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The emptiness of Obama's pragmatism

Policy devoid of clear ethical theory creates a nation without principle, and a nation without principle is a nation on stilts.

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In President Obama's vision for Washington, "pragmatism" will reign, "ideology" will wane, and an era of civility, reason, and bipartisanship will emerge. An analysis of what pragmatism really means explains why Mr. Obama's plan has not (and cannot) work. It also reveals the emptiness of pragmatism as national principle.

Pragmatism refers to one philosophical movement and two political ideas.

Charles Sanders Peirce, William James, and John Dewey founded the philosophical movement in late 19th- and early 20th-century America. Philosophical pragmatists are anti-intellectual philosophers. They shiver at the thought of Descartes poking his fire, wondering if life is all a dream. They believe there are no answers to purely theoretical questions (such as whether we have free will), because there exists no pure realm of reason. There is only the external world where people flourish and suffer every day. As such, a philosophical or ethical theory's validity depends entirely upon its impact on human conduct and experience.

For James, things are "true" – and thus we ought to accept them and act upon them – insofar as they "work" for people, making their lives more satisfactory.

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