More On Pragmatism

by Jonah Goldberg

Stan, I liked Paul Mirengoff and your follow-ups. But on the question of whether Marxism and Pragmatism are reconcilable, I think at the end of the day this is all too much over thinking. Can a Marxist be a capital-P Pragmatist? Yes! Why? Because nobody can stop him. Think of it this way. Can a Jew be a doctrinaire Marxist? Well, technically a reasonable person would say “No.” Even “Hell, No.”  Marxism’s dialectical materialism, atheism, contempt for “bourgeois morality,” not to mention Marx’s forthright writings on the “Jewish Question” would all suggest that a Jew can’t be a committed Marxist and a Jew at the same time. But lo and behold there has not been a shortage of doctrinaire Marxist Jews. The same goes for doctrinaire Marxist Catholics, Muslims etc. People are funny that way. They carry contradictory views as a badge of honor.

That said, going from some of the email I’ve gotten, one basic source of confusion stems from the fact that capital P “philosophical Pragmatism” is perhaps the only school of philosophy that shares an every day word that has positive, reasonable, connotation. Calling someone a “pragmatist” simply makes it sound like he’s a reasonable, realistic,  person who sees the facts for what they are. But that is not what it means to call someone a capital P Pragmatist. If you call a man a “nihilist” or a “cynic” or a “utilitarian” etc, you’re more likely than not offering a pointed criticism. But a Pragmatist? Oh, how rational that sounds! And that’s the problem,  William James’ intent may have been fairly benign, but Pragmatism quickly became just one variant of relativism, existentialism and anti-foundationalism. It’s not for nothing that Richard Rorty cast Dewey and James as cheery American allies of Nietzsche and Heidegger.

Horace Kallen had a nice statement on the aim and purpose of  Pragmatism:

“Pragmatism dissolves dogmas into beliefs, eternities and necessities into change and chance, conclusions and finalities into processes. But men have invented philosophy precisely because they find change, chance and process too much for them, and desire infallible security and certainty.”

Intellectually, I think that captures much of Obama’s academic upbringing (but you know a lot more about that than I do). More practically speaking, I think Obama’s pragmatism is simply self-serving word-play used to justify what he wants to do. It echoes the more philosophically serious stuff, but I think the relationship mostly ends there. That’s what FDR’s self-consciously Jamesian “experimentalism” was too — post-hoc egghead rationalizations for what FDR wanted to do from the seat of his pants. In fact, I think the most lasting influence of Pragmatism on actual, mainstream, American politics is to infuse liberals with an undeserved arrogance about their empirical sophistication and non-ideological “seriousness.”