Review: Pragmatist Politics by John McGowan

McGowan, John. Pragmatist Politics: Making the Case for Liberal Democracy. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012.

Paul Stob, Department of Communication Studies, Vanderbilt University

John McGowan’s Pragmatist Politics draws upon the pragmatist tradition—primarily the work of William James, John Dewey, and Kenneth Burke—to formulate a liberal democratic politics for the twenty-first century. At least that’s the overt aim of the book. But what may stand out most to readers of KB Journal is how McGowan seems intent on crafting an attitude. In formulating a pragmatist politics, McGowan fails to explicate political programs and initiatives, he disregards the nuts and bolts of democratic negotiation, and he provides no real strategies for building grassroots coalitions. What he does—and what he does admirably—is present readers with a pragmatist attitude that will, he hopes, come to permeate public culture. This attitude leaps off the page in the book’s introduction as McGowan foregrounds the writers who will help him construct a pragmatist politics:

Because of my interest in desire, Dewey alone does not suffice. William James and, more idiosyncratically, Kenneth Burke have a large role to play in this book. . . . I am not particularly interested in being “faithful” to any of the writers who have inspired me. I have mined each of them for what they can contribute to the vision of a possible and desirable democracy that I try to articulate. . . . My title, “pragmatist politics,” is meant to indicate my sources and general outlook, but if readers find what I have to offer not really “pragmatic,” that’s all one to me. Nothing significant hinges on whether what I say deserves the name “pragmatist” or not. And since I am not purporting to offer either an interpretation or an introductory understanding of Dewey or James or Burke, but, instead, an account of a possible democracy, I feel no responsibility to discuss parts of their work not relevant to my concerns. (xvii)

The presentation of an attitude in Pragmatist Politics is wholly fitting because of the role of “attitude” in pragmatist philosophy. For James, pragmatism is an “attitude of looking away from first things, principles, ‘categories,’ supposed necessities; and of looking towards last things, fruits, consequences, facts” (James 32). For Dewey, one’s attitude is integrally linked to the art of communication:

To be a recipient of a communication is to have an enlarged and changed experience. One shares in what another has thought and felt and in so far, meagerly or amply, has his own attitude modified. Nor is the one who communicates left unaffected. Try the experiment of communicating, with fullness and accuracy some experience to another, especially if it be somewhat complicated, and you will find your own attitude toward your experience changing. (Dewey 8)

For Burke, attitude is integral to symbolic action, for “The symbolic act is the dancing of an attitude” (Philosophy 9).

Pragmatist Politics seems intent on making an attitude dance. McGowan has little interest in reasoned argumentation—at least in the objective, philosophical sense of the term. But he does hope to persuade readers that “liberal democracy as described herein offers the best possible guidelines currently available for creating a polity that we could embrace because it most fully approximates concrete achievement of goods to which we are committed” (39). Accomplishing this project, McGowan recognizes, requires a bit of Burkean identification: “I need to convince you that liberal democracy is aligned with goods you already cherish or should now come to cherish—and that liberal democracy is more likely to promote those goods successfully than other possible political arrangements” (39).

For many readers, especially those already interested in the pragmatist tradition, McGowan will likely succeed in making his liberal democratic vision compelling. While he presents no novel or specific political initiatives, often just reaffirming the basic commitments of Deweyan social democracy, he does show how the pragmatist tradition relates to America’s current political culture. In so doing, he implements all the key terms of American pragmatism: uncertainty, novelty, possibility, contingency, deliberation, habit, orientation, meliorism, anti-foundationalism, collective action, and more. Taken together, these terms lay the groundwork for a liberal democracy, even though McGowan is careful to note that pragmatism “does not inevitably go hand in hand with liberal democratic values” (36). It does, however, emphasize “that each of our fates is inextricably tied to the fate of our fellow citizens, that an affirmation of the everyday as the scene of our entanglement with one another is preferable to imagined ‘elsewheres’ that transcend the limits of the ordinary, and that effective freedom is not only a cherished good, but also possible to achieve for all” (42).

Central to McGowan’s political vision is the art of rhetoric. Rhetoric, McGowan argues, fits naturally with pragmatism because pragmatism puts philosophy “at the center of democratic action,” where the “attempt to persuade others” connects citizens in a common project (xv). Indeed, one of the more heartening aspects of Pragmatist Politics is the fact that it brings together pragmatism and the rhetorical tradition—and does so from outside the rhetorical tradition. It is one thing for a scholar of rhetoric to link pragmatism and rhetoric; it is another thing entirely for a political theorist to recognize rhetoric’s role in a vision of pragmatist politics. As McGowan describes the rhetorical nature of his interests,

This pragmatist account is meant to introduce a dynamic understanding of everything involved in the articulation of reasons. What count as convincing reasons (to one’s self as well as to others) will shift over time and from context to context. Each self is constantly buffeted by the judgments and demands of the other selves with whom that self occupies the world. (105)

In a world that hinges upon intersubjective negotiation, rhetoric is the counterpart of pragmatism.

McGowan develops his view of pragmatist politics across five chapters. The first chapter, “The Philosophy of Possibility,” uses Burke’s thoughts on literature as “equipment for living” to show how pragmatism lays the intellectual groundwork for liberal democracy. The second chapter, “Is Progress Possible?,” draws upon pragmatist philosophy to explore the idea of democratic progress, which “is not about moving the world, or a whole society, toward a certain substantial good. Rather, goods are plural, and progress involves creating the conditions for the pursuit by individuals within varying social associations of those multiple goods” (77). The third chapter, “The Democratic Ethos,” explicates the attitude and posture that, according to McGowan, ought to define a liberal democracy. In this chapter, Burke’s “unending conversation” plays a key role in grounding the sense of moral responsibility that makes citizens attentive to one another (106-107). The fourth chapter, “Human Rights,” operates as a kind of case study that reveals how rights are rhetorical and performative: “They are words spoken in public, in a particularly solemn or ceremonious way, that are designed to bring what they designate into existence” (130).

The fifth chapter, “Liberal Democracy as Secular Comedy,” will likely prove most interesting to readers of KB Journal. Drawing extensively on Attitudes Toward History, McGowan affirms comedy as the best political attitude for accommodating the “cacophony of multiple voices and motives” that mark modern society while also “giving each person the opportunity to undertake the work” of writing his or her own story (175). Burke’s idea of the comic frame, McGowan argues, leads to a politics that aims at a social, contingent, ever-changing “modest utopia of the ordinary,” which allows individuals to love diversity, embrace imperfections, and accept those “constraints designed to enable our peaceful intercourse with others even as we avoid turning those constraints into straightjackets” (157). McGowan’s comic frame is secular because it involves turning away from nonhuman subjects and toward the human community itself. We can then perform

the work of continually adjusting ourselves to the presence of others and to our need to cooperate with them to sustain life. The work of comedy is to foster first the ‘charitable attitude’ that can help us to avoid the temptation of blaming others for our ills and then, possibly, to move us toward a more positive love that delights in the fact of others who are not like me. (182)

With the help of James, Dewey, and Burke, Pragmatist Politics enters a conversation about political goods in the twenty-first century. It is safe to say that McGowan largely succeeds in making pragmatism speak to current problems. Even those who may not find his liberal democratic politics wholly persuasive will no doubt find in the book compelling fodder for discussion. Pragmatist Politics raises the issues about public life that need to be raised.

This review would be incomplete, however, without noting two potential shortcomings in the book. “Shortcomings” may not be the right word here, for McGowan is simply presenting an attitude, simply formulating a vision of politics. As a result, he can pick and choose whatever ideas and themes he finds most inspiring, and he need not worry about “shortcomings.” Nevertheless, the book passes over two areas that could have, according to my own vision, strengthened it further.

First, McGowan adeptly positions the rhetorical tradition as a fitting counterpart of the pragmatist tradition. The trouble is that a number of scholars have already begun this project, and McGowan pays no attention to their work. Mailloux, Keith, Danisch, Crick, and Stroud, among others, have already started accounting for the intersection of pragmatism, rhetoric, and democratic politics. Their work could help round out and bolster McGowan’s account. To be sure, McGowan is able to make his case apart from this body of secondary literature, yet connecting to it could have contributed to a larger framework for understanding the issues he raises. Pragmatist Politics has, unfortunately, missed an opportunity to bring rhetorical scholarship and humanities research writ large into closer conversation.

Second, and more germane to readers of KB Journal, are issues surrounding McGowan’s final chapter on “secular comedy.” Burke’s influence comes through most prominently in this chapter, yet McGowan’s emphasis on secular comedy misses a key aspect of Burke’s work. In fact, it misses a point that James, Dewey, and Burke made time and again. In advocating a secular comedic frame, McGowan argues for a turn away from “nonhuman agents” (158). He also argues for a turn away from religious terminology, which, he insists, has corroded civic connections. McGowan, for example, describes James’s “obsession with ‘salvation’ and redemption’” as “disquieting.” “Why talk of salvation?” he begs to know. “What are we to be saved from? . . . To talk of salvation is to dream of a once-for-all dramatic transformation, of a tool that will fix the human condition permanently” (158). For McGowan, the “talk” of salvation impedes effective political operation, as does the language of “sacrifice” (160) and “sin” (165-166). Secular comedy, he hopes, will provide “a social, this-worldly, non-extreme response to the ongoing presence of evil in human affairs” (182).

