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The Philosopher President

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Mr. Kloppenberg explained that he sees Mr. Obama as a kind of philosopher president, a rare breed that can be found only a handful of times in American history.

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To Mr. Kloppenberg the philosophy that has guided President Obama most consistently is pragmatism, a uniquely American system of thought developed at the end of the 19th century by William James, John Dewey and Charles Sanders Peirce. It is a philosophy that grew up after Darwin published his theory of evolution and the Civil War reached its bloody end. More and more people were coming to believe that chance rather than providence guided human affairs, and that dogged certainty led to violence.

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“The way he traced Obama’s intellectual influences was fascinating for us, given that Obama’s academic background seems so similar to ours,” said Andrew Hartman, a historian at Illinois State University who helped organize the conference.

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Mr. Kloppenberg compiled a long list of people who he said helped shape Mr. Obama’s thinking and writing, including Weber and Nietzsche, Thoreau and Emerson, Langston Hughes and Ralph Ellison. Contemporary scholars like the historian Gordon Wood, the philosophers John Rawls and Hilary Putnam, the anthropologist Clifford Geertz and the legal theorists Martha Minow and Cass Sunstein (who is now working at the White House) also have a place.

a Philosophy Is Unearthed

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Mr. Kloppenberg explained that he sees Mr. Obama as a kind of philosopher president, a rare breed that can be found only a handful of times in American history.

-----

To Mr. Kloppenberg the philosophy that has guided President Obama most consistently is pragmatism, a uniquely American system of thought developed at the end of the 19th century by William James, John Dewey and Charles Sanders Peirce. It is a philosophy that grew up after Darwin published his theory of evolution and the Civil War reached its bloody end. More and more people were coming to believe that chance rather than providence guided human affairs, and that dogged certainty led to violence.

-----------

“The way he traced Obama’s intellectual influences was fascinating for us, given that Obama’s academic background seems so similar to ours,” said Andrew Hartman, a historian at Illinois State University who helped organize the conference.

-------

Mr. Kloppenberg compiled a long list of people who he said helped shape Mr. Obama’s thinking and writing, including Weber and Nietzsche, Thoreau and Emerson, Langston Hughes and Ralph Ellison. Contemporary scholars like the historian Gordon Wood, the philosophers John Rawls and Hilary Putnam, the anthropologist Clifford Geertz and the legal theorists Martha Minow and Cass Sunstein (who is now working at the White House) also have a place.

a Philosophy Is Unearthed

William James, John Dewey, Nietzsche, Thoreau, John Rawls? Disgusting.

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Mr. Kloppenberg explained that he sees Mr. Obama as a kind of philosopher president, a rare breed that can be found only a handful of times in American history.

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To Mr. Kloppenberg the philosophy that has guided President Obama most consistently is pragmatism ...

Bill Clinton was a pragmatist. Obama is a nihilistic Kantian Marxist.

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Obama is a nihilistic Kantian Marxist.

I believe we have one or two of those as well...

...okay, I couldn't keep it straight through that sentence. The truth is that we have one or two politicians who are not nihilistic Kantian Marxists.

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Pragmatism, with its opposition to principle as a matter of principle, is a parasitic philosophy that does not acknowledge the implicit criteria by which pragmatists decide their goals and what "works". Obama's desire for socialist statism and collectivism as a guiding principle is much more explicit than that, but he doesn't publicly acknowledge it except when he slips. His background and his slips in recorded statements have been more than enough to document this for those who know what to look for and what it means, but Obama doesn't dare make his views publicly explicit because it is too much even for much of the left, let alone 'moderates', who are genuine pragmatists.

Progressives have always been pragmatists. The progressives absorbed the intellectual influences of the 19th century European philosophy and its statism, especially from Germany and the British Fabian Socialists, and statism was taken for granted as something that "works" under pragmatism. (See Arthur Ekirch's Decline of American Liberalism.)

Pragmatism itself was formulated under the influence of European philosophy, as clearly explained in Leonard Peikoff's lectures on the history of philosophy. William James, in particular, was in active contact with the followers of Mach among the early positivists (see Gerald Holton's Science and Anti-Science, 1998).

Pragmatism became the dominant American philosophy by the early 20th century, with American philosophy thoroughly dominated by the Harvard philosophy department, where James was and which was led by the department chair Josiah Royce, an Hegelian idealist and eventually part pragmatist. The pragmatists displaced the Unitarians at Harvard. Unitarians had previously dominated the northeast intellectual elites. (See Kuklick, The Rise of American Philosophy: Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1860-1930, 1977.) But European statism, especially under Bismark in Germany, had already been influencing northeast American intellectuals as illustrated by the Unitarians' successful drive for state control of elementary school education earlier in the 19th century (see Samuel Blumenfeld's history, Is Public Education Necessary?, previously discussed on the Forum here).

As shown by this article on Kloppenberg and his new book, Harvard is promoting itself as the major influence on Obama and trying to boost Obama's intellectual prestige, despite his lack of intellectual accomplishment and even though he was only at Harvard for three years specializing in the Law School. The article does not explain how the contemporary non-Law School faculty had a direct influence on him. There is no mention, for example, that philosopher Hilary Putnam was an explicit Marxist and activist, which would have attracted Obama. It's unlikely this had anything to do with genuine scholarship.

Recent issues of the alumni Harvard Magazine, have published excerpts from Kloppenberg's forthcoming book, Reading Obama: Dreams, Hope, and the American Political Tradition here and here. There is a good deal of rambling political apologetics (which make you wonder what planet Kloppenberg is on) and name-dropping, all lacking in real explanation and showing primarily that Kloppenberg has a big problem with objectivity in politics and history. It remains to be seen if anything else in the book has any value in revealing actual intellectual influences on Obama or Obama's own views. Obama has "pragmatically" been very careful to not expose what he wrote or thought in his academic experiences.

It is not surprising that the New York Times would take up the phony cause of Obama's alleged intellectual prestige and promote the progressives' pragmatism. The destructive role of pragmatism today and in history for the last century is very important, but not for the reasons the New York Times would have us believe.

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...It is not surprising that the New York Times would take up the phony cause of Obama's alleged intellectual prestige and promote the progressives' pragmatism. The destructive role of pragmatism today and in history for the last century is very important, but not for the reasons the New York Times would have us believe.

Thank you for your quick review/history of the pragmatist subject. I would only add that it is also not surprising that the Progressives are now trying to claim that pragmatism is such a wonderful thing, but when Bush was supposedly acting in a pragmatic manner they condemned him.

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