Duluth, MN (OpEdNews) November 13, 2010: I've been puzzled by President Barack Obama. What principles, if any, guide his decision making? When he is confronted with something about which he needs to make a decision, does he draw a straw from a hat to determine which way to go, or what? In my estimate, Obama has not excelled in explaining his own decisions.
In light of my puzzlement about Obama, I decided to read James T. Kloppenberg's new book. Even though this book is relatively short and accessible, it is wide-ranging, to put it mildly, as the bibliographic essay at the end of the book shows. Fortunately, the book includes a well-developed index. Unfortunately for me, however, Kloppenberg's account of Obama's "sensibility" (Kloppenberg's apt term) leaves me still deeply puzzled about Obama, but better informed about him.
But it strikes me that Kloppenberg's larger purpose in this book is to use Obama as a point of departure for advancing the basic political orientation that Kloppenberg thinks liberals should undertake to fight the good fight today against the rising tide of conservatism in the United States, which he adverts to only briefly. So is his book going to galvanize liberals to get their act together by embracing the spirit of American pragmatist philosophy, as Kloppenberg advances this spirit? I doubt it.
Kloppenberg is a professor of American history at Harvard, specializing in American intellectual history. Harvard is near and dear to his heart. He has read many of the books written by other Harvard faculty members. As a result, Harvard faculty members come out looking really good in his book, especially William James.
But Kloppenberg also generously praises John Dewey of the University of Chicago, because Kloppenberg is very fond of American pragmatist philosophy. As is well known, Obama went to Harvard Law School and then later taught at the University of Chicago Law School. As a result of Obama's connections with Harvard and the University of Chicago, Kloppenberg feels entitled to connect Obama with James and Dewey and American pragmatist philosophy. Briefly stated, Kloppenberg thinks that the spirit of American pragmatist philosophy is the spirit that liberals today should embrace in order to fight the good fight against conservatives.
Here's how Kloppenberg himself handily sums up his basic argument: "James and Dewey emphasized the close connection between uncertainty our inability to answer with confidence the central questions in philosophy, theology, ethics, and politics and democratic politics" (page 110).
A brief word is in order here about Aristotle. He lived during the great experiment in participatory democracy in ancient Athens. He famously wrote treatises about logic. If we were to follow Aristotle's rules of logic in a syllogism, then the conclusion of our syllogism would be a certitude, according to Aristotle's way of thinking about logic. However, Aristotle also wrote a treatise about civic debate, his treatise known as the RHETORIC. He had no illusions that civic debate involved certitudes. On the contrary, he understood that civic debate involves debate about probabilities, not certitudes. Furthermore, he identified three ways in which the public speaker in civic debate tried to appeal to the people in the audience to listen to his arguments: (1) logos (reason), (2) pathos (emotion), and (3) ethos (establishing and projecting one's claim to credentials and credibility as a good citizen for the other good citizens in the audience to listen to and respect and identify with). In light of Aristotle's identification of these three sources of appeals to be used by speakers in civic debates, I would suggest that he has far more to offer liberals today than James and Dewey do.
Related Reading: I have discussed Aristotle's three appeals in my recent op-ed piece "Reflections on Paul Krugman's THE CONSCIENCE OF A LIBERAL" that was published at OpEdNews on November 11, 2010. For further discussion of ethos, the interested reader might want to read William M. A. Grimaldi's "The Auditors' Role in Aristotelian Rhetoric" in ORAL AND WRITTEN COMMUNICATION: HISTORICAL APPROACHES, edited by Richard Leo Enos (Sage Publications, 1990, pages 65-81). For further discussion of pathos (political emotion), see Barbara Koziak's RETRIEVING POLITICAL EMOTION: THUMOS, ARISTOTLE, AND GENDER (Pennsylvania State University Press, 2000). Mortimer J. Adler has published a number of important and relevant and accessible books that liberals might want to read, including ARISTOTLE FOR EVERYBODY: DIFFICULT THOUGHT MADE EASY (Macmillan, 1978), INTELLECT: MIND OVER MATTER (Macmillan, 1990), DESIRES RIGHT & WRONG: THE ETHICS OF ENOUGH (Macmillan, 1991), WE HOLD THESE TRUTHS: UNDERSTANDING THE IDEAS AND IDEALS OF THE CONSTITUTION (Macmillan, 1987), and SIX GREAT IDEAS:  TRUTH,  GOODNESS,  BEAUTY, IDEAS WE JUDGE BY,  LIBERTY,  EQUALITY,  JUSTICE, IDEAS WE ACT ON (Macmillan, 1981; I have added the square brackets and numbers here).
In any event, because Obama went to Harvard Law School, perhaps it is fitting to have one of the locals investigate Obama's years at Harvard Law School. Obama was deeply involved in the HARVARD LAW REVIEW (HLR), serving one year as the president, a role that Kloppenberg describes as being the editor-in-chief. Kloppenberg decided to read the issues of HLR during Obama's years at Harvard.
Not surprisingly, Kloppenberg finds numerous intellectual fashions of the times reflected in those issues of HLR, especially in the discussion notes. I also tend to read discussion notes, so I can understand why he is alert to them. As a result of digging out the sources referred to in the discussion notes, Kloppenberg helpfully explains certain intellectual fashions of the times. I found his discussion of John Rawls, who of course is a Harvard professor, very informative. But Kloppenberg's discussion of Jurgen Habermas leaves something to be desired, as I will explain momentarily.
Kloppenberg shows that Obama is fond of likening our give-and-take about the U.S. Constitution to a conversation. To understand the import of the term "conversation" with reference to the U.S. Constitution, we need to remember that some people such as Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas prefer to think of the Constitution as a document that contains original intents, which would seem to preclude any further conversation about its meaning. For originalists such as Thomas, the original intents should be determined and should be determinative in guiding our considerations.
But how should we proceed to determine the original intents? The very process of ferreting out the original intents in itself an interpretive act. As Kloppenberg notes, the highfalutin' term for interpretation is hermeneutics. Hermeneutics is the process by which we compare and contrast different possible meanings of a given text and try to form judgments about them.
Walter J. Ong, S.J., has nicely expressed the ubiquitous character of hermeneutics in the title of his article "Hermeneutic Forever: Voice, Text, Digitization, and the "I'" that was originally published in the journal ORAL TRADITION, volume 10 (1995): pages 3-26. (All back issues of this journal are available at the Oral Tradition website maintained by the University of Missouri.)
As a result of the ubiquitous character of hermeneutics, all human knowing and understanding, including modern science, is based on hermeneutics (or interpretation).
Following the thought of Bernard Lonergan, S.J. (who served as Stillman Professor at Harvard in 1971-1972), in his book INSIGHT: A STUDY OF HUMAN UNDERSTANDING (1957; 5th ed. University of Toronto Press, 1992), I would point out to Kloppenberg that we can describe the processes and cognitive operations by which we compare and contrast different possible knowledge claims as hermeneutics (or interpretation). In short, the processes and cognitive operations of human knowing and understanding involves hermeneutics. Understood in this way, hermeneutics is the name of the game -- and the only game in town.
Kloppenberg himself is also very fond of using the term "conversation" as a way to describe the give-and-take of debate in our representative democracy. In light of the prominence of the term "conversation" in this book, I would like to have seen Kloppenberg discuss Habermas's discourse ethics more fully than he does. For a fine discussion of Habermas's discourse ethics with reference to the conversation of modern science and Thomas Kuhn's work, see William Rehg's book COGENT SCIENCE IN CONTEXT: THE SCIENCE WARS, ARGUMENTATION THEORY, AND HABERMAS (MIT Press, 2009).