U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Roundtable: John Burt’s LINCOLN’S TRAGIC PRAGMATISM (Part II)

LTPWelcome to Part II of our roundtable on John Burt’s book, Lincoln’s Tragic Pragmatism. Today’s contribution is by Peter Kuryla, associate professor of history at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee. Part I (Richard King’s contribution) can be viewed here.

Lincoln’s Tragic Pragmatism: the Leap in the Dark and the Leap into Darkness

As I thought about how to approach John Burt’s remarkable book, I decided that reading it with the express purpose of disagreeing with it would be limiting and somehow peevish. It would hardly be in keeping with the generous spirit of the text, which in many ways concerns how certain people in the 1850s tried to keep open a space of persuasive engagement and thereby avoid the pitfalls of moral narcissism. To Teutonize this a little, reading-in-order-to-find-fault suggests a type of being undisposed to persuasion. While this kind of disposition doesn’t necessarily suspend the possibility that one might be persuaded altogether, it surely limits the number of things one can say about a book. It also happens that many of the arguments in John Burt’s book are persuasive. Lincoln’s Tragic Pragmatism is one of the most creative intellectual histories I’ve read in my short time trying to do intellectual history. For one thing, after reading this book I realized that I misread the Lincoln-Douglas debates for my students on a few occasions, all while under-estimating the potential of the debates for broader thinking about values. Hopefully the strong likelihood that the students in those classes have by now blissfully forgotten most everything I tried to teach them grants me a small measure of absolution for that pedagogical sin.

In this spirit of openness then, it makes sense to start with something small before moving into much larger questions. I plan to locate the central idea of the book, what the author calls “implicitness of concepts” in a more formal way with respect to the word “Pragmatism.” This idea of implicitness is not precisely “Pragmatic” in a formal philosophical sense of that term. To show specifically how this is so, I mean to compare two senses of the phrase “a leap in the dark”: as John Burt uses that term and as William James uses it (or more precisely borrows it.) Following that, I’ll pitch a few questions Professor Burt’s way about what might loosely be called the content of the form of the book.

So first, locating “implicitness of concepts”: It would be best to borrow an example from the book before moving forward. Rather than offer any comprehensive definition, what follows suggests an opening to think about it a bit more, so that locating it in and among the ideas in William James’ essay “The Will to Believe” does a more precise positioning rather like locating a point on an intellectual map.

In several instances in the text, the author shows how Abraham Lincoln privileged the Declaration of Independence over the Constitution. The Declaration’s statement of equality (all men are created equal) in this sense acts as the implicit concept, while the Constitution represents a conception. The author follows here H.L.A. Hart’s distinction between concept and conception. The concept of equality in the Declaration, owing to its implicitness, obligated those who acted in its wake to outcomes they never could have anticipated and to things that those who made the statement in the first place could never have seen nor even have supported. [1] This includes the delegates at Philadelphia in 1787, and for that matter Abraham Lincoln. Burt puts this much better in his early chapter on Lincoln’s 1854 Peoria speech:

The boundaries of the promise of equality are not specified, and for that reason it continues to unfold new layers of obligation. This claim, that some political promises are saturated with entailments those who make them may not be able to make good on, is pressed by Lincoln into an even stronger view: that in politics one makes certain kinds of value commitments without fully knowing what their entailments are, that only much later do we know the meaning of the things we have promised, and indeed, we find ourselves often to have promised things we would have denied were in our intentions when we made the promise. Political values have the kind of implicitness that people do (70).

The Jamesean “Leap in the Darkness”

By the time we get to the end of the stunning coda at the book’s close, the reader gets a full portrait of this idea of implicitness, this time as it appears from the tragic theological perspective of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address. (To be a bit too pat: it all makes one wonder if Reinhold Niebuhr was really ever all that serious about tragedy.) The author repeats some figurative language that appears a few times in the book, this time to moving effect: “The leap of faith is a leap in the dark. But it is not a leap into darkness” (707). In other words, one can never be sure about where, in the experience of politics, our values fall in the disjuncture—or to use the author’s more accurate term “aporia”—between the concept and conception. Only history will tell.

