requiem for certainty

Pragmatism in Obama’s Inaugural

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We saw more pragmatism this week in Obama’s inaugural address (following up on earlier posts).  It was not quite the masterful literary piece that one might have expected given all that we have been hearing about how Obama wishes to position himself as the next Lincoln.  Lincoln was not only a president but also a poet: recall his “mystic chords of memory”.  Obama is not quite a poet, at least not yet.  But then again, I find the comparisons to Lincoln somewhat overstrained.  Obama is a pragmatist.  Lincoln was not (but perhaps the persident could not have been a pragmatist in those tumultuous years.)

In Obama’s inaugural address this Tuesday we heard his pragmatism once again.  It was forceful and proud, yet also humble and friendly.  This is as pragmatism should be: at once confident and inviting.

Pragmatism was most evident on Tuesday in Obama’s steadfast invocations of hope: which hope is of course as native to pragmatist thinking as it is to very America itself.  It is the attitude of hope that makes America what it is: and part of what our hopefulness makes us is pragmatists.  Perhaps this view is controversial, but it is in any event the view of our 44th president, Barack Obama, and I share it with him.

The inaugural address also made a pragmatist promise in another key moment.  Obama spoke of “stale political arguments” concerning the relative size of government and market, state and economy, or what is so often today described under the loose banners of ‘public’ and ‘private’.  What has gone stale in these arguments, he seemed to suggest, is the posturing that would suggest that we can know in advance of actual experience what respective roles governments and markets should play in our lives, as if we can cleave off public regulation from private enterprise all at once and be done with it.  His point, I take it, was that we should approach the question of what roles governments and markets ought to play in a more experimental frame of mind.  Sometimes governmental agencies will be needed to get the job done.  Sometimes only markets will work.  The old view that one of these is public and one is private misleads us from recognizing that we ought to invoke both in confidence as situations call for.  As Obama put all this: “The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, … Nor is the question before us whether the market is a force for good or ill.”  The question before us, he said, is “whether it works”.  Does the market get the job done?  Does the state get the job done?  And how do they get their jobs done?  The toughest question, of course, is the following: How can state and market act in coordinate purpose to insure growth and stability, economic advance and political wisdom?  For most often our choice is not ‘whether state or market’ but indeed ‘which state actions and what market structures’ will together work best in a given situation to amelioriate our lot and enhance our living in the long run.

Obama will be criticized for this, his assumed pragmatism, in the coming months.  Indeed he already has been, for example over at RealClearPolitics (word to the wise: be wary of anyone who uses the adjective ‘real’ to qualify their political views) by Rich Lowry, who is editor of Buckley’s National Review.  Lowry argues that Obama’s invocation of what actually works is somewhat of a smoke and mirrors.  What works, Lowry worries, is the ‘real’ question.  Obama is “presenting the actual choices that have bedeviled us for decades as a mirage.”  Perhaps.  But I detect no naivete in Obama nor need his pragmatism implicate him in an illusion that it is always easy to find out what works.  No, it is damn difficult, and that is as it should be for we who struggle to make for ourselves a better tomorrow.

The point of Obama’s pragmatism, I take it, is that one should not decide in advance what works (“this much government intervention is best” or “this much market regulation is ideal”).  What works is something that can only be known through actual political practice, and careful studies of political practice, and reflections on those studies.  The critics are right that an invocation of pragmatism does not answer the tough questions.  Indeed William James said as much when he made the first public offering for pragmatism in a series of lectures just over one hundred years ago.  James insisted that pragmatism “is a method only” and “does not stand for any special results”.  Pragmatism, be it James’s in 1906 or Obama’s in 2009, is best seen as providing us with a philosophical orientation that will enable us so to actually go on to do the tough work of answering hard questions in a rigorous way.  All that this orientation rules out is the idle posturing and silly promising that feigns to know in advance what we ought actually to do, e.g. what roles government is best suited for and what functions markets alone can fulfill.  What actually works for states and markets is to be determined by reflective engagement in the actual practices of government and exchange.

We might put all this in terms of what we could call the Pragmatist Question: If we already know all the answers in advance, then how come we haven’t gotten it right? This, of course, is but a variation on what some folks like to call the American Question: If you’re so smart, then how come you’re not rich?

Not only is it impossibly difficult to decide in advance what is going to work, but there is also no need to do so.  We can adjust as we go along.  We can experiment.  That, in any event, is what we have always done and all we ever can do.  Our experimentalism is part of what makes hopefulness so appropriate to the American grain from which we are hewn.  For hope is the right frame of mind to be in when one is working toward improvement without definite answers handed down in advance.  “It is ultimately the faith and determination of the American people upon which this nation relies,” said Obama.  Whether or not we meet the challenges set before us turns on nothing more holy then what we will humbly do.  There is no grandiose Destiny, no holy Reason, no indubitable Truth which will make us prevail.  Our America depends on nothing at all but we Americans, we who are hopeful.

(With thanks to Patrick Maley for a little encouragement.)


Written by Colin Koopman

January 24, 2009 at 8:58 pm

3 Responses

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  1. […] Posted on January 24, 2009 by Noelle McAfee On his blog, Requiem for Certainty, pragmatist philosopher Colin Koopman dissects Obama’s inaugural speech and finds lots of […]

  2. Colin, I drop by on occasion and would like to encourage you to keep up the blogging. I think this analysis is pretty persuasive. I recently posted one that, I think, overlaps in several respects.


    Jim Johnson

    January 25, 2009 at 4:39 am

  3. The style of writing is quite familiar to me. Did you write guest posts for other bloggers?

    Heartburn Home Remedy

    April 15, 2009 at 11:42 am

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