Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Two Pragmatists? Two Pragmatisms: Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama

Cross-posted at DM Smith. Some last minute, insomniac thoughts about the presidential debate. Maybe this isn't the best forum for this, since its pretty contentious political stuff I'm going to say. Hopefully you won't take it as rude, and you'll just take it as interesting. Let me know if you think I should take it down. Have a good Super-Tuesday!

Hillary Clinton, in recent debates and throughout her campaign, represents herself as the hard-headed pragmatist in the contest. In her opening remarks in the debate with Obama in Hollywood last Thursday, she said:

... the next president will walk into the Oval Office, and waiting there will be a stack of problems ... I think it's imperative we have a problem-solver, that we roll up our sleeves. I'm offering that kind of approach, because I think that Americans are ready once again to know that there isn't anything we can't do if we put our minds to it.

Music to my ears, in a way. This is certainly an attitude I'd like to see more often in politics---not big ideologies and grand visions, but tough problems and the gumption to get to work and solve them. Clinton gives us a stack of problems that we (in the reality-based community?) uncontroversially face: Iraq, Afghanistan, economic disparity, the health insurance gap, energy, and global warming. She's ready to talk about how to solve them.

(Though, of course, in the very first question, she says, "I believe absolutely passionately that
we must have universal health care. It is a moral responsibility..." Which makes it sound like an absolute vision, rather than a pragmatic problem-solution. Of course, this rhetoric is very useful, so it is not likely to disappear anytime soon, but I think we can be suitably deflationist about it in the context.)

Barack might seem, by contrast, to be the idealist in the race, and Clinton certainly wants to set him up as such, the naive, unexperienced idealist (though let's not mention that, if we're talking about first-hand political experience, he's got a heck of a lot on Clinton). Obama talks big talk about hope, about change, about new directions:

And at this moment, the question is: How do we take the country in a new direction? How do we get past the divisions that have prevented us from solving these problems year after year after year? I don't think the choice is between black and white or it's about gender or religion. I don't think it's about young or old. I think what is at stake right now is whether we are looking backwards or we are looking forwards.

He pushes for a politics free from "special interests" and the influence of lobbyists as they function today. And yet, when asked to describe the major policy differences between himself and Senator Clinton, Senator Obama doesn't make the distinction as one of moral compass, or in terms of ideology. He makes careful points about the difficulties of policy: if you mandate health care, you may end up hurting those that you want to help. If you freeze interest rates, you may make things difficult for those you want to help. If the president meets with Iran, we may be able to resolve our differences in a way that doesn't cost lives and billions of dollars. These differences are based in careful analysis of policy and the practical problems therein, not in mere ideals and visions.

On the other hand, to mix up analysis and personal prejudice for a moment, the type of hard-headed policy analysis that Hillary Clinton is willing to engage in frankly terrifies me. Consider the much-publicized statement by Hillary in October last year:

Iran must conform to its nonproliferation obligations and must not be permitted to build or acquire nuclear weapons. If Iran does not comply with its own commitments and the will of the international community, all options must remain on the table. (my emphasis)

Really, Hillary? All options? Would that include bombings? War with Iran? Nuking them? Clinton voted for the Kyl-Lieberman amendment that approved the Bush administrations case for war with Iran, so that, in her words, we would have "leverage when we negotiate with them." This was not unlike her attitude in approving the war with Iraq. Recall her reaction to Mike Gravel, who exposed her in the September debate as voting for Kyl-Lieberman: she giggle, no, cackled at him. For his naivete? For not being willing to "put teeth" into our negotiations with Iran.

Unfortunately, we don't know what Obama would have done in this vote; he wasn't there. We know that Obama was opposed to the Iraq war from the beginning, whereas Clinton did not. And we know that he's in favor of more open negotiations with Iran. To try to be a little more removed for a moment, it is clear that Clinton is more willing to take a tough attitude to get what we want, to "do what it takes" to get the job done, whereas Obama is less willing to take the tough route.

While we might be inclined to regard the difference between Clinton's pragmatic attitude and Obama's idealism (perhaps, idealistic pacifism?), this seems like a mistake to me. I've come around to see the difference instead as that between a hard, unflinching pragmatism in Clinton and a hopeful, empathetic, softer pragmatism in Obama.

