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Pragmatist Politics

Making the Case for Liberal Democracy

John McGowan

Publication Year: 2012

In our current age of cynicism, John McGowan suggests that the time is right to take a fresh look at pragmatism, the philosophy of American democracy. As McGowan shows, pragmatism can be an inspiring alternative to the despair that seems to dominate contemporary American politics. Pragmatist Politics is passionate and convincing, both heartfelt and clear-eyed. It offers an expansive vision of what the United States could be and should be.

From John Dewey and William James, McGowan derives a history of democracy as a way of life, characterized by a distinctive ethos and based on an understanding of politics as potentially effective collective agency. That democratic ideal is wedded to a liberalism that focuses on extending the benefits of democracy and of material prosperity to all. Beyond the intellectual case for liberal democracy, McGowan turns to how James, especially, was attuned to the ways that emotional appeals often trump persuasion through arguments, and he examines the work of Kenneth Burke, among others, to investigate the link between liberal democracy and a comic view of human life. Comedy, McGowan notes, allows consideration of themes of love, forgiveness, and generosity that figure far too infrequently in philosophical accounts of politics.

In McGowan’s work, the combination of pragmatism and comedy takes us on a wide-ranging exploration of what American politics—and by extension American life—could actually be like if it truly reflected American values.

Published by: University of Minnesota Press


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p. 1-1

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. 2-7


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pp. vii-viii

A Note on References

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pp. ix-x

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Introduction: Philosophy and Democracy

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pp. xi-xxxii

Politics is the art of the possible. And a pragmatist, in everyday parlance, is someone ready to jettison prior convictions or commitments to get something accomplished. Neither the common saying about politics nor the common understanding of the pragmatist is meant as high praise. ...

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1. The Philosophy of Possibility

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pp. 1-48

For a philosophy insistent upon keeping its eyes firmly on the future, pragmatism has an alarmingly wide range of creation stories: the Metaphysical Club of the 1870s, Peirce’s banishment of Cartesian doubt and enunciation of the pragmatic maxim, and Dewey’s abandonment of Hegel for Darwin in his 1896 essay ...

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2. Is Progress Possible?

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pp. 49-78

Nowhere do the pragmatist founders seem less our contemporaries than in their belief in progress. Politically, James and Dewey were aligned with a progressivist movement that worked to bring American democracy to full fruition. ...

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3. The Democratic Ethos

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pp. 79-118

It is time to move from the tight focus on James and Dewey to pursue a vision of a possible liberal democracy in the spirit of their work. The next three chapters follow Dewey in thinking of democracy as “a moral idea” and a “way of life.” ...

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4. Human Rights

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pp. 119-148

The interactional pragmatic account of morals described in the last chapter also provides the core elements of a pragmatist theory of rights. But it is worth spending some time here on rights because the topic raises a number of interesting problems and, thus, offers an opportunity to consider the resources pragmatism affords for addressing those problems. ...

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5. Liberal Democracy as Secular Comedy

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pp. 149-186

To be schematic about it, comedy presents a world in which human desires are satisfied, while tragedy tells us, in Nietzsche’s words, that there is a “contradiction” between human needs and what the world will afford us.1 For Northrop Frye, “tragedy seems to lead up to an epiphany of law, of that which is and must be. ...

Appendix: Martha Nussbaum’s List of “Central Human Functional Capabilities”

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pp. 187-188

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pp. 189-192

More than twenty years ago, a reader of my Postmodernism and Its Critics told me that the account of democracy I developed in that book as an antidote to poststructuralist politics clumsily reinvented a wheel that John Dewey had already eloquently designed. Steeped in continental philosophy and literary theory in graduate school, ...


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pp. 193-224


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pp. 225-231

E-ISBN-13: 9780816682539
E-ISBN-10: 0816682534
Print-ISBN-13: 9780816679034

Page Count: 280
Publication Year: 2012