President Barack Obama is widely praised as a pragmatic thinker, but “pragmatism” is ambiguous and often misunderstood. Sometimes the word is used to mean abandoning principles for the sake of political expediency or defending the status quo, but the American pragmatist philosophers, William James and John Dewey, meant something quite different. Their essential message, according to Louis Menand in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Metaphysical Club, was the profound insight that “ideas should never become ideologies.” Pragmatism is a habit of mind rather than a philosophy in the traditional sense. It is an attitude that welcomes doubt and uncertainty, adjusts creatively to change and is open to a plurality of points of view in solving the most urgent problems of life.
Obama’s flexible, pragmatic temperament, like President Abraham Lincoln’s, is in stark contrast to his predecessor’s approach of forcing all issues into an absolute framework of Good vs. Evil. Change was the main theme of Obama’s campaign for president, and he persuaded the majority that we need new ways of thinking in order to solve our global economic, political and environmental problems. Many people, however, due to complacency, fear or the “paralysis of analysis,” do not handle change well without courageous and enlightened leadership. Obama’s challenge is to convince Americans that we must have the audacity to replace the fears and “certainties” of the past with hope and openness to radical new solutions. We must adopt the “pragmatic temperament” and change ourselves before it is too late for our democratic way of life and our planet to survive.
As Rider students, you have an advantage in the current crisis. Most of you were not born with a silver spoon in your mouth, and you have developed the habits of self-discipline and perseverance in the face of difficulty that will give you an edge in the tough job market after you graduate. You already know that you can keep that edge sharp by studying, asking questions in class, challenging your fellow students and teachers if you disagree with them, visiting your teachers during their office hours, getting involved in campus activities and taking a semester abroad to broaden your horizons and make you more competitive in the job market.
The only new piece of advice I have to offer is that you have a role to play in the ongoing struggle (since the death of Socrates in 399 B.C., which inspired Plato to found the Academy) between those who seek wisdom and those who seek financial security. When considering your career options, reflect on what the philosophers, historians, scientists, poets, playwrights, novelists, artists and musicians have to say about what life is all about. There isn’t that much money anymore, so you will probably have to settle for a meaningful life based on an open mind rather than a full wallet. I know, based on my own experience — and I think that many Rider faculty members would agree with me — that the former is a better recipe for happiness than the latter.
Dr. Carol Nicholson
Professor, Department of Philosophy