Is Barack Obama a Pragmatist?

I have noticed since President Obama’s inauguration, that newspapers, magazines, blog posts, as well as newscasters and political analysts refer to him as a Pragmatist. Whenever I read or hear this reference it makes me wonder how the word Pragmatist is being used. Is it only in the more common, small “p”, sense or is it being used in its more profound philosophical sense? I am thrilled at the possibility that our new president might be bringing an opportunity to reintroduce the idea of Pragmatism, in its capitol “P” sense, into the American vernacular.


 In the small “p” sense a pragmatist is usually thought of as a person who is more interested in “getting the job done right” than in “getting it done their way.”  If that is all that is meant when the president is called a pragmatist, then his early days in the White House seem to confirm his tendency in this direction.


 Pragmatism in the more profound, capitol “P” sense is the name of the American Philosophy popularized by the great Harvard University philosopher, William James during the first decade of the 20th Century.  The term was first used, however, decades before by another great American philosopher named Charles Sanders Peirce. Peirce first discussed his conception of Pragmatism during informal meetings of an intellectual circle called The Metaphysical Club. In addition to Peirce, the meetings included James before becoming a Harvard professor and Oliver Wendell Homes jr. before becoming a United States Supreme Court justice. After James had popularized the term, another celebrated American philosopher, John Dewey , used this powerful way of thinking to alter some of our most fundamental conceptions of education and democracy. 


Pragmatism rests on a very simple but radical understanding about the nature of truth. That understanding is that truth is not an inherent property of an idea, but becomes an attribute of an idea only when that idea has proved itself in action.  Let’s consider a simple example, the idea “I can fly.” According to Pragmatism, it would only  be when I actually step off the edge of a building and float away that the idea “I can fly” would become true. (Although, as we all know, it is much more likely to prove false.) When considering an idea as simple and easily verifiable as this, Pragmatism looks like another word for common sense or even a little silly.


But, what happens when we apply this same, “its only true if it proves itself to be true,” validation test to some bigger ideas? Ideas like: “Everyone is entitled to truth, justice and the pursuit of happiness.” or “Representational democracy is the most just political system.”  or “There is a God.” When applied to these examples Pragmatism insists that none of them are true unless they prove themselves to be true when acted upon. Some will protest that Pragmatism is asking us to give up faith in our ideals. I would say, to the contrary, it is demanding more faith in them. If you already know that what you believe is true before you act on it, how much faith do you really need? You already have a guarantee.


A Pragmatist in the capitol “P” sense is someone who feels a profound sense of responsibility for what they believe because they know that even their most cherished ideas have to prove themselves in action. A Pragmatist can never afford to rest in the certainty that they know the truth already. They must actively engage in the constant process of examining their ideas and then acting wholeheartedly, without hesitation, but also without the benefit of a guarantee. They are always looking to see what the results of their actions are. And as soon as those prove to be less than expected, a Pragmatist is ready to reexamine his/her ideas and improve upon them or discard them entirely.


A Pragmatist believes so much in their ideas that they are willing to risk acting on them, but they are not fixed in their beliefs. They are fluid, adaptable and introspective. Perhaps one of the greatest Pragmatic statements was made by Mahatma Gandhi when he said “My commitment is to truth, not to consistency.”


So is Barack Obama a Pragmatist (capitol “P”)? I for one hope he is.


Here are some examples of references to Obama as a pragmatist: