Pragmatism is often seen as an unpolitical doctrine. This article argues that it shares important commitments with realist political theory, which stresses the distinctive character of the political and the difficulty of viewing political theory simply as applied ethics, and that many of its key arguments support realism. Having outlined the elective affinities between realism and pragmatism, the article goes on to consider this relationship by looking at two recent elaborations of a pragmatist argument in contemporary political theory, which pull in different directions, depending on the use to which a pragmatist account of doxastic commitments is put. In one version, the argument finds in these commitments a set of pre-political principles, of the sort that realists reject. In the other version, the account given of these commitments more closely tracks the concerns of realists and tries to dispense with the need for knowledge of such principles.Festenstein states
The political seems to be difficult terrain for pragmatists. The most prominent pragmatist social and political theorist, John Dewey, forcefully presses an avowedly unpolitical conception of democracy, as ‘primarily a mode of associated living, of conjoint communicated experience’, ‘the idea of community life itself’, or a ‘personal way of individual life’ (e.g. Dewey, 1916: 93, 1927: 328, 1939: 226). Pragmatism is often thought to view politics as primarily a matter of collective problem-solving, glossing over core political phenomena such as power and conflict which subvert the hopes for such a shared enterprise.
The purpose of this article is to explore the relationship of pragmatism to the ‘realist’ current in recent political theory which has sought to emphasise the specifically political character of political theorising. The recent interest in realism in political theory seeks to trace the distinctive contours of politics as a dimension of human activity and to overturn what it identifies as the moralistic tendencies in political philosophy. The article begins by offering an overview of key realist themes and the overlap between these themes and pragmatist commitments. With this basic position blocked out, the article goes on to explore two contrasting recent versions of a pragmatist political argument, developed by Cheryl Misak and Robert Talisse, on the one hand, and by Thomas Fossen, on the other. These pull in different directions, I will suggest, depending on the account they offer of practical doxastic commitments and the implications that they draw from this. In the first version, the argument finds in these commitments a set of pre-political principles, of the sort that realists reject. In the other version, the account given of these commitments tries to dispense with the need for knowledge of such principles.
It should be noted that pragmatism and realism are both constituted by an undisciplined rabble of doctrines, temperaments and sensibilities: there is no scope to do justice to this variety and I will impose some artificial tidiness on each position. Furthermore, this is not a study in influence or ‘genealogy’. For some realists, pragmatists are indeed an interesting reference point or source of inspiration: Raymond Geuss (2001) and Chantal Mouffe (2000) for example are directly responsive to authors usually classified as pragmatist. For others, notably Bernard Williams (2002, 2005) in much of his later work, Richard Rorty in particular serves as a foil and a goad: however far Williams was going, it was not that far, or in that direction. However, nothing in the [article] hangs on establishing paths of influence.