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Wednesday, December 2, 2009

The Tragedy of Pragmatism

For anyone who thinks that philosophy is not important, consider Obama's speech last night at West Point in which he announced his decision to commit more troops in Afghanistan - and then withdraw them. The assembled cadets and the entire nation was exposed to a full frontal of his warped epistemology as he haplessly stumped through this morass of contradiction. Writing for Spiegel, Gabor Steingart describes the speech:

Extremists kill in the name of Islam, he said, before adding that it is one of the "world's great religions." He promised that responsibility for the country's security would soon be transferred to the government of President Hamid Karzai -- a government which he said was "corrupt." The Taliban is dangerous and growing stronger. But "America will have to show our strength in the way that we end wars," he added.

It was a dizzying combination of surge and withdrawal, of marching to and fro. The fast pace was reminiscent of plays about the French revolution: Troops enter from the right to loud cannon fire and then they exit to the left. And at the end, the dead are left on stage.

Amidst his tangled web of non sequiturs and vacuous platitudes, one might be tempted to ask: just what is the goal of America's foreign policy? Who is the enemy and why? How do we measure success? What are the rules of engagement? What lessons can be learned from history?

Obama's pathological pragmatism does not allow him to even ask such questions. To the pragmatist, there are no absolutes. There is no right and wrong. To the post modern intellectual, history can only be viewed through the lens of gender, race, and ethnicity. What was true fifty, a hundred or even a thousand years ago can not possibly be relevant today. Obama was serious when he told us that he rejects ideology in favor of action. Now, the nation and the world will pay the price for heeding the lessons of America's philosophy professors.

Unfortunately, America's dead soldiers, the ultimate tribute to modern philosophy, will not be actors left on a stage.


Jim Johnson said...

You write: "To the pragmatist, there are no absolutes. There is no right and wrong. To the post modern intellectual, history can only be viewed through the lens of gender, race, and ethnicity."

But, of course, knowing 'right and wrong' does not require 'absolutes'. That is one howler of a no-sequitor. And then, pragmatism - which emerged as a response to fanaticism (read Louis Menand The Metaphysical Club) - is not post-modern at all. It arose in the late 19th C; so the blather about 'the lens of gender, race, and ethnicity' is just that - blather.

Indeed, it is arguable that Obama (whom I think is a mess mostly because he is just a middle of the road politician) inherited a mess created by an administration that thought it had an absolute grasp on what is 'right and wrong.' And those military adventures are the ones that have left a trail of bloody corpses - American, Iraqi, Afghani. All for virtually nothing.

The Rat Cap said...

You write:
But, of course, knowing 'right and wrong' does not require 'absolutes'.

Please explain.

You should read my post which I linked in the post in which I gave a full argument re Obama's philosophical pragmatism. Also, if you search my blog for that term you will find a series of follow posts over the last 1.5 years.

I was using "post modern" as a catch all term to refer to the broad array of relativist or anti-reason trends in modern philosophy - one of which is the rejection of traditional history in favor of the gender, race, ethinicity trinity.

See my post The Modern Intellectuals Virtue of Complexity here:


in which I quote Gertrude Himmelfarb:

"Postmodernism is a denial of the fixity of the past, of the reality of the past apart from what the historian chooses to make of it, and thus of any objective truth about the past... Postmodernist history recognises no reality principle, only the pleasure principle — history at the pleasure of the historian."

As to your last point, Obama did inherit a mess left by Bush. However, the fact that Bush may have believed he was "right" and then got it wrong does not eliminate the possibility that one could be right. In fact, it highlights the need for an objective, rational approach to ideas in order to guide one's actions. It certainly does not imply that one should abandon reason nor does it imply that one should approach foreign policy by overtly rejecting the need for principles, morality, and the knowledge that freedom and individual rights is objectively superior to slavery and dictatorship.

Bush was a mixed bag based on his flawed faith in Christianity and religious altruism which led to his inability to clearly identify our ideological enemy - fanatical Islam - and his unwillingness to prosecute total war against the ideological and financial center of radical Islam - Iran and Saudi Arabia. I honestly don't know what Bush's policy was but it was a total failure.

See Elan Journo's article


and his recent book


Also, Dr. John Lewis is excellent:


Dave Aguilar said...

I have to disagree with Jim. To know right from wrong you do have to have at least some absolutes. To even discuss the concept requires absolutes in language. You have to know what "right" means and what "wrong: means. Then you have to have a standard by which to measure these concepts. Without a ruler, you have no way of measuring but if the ruler has 1 inch this long "------------" and then the next inch "----------------------------------" this long, the measurement in inches is unreliable and cannot be defined.