Let's return to the worry about hope from earlier. In another speech a few weeks ago in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr., Obama lays out part of what we might call his politics of hope that he has been talking about at least since the Democratic convention in 2004:

Some are scornful about my message of hope. "He's talking about hope again. He's so idealistic and naive. He's a 'hope-monger'." Love, education, and hope were my birthright. Hope is not blind optimism, it is not ignorance of the barriers and obstacles and hazards that stand in your way. Hope is just the opposite. Nothing worthwhile has happened in this country unless somebody, somewhere decided to hope. (1/20/2008, Ebenezer Baptist Church)

Far from being an exhortation to faith, or a naive ideal, Barack Obama's talk of hope is talk about moving forward, about finding a way to work together to achieve better things.
Richard Rorty also talked about hope:

[The Right] sees the Left's struggle for social justice as mere troublemaking, as utopian foolishness. The Left, by definition, is the party of hope. It insists that our nation remains unachieved...

[Dewey and Whitman] wanted to put hope for a casteless and classless America in the place traditionally occupied by knowledge of the will of God... it is a matter of replacing shared knowledge of what is already real with social hope for what might become real. (Achieving Our Country, pp. 14, 18, my emphasis)

And elsewhere, he compares Dewey and Foucault, arguing that while they were trying to do the same thing, Dewey did it better because he gave us room for hope, ungrounded and ungroundable though it may be, rather than attempting to make the very concept seem like nonsense.

We can look to hope, not just to the machinations of and struggle for power, or to whatever will give us "leverage" or "protect" us from threats.
Far from being a vice of idealism, hope is one of the paradigm virtues of the better kind of pragmatism of Dewey and Rorty.

A crucial component of Obama's politics of hope is "unity."

In his MLK Sermon, Obama quoted Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.:

"Unity is the great need of the hour" is what King said. Unity is how we shall overcome.


That is the unity---the hard-earned unity---that we need right now. It is that effort, and that determination, that can transform blind optimism into hope---the hope to imagine, and work for, and fight for what seemed impossible before. (1/20/2008, Ebenezer Baptist Church)

In order for hope to become efficacious, we need unity. We need to work together to achieve our country. In his discussions of "hope" and "unity," Obama sets himself up, probably without knowing much about it, as the heir to the democratic ideals of Dewey. His is the kind of politics I would want to call pragmatist.

In contrast to Obama's politics of unity, we have Clinton's politics of "us vs. them." She outlines "the differences that we have with Republicans... because its really a stark difference." While Obama also outlines his differences with Republicans, he also talks about "bring[ing] Democrats [and] Republicans together to get it done." Clinton is eager to label the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, a huge chunk of the Iranian government, a terrorist organization. Obama is eager to have talks and attempt to find a way to reconcile with Iran.

In contrast to Obama's politics of hope that we can work together towards what seemed impossible, we have Clinton's politics of playing tough, to force people who don't know better to do what's good for them, to force "the others" to get in line with our interests, or else.

Just the difference by itself is interesting. William James argued a century ago that temperament had a determining role in philosophy that was rarely recognized, and that the defining feature of pragmatism was that it mediated between the extremes of "tough-minded" (empiricistic) and "tender-minded" (rationalistic) temperaments. Of course, not long after he said it, it was pointed out that within pragmatism as a movement, there were still leanings towards one temperament or another. And there were even wider swings within pragmatism of political temperament. It is interesting just to look at not only the degree which pragmatism rather than moral absolutism plays such a role in the major democratic hopefuls, but also the quite different forms that pragmatism takes between them, what we might call their very different temperaments.

There's always a time for playing tough, and there are cases in which we have to do what's good for people against their will, when the other options have run out. But these should be the exception, not the rule. In my view, now isn't the time for an approach of getting tough, of us-vs-them. We need a softer, more ameliorative, more hopeful pragmatism in 2008, and it seems like Barack Obama is more likely to deliver it.

Monday, February 04, 2008

What's so great about experimental philosophy?

Since we’ve been implicated by the New York Times, I think it’s time to have a chat about the notion of “experimental philosophy.” Understanding and interpretation of important philosophical practices regularly follow their reception as revolutionary; this is no exception.

There is a conversation starting about what exactly separates EP from traditional philosophical work that we ought to be in on. And a literature building under that mantle. And EP, it seems to me is being treated as a revolution (in the Khunian sense) for philosophical practice. I gather this from a number of sources: the institutionalization in separate groups who identify themselves by the practice of EP (EPL, for example, but also on the internet); the increasing collaboration of philosophers with empirical scientists; and revolutionary rhetoric (yeah! X-phi!) about the defects of contemporary “analytic” philosophy (this ranges from challenges posed in reviewed journals to clearly revolutionary imagery like armchairs being burned).

