Obama’s Pragmatism

On his blog, Requiem for Certainty, pragmatist philosopher Colin Koopman dissects Obama’s inaugural speech and finds lots of good stuff for both pragmatist philosophy and democratic politics, including the recurring pragmatist theme of hope.

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.

Instead of an old politics of certitude, Colin sees in Obama’s speech a politics of experimentalism.  We aren’t going to know in advance what will work, but that doesn’t mean there’s no hope for progress.  We need to go in with an open mind, try new things, and see what actually makes a difference.