragmatism” refers to a kind of willingness to do whatever works to reach the desired goal, but it does not, it cannot, say what that goal will be. For example, right now, confronting our looming economic depression is a non-controversial and urgent goal; no one denies its importance. But what about reducing class differences, or reducing the prison population, or reducing the population of unwed mothers? There are many possible goals the Obama administration may or may not pursue with pragmatist energy. But being committed to non-ideological pragmatism in its own right does not say anything as to which projects you will be a pragmatist about, what you will give priority to and what you will let slide. Some projects are themselves non-partisan, such as addressing an economic depression. But most others are not, and when we turn to which of these will be taken up, some ideology or commitment to principles must enter in. Just what the commitments of the Obama administration turn out to be before these more optional matters will simply have to be seen as they unfold in time.

Secondly, there is a complicated connection between “pragmatism” and “compromise.” In some matters, the pragmatist may reasonably believe there really is a best, most pragmatic solution. For example, it really may be a fact that certain government policies will turn the economy around and others will not, it really may be a fact that certain policies will reduce AIDS infection rates and others will not. Here, before these kinds of issues, a good pragmatist will be as hostile to compromise as any ideologue. Since he wants the best outcome, and such and such policy just is the best way to get that, there is no good reason to swerve from this course. But in other contexts it may be that there is no clear “fact of the matter” and disagreement is more over the sensibility or symbol. Here the pragmatist may indeed compromise, or seek compromise, for here compromise may itself be “the best outcome.” There is no clear factual answer to the question “how much should we spend on the arts?” (as opposed to the space program). In a case like this, the good pragmatist may seek compromise between the warring parties without feeling he has sacrificed his principles. It will be interesting to see where Obama draws this line, where he feels there is a right answer that must be achieved in the best possible way, and where he feels there are reasonable opinions on both sides, neither better nor worse than the other; and so here we must just divide the issue as best we can. For example, it will be interesting how he sees sexual education policies, gun control, capital punishment, charter schools and perhaps even some of the issues at the edges of abortion rights (like parental notification issues)—are these issues about which there is no clear right or wrong, just reasonable differences, and so we must compromise as best we can (unlike the ideologues of the Bush era), or, are these issues where there are clear human rights that must be respected, and compromise is a last resort? I have my own ideas as to where Obama will stand on this list, but right now, as we look forward and speculate about this very important matter, only time will tell.

It might appear then that the expression “pragmatism” shares little across its philosophical and political uses, but this is not quite right. Certainly, you would be disappointed if, knowing what it means in one context, you expected the counterpart view in the other. Political pragmatists are not generally anti-realists, and philosophical pragmatists do not champion their freedom from deference to ideological consistency. But the ideas of flexibility, of freedom to revise where necessary in order to reach the goal in question­—these are the underlying themes of pragmatism in any domain.


Steven Ross

STEVEN ROSS is a professor of philosophy at Hunter College and the CUNY Graduate Center.