Part of what interests me here is whether the revolution label is appropriate and why, since I for one am convinced that it is, in fact, being applied. But figuring this out requires understanding what exactly experimental philosophy is supposed to represent—how it changes or challenges philosophical practice and what it proposes in its place. Or if it doesn’t challenge traditional methodology, content, etc., then what does it mean that the label is being used with bated breath. I’m going to lay out a few obvious issues here to get a discussion going, but the target should be determining:
(A) What “experimental philosophy” picks out
(B) Whether it is a revolution for philosophy or just “normal science”
We should try to answer these questions before it becomes embarrassing to ask them (perhaps it already has … but I’ll bite the bullet):

1. Experimental Philosophy as a Revolution
Wikipedia has it that EP means two things: the incorporation of empirical research into philosophical analysis, and a preference for opinion polling of public intuitions rather than reliance on the philosopher’s own intuitions. These may not be the defining features of EP, and comments on this post should do their best to suggest better ones. But nor are they way off. At least one claim of EP is that the relationship between the empirical sciences and philosophy should be strengthened.

This however strikes me as distantly removed from any kind of radical shift in philosophical investigation. Is it really a surprise that good philosophical analysis takes into account empirical data when it’s relevant? I feel like incorporation of empirical science into philosophy is as at least as old as Aristotle, but probably includes the very first pre-Socratic poets challenging each other on how to characterize the arche. If this is the big point then armchair burning seems like rather unbecoming adolescent angst. Why isn’t philosophy that incorporates or is sensitive to empirical data, when relevant, just the ongoing standard of what makes good philosophy? Here’s the somewhat grumpy way to put the point: if EP is any kind of a challenge or objection, which I think it’s pretty clearly supposed to be sometimes, then why isn’t it just a straw man or significant only to long-dead logical positivists (pache Beck)? If it’s not posturing as a revolution, then why all the press and why all the revolutionary language?

2. Philosophical Research
On to Wikipedia’s second characterization. The two flagships of the popular understanding of EP are philosophers’ use of fMRI’s and surveying non-philosophers about their intuitions. While these two technologies certainly yield interesting and important they seem limited in familiar ways. First off, the scope of their relevance seems like an interesting and contentious philosophical issue. Is it a claim of EP that the application of particular empirical technologies is wider than supposed? And then there are the familiar epistemic worries, especially with neuroscience. As a kind of meta-analysis, it might be interesting to compare the philosophical conflicts that arose around historically failed empirical methods of analysis (e.g. phrenology) and the epistemological arguments supporting fMRI’s (there, that ought to rub someone the wrong way).

Surveys also raise some difficult issues. As far as I can tell, they are most challenging when they show either that largely settled philosophical intuitions are wildly off. This could either be if surveys yield no results or the results are similar and radically different than our intuitions. I haven’t seen either of these happen yet, but that doesn’t mean they won’t. We’ve seen surveys get used for questions about free will and responsibility, but the upshot is unclear since I think that our philosophical intuitions about these things are just as scattered as those of the people polled. Are surveys of non-philosophers valuable? Why?

Then there’s the problem of experimental design and philosopher-directed research. Philosophers are not trained in empirical sciences generally. But perhaps it is a claim of EP that they should be. This is probably what the encouragement of increased interaction with the sciences championed by EP is supposed to suggest. But philosophers so far have been more than happy to engage in survey design, which I bet they think is closer to what they do already. You have to be trained to use an fMRI machine, but anyone can write up a survey, right? Survey design, however, is a science and it’s pretty clear that you can illicit false positives and negatives with less-than-carefully written surveys. How should philosophers respond to this in their research?

3. The application of EP
Does the trend toward EP have an impact on important social institutions or policy? Take, for example, the buzz about “neurolaw.” Some have suggested that fMRI scanning will change the law by challenging our conceptions of autonomous action or by making it easier to identify when someone (especially with a very untrustworthy agent like a small child) is telling the truth. Does neuroscience really have normative implications for law and society? That depends on whether the relevant issues within these areas are touched by the implications of neuroscience. If, as Stephen Morse thinks, the concept of the person within the law “flows from the nature of the law itself,” then maybe not so much, EVEN IF the neuroscience generates a new and convincing notion of the person. Can you think of other examples where the EP’s are suggesting there will be impacts on our institutions on account of their research? How should we regard these claims?

I’ve gone on a bit here. Please don’t feel that you have to answer in kind – any thoughts about how to best characterize and understand EP (especially about its putative revolutionariness). And don’t misunderstand my point in writing this. I’m not digging my heels in against EP, as far as I can tell I count as a non-experimenting experimental philosopher, at least insofar as my own research on responsibility relies on developmental psychology. The point of this was to simply raise the definitional question which is oh-so-important for any budding philosophical movement (if this is one).