Sunday, May 22, 2011

Political Pragmatism and Philosophical Pragmatism

Pragmatism usually refers to a practical way of dealing with life. It's a very down to earth way of deaing with problems in a sensible and realistic fashion. Pragmatic approaches are often contrasted with decisions and actions based on ideological, highly abstract or theoretical frameworks. This difference may over dichotomize things as discussed in my article on the Binary Thinking Habit, but popular accounts often use a simple notion of pragmatism in discussing decision making styles. Thus, to a mixture of praise and frustration, President Obama’s governing style is often labeled politically “pragmatic”. One example of this was his approach to health insurance reform. The HC reform approach evolved from the government-sponsored language he used in campaign speeches, to a hybrid compromise that could be passed by both Houses of Congress. He was also called pragmatic to attempt to compromise with Republicans in extending unemployment benefits and providing some relief to the middle class when he gave up on a key campaign promise to roll back Bush-era tax cuts for the “wealthy”.

This practical politics has lead some to ask what values Obama really has. His pragmatism makes various stances seem unprincipled, hard to define and predict. Is he focused on the economy, or terrorism on managing government? What won’t he compromise on?

According to University of Chicago political scientist William Howell, Obama often starts with some "clear policy views," for the longer term, but they may not be clear to casual public scrutiny because "they're conjoined with a recognition that presidential power is contested ... and he gets very pragmatic very quickly." Such political pragmatism is often described as one that recognizes here-and-now “realities”. But what are realities and how do they different from political positions?

Obama's Mideast speech was described by some as pragmatic since it recognized US limitations along with democratic yearnings evidenced by what has been called an Arab Spring. But the speech also repeated his position that Israel-Palestine peace negotiations must acknowledge the 1967 borders as a starting point 1967 borders. This is politically practical in the sense that Obama’s position represents a general consensus. Reflecting this he has already secured the political backing of the United Nations, European Union and Russia. But to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu this policy is not grounded in reality as he sees it. He frames the issue differently, a process discussed in my blog on Towards Understanding Rationality and its Limits Regarding Complex Issues . Netanyahu would prefer to ground things on new “demographic facts on the ground”. The 67 border lines do not take into account what Netanyahu called "demographic changes that have taken place over the last 44 years," This includes an estimated 500,000 (illegal as discussed in Israeli settlers living on West Bank land. These settlements represent an occupation which the US and most others do not recognize and to many it represents a manufactured, force based outcome dictated by an occupation plan of a greater Israel.

One problem with trying to get practical results is opponents can see the possible path you can take and attempt to block it. Political pressure can be brought to accept "facts on the ground”. So are we pragmatic to deal with facts on the ground such as this or facts based on terrorist stances whether national or group? Such perceptual differences in reality are part of the challenges and dangers for what some call practical approaches and inquires into reality – political or otherwise.

Another is that problems and decisions may involve multiple issues and so one may need a coldly calculating meta-practical approach to decide how to tradeoff various positional strengths the reality of which is hard to know. In reality pragmatic approaches involve inquiry and analysis to understand what truthfully has worked, is working and will work. In pragmatic theory truth can neither be separated from the specific context of an inquiry, nor can it be divorced from the interests of the inquirer (Obama and Netanyahu for example). Understanding past analyses, the habits of the culture and persons involved are all part of a complicated analysis that makes something practical or not. For all these reasons it is easy to see why pragmatic policies are hard.

But are Obama’s approaches to things like health care, budget, and the creation of a 2 state solution really pragmatic? In a traditional, shallow sense they are part of a uniquely American political approach called political pragmatism. This philosophy was observed by Tocqueville during his American journeys which he described as a philosophy that says, 'if it works, we don't really care why.' As such it is a rejection of a purely /theoretical and ideological approach to solving political problems. To a European it was a new form of politics using means-tested facts and grounded reality. This still represents a recognizable American value and bears some relation to the broader, formalized pragmatic philosophy that originated in the US a bit later in the 19th century by Charles Sanders Peirce and William James. These are 2 philosophers that Americans should be proud of and know more about. Some of the background story for their story and the whole American pragmatism movement is covered Louis Menand’s enjoyable book: The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America. The book argues that the Civil War swept away the slave civilization of the South, but the brutality of an uncompromising ideological struggle also damaged the whole intellectual culture of the North. It took nearly half a century for Americans to develop a set of ideas, a way of thinking that would help them cope with the resulting conditions of “modern” life. That struggle, especially the philosophical struggle is elucidated by Menand’s book as he explains how the philosophy of pragmatism grows out of it.

