U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Twilight of the Idols

As Andrew and Tim have already noted, our recently concluded conference featured two sharply different views of Barack Obama. Thursday’s plenary panel featured, among others, Adolph Reed, Jr., whose book The Perils of Obamamania (Verso, 2009 forthcoming [h/t Andrew Hartman in comments!]) elaborates a critique of our current president that he first formulated when Barack Obama was just a candidate for the Illinois State Senate. James Kloppenberg’s Friday keynote address focused on his latest book, Reading Obama (Princeton, 2011), which offers a rich and sympathetic portrait of the President. (You can find a recording of the plenary panel with Reed–which focused on his recent co-edited volume, Renewing Black Intellectual History (Paradigm, 2010)–here. Kloppenberg’s keynote is available here.)

Like many others, I was impressed by the portrait of Obama that Kloppenberg drew. Impressed, that is, both by the care with which Kloppenberg analyzed the President’s habits of mind and by the picture of Obama that emerged from the analysis. Obama, according to Kloppenberg, is a true philosophical pragmatist, a man with a deep and subtle understanding of the American past, who tries to make his political practice match a set of admirable intellectual commitments. Like Kloppenberg, I find myself substantially to the left of this President…but I would be substantially to the left of anyone likely to be elected president. But like Kloppenberg, too, I am deeply attracted to Obama, or at least to the man described in Kloppenberg’s talk (and book, which I look forward to reading). Short of someone who truly shares my politics (which is pretty much an impossibility), a brilliant, philosophical pragmatist with a rich sense of U.S. history sounds like an almost ideal president.

And yet. As the question and answer session suggested–I’m sure to nobody’s surprise–this room full of people to whom this portrait of Obama as philosophical pragmatist doubtless appealed expressed deep frustration with the Obama administration so far. On war and peace, on transparency, on executive power, on Fourth Amendment rights, on education (among other areas), this president has disappointed. And though I think we’d all agree that Obama has come to office in politically extremely challenging times, many of the perceived failures have involved matters that the President hasn’t had to run through Congress.

I left Kloppenberg’s keynote feeling if anything a little more depressed about our politics. Not because I wasn’t convinced by Kloppenberg, but rather because I largely was. If this administration is what one gets from a philosophical pragmatist as president, that suggested to me that I might have to reevaluate some of my commitments to philosophical pragmatism, at least in the political realm.

Needless to say, I wouldn’t be the first person to make such a journey. I immediately thought of Randolph Bourne’s scathing attack on John Dewey’s support for U.S. involvement in World War I, “Twilight of the Idols” (1917). As readers of this blog probably know, rather than seeing that support simply as a betrayal of Dewey’s pragmatism, Bourne suggested that pragmatists’ support for the war effort reflected deep problems with that philosophy in practice:

To those of us who have taken Dewey’s philosophy almost as our American religion, it never occurred that values could be subordinated to technique. We were instrumentalists, but we had our private utopias so clearly before our minds that the means fell always into its place as contributory. And Dewey, of course, always meant his philosophy, when taken as a philosophy of life, to start with values. But there was always that unhappy ambiguity in his doctrine as to just how values were created, and it became easier and easier to assume that just any growth was justified and almost any activity valuable so long as it achieved ends. The American, in living out this philosophy, has habitually confused results with product, and been content with getting somewhere without asking too closely whether it was the desirable place to get. It is now bumming plain that unless you start with the vividest kind of poetic vision, your instrumentalism is likely to land you just where it has landed this younger intelligentsia which is so happily and busily engaged in the national enterprise of war. You must have your vision and you must have your technique. The practical effect of Dewey’s philosophy has evidently been to develop the sense of the latter at the expense of the former. . . . The trouble with our situation is not only that values have been generally ignored in favor of technique, but that those who have struggled to keep values foremost, have been too bloodless and too near-sighted in their vision. The defect of any philosophy of “adaptation” or “adjustment,” even when it means adjustment to changing, living experience, is that there is no provision for thought or experience getting beyond itself. If your ideal is to be adjustment to your situation, in radiant cooperation with reality, then your success is likely to be just that and no more. You never transcend anything. You grow, but your spirit never jumps out of your skin to go on wild adventures. If your policy as a publicist reformer is to take what you can get, you are likely to find that you get something less than you should be willing to take. Italy in the settlement is said to be demanding one hundred in order to get twenty, and this machiavellian principle might well be adopted by the radical. Vision must constantly outshoot technique, opportunist efforts usually achieve less even than what seemed obviously possible. An impossibilist elan that appeals to desire will often carry further. A philosophy of adjustment will not even make for adjustment. If you try merely to “meet” situations as they come, you will not even meet them. Instead you will only pile up behind you deficits and arrears that will some day bankrupt you.

The wartime context has tended to dominate many readings of “Twilight of the Idols” over the decades, in large measure because we continue to get involved in wars which many self-described liberals and progressives support, much to the dismay of other liberals and progressives. Alongside his unfinished essay on “The State” (1918), Bourne’s “Twilight of the Idols” is a classic portrait of how war distorts democratic life. And to be fair to Bourne, he never quite abandons pragmatism as such in “Twilight.” The essay is haunted by the ghost of William James, who Bourne hopes would have drawn different conclusions from Dewey.