Readers of William James might recall in Burt’s words a sentence that the philosopher borrowed from Fitz-James Stephen at the end of his famous essay “The Will to Believe” (1896): “In all the important transactions in life, we have to take a leap in the dark.” [2] Other commentators on Lincoln’s Tragic Pragmatism have mentioned, mostly in passing, that the author, despite the title of his book, doesn’t discuss “pragmatism” in the formal sense as a philosophical tradition, which he hardly should have been expected to do. [3] He means the word more in its commonplace derivation as a sort of seat-of-the-pants, practical decision-making from what I gathered by reading the book. At the risk of being obtuse, it’s worth being a bit more precise about how Burt’s idea of implicitness and phenomenology/ontology of values differ from James’ thinking in his essay and elsewhere, because it tells us something about James’s ideas and something about Lincoln’s Tragic Pragmatism at the same time.

On the surface it seems obvious. Burt relies on Kant and Rawls. James, like any Pragmatist evades metaphysical or transcendental “skyhooks” for values, simple as that. (“Skyhook” is Richard Rorty’s word for it.) [4] Yet, Burt’s attention to “workaday political texts” as a way to draw out thinking “on the pulse” of events rather than more formal and systematic thinking is something James could certainly support in his way. In fact, James thinks this how we believe things for the most part, on the pulse, so to speak, before our knowledge is complete or settled, in the sense of “complete” being empirical verification, where all of the evidence is in. This is somewhat different than the idea of “negative capability” that Burt describes. Privileging conduct over the empirical verification of belief—which James does—is rather different from the premise that any complete sense of an implicit concept is ultimately unknowable at bottom. Nonetheless, James’ point stacks up to something like a phenomenological claim, and this is why the last sentence in the quote from Professor Burt’s book that I used earlier, “political values have the kind of implicitness people do” goes along with this general tendency. That is, both James and Burt are concerned with how people experience the values they believe in and act upon. For precisely this reason, in his famous essay James highlights moral questions as especially subject to this kind of experience. He writes “Moral questions immediately present themselves [to experience] as questions whose solutions cannot wait for sensible proof” (729). That is, we believe first and wait for the proof to come in later, if it ever does at all, when it comes to moral matters.

The aims here are somewhat different too, in that Burt’s book concerns how values work in the tumble of political crises and in political space, while James means to question the kind of scientism that, in its zeal for correcting error, would somehow abandon the warp and woof of our experience of believing in something. While James would have avoided thinking about it this way, this bears a roughly analogous relation to the distinction one might make between the understanding as a sort of cold rationality, and reason, which, being situated, has the warmth of human feeling about it. In other words, James tries to make some room for moral belief apart from the kind of scientism that would deny the ultimate reality or transcendence of such things as morals, which, in the first place, defies the way that we experience and feel about our beliefs.

But James doesn’t take all that strong a position on either side of the slippery slopes Burt identifies in the workings of the political spaces that open amidst the implicitness of concepts. That is, when one adopts a position that refuses a place for values in politics because political spaces are for deal-making first and foremost (roughly the Stephen Douglas position), one potentially gives into a kind of moral skepticism that makes one defenseless against those who would use coercion. In that case, the person who excludes values from political space has shown him or herself willing to compromise pretty much anything and so becomes infinitely vulnerable. On the other hand, one might insist that as a matter of principle certain absolutes should never be compromised in political space. Here one risks the kind of moral narcissism that makes negotiation impossible and coercion inevitable. (There are several discussions of this problem in the book. My favorite line that comes out of it is “when one invokes God the God one invokes turns out to be a version of one’s self, except with a much louder voice (444).)

As Burt sees it anyway, Lincoln’s ability to preserve moral principle without indulging in the temptations of moral narcissism characterized his greatest accomplishments, which often meant that Abe was willing to make deals if it meant that over the long run his moral principles could still be upheld. For example, Lincoln could abide by legislation or court decisions that he disagreed with when he felt that his moral principles had not been fatally compromised. This explains his position on the Fugitive Slave Act, the Dred Scott decision or the Corwin Amendment. These were not simply examples of Lincoln “playing politics” in the pejorative sense we tend to use the term politics. (I suspect Burt might point to this pejorative usage as one of the failures of our modern moral imaginations. It also happens to suggest Stephen Douglas’s position.)

