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Philosophical pragmatism and political crisis management

Philosophical pragmatism has found more and more applications. But thus far it has not been applied to political crisis management. Political scientist Martin Bartenberger linked these two together and discovered that pragmatism, or the lack thereof, can help to explain how governments and public agencies deal with crises. His PhD defence ceremony is on 13 December 2017.

Principles or pragmatism?

After getting acquainted with the core literature of philosophical pragmatism, Bartenberger asked what ‘pragmatist crisis management’ would look like and whether he could find it in political practice. A practice which is often governed by rather strict principles, such as political ideologies, economic dogmas, etcetera.

Pragmatism can be regarded as the philosophical attempt to deal with uncertainty. Pragmatists argue that we cannot erase uncertainty from our lives. Instead, we should learn to live with it and even embrace it. Pragmatism offers four guidelines for dealing with uncertainty: don’t think in black-and-white terms (anti-dualism), be aware that you might be wrong and that your knowledge might need to be revised (fallibilism), try out things and see how they go (experimentalism) and talk with others (or simulate such a discussion mentally) about difficult decisions where you are unsure what to do (deliberation

The Bush administration, Bear Stearns, and Lehman Brothers

On the basis of these four guidelines Bartenberger built a model which he contrasted with what could be labeled a principle-guided approach to crisis management (dualism, infallibilism, ‘one best way’, dictation). He uses this model to analyse two key political decisions during the US financial crisis: the decision to save the investment bank Bear Stearns in 2008 and the decision to let Lehman Brothers fail in a similar situation a few months later. Bartenberger’s analysis shows that the Bush administration overcame its principles and engaged in pragmatist crisis management in the Bear Stearns case. The Lehman Brothers can be understood as a switch-back to principle-guided crisis management.

Political Pragmatism and Principles in Times of Crisis

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