Sunday, November 7, 2010

Obama as Habermasian

I expect that my subject line seems eccentric. However, James T. Kloppenberg, Harvard scholar of American intellectual pragmatism, has just published Reading Obama (Princeton, 2011) which argues, in light of a thorough reading of Obama’s young career as legal scholar and political author, that Obama is an “intellectual president” in the lineage of American pragmatism and that Obama’s critical years of development at Harvard took place at a time of especially progressive ferment in legal theory concordant with Putnam’s interest in Habermas and philosopher Richard Bernstein’s pragmatism (beyond that fact that “...many of Bernstein’s books...appeared regularly in the footnotes of law review articles and just the time when Obama was studying law at Harvard…”[134]). 

Koppleberg briefly discusses key conceptual features of Bernstein’s pragmatism (133-4), which (no news to a subscriber here) “drew together ideas from the traditions of hermeneutics and existential phenomenology, the later writings of Ludwig Wittgenstein, and the critical theory of Habermas, whose Deweyan dimensions Bernstein was among the first Americans to emphasize.” Koppleberg claims that “Bernstein has advanced the version of pragmatism that seems to me closest to the ideas advanced in Obama’s books—although Obama is hardly as systematic in the presentation of the philosophy—[such that] I want to outline the five dimensions of Bernstein’s pragmatism” as “echoing” throughout Obama’s books: “fallibilism....the inescapably sociocultural character of individual experience....the participation of individual interpreters in a community of inquiry or discourse....[Jamesian/Deweyan] sensitivity to radical contingency....[and] a pluralistic philosophy for a pluralistic universe.” This might be read as partisan overreading of Obama’s political practice, except that the point of Koppleberg’s book is that Obama is overtly thinking in light of a coherent and deliberate pragmatic philosophy that is integral to how he works.

The highly esteemed Harvard theorist of Constitutional law, Lawrence Tribe, is said, according to Koppleberg, to “credit Obama [as student] for helping him [i.e., Tribe] to see...the interpretation of...the United States a conversation, an interpretive process that never ends” (133). That seems a bit exaggerated (Tribe is well-known for his animus for Original Intent jurisprudence and his support for the Obama presidency), but the comment goes to the point of Obama’s seriousness of intellectual engagement, which Koppelberg’s book is explicating in much detail.

Koppleberg actually claims that Obama, as an undergraduate, read Habermas, among others, in Obama’s overt search for a political philosophy (17, 104). An apparent keynote of Koppleberg’s expository strategy toward Obama’s legal education is to tie the discursive ferment of legal controversy at Harvard to Hilary Putnam, Richard Rorty, Rawls, and Bernstein, all of whom were at that time especially interested in Habermas while Obama was at Harvard Law. “Perhaps not surprisingly, given Putnam’s position as a member of the Harvard Department of Philosophy, he has been more frequently cited by Harvard Law School faculty members than have the other contemporary philosophical pragmatists. In ‘A Reconsideration of Deweyan Pragmatism,’ Putnam’s stirring contribution to Pragmatism in Law and Society, the volume derived from the 1990 Harvard Law School conference on pragmatism, he invoked both Dewey and James—and tied their insights to those of Habermas—to make the case for a ‘radical’ democracy that is pragmatist rather than foundationalist, participatory rather than elitist, and ‘more hard-headed and realistic’ than the romantic ideas [of much Deweyan work...,] precisely the model laid out in Obama’s ‘Why Organize’ to justify the continuing effort to empower the disempowered” (136-7).