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).