01/16/2006 10:30 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Wanted: a Progressive Philosophy

Here's a few books you should read if you're serious about progressive politics long term. Bashing the Bush crew is a necessary and invigorating activity. It's easy. And fun. I've done it myself. Often.

But, as a number of HuffPo bloggers have noted from time to time, there's an elephant in our room. It's not just elected Democrats who can't reach a consensus about what they're for. It's progressives in general. Identity politics worked pretty well in cultural venues--in schools and museums and publishing houses--but what about the rest of the world? Are progressives pro-union, for example? How does that fit with immigration policy--really, in detail? Imagine the discussion between the the AFL-CIO and Latino groups on that one. OK, so Iraq was a monumental blunder, at best, but there's no consensus on what to do now--again, in real policy detail. Over here, Murtha, over there Hillary. Whither Howard Dean? I could go on and on. And people in various progressive niches would, of course, supply various ad hoc answers. But systematic answers aren't forthcoming because they aren't even conceivable in terms that would yield a consensus on what's left of the Left. No matter how bad things get for the Republicans, progressives remain paralyzed because they literally can't decide what they think.

Now, that's a symptom of philosophical crisis. The truth is that progressives no longer have an overarching view of human nature and human history to guide them coherently through the thicket of specific situations. The democratic-socialist, New Deal vision of economic justice for all humanity couldn't survive the simple, giant fact that identity-driven causes (ethnic, religious, sexual) are now shaping history on a planet threatened with ecological disaster.

Some contemporary representatives of the most influential tradition in American thought are stepping up to the plate. That tradition--Pragmatism--originally associated with people like William James and John Dewey, has always been notable for its commitment to social and political activism while refusing to justify itself in absolute terms of any kind--not those of religion, or classical liberalism (today's neo-conservatism) or Marxism. At the same time, pragmatists have resisted various nihilisms and relativisms, from Nietzsche to contemporary postmodernism. They have argued against absolute truth and objectivity while insisting that they have access to a more modest kind of truth and objectivity--a kind that promises unifying guidance to a politics of diversity.

I am not myself convinced that they have succeeded in the latter objective, but right now this is the only game in town. For a lot of progressives, oppositional action is enough; but for those who feel a need for philosophical orientation, this is the place to start.

Most prominent among these writers is Richard Rorty. He wrote a pre-9/11 book called Achieving our Country, which set the mold. Designed for the generally educated reader, rooted in scholarship but not academic, readable--above all, reeking with common sense. After awhile, you learn to recognize a certain admonitory tone in all the pragmatist writers. It says something like: "Our situation is dire; we cannot afford to indulge ourselves in fantasies of any kind; get real, before it's too late."

Then, for the history of Pragmatism, there's Louis Menenand's book, The Metaphysical Club. Most recently, there's Kwame Appiah's book, Cosmopolitanism and Richard Bernstein's book, The Abuse of Evil. These latter two address the post 9/11 situation most directly.

Again, on philosophical grounds, I'm not sure these thinkers actually do pull up short of relativism in substance--though they certainly do on the level of temperament. Some wag once remarked that "the problem with pragmatism is that it doesn't work," and I fear there may be a lot of truth in that. There's nothing like an absolute for motivation...

But serious people must decide for themselves.