The Principled Pragmatic Reader

Tod Kelly

Tod is a writer from the Pacific Northwest. He is also serves as Executive Producer and host of both the 7 Deadly Sins Show at Portland's historic Mission Theatre and 7DS: Pants On Fire! at the White Eagle Hotel & Saloon. He is  a regular inactive for Marie Claire International and the Daily Beast, and is currently writing a book on the sudden rise of exorcisms in the United States. Follow him on Twitter.

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87 Responses

  1. Patrick says:

    An Introduction to General Systems Theory, Weinberg
    The Sciences of the Artificial, Simon
    Policy Analysis: Concepts and Practice, Weimer and Vining
    Beyond Fear, Schneier
    Why Americans Hate Politics, Dionne
    Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis, Allison

    This post deserves a post answer, but that’s my immediate 10 second response before I call it a night.Report

    • Mad Rocket Scientist in reply to Patrick says:

      Beyond Fear is right up there with The Demon Haunted World as books that HS Juniors & Seniors should be required to read & understand before they are allowed to vote.Report

      • Patrick in reply to Mad Rocket Scientist says:

        It’s amazing to me that the same guy who wrote “Applied Cryptography” could write “Secrets and Lies” or “Beyond Fear”.

        I really like both S&L and Beyond Fear. If you could mash them up you’d really get an awesome book on security principles that apply to the general world. There’s some redundancy between the two, though.Report

        • Mad Rocket Scientist in reply to Patrick says:

          Well one would assume a proper mash-up would fix those redundanciesReport

        • BlaiseP in reply to Patrick says:

          Perhaps it’s unfair — but I detest Bruce Schneier. Applied Cryptography is a terrible, terrible book. It’s hard work writing a book on cryptography which is simultaneously useless from both a theoretical and practical standpoint, but trust Schneier to manage this stunt.

          May I recommend The Tangled Web by Zalewski.Report

          • Patrick in reply to BlaiseP says:

            Heh, for the last few years, Bruce has mentioned time and again on his blog that he thinks he did a very bad job of writing Applied Cryptography, simply because a lot of people that read it went out and wrote really insecure code.

            So he agrees with you, Blaise 🙂

            I give him a little more credit: he was early in his writing career, and he was attempting to distill something that wasn’t already out in the public sphere, so I still mark it as notable as a first real attempt to explain the intricacies of crypto to people who hadn’t already known who Whitfield Diffie is and why he was interesting.

            (edited to add) Practical Cryptography is actually a pretty good book. Most people who bought Applied probably should throw it out and get Practical Cryptography instead.(/edited)Report

    • Tod Kelly in reply to Patrick says:

      A good list – by which I mean, a good reading list for me.

      The only one of these titles I’ve read is Allison’s Essence of Decision, and that was back in the eighties in college. It is an excellent choice.Report

      • Patrick in reply to Tod Kelly says:

        Dude, you really, really should read the Weimer and Vining book (unless Nob chimes in with a better introduction to policy analysis class). It should fit right into your brain.Report

  2. Damon says:

    The Moon is a Harsh Mistress
    Starship Troopers
    Fordham’s Freehold

    All by Heinlein. Political theory AND a story. 🙂Report

    • Michael Cain in reply to Damon says:

      Farnam‘s Freehold.Report

    • Tod Kelly in reply to Damon says:

      Are these good books for this subject? I’ve never read a lot of Heinlein, I’ve mostly seen the movies – which I assume would be a bad metric to use for judging the books here.Report

      • Mike Schilling in reply to Tod Kelly says:

        If you think that “White people aren’t evil; we just wound up on top. If black people were on top, they’d make us slaves. Also, they’d eat us.” is a useful addition to the conversation …Report

      • Patrick in reply to Tod Kelly says:

        You should read Starship Troopers. Farnham’s Freehold was just a bad idea. I give RAH a bit less snark than Mike does, he’s asking what are fundamentally interesting questions (how does cultural power enable perceptions), but he does it really badly and it’s impossible to read it without it coming across as whitesplaining. Because there is whitesplaining in there, that’s for sure.