James, for his part, wants to show that moral and religious beliefs have their place and are important, but not much else beyond that. He argues that we are justified in having beliefs that some would regard as unreal or mere window dressing for biological imperatives or the like. We have a right to our moral beliefs when we hold them genuinely. James seems less interested in just what we do with them after that, so long as we act on them.

James might also say that, for pretty much all of the actors involved, the decisions Burt describes in his book fit his “live, forced, and momentous” criteria for genuine belief in most cases. Quickly, his criteria work like this: If we describe belief as a hypothesis, such hypotheses must be “live” in the sense that we can imagine making a choice to believe in one way or another, “forced” in the sense that there is no other alternative than to believe one way or the other, and “momentous,” in the sense that it actually matters that we make it (it’s not trivial to us.)

By Jamesean lights, Lincoln’s problem with Stephen Douglas was that, in refusing moral principle in political space, Douglas didn’t demonstrate genuine belief. While the decision about whether or not to support the expansion of slavery was a live option for him, Douglas made it seem as if they weren’t forced or momentous. He could believe in popular sovereignty, and thus avoid taking a position on the morality of slavery, and thus care “not whether slavery is voted down or voted up” to use Lincoln’s formulation. This moral flabbiness in Douglas’ popular sovereignty position made his belief about slavery appear to be a trivial rather than momentous matter.

But this raises an issue James never really considered that much, which is how the political space itself encourages what, following Machiavelli, might be called the “art of seeming.” While Lincoln accused Douglas of not believing one way or the other, the truth of the matter, as Burt shows, was that the Little Giant did oppose slavery in his way. Douglas simply thought political spaces shouldn’t admit moral questions like that, and in the end it cost him dearly. In other words, because James never really considered how people construe political spaces, a slippage happens because politics does tricky things to belief. In the form of a question: when it comes to political spaces, can we really talk about genuine beliefs in the Jamesean sense anyway? It all depends on the political figure in question. For the moment anyway, following James, we can surely conclude that Lincoln’s belief in the immorality of slavery met his criteria for genuine belief, political space or no.

But what about this “leap in the dark” business? James’ “leap in the dark” went into a space where both moral skepticism and moral idealism happened to live. It meant that,

“Moral skepticism can be no more refuted or proved by logic than intellectual skepticism can. When we stick to it that there is truth (be it of either kind) [James means moral reality or mere behaviorism here] we do so with our whole nature, and resolve to stand or fall by the results. The skeptic with his whole nature adopts the doubting attitude; but which of us is the wiser, only omniscience knows” (730).

I suspect John Burt would call this, rather than a leap in the dark, a “leap in the darkness.” For Burt, James expresses an untenable position about values, or one that makes a person vulnerable to force. Following Kant, Burt contends that political values are hardly worth having in a democracy unless one starts with the premise that everyone has transcendent moral worth and thus agency by virtue of being human—in Jamesean terms, unless one believes in that particular “moral reality.” So the biggest difference between the two, and the thing that makes John Burt’s book something other than Pragmatic in the formal or at least Jamesean sense of that term, is that James seems to encourage us to believe wholeheartedly one way or the other, traps of moral narcissism and moral flabbiness be damned. In this sense, Stephen Douglas’ real problem was that he failed to act according to his genuine belief. At the very least, if Douglas genuinely believed in popular sovereignty he could not at the same time have genuinely believed in either the positive good or moral sin of slavery because those beliefs would no longer have been forced or momentous.

More to the historical point though, when James does deal with other people in situations vaguely resembling something like political space, in essays like “A Certain Blindness in Human Beings (1899)” he agrees that human beings have moral worth as agents, but he locates their worth in experiential sources rather than morally absolute or transcendent ones. His view on this is not all that far from the idea of implicitness and negative capability, in the sense that James thinks that human experience has endless mysteries that we never ultimately plumb, and if we open ourselves to imagining those experiences, we can very well change our minds. What makes a person unique and singular are their unique and singular experiences, which he insists that we tolerate and allow, because in the end the strands of our experiences bind us together somehow.

