The Corner

Reading Liberally (and Libertarianingly)

Julian Sanchez chimes in on my liberals-vs-conservatives love-of-lineage posts.

I think he’s right when he says:

My own speculation is that contemporary liberalism is much more likely to be associated with an engineering or problem-solving mindset. What I mean is that I think libertarians and (maybe) conservatives are more prone to start with fairly abstract questions (what’s the proper scope of government? how are we required to treat each other, in general? what are the preconditions of stable civil society?) and then tweak whatever broad conclusions they come up with to accomodate practical problems. It seems as though liberals more often form their views in a more bottom-up, pragmatic way, as a series of responses to practical problems. That is: People are poor and going without healthcare, how do we fix this? Our schools are in bad shape; how do we fix this? If you start out that way, you’re going to care in the first instance about the empirical particulars of contemporary problems, about which historical liberal authors will have less to say, especially if they were more likely to have that same focus. The divide between theoretical and engineering dispositions is probably more likely than any general attitude toward change to explain the difference Goldberg’s talking about. Academic liberals in, say, philsophy departments (which is to say, the most theoretically inclined) clearly do have their history down—Richard Rorty cites Dewey and Pierce at every opportunity.

In fact, I did write: “Ask a liberal about his tradition and he will talk about deeds and efforts to remedy injustice, not ideas. This is in keeping with the legacy of William James’ preference for action over thought, though I doubt most liberals know or care that this is so…”

Again, I’m going to save a lot of this for my book, but I think James and pragmatism generally have a lot to answer for in terms of the problems created by a philosophical school which sees no principled justification for not trying to fix any problem in front of it before thinking about it first (yes, I know this is a bit of a distorting generalization).

On that note, I haven’t looked for it myself yet, but does anybody know of an authoritative libertarian (preferably Hayekian) critique of James or pragmatism?


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