April 27 2012

Does It Matter That It Does Not Matter

By The Philosophy Channel Editorial Staff

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Again and again, but particularly in recent years, it has been noticed that intellect in America is resented as a kind of excellence, as a claim to distinction, as a challenge to egalitarianism, as a quality which almost certainly deprives a man or woman of the common touch. --- (Richard Hofstadter, "Anti-Intellectualism In American Life")

The germ of anti-intellectualism, barely detectable during the founding [of the United States] era, appears to have become a virulent force in our time.—- (Elvin T. Lim, The Anti-Intellectual Presidency: The Decline of Presidential Rhetoric From George Washington to George W. Bush)


“Barack Obama is the product of three distinct developments. First, it was the history of American democracy, the long, unfinished project stretching from the seventeenth-century establishment of English colonies through the achievements of the civil rights and feminist movements, that produced the institutions and the cultural characteristics that made possible Obama’s rise.

“Second, America’s principal contribution to the Western philosophical tradition, the philosophy of pragmatism that originated over a century ago in the writings of William James and John Dewey, has provided a sturdy base for Obama’s sensibility. [This philosophical perspective] challenges the claims of absolutists – whether their dogmas are rooted in science or religion – and instead embraces uncertainty, provisionality, and the continuous testing of hypotheses through experimentation. 

“Third, Obama’s sensibility reflects the intellectual upheavals that occurred on American campuses [during the time] he spent studying at Occidental College, Columbia University, and the Harvard Law School, and teaching law at the University of Chicago Law School. Again and again he encountered struggles between universality and particularity, and between the ostensibly unchanging and the historical or contingent. [With the lesson learned that].... Democracy in a pluralist culture means coaxing a common good to emerge from the clash of competing individual interests.—- (James T. Kloppenberg, Reading Obama: Dreams, Hope, and the American Political Tradition)


A fascinating new book…. Although Fred Kaplan never mentions Mr. Obama by name, it’s hard to read this volume without thinking of the current president-elect – who turns out to share a startling array of philosophical and literary qualities with his predecessor.—- (Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times, from a review of Lincoln: The Biography of a Writer)


For Lincoln, words mattered immensely. His increasing skill in their use during his lifetime, and his high valuation of their power, mark him as the one president who was both a national leader and a genius with language at a time when its power and integrity mattered more than it does today. Lincoln is distinguished from every other president, with the exception of Jefferson, in that we can be certain that he wrote every word to which his name is attached. Lincoln was also the last president whose character and standards in the use of language avoided the distortions and other dishonest uses of language that have done so much to undermine the credibility of national leaders. The ability and commitment to use language honestly and consistently have largely disappeared from our political discourse. Some have been more talented in its use than others. But the challenge of a president himself struggling to find the conjunction between the right words and honest expression, a use of language that respects intellect, truth, and sincerity, has largely been abandoned.—- (Fred, Kaplan, Lincoln: The Biography of a Writer)

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