But much in “Twilight” might help fill in the interpretive gap between Kloppenberg’s Obama and the frequently disappointing performance of this White House. I’ll close this already too-long post with a final quote from the essay that, I think, helps us do that:

We are in the war because an American Government practiced a philosophy of adjustment, and an instrumentalism for minor ends, instead of creating new values and setting at once a large standard to which the nations might repair. An intellectual attitude of mere adjustment, of mere use of the creative intelligence to make your progress, must end in caution, regression, and a virtual failure to effect even that change which you so clear-sightedly and desirously see. This is the root of our dissatisfaction with much of the current political and social realism that is preached to us.

4 Thoughts on this Post

  1. First, great post. Anyone who brings light to the writings of Bourne and Dewey does a service to history and society in general.

    There has long been this tension in thinking (and writing) about Dewey’s philosophy between whether Dewey intended his thinking to be truly adjunct—instrumental and about means—or whether he intended it to be something larger and more systematic (i.e. an end). The evidence of history and of practice points to the former, but enthusiasts—which sometimes included Dewey himself—point to the latter.

    In my view, one can never be ~just~ a pragmatist. It must always be the case of pragmatism and ______, the latter being something that gives one a system, or view of, ends.

    I feel like this topic was discussed in Menand, but I can’t remember (and need to run somewhere in a few minutes so I can’t just pull my volume off the shelf in my office). – TL

  2. Ben: Bringing Bourne into the discussion is perfect. I was thinking the same thing as I heard Kloppenberg’s talk. If Obama is a genuine philosophical pragmatist, then philosophic pragmatism needs to be called into question again, now, like Bourne did in 1917. Kloppenberg almost said as much at one point during his talk, although it almost seemed like an afterthought, something to the following effect: “This might not be a good time for pragmatic deliberation,” the implication being that Obama is too good for our polarized times. But this seems to posit that there is something inherently suspect about ideology, which to me is the weird side of pragmatism. I’d be fine with ideological-inscribed anti-ruling class rhetoric right about now.

    FYI: The Reed book on Obama was originally marked for 2009, but it’s yet to be published. I can’t wait to read it alongside Kloppenberg. Talk about schizophrenic reading.

  3. “If this administration is what one gets from a philosophical pragmatist as president, that suggested to me that I might have to reevaluate some of my commitments to philosophical pragmatism, at least in the political realm.”

    Do these events necessarily cause a reevaluation of pragmatism, or of the system itself?

    Let me take some random, recent Greenwald post as illustrative — this one, say. All right, it’s now a state secret that we tortured people, and the people we tortured can’t get redress through the courts because that would involve revealing state secrets. And, as you say, none of that was through Congress, or indeed even really responding to political pressure of any kind.

    Is that Obama’s failure in the sense that he pretends to be a pragmatist but is really something else? Or a failure of pragmatism? Or a revelation of the limits of the system itself?

    It takes no training in rhetoric to understand that by setting up the three questions in that way that I’m saying that I believe the third may be true. If we get the most liberal President that we can reasonably hope to get (not very) and still get what is basically the same as Bush, then maybe it’s not because Obama is uniquely bad, or because pragmatism is bad, but because that is a necessary result of the system as set up. America needs to torture, essentially, and can’t function without it.

    For me, it isn’t pragmatism called into question, it’s liberalism, in the sense of the word that has existed as long as America has and which includes the full range of mainstream American political thought.

  4. Thanks for the comments! A belated response…


    As I read Bourne, his critique does not depend so much on Dewey’s intent as it does on the conclusions that Dewey ultimately drew about the War. And I’m not sure that all pragmatists would embrace the notion that it’s impossible to be just a pragmatist (though the larger point of the insufficiency of pragmatism plain-and-simple might certainly appeal to some, e.g., James and Hook).


    I think the avoidance/denial of ideology is, indeed, part of the problem here. It’s an intellectual move that is of course also found in Cold War liberalism (which has, not coincidentally I think, recently found tribunes within our profession). I do think it’s worth unpacking Kloppenberg’s–and, to be honest, my– (semi?) admiration for Obama as the best sort of president we on the left can hope for. If our ideology is impossible in an American context, perhaps a brilliant president who sees himself as post/transideological will do the trick. This move feels good (especially when one is sick and tired of voting for an endless parade of lesser evils), but I’m not sure it holds up to intellectual scrutiny. Which brings me to….


    I’m not sure how much we disagree. In seeing Obama as an object lesson in the limits of philosophical pragmatism, I was not trying to “name the system” as pragmatism. And I think it would be wrong to see pragmatism as in any sense the source of our problems. Indeed, the dream that pragmatism might be a solution to our problems is part and parcel of misidentifying the source. Perhaps you are right to join Carl Oglesby in identifying liberalism as the problem, though even Oglesby saw the legacy of liberalism in America as divided and ambivalent. Moreover, unlike in 1965, “liberalism” is itself now a dirty word in our political life.

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