But problems seem to have grown up about our understanding of what is pragmatic. Current political pragmatism is to the philosophy of pragmatism a bit like what Social Darwinism is to Darwin’s theory of evolution. It has some connection, but it is a loose application of some simple expressions of core ideas. without a validated theory and can lead in problematic directions. The family of ideas called pragmatism was concerned with broad theories of meaning, truth and reality and how a person comes to know. At its core is an emphasis on the practical consequences of a person or a group holding a belief. The question of what happens in the future is essential. Consequences are the behavioral and observational means we use to evaluate the truth of that belief. This simple focus on the practical helps evade many earlier metaphysical and epistemological problems discussed in Western philosophy. That’s good, since American don’t like endless debate on philosophical issues. So belief is something like an hypothesis. It is true if it brings about a satisfactory result in a particular inquiry or investigation. The truth of Darwin’s theory of evolution is measured by what it can be applied to and the results it secures. Obama’s push for a 2 state solution isn’t Newtonian Physics, but to a pragmatic philosophy it might be tried on to see how useful it is. Of course it is easier to test the validity of falling bodies than of establishing states and peacefully controlling borders. As I asked before, is a pragmatic approach practical for such types of issue? It’s complicated, but as we are all concerned with better outcomes it behooves us to understand the world in practical terms by their implications as well as the validated consistency of their predictions. As a philosophical stance Pragmatism helps clears away some of the philosophical underbrush, but the reality of the world and especially the social world represents real challenges for a practical philosophy. Which is a long, humbling way to say that what is called pragmatic politics may be better than a purely unvalidated, ideological approach; but is far from the approach to knowledge, truth and meaning that philosophical pragmatism espouses.


lucette said...

I am largely in disagreement with Gary's proposal to accept the status quo for Palestine and Israel. If Gary's position is shared by the majority of WASH members, it is probably time for me to leave WASH. However, I think that the status quo is not supported by a number of WASH members. It would be useful for us, the "dissidents" to prepare ourselves for an open discussion of this question at a future WASH meeting. If anybody is interested, you may contact me at and we could arrange for a preliminary meeting. If you are interested in such a discussion but would rather have it without me, no problem. Just lets prepare a response. Thanks.

Don Wharton said...

Lucette,thanks for your comment but I think you are missing Gary's point. He wants us to think about the limitations and flaws of pragmatism. The majority of WASH members want to know how to think well. However, I am certain that there will be wide disagreement within WASH about what the results of that thinking would yield for the Isreali/Palestinian questions.

Gary Berg-Cross said...

Barbera Sonneveldt who read the blog sent a comment on my post whihc I reproduce below:

"It remains to be seen if there is 'a push' for a 2-state-solution, actions speak louder than words. UN-resolution on declaring settlements illegal; vetoed. Hints: recognizing a Palestinian State in the UN; no go area.
On the day Obama gave his speech to Aipac, the Netanyahu-gvt gave Obama the middle-finger by approving new settlements.
When the strategic consequences of the Arab-spring is mentioned as an example for pragmatism, the proof of the pudding will be in the eating."

Gary Berg-Cross said...

As Don says the post is more about showing the limitations of an approach than about a political topic. In fact it might be seen as a follow up on my earlier post on the limitations of rationality -

lucette said...

Don Wharton,
I don't think that Gary's post is a lesson in thinking well. The post is a mess.
Why should I limit myself to what you, youself, think is Gary's intention? The intention of a blogger is irrelevant. Furthermore, the subject discussed is undeniably political and has very important ethical dimensions.