In other words, James does describe something that vaguely resembles what Burt elsewhere, through Lincoln and following John Rawls, outlines as an ideal imaginary political opponent to whom one can appeal to on the basis of rationality in the form of reasonableness. The difference is that James was more concerned with the virtues of simply understanding one another than with the effort to persuade the other of anything. Because James does little to construe political space, the other in our midst is not an opponent whom we imagine as reasonable in order to persuade, but a fellow struggler groping in the darkness.

The Form of the Book and its Central Concept

I wish I had more space to do what I had originally planned to do when I started writing this, which was discuss the ways that John Burt’s book adds up to a really productive way of doing intellectual history. I’ll just note some things here in the hopes that we might take it up in our discussion. Rather than proceeding in a simple evolutionary fashion, where ideas simply develop over time and only according to what a historical actor knew in specific times and places—the form that comes with historicism—by means of creative interventions here and there the author moves back and forth in time, referencing events further back in the past or as yet in the future from those being directly addressed. While it is roughly chronological, once one digs in, any rigid linearity gives way rather quickly. The supple form of the book suggests or follows its central concept of implicitness in this way. The writer can then write about what Lincoln knew intuitively or ultimately meant but did not know at the time, often deploying references to events that lay in Lincoln’s future. This also means that Burt does not rely on the kind of figurative language that narrative historians use to convey distance from their subject matter. Maybe because the author is not a historian by job title anyway, he never adopts some of the standard guises that historians tend to assume to hide themselves in the text. His presence is keenly felt in places. In this way, the stunning conclusion to the book, where Burt uses the pronoun “we,” while not prescriptive, nonetheless seems to describe how the author has come to believe that reason works in history. This big philosophical claim comes from considerable historical reflection and critical interventions of a literary variety.

These critical interventions, or this “negative capability” that the author discusses following Keats, mean that reasoning our way in a concept is like trying to know a person. There are depths we will never reach. Because I think this is a great way to think about doing intellectual history, questions about method nagged me. For example, what is the ultimate effect of the writer intervening with the benefit of retrospect while at the same time contending that the concept will never be ultimately known? Presumably, it awaits those in the future to do the same for us. Still, the author, because of his position in the text, his voice, knows things that his subjects could not have known and thus can make conclusions about what his subjects intuitively knew without knowing. He has to intervene with his words to tell us what Lincoln meant by his words but couldn’t express for himself, an intervention made possible by the writer’s having made a larger claim about how reason works and how ideas move. It seems to me that this form of argumentation in the text means that by design the author mostly refuses the dispensation (or dodge, evasion) probably accepted by most historians, that a philosophical claim reaches only as far as the historical subject on whose behalf he or she speaks. Historicist dispensations of one kind or another provide historians a certain amount of cover. Dispensation refused, it becomes tricky to parse the author and the historical subjects. If John Burt can creatively intervene for Lincoln because he has made an ontological claim about concepts, then where does Lincoln end and Burt start? Does it even matter? After all, this is a book about historical actors thinking things, which includes plenty of thinking about the things historical actors knew but didn’t know at the time, which invariably adds up to some profound thinking about thinking itself.

It just so happened that I’ve been teaching James Agee’s part of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men while writing this. It leads me to yet another set of questions. Agee’s always-intervening, self-lacerating consciousness very nearly spoils the thing (I use “thing” here because Agee insists in his wonderfully dyspeptic way that his readers forget that it’s a book they’re reading). Agee had a hard time distinguishing the important from the unimportant. For that reason, his difficulty and his achievement in that text amounted to the same thing. His effort to deal with something called “actuality” required poetic interventions in recognition of the problem that Wilfred Sellars called, in a different register, “the myth of the given.” Even when Agee seemed to clear the decks, he found he couldn’t do it:

Though I do on the one hand seriously believe that the universe can be seen in a grain of sand and that that is as good a lens as any other and a more practicable one that the universe, I am not trying to do any such job here. One too many other counts I simply do not think the experience was important enough to justify any such effort; and I will consistently hope to keep the effort and method in strict proportion to my own limited judgment of the importance of the experience as a whole and in its parts. [5]

