Sifting Pragmatisms

April 21, 2009 1 Comment

Courtesty of Enlightnnext.orgLast Friday night I went to a great talk by Jeff Carreira, Director of Education at EnlightenNext, it was titled “The Roots of Integral Spirituality and Evolutionary Enlightenment in American Philosophy.”  It has been almost ten years since I last gave such focused consideration to the tradition of American Pragmatism, a strand of philosophy that focuses on “considering practical consequences or real effects to be vital components of meaning and truth.” Ten years ago I was privileged to take a memorable class on the subject, it was called “American Democracy,” and was beautifully lectured by contemporary pragmatists Cornel West and Roberto Mangabeira Unger.

I’ve had an uneasy relationship with the term “pragmatism,” specially as used in popular culture, which is somewhat different from the way it is used in the academy. My activist roots were grounded in an ideological framework that tended to equate pragmatism with compromise. In my work for social change I have often found myself identified with those communities that are more likely to have their needs and demands compromised away by some “pragmatic” solution or other. With this lens, pragmatism has often felt like a way to keep the balance of power stable while giving away enough crumbs for the excluded not to riot.

However, our recent national experience shows us this argument from the other side. We have seen how eight years of ideological leadership wreaked havoc on the country and the world. And today we find progressive hope in the thoroughly pragmatic approach of an even-keeled Obama administration, whose approach to leadership that has thus far proved amazingly steady even in the throes of ongoing turmoil. So I am interested in sifting through the sort of pragmatism that seems to generally keep things as they are, from the pragmatism that facilitates change and the pragmatism that Carreira was talking about on Friday night.

While the conversation has only just begun, I am starting to understand that the pragmatism of the American tradition, which Jeff was connecting to the Integral Philosophy of Ken Wilber and the Evolutionary Enlightenment of Andrew Cohen, is called pragmatism because it demands to be experienced. This sort of pragmatism looks suspiciously at a philosophy that is purely conceptual, it is a pragmatism that calls for the observation and experience of the actual – but it doesn’t stay there. We are talking about a sort of experiential pragmatism that demands we engage the very process of evolution, and this is what makes it exciting.

This is the first of a series of blog posts. Next, I’m interested in distinguishing between pragmatism as doing “what works” vs. pragmatism as doing “what could work.” Your insights are needed and welcomed!

1 Comment

  • Curtis says:


    Thanks for the provocative post. I haven’t had such a tumultuous relationship with pragmatism per se, but I appreciate your journey and I like you find particular resonance with Obama’s pragmatic approach. It is so refreshing and more rooted in what is real and tangible and common-sensical. I am all in favor of equanimity and measured perspicacity these days. And I am very curious about the connections between pragmatism and integral philosophy, as I have often found Wilber’s work to be very conceptual and somewhat difficult to bring down to earth. In fact, I just had a conversation with a trainer in Maine who said she was working with some folk who are delving into “integral leadership” and she finds it hard to grasp as a seasoned professional. I’m a big fan of keeping it real, and also pushing the envelope. It’s very practical and necessary to both in these times.

    Can’t wait for the next installment.

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