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.

By Noelle McAfee

I am professor of philosophy at Emory University and editor of the Kettering Review. My latest book, Fear of Breakdown: Politics and Psychoanalysis, explores what is behind the upsurge of virulent nationalism and intransigent politics across the world today. My other writings include Democracy and the Political Unconscious; Habermas, Kristeva, and Citizenship; Julia Kristeva; and numerous articles and book chapters. Edited volumes include Standing with the Public: the Humanities and Democratic Practice and a special issue of the philosophy journal Hypatia on feminist engagements in democratic theory. I am also the author of the entry on feminist political philosophy in the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and well into my next book project on democratic public life.