The kicker here is that, in a footnote at the bottom of the page, Agee included a maddening caveat for his contention that some experiences were not important enough to “justify an effort”: “I am no longer sure of this.” A caveat of my own: I don’t mean to suggest that John Burt’s book is like James Agee’s at all. I just happen to think that Agee’s dilemma brings into bolder relief a problem that creative, expansive minds tend to share. Is there anything that John Burt, thinking now about his manuscript, is “no longer sure of?” I mean this is in the sense of not only what he might have excluded, but what he might have included. Put another way, were there moments of doubt where he wondered whether this or that discussion was necessary for his central concept? Were there other moments when he wished he had pushed further out to illuminate it? Everyone who knows about Lincoln’s Tragic Pragmatism knows that it’s a very big book. Large swaths of it are dedicated to discussions that might be called esoteric by those less than familiar with the ins and outs of 1850s politics. (I learned an astounding amount about that stuff by reading this book.) I suppose I wonder where and in what instances the author considered the horizon between content and form. Lincoln’s Tragic Pragmatism would not be the same accomplishment had the author not followed so many paths that did or could have informed what Lincoln and Douglas knew and stated and what Lincoln and Douglas knew intuitively without knowing at the time, because the “paths” add up to something like the negations necessary to illuminate the identity of the text’s central idea of implicitness of concepts. [6] If this were only a book about Lincoln and Douglas and their world, perhaps making the judgment about what one can or should include would be easier. When it comes to a historically considered exploration of an idea about how ideas work, one can only guess where to draw the line. In the end, we can be grateful that John Burt, with his elegant judgment, has drawn that line for us.

[1]For the richest example, see John Burt, Lincoln’s Tragic Pragmatism: Lincoln, Douglas, and Moral Conflict (Chicago, 2013), 302-4. Future references to the book are parenthetical.

[2] William James, “The Will to Believe” in James McDermott, ed., The Writings of William James (Random House, 1967), 735. Future references to this essay are parenthetical.

[3] I seem to recall that a few commentators mentioned this during a roundtable recorded for C-Span: http://www.c-span.org/video/?312485-2/lincolns-tragic-pragmatism

[4] See Rorty, Objectivity, Relativism and Truth (Cambridge, 1991), 13.

[5] James Agee and Walker Evans, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (Houghton-Mifflin, 2001), 214.

[6] If we follow the implications of implicitness with these issues in mind, does it suggest that somewhere down the line we can’t foreclose more thinking about Abraham Lincoln and these debates, in that, we can’t know if what Lincoln knew intuitively but did not know might prove different once we allow the implicitness of the concept of equality to unfold a bit further? Thinking about this, I was drawn to an endnote about Lincoln and teleology. Lincoln’s thinking had teleological characteristics, but not completely, because “the further ranges of the implications of a key value always remain opaque, and even those who further the advancement of the telos usually act from mixed motives and in the dark about their own aims” (n.46 p.762-3).

This is where implicitness of concepts suggests something Hegelian on the hand and refuses it on the other. The notion of “moral intuition” and “tacit knowledge” in relation to this in the book suggest a place where philosophy in the Hegelian sense of reason reasoning itself can’t go any further, because we can’t talk much about what animates the being of the concept itself other than human beings. Yet, this idea of the concept at one time suggested to me a certain timelessness or eternality of a kind that searches for something deeper or roughly Hegelian like geist or the like. Another way of putting this would be that I wondered about the deeper ontology of the concept as I read the book. That is, if we think about the way that, for Hegel, history is about particulars, our limited “conceptions,” we might consider the ways in which conceptions, by virtue of being in time, resist the concept, which we might call the eternal. Yet, despite the fact that the eternal/concept resists the temporal/conception, it has to appear in time in order to come to know itself in and through history, and we experience this self-knowing of thinking from the vantage point of philosophy, which is something more than the mere understanding, but the reasoning of reason itself. In other words, maybe the Kantian/Rawlsian moral intuition gist of the book doesn’t entirely foreclose a loose or latitudinarian Hegelian reading. I’m not sure. I’ll have to think about it some more.

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  1. It is most exciting to read these notes on Burt’s book and that roundtable. I really have read nothing like Burt’s book, and it is a long read, involving great concentration and seriousness, to unpack all of the cultural and poetic allusiveness in the text. I suspect it may be years or decades for those of us who have had the opportunity (or time!) to complete it to fully grapple with it. It feels like one for the ages.

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