Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

Political Philosophy

Pragmatism, Prudence, and Progressivism

[This is cross-posted today with our peeps over at Power Line.  Extra credit for NLT readers if you can spot the Dune reference without Googling.  John Moser not eligible for this contest.]

Over at NRO's Corner last week, I offered a sermonette of sorts about what Pat Moynihan used to call "semantic infiltration," which he described as "the process whereby we come to adopt the language of our adversaries in describing political reality."  (One smart-alecky reader wrote in to accuse me of being "anti-semantic."  Yuck, yuck.)  Another example of the phenomenon is occurring in what I've been calling the  "liberal body snatching operation" on Ronald Reagan.

The media-academic complex line on Reagan relies overwhelmingly on one idea or one term, namely, that far from being an ideologue, Reagan was a "pragmatist."  And guess who else the media mentats call a "pragmatist"?  Why, Barack Obama himself.  Obama's ostensible "move to the center" following the November "shellacking" is seen as "pragmatism," though cynics might call it more like "survival instinct." 

Pragmatism as ordinary people use the word just means practicality, and in political terms it means reaching compromises.  Every successful politician makes compromises; every good politician, then, can be called a "pragmatist."  So are we really saying anything important or distinctive by calling someone a pragmatist?  Yes, I think we are. 

When the media-academic complex uses the term, it takes on a different hue, even though no one may be explicitly aware of it.  Keep in mind that once upon a time "pragmatism" was a formal political philosophy, whose leading advocate was John Dewey, one of the pre-eminent thinkers of Progressivism.  Dewey's pragmatism was really just an Americanized version of Hegelianism, and in political terms "pragmatism" came to replace prudence as the highest attribute for a statesman, because for a pragmatist, the ends we seek to achieve no longer arise from human nature of other fixed principles, but come down to us from History, and change constantly.  The job of the "pragmatic" statesman is to adjust to the changing ends prescribed by History.  And if those ends happen to be egalitarian socialism, so much the better.

In other words, pragmatism masquerades as a non-ideological assault on ideology, but in fact it seeks to substitute "Progressivism" for the classical view that the limits of human nature prescribe the limits of politics, but without having to argue for it from the ground up.  To call someone a "pragmatist" today is to divorce him from his ideology or any fixed principles.  In Reagan's case, calling him a pragmatist is a clever way of denigrating or downgrading his conservative principles; in the case of Obama, calling him a pragmatist is a way of concealing or denying Obama's radical ideology.  In both cases, such as Time magazine's celebration of the Obama-Reagan "bromance," it represents an evasion of clashing principles about government.  Either way, we should regard "pragmatism" as another form of highly suspicious semantic infiltration.  I'll take the older Aristotelian idea of prudence instead.  Prudence keeps the fixed ends always in sight and always on our mind.

Discussions - 7 Comments

Obama's Audacity of Hope pretends to be a pragmatic book that is in fact intensely ideological--how to look like a moderate but act like a radical. Which is what we got.

Excellent post, Steve. Pragmatism is indeed a cover for progressivism, which is purely ideological, not to mention unhinged from nature. Ric Williams and I will be presenting papers in Las Vegas April 14 at the annual meeting of te National Social Science Associaton on the meaning of progressivism. Ric's paper compares the ends of progressivism to a "woozle hunt," mine is on the "fruits" of progressivism. Will keep you posted.

"Media mentats" for the win (although Duncan Idaho may have a thing or two to say about that).

Some other smart-alecky reader beat me to it.

But I would recommend reading a few portions of Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit, that deal with attachment to ideas.

Also Dewey's musings on epistemology are quite good.

I actually think there are insights there which are universally applicable.

I would argue that pragmatism is the distinctively American philosophy, in part because it addresses itself to americans, and takes the perspective of free human beings and examines how they bind themselves via consent to contracts.

That is what is Hegel's Master/Slave dialectic becomes essentially the Principal/Agent dialectic. The principal agent dialectic has a whole string of court cases attached to it, which are more or less covered in a host of law classes, in particular Corporations. This precedent can be called "history", or the "history" that matters.

