Jamesian Pragmatism and the Work of Civic Renewal

As part of the Kettering Foundation’s ongoing research, our staff and allied organizations gather for monthly Dayton Days research sessions to reflect on the ideas guiding our work and to share new insights. Conceptual thinkers from outside the foundation join us to talk about their work and provoke our thinking.

In March 2022, we invited Trygve Throntveit, director of strategic partnership at the Minnesota Humanities Center and global fellow for history and public policy at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. He is the author of two books: William James and the Quest for an Ethical Republic (2014) and Power without Victory: Woodrow Wilson and the American International Experiment (2017).

In March 2022 I was invited by the Kettering Foundation to discuss the intersection of my research in intellectual and political history and political and civic theory with my organizing work in two major areas: the civic renewal of American public life and the civic reconstruction of American higher education. These interests of mine are connected by a personal vision and an ethos of democracy strongly shaped by the pragmatist philosophy of William James. The conversation was an opportunity to explore intersections between my interests and themes I have long observed in Kettering’s citizen-centered concept of democracy.

I have long been attracted to James’s concept of an “ethical republic”: an empirical and normative vision of human life as interdependent and in a state of continual cocreation. For James, the fact of an ethical republic is given: We are free only insofar as our communities tolerate and sustain our freedom. The quality of the ethical republic we inhabit, however, is something we all have a say in determining. We affect its character with every moral choice we make. Each choice entails the sacrifice of some ideal—some vision of a future good—in place of a different ideal. Do I stay in bed for 10 more minutes or leave myself time to enjoy my breakfast? Do I choose the convenience of a car or save myself and my environment its costs by using public transportation? Do I urge restraint on political leaders in time of international crisis or insist that “we” intervene to stop evil abroad—and exactly how, by the way, do I include myself in that “we”? Finally, in nearly all our significant moral choices, the competing futures at stake involve the roles we expect other people to play in them. In other words, one of the main factors in our decisions—either before the fact or in terms of our ease or happiness in following them through—is the judgment, and thus the tolerance or cooperation, of others.   

This is not to say James thought social convention or peer pressure should guide our moral decision making. James held that our choices and the sacrifices of conflicting ideals were ultimately existential decisions for which no correct formula could ever be found, and thus no individual or collective perspective could be automatically privileged over another. At the same time, he also believed that the more information and imagination we bring to our decisions, both individual and collective, the better our chances will be for them to yield happy consequences. In other words, James believed there were moral and epistemological arguments for deliberative rather than impulsive or formulaic decision-making. Given our individually limited cognitive capacities and irreducibly social existence, he believed collective deliberation of the most inclusive sort was our most reliable means of making choices that were good for us in the long run. This view differs strikingly from the assumption, implicit in our contemporary polarized discourse, that legitimate governance is a straightforward matter of translating moral or factual absolutes into practice, and that resistance to “my” asbolutes is therefore illegitimate and even evil. For James, the best way to govern and defend the ethical republic was not fanatically but democratically.

The fact that ethical and political problems involve genuine trade-offs, and the notion that inclusive, respectful deliberation is the best means of understanding those trade-offs and their impact on people, is central to Kettering’s research and has resonated deeply with me. Indeed, these same basic ideas impel my work with the Minnesota Humanities Center (MHC). Especially in the areas of civic renewal and the civic reconstruction of higher education, my work is informed by, resonant with, or cast in new light by efforts of the Kettering community. This May, for instance, MHC piloted its first Citizens’ Deliberative Forum on “Pathways to Electoral Health.” This pilot was directly inspired by practices we encountered through our participation in Kettering’s Initiatives for Democratic Practices program. The strategic approaches we offer in our new issue guide are informed not only by the National Issues Forums issue advisory on elections, but also by a wide-ranging, Minnesota-focused series of concern-gathering sessions. Our hope is that Minnesotans eager to solve the problem of declining trust in our elections systems and voting culture will become more informed about the value trade-offs that each of the most plausible solutions entails and about the deeply felt concerns of their fellow citizens—especially those with whom they rarely interact or strongly disagree. We hope this practice encourages Minnesotans to practice empathic deliberation in other spheres, so that person-by-person, group-by-group, the civic muscle and civic agency of the state is strengthened.

I also spearhead an undergraduate civic learning initiative that owes much to Kettering’s investments in the theory and practice of higher-education reform, and particularly the work of longtime Kettering associate Harry Boyte. Third Way Civics (3WC) seeks to address the civic crisis at a point of major social leverage: the undergraduate experience. Undergraduates go on to populate and lead all the other major institutions of society. Moreover, their instructors—academics—exercise significant influence on which ideas and methods for addressing public problems gain the attention of leaders in other institutions.

3WC immerses students and instructors in a self-reflective, collaborative civic learning experience. It does not provide answers to their civic questions, but rather builds their capacities to formulate those answers themselves and to act on them. Readings highlight the continually contested nature of American democracy and the many instances in which everyday citizens have joined hands, across differences, to improve the public life they share. Classroom activities require students to act as the citizens they are, working with one another to find shared meanings in the American past and shared strategies for improving the American present.

In my view, 3WC is an effort to cultivate what Kettering president emeritus David Mathews calls the “ecology” of democracy, and simultaneously an experimental demonstration of what Harry Boyte calls “public work.” One could argue the whole point of 3WC is to focus on oneself while simultaneously thinking beyond oneself. Instructors are coached to sluff their habitual role of “sage on the stage,” instead facilitating a process of individually reflective yet collaborative learning in which diverse students teach the material to one another, not simply absorbing and parsing their professors’s ideas. In the process, students and faculty learn that differences of perspective and even drastically different interpretations of shared information are so common—so natural—as to render the all-too-common (and influential) notion of a “Good America” versus a “Bad America” completely nonsensical. Instead, 3WC students and faculty start thinking about the values that people bring to political discussions and start imagining what it would feel like to hold otherwise unfamiliar or even abhorrent values.

Those of us who care about the work of democracy—and the intellectual, institutional, and cultural ecology that fosters and rewards such work—could, in my opinion, do worse than read William James, to develop a sense for how to live a free yet rigorous and publicly consequential life of the mind.