Monday, December 15, 2008

On the misuse of "pragmatism" and "pragmatic"

Tonight on the PBS NewsHour, a lawyer for utility companies said he was "optimistic" that Obama's energy policy appointees would turn out to be "pragmatic." Translation: not press industry too hard on environmental standards.

A few days ago, Henry Farrell at Crooked Timber pointed out (citing a piece in The Nation) that the use of "pragmatism" to mean "non-ideological" or something equivalent is misguided. Farrell observed that Deweyan pragmatism is not apolitical or non-ideological:
"You simply can’t get the politics out of pragmatist accounts. Furthermore, Dewey’s arguments may carry some quite radical implications. Dewey and other pragmatists lay a very heavy emphasis on the benefits of unforced inquiry as a guide to practice. Yet unforced inquiry is only possible in a society where there aren’t economic or social barriers to free engagement in discussion and deliberation. Thus – to really achieve the benefits of free debate and untrammeled inquiry – you need (where it is feasible) to dismantle barriers that prevent full and unfettered participation in the processes of discussion through which inquiry takes place."
Or, to put roughly the same point differently, you need a marketplace of ideas to which access is relatively equal and in which some voices don't drown out others by virtue of concentrated wealth or other privileges. This is a very old problem (or debate), of course, but one that never seems to go away.

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