        The Moon is a Harsh Mistress I quite liked. But I generally like Heinlein.Report

  3. Christopher Carr says:

    Re: The Lucifer Principle

    Somewhat related though not entirely analogous (and sort of yin to Bloom’s yang):

    Your description reminded me simultaneously of this essay I read by Stephen King a while back (

    And also of Michael Jensen’s idea of “Devil Theory” (

    And also of Noam Chomsky’s description of the psychological forces underlying the War on Terror in the post-Cold War era. I can’t find a link (Chomsky needs to stop producing so much work), but the basic idea is that the American collective unconscious needed a devil to replace the Soviet Union after the iron curtain fell.

    Oh, and incidentally, I sort of find Malcolm Gladwell stuffed full of facile, self-serving bullshit.Report

  4. zic says:

    The Dispossessed by Ursula LeGuin.

    Left me understanding that there is no perfect system; it is the process of perfecting that counts.Report

  5. Roger says:

    Great post. Totally awesome. I appreciate the list, and completely agree with your emphasis on the arcane. It’s more pragmatic.

    The link to your original post and the ensuing discussion was also great. I finished my first cup of morning joe and just kept on reading the excellent discussion.

    One suggestion for arcane pragmatism is Robert Pirsig’s Lila. Fiction with a liberal dose of pop philosophy by the author of Motorcycle Maintenance, which just about everybody read back in high school.

    Now I found a link to William James’ Pragmatism and am brushing up on that for the first time in a decade.Report

  6. LeeEsq says:

    What about Aristotles’ Politics and Nichomechean Ethics? Plato tried to create the perfect political and social system in his Republic, it was probably the first work that tried to devise the mechanism for a utopian system. Aristotle realizing that humans are humans tried to figure out what work based on what we are not what we should be.

    I’d also argue that the Talmud is the work of principled pragmatists. The Rabbis who wrote it debated about what the mitzvah of the Torah actually mean but at the same time tried to put in enough flexibility so that the letter of the law does not triumph over real life. So while the laws of Shabbat are strict, they can be violated for the sake of helping the sick or aiding a pregnant woman.Report

    • Tod Kelly in reply to LeeEsq says:

      Yeah, I like including selected parts of Aristotle a lot.

      The idea of the Talmud is intriguing; I confess I don’t know enough of it to judge. But this tickles my curiosity enough to follow up with some friends of mine who know it far better than I.Report

  7. “While there is no doubt Melville…”

    AAAH!!! You’ve gone against book number one already!

    (I’ll try to respond more seriously later.)Report

  8. Chris says:

    Wolf Hall is an interesting choice, given where Cromwell’s pragmatism ultimately gets him.Report

    • Tod Kelly in reply to Chris says:

      Yes, although Wolf Hall stops its story line well before Cromwell’s date with the axe.

      I guess I could respond to this in one of three ways:

      1. I was only dealing with what was in the book, not what I know about what happens later.

      2. I think you can make a case that he goes farther and makes a bigger, more positive impact on his country that a non-nobleman might have expected, so maybe he gets stuyle points?

      3. I’m still waiting to see how the trilogy ends in Mantel’s hands. Will Cromwell eventually be a tragic hero? A martyr? A talented man brought down by the random forces of the world outside of his control? We’ll see.Report

      • Chris in reply to Tod Kelly says:

        I was mostly being silly. I enjoyed the book, and I have Bringing up the Bodies, but I haven’t read it yet. I basically with your take on Cromwell, as well, though his pragmatism didn’t only result in his own death, but many deaths.