Thus I might suggest an elaboration of your paragraph:

"In political terms "pragmatism" came to replace prudence as the highest attribute for a statesman, because for a pragmatist, the ends we seek to achieve no longer arise from human nature of other fixed principles, but come down to us from History, and change constantly."

In legal practice "pragmatism" came to replace "prudence" as the highest attribute of the statesman lawyer.

Essentially because americans wouldn't tolerate preachiness about ethics either from natural law, or more progressive Kantian views of ethics.

The lawyer who tries to be the "ideal" lawyer-stateman soon finds himself without clients.

That is the lawyer stateman in the Hegelian Dialectic went from Master to Slave, or from Principal to agent in a contract-consent driven american system.

Thus the lawyer-stateman via the operation of the market for legal services became one who gave, and focused his advice towards instrumental ends.

The job of this "pragmatic" statesman is to adjust to the changing ends prescribed (by History, in terms of the evolution of the Principal/Agent distinction, which ultimately means the "client" according to "History)", but also via history i.e. legal precedent.

That is the Lawyer is the pragmatist.

"The job of the "pragmatic" statesman is to adjust to the changing ends prescribed by History."

Via West Law and LexisNexis according to the interpretations given by binding authority in similar cases.

This post actually deserves to be much longer, and we might quickly see that Craig or Joel will take a much different view of Legal Ethics based on a Kantian framework.

That is the pure pragmatist, or lawyers giving instrumental advice on how to evade taxes or torture come under some serious fire for abdicating advice about ends.

I would argue also that the ends of the pure pragmatist, or the lawyer statesman who is agent but not principal are essentially monetary. The ends of the principal are defined by the principal.

The principal may want to set up a trust to evade taxes, or contribute to a university scholarship program. The principal or client may be anyone.

I am a pragmatist only insofar as I am acting as an agent for a principal. When the principal changes the principle changes.

The non-ideological assult on ideology is simply unemployed or underemployed lawyers questioning the independent existance of principle absent principals.

Just because you are a pragmatist doesn't mean you can't advocate for a radical ideology. The question is seperate and Obama is an agent, but also in some respects like all human beings a principal, but not always and probably rarely a radical ideologue.

A serious question is if Obama is too much of an agent to historical forces(reactive to a series of facts.)

So there is a very real sense in which both pragmatism and prudence involve a sort of escape hatch from acting as an agent to "base" principals (in this case radical leftist ideology?)

I happen to think that politicians drastically over-promise and over-sell the extent to which they can be agents for various principles.

I'm so distraught that Andrew beat me to the mentat spotting.

Damned day job!


Steven, you should make a video version of this post. Do you have some chalkboards? I'd also recommend that when you get to this part -

"...The job of the "pragmatic" statesman is to adjust to the changing ends prescribed by History. And if those ends happen to be...."

you'll really need to insert a dramatic pause at this point, and perhaps take off your reading glasses (it matters not if you don't have or don't need them - get some!), before whirling back to the board for...

"egalitarian socialism, so much the better" !!!!!!!!!!!

The money will roll right in.

Craig: not only do I have reading glasses I can take off for effect, I have *Churchill*-style reading glasses I can take off for effect. So it's even worse than you think.

(And I have a video camera at home. Note to self: get a chalkboard.)

Leave a Comment

* denotes a required field

No TrackBacks
TrackBack URL:

Warning: include(/srv/users/prod-php-nltashbrook/apps/prod-php-nltashbrook/public/sd/nlt-blog/_includes/promo-main.php): failed to open stream: No such file or directory in /srv/users/prod-php-nltashbrook/apps/prod-php-nltashbrook/public/2011/02/pragmatism-prudence-and-progressivism.php on line 692

Warning: include(): Failed opening '/srv/users/prod-php-nltashbrook/apps/prod-php-nltashbrook/public/sd/nlt-blog/_includes/promo-main.php' for inclusion (include_path='.:/opt/sp/php7.2/lib/php') in /srv/users/prod-php-nltashbrook/apps/prod-php-nltashbrook/public/2011/02/pragmatism-prudence-and-progressivism.php on line 692