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We Are All Philosophical Pragmatists Now

The New York Times reports that Prof. James Kloppenberg, chair of Harvard’s history department, received prolonged applause after his standing-room-only lecture about his upcoming book, Reading Obama: Dreams, Hope, and the American Political Tradition, at a CUNY conference on intellectual history.

The book concludes, based on Kloppenberg’s review of Obama’s books, essays, and speeches, and interviews with former professors and classmates, that Obama is “a kind of philosopher president, a rare breed that can be found only a handful of times in American history.”

An extended excerpt of the book is here, but the following paragraph may suffice to indicate its flavor:

Obama is drawn toward the ideas of anti-foundationalism, historicism, and philosophical pragmatism. As an anti-foundationalist, he questions the existence of universal truths. As a historicist, he doubts that any ideas transcend the particularity of time and culture. Finally, as a philosophical pragmatist he insists that all propositions, positions, and policies must be subjected to continuing critical scrutiny. … He believes that anti-foundationalism, historicism, and philosophical pragmatism are consistent with the principles of civic republicanism and deliberative democracy on which America was built and for which it should stand.

Kloppenberg writes that he found a “single sentence [that] encapsulates Obama’s commitments to deliberative democracy and pragmatism,” which he says are the “signature features of [Obama’s] approach to American history and politics.” Are you ready? It is from Obama’s address to the nation on August 31, 2010, marking the end of American combat operations in Iraq:

Obama declared, “The greatness of our democracy is grounded in our ability to move beyond our differences, and to learn from our experience as we confront the many challenges ahead.” That single sentence encapsulates [etc.].

Who knew you could pack so much anti-foundationalism, historicism, and philosophical pragmatism into a single sentence? It may rank up there with the bromides in what David Brooks called the most profound speech of Obama’s life.

Next Tuesday, America’s deliberative democracy will hold what amounts to a referendum on Obama. The anti-foundationalist, historicist, philosophical pragmatist and his party are not expected to do well. The irony is that it will be because the electorate has subjected all his propositions, positions, and policies to continuing critical scrutiny and does not like them.


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