        Have you read Ford Maddox Ford’s The Fifth Queen trilogy? If you like Mantel’s book, you may like them as well. Since Cromwell is not the protagonistReport

        • Chris in reply to Chris says:

          Ugh, hit submit mid-comment…

          Since Cromwell is not the protagonist, I’m not sure they count as examples of principled pragmatism in action, but they are great reads.Report

  9. BlaiseP says:

    Philip Sidney: An Apologie for Poetrie

    There is no art delivered unto mankind that hath not the works of nature for his principal object, without which they could not consist, and on which they so depend as they become actors and players, as it were, of what nature will have set forth. So doth the astronomer look upon the stars, and by that he seeth set down what order nature hath taken therein. So doth the geometrician and arithmetician, in their diverse sorts of quantities. So doth the musician, in times, tell you which by nature agree, which not. The natural philosopher thereon hath his name; and the moral philosopher standeth upon the natural virtues, vices, or passions of man; and follow nature, saith he, therein, and thou shalt not err. The lawyer saith what men have determined. The historian, what men have done. The grammarian speaketh only of the rules of speech; and the rhetorician and logician, considering what in nature will soonest prove and persuade, thereon give artificial rules, which still are compassed within the circle of a question, according to the proposed matter. The physician weigheth the nature of man’s body, and the nature of things helpful and hurtful unto it. And the metaphysic, though it be in the second and abstract notions, and therefore be counted supernatural, yet doth he, indeed, build upon the depth of nature. Only the poet, disdaining to be tied to any such subjection, lifted up with the vigour of his own invention, doth grow, in effect, into another nature; in making things either better than nature bringeth forth, or quite anew; forms such as never were in nature, as the heroes, demi-gods, Cyclops, chimeras, furies, and such like; so as he goeth hand in hand with Nature, not enclosed within the narrow warrant of her gifts, but freely ranging within the zodiac of his own wit. Nature never set forth the earth in so rich tapestry as divers poets have done; neither with so pleasant rivers, fruitful trees, sweet-smelling flowers, nor whatsoever else may make the too- much-loved earth more lovely; her world is brazen, the poets only deliver a golden.

    But let those things alone, and go to man; for whom as the other things are, so it seemeth in him her uttermost cunning is employed; and know, whether she have brought forth so true a lover as Theagenes; so constant a friend as Pylades; so valiant a man as Orlando; so right a prince as Xenophon’s Cyrus; and so excellent a man every way as Virgil’s AEneas? Neither let this be jestingly conceived, because the works of the one be essential, the other in imitation or fiction; for every understanding knoweth the skill of each artificer standeth in that idea, or fore-conceit of the work, and not in the work itself. And that the poet hath that idea is manifest by delivering them forth in such excellency as he had imagined them; which delivering forth, also, is not wholly imaginative, as we are wont to say by them that build castles in the air; but so far substantially it worketh not only to make a Cyrus, which had been but a particular excellency, as nature might have done; but to bestow a Cyrus upon the world to make many Cyruses; if they will learn aright, why, and how, that maker made him. Report

  10. DRS says:

    Machiavelli’s The Discourses (which doesn’t get nearly enough attention)

    Erasmus’ In Praise of Folly (sometimes The Praise of Folly)

    Ian Gilmour’s Inside Right (THE book for real conservatives, non-American division; also a good reminder that the British Conservative Party always a contained a large rump of Tories who were rigorously anti-Thatcher)

    Alan Brinkley’s Voices of Protest: Huey Long, Father Coughlin, and the Great Depression (A seriously under-appreciated book and a great historical survey of the American 20’s and 30’s as well as a dual biography of Coughlin and Long. If you want to really understand the turmoil of the transformative 20’s, the gut-wrenching impact of the ’29 crash on rural America, and the differences between mid-western and southern economic populism, then Brinkley is your man. Shows why the New Deal was a pretty conservative initiative, compared to a lot of the other ideas floating around at the time.)Report

    • Patrick in reply to DRS says:

      Welcome back!

      I second Inside Right, that’s a good read.Report

    • DRS in reply to DRS says:

      If you want some fiction items:

      Shakespeare’s King John (his most political play ever, and if you have a chance to see it live, jump on it. It hardly ever gets done anymore.)

      Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility (Don’t cheat and watch the movie, read the book instead. The novel has the romances but is also a fearless look at the changing economic situation of rural England the impact of transformation on the most vulnerable members of the gentry: widows and orphans at the “mercy” of uncaring relations.)

      Anthony Trollope’s six novels of rural, clerical England in the 19th century known collectively as the Barchester Chronicles. (Wonderfully funny and a close-up view of village/small town life through the perspective of a few clergymen and their families. Will seriously make you wonder why Dickens gets all the attention.)Report

    • BlaiseP in reply to DRS says:

      Voices of Protest is a fascinating book. If America had any idea how close it came to falling under the spell of fascism, there would be a lot less of this cheap talk about how stupid the Germans were to blindly follow Adolf Hitler into the abyss. Father Coughlin filled Yankee Stadium with his followers.

      If there’s anything to be learned from Voices of Protest, it’s how easily a charismatic blowhard can whip up a mob. I recommend Gustave le Bon: the Mob for the clearest explication I’ve ever read of crowd psychology.Report

      • Kimsie in reply to BlaiseP says:

        Have you looked at Oklahoma recently?
        Lotta fascinating research going on there…Report

      • Patrick in reply to BlaiseP says:

        If there’s anything to be learned from Voices of Protest, it’s how easily a charismatic blowhard can whip up a mob.

        That’s a pretty important lesson.

        One reason why I chose Essence of Decision (actually, a great bookend is The Brilliant Disaster along *with* Essence of Decision) is that it shows how leadership can often be mythical.

        Kennedy did a crap job under both The Bay of Pigs Invasion *and* The Cuban Missile Crisis. He was reviled for one and praised for the other, but in both cases a lot of groupthink was going on and it was really only the outcome that made a difference in the perception of the event, and that was a large chunk of luck. And Khrushchev.Report

        • Mike Schilling in reply to Patrick says:

          The most important decision in the missile crisis was not to attack Cuba; as we know now, doing so would have triggered a nuclear attack on the US. There were competing views on this, and Kennedy took the more sensible one.Report

      • DRS in reply to BlaiseP says:

        Also how useless the distinction between liberal-left/conservative-right is when society is really undergoing major stresses and fear verging on panic.Report

        • BlaiseP in reply to DRS says:

          Moreover, examine how both the LL/CR exploit these stresses to their own political benefit.

          Archimedes: give me a long enough lever and I can move the world.

          Asshole Politician: give me a sufficiently serious crisis and I’ll use it as the fulcrum to screw up the world. And I won’t need a very long lever, thanks Arch.Report

      • Mad Rocket Scientist in reply to BlaiseP says:

        It’s a very important lesson! I can not understand the naivety of people today who simply assume that it is impossible for Americans to ever fall for or submit to fascism/tyranny/etc.Report

      • LeeEsq in reply to BlaiseP says:

        I think that America was not under much danger of falling under a spell of Fascism. Father Coughlin, Huey Long, and the America Firsters had a very large fallowing for sure but the American political system did not give them away to seize power. In contrast, the parliamentary systems of Italy and Germany gave their fascists the ability to seize power by winning one election or at least getting a plurality. Then they attacked the system from witihn.

        If American fascists were going to gain power, it would have to be through a direct military coup. The United States military was very discinclined to engage in coup d’etat against any administration and did not have the man power either.Report

        • DRS in reply to LeeEsq says:

          Lee: you need to read the book.Report

          • LeeEsq in reply to DRS says:

            I’m aware of the popularity of Father Coughlin but I’m also aware of the popularity of Rush Limbaugh. Simply because Limbaugh is popular with millions of Americans does not mean he is close to pulling off a coup d’etat.

            There were plenty of proto-Fascists in America during FDR’s term. They did not work together and the Madisonian system was no more favorable to them than it was to the Socialists at the turn of the century. The attempted coup against FDR was more than a little laughable.Report

            • Kimsie in reply to LeeEsq says:

              54% of polled Americans pre-WWII thought Jews made the worst neighbors.Report

            • BlaiseP in reply to LeeEsq says:

              The Beer Hall Putsch looked pretty ridiculous at the time, too.Report

              • LeeEsq in reply to BlaiseP says:

                The main problem with the aftermath of the Beer Hall Putsch was that
                the NSDAP leadership got off too lightly. They should have been punished much