Saturday, January 06, 2007

Changing Perceptions of "Pragmatism"

I've been struck by how often Gerald Ford has been described lately as a "pragmatist." This is usually in the context of his pardoning Nixon: that this was the pragmatic thing to do, and it was good that Ford did it. I'm not sure it was a good thing to do, but I'm glad to see Ford's pragmatism treated as a virtue.

Now, I'm not sure I can back this up, but I don't think it was always so. When I started getting interested in pragmatism, in the mid-1990's, I think pragmatism was sort of a pejorative. If someone was pragmatic, that meant they didn't have strong convictions or principles. I remember Stephen Breyer being described as a pragmatist when he was a new Supreme Court Justice, and it wasn't meant positively.

I'm not sure, either, what has changed. Has the meaning of "pragmatism" changed in the last 10 years? Or has the meaning stayed the same, but not our attitude toward it?

Of course, there's also a difference between pragmatism, used colloquially, and pragmatism, the philosophical method. But there's enough overlap that when the former becomes a virtue, it may bode well for the latter, too.

P.S. I've been thinking a little more about this and I think my original thoughts may have been naive. Another way of looking at it is that "pragmatism" is good when Republicans embrace it but bad when Democrats do. So the recent mentions of Ford's "pragmatism" would be little more than another example of hypocrisy.


Blogger Khadimir said...

I was oddly struck by your naming of pragmatism as a "method." What do you mean? In contrast, I think of it as a tradition....

4:50 PM  
Blogger John Capps said...


I suppose I was thinking of what James says in Pragmatism: that pragmatism is more a method than a body of fixed doctrine.

12:17 AM  

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