If a secular comedic frame means relinquishing religious symbols, McGowan moves in a direction that James, Dewey, and Burke were not willing to go. All three pragmatists recognized the motivational, coordinational power of religious language. As symbols, sin, salvation, redemption, faith, God, and sacrifice do important rhetorical work. James, for example, not only investigated but routinely employed religious discourse, particularly in The Will to Believe and The Varieties of Religious Experience. Even Pragmatism culminated with a lecture on “Pragmatism and Religion.” Dewey preached a kind of democratic gospel grounded in the language of sin, salvation, faith, and cooperation. While this language was disconnected from the realm of the supernatural, Dewey drew upon it regularly to motivate and inspire.1 Furthermore, Burke’s logology was premised on the power of religious symbols. Logology, for Burke, is “a purely secular project,” but it probes religious terminology to understand symbolic transcendence and human motivation (Rhetoric 5). As a result, Burke warns against “a simple historical development from the ‘sacred’ to the ‘profane,’ from the ‘spiritual’ to the ‘secular’” (Rhetoric 35). Because humans are “goaded by the spirit of hierarchy,” religious language, shot through with ultimate terms, establishes powerful grounds for action.

McGowan can, of course, advocate for whatever kind of secular project he wants. As already noted, his book is not a systematic treatment of pragmatism, rhetoric, and democracy, but a presentation of an attitude. Yet considering pragmatism’s historical commitment to religious terminology, McGowan’s emphasis on secular comedy may have missed an important piece of the motivational puzzle. His own conclusion to Pragmatist Politics underscores the need for liberal democracy to tell captivating stories that will garner adherents: “Liberal democracy needs to become what people desire, not something viewed as an impediment to individual fulfillment” (185). He also notes that while supporters of liberal democracy have failed to tell a compelling story, “Conservatives have understood the rhetorical core of politics in a democracy” (186). The conservative story is, at least in part, a religious story. Yet McGowan advocates for the creation of a narrative based on secular comedy. James, Dewey, and Burke point down another path. Religious language, all three pragmatists suggest in their own way, ought to play a role in the story of liberal democracy.

Contrary to McGowan’s book, then, pragmatist politics may lead not to secular comedy but to a comedic frame that infuses collective life with a new kind of religious meaning. This religious meaning need not be tied to the supernatural, and it need not be divisive and exclusive. But it ought to be compelling to a populace that has long responded to religious symbols. At the very least, the liberal democratic story needs to provide terminological order to the messy world of modern politics. One way to do that, Burke insisted long ago, is with the “‘transcendence’ of man’s symbol-systems” (Rhetoric 38).

* Paul Stob is Assistant Professor of Communication Studies at Vanderbilt University*


1. I develop this point about Dewey and religious discourse at length in Stob, “Minister of Democracy.”

Works Cited

Burke, Kenneth. Philosophy of the Literary Form: Studies in Symbolic Action. 3rd Edition. Berkeley: U of California P, 1973. Print.

—. The Rhetoric of Religion: Studies in Logology. Berkeley: U of California P, 1970. Print.

Crick, Nathan. Democracy and Rhetoric: John Dewey on the Arts of Becoming. Columbia: U of South Carolina P, 2010. Print.

Danisch, Robert. Pragmatism, Democracy, and the Necessity of Rhetoric. Columbia: U of South Carolina P, 2007. Print.

Dewey, John. Democracy and Education, vol. 9 of The Middle Works of John Dewey, 1899-1924. Ed. Jo Ann Boydston. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1980. Print.

James, William. Pragmatism (The Works of William James). Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1975. Print.

Keith, William. Democracy as Discussion: The American Forum Movement and Civic Education. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2007. Print.

Mailloux, Steven. Reception Histories: Rhetoric, Pragmatism, and American Cultural Politics. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1998. Print.

Stob, Paul. “Minister of Democracy: John Dewey, Religious Rhetoric, and the Great Community.” Trained Capacities: John Dewey, Rhetoric, and Democratic Culture. Ed. Brian Jackson and Gregory Clark. Columbia: U of South Carolina P, forthcoming 2013. Print.

Stroud, Scott. John Dewey and the Artful Life: Pragmatism, Aesthetics, and Morality. University Park: Pennsylvania State UP, 2011. Print.

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