We Are All Pragmatists. No, Really.

There’s been a great deal of discussion about Barack Obama’s “pragmatism” these days, and at Democracy Aresenal, Shadi Hamid poses some tricky questions:

Are you a pragmatist if you’re pragmatic in the pursuit of an ideological goal?

Are you an ideologue if you’re ideological in the pursuit of a pragmatic goal?

Typically, people assume “pragmatic” to be antithetical of “ideological”, but that’s not quite it.

Going back to James, in pragmatism its spoken truth is not ready-made, but jointly we and reality “make” truth.

In other words, ideals are not themselves truth (as Plato would suggest), nor, likewise is the perceivable world alone truth (as Hume would suggest). Rather, truth exists only at the intersection of the two, which is to say pragmatism itself necessarily relies on the existence of an ideology to apply to reality. Therefore, it’s basically a waste of time — at least from a logical standpoint — to draw distinctions between an “ideological goal” and a “pragmatic goal.”

In the case of the former, an “ideological goal” is pure tautology: A goal is by definition the expression of a desired outcome. One cannot express a desired outcome without subscribing to some form of ideology, even one so basic as subscription to the belief that goals ought to be achieved in the first place.

As for the latter, a “pragmatic goal” is any goal which accounts for both ideological and practical concerns, which is to say, virtually any goal short of ones which take no account for either practical or ideological considerations. For what it’s worth, I don’t think either one of these type of goals exists outside the hypothetical realm, but that’s neither here nor there.

Anyway. To answer Shadi’s first question: Yes, of course. A pragmatist by definition pursues ideological goals. As for Shadi’s second question: an ideologue (taken to mean one who pursues only the ideal), cannot by definition pursue a pragmatic goal. So, no, you are not an ideologue if you pursue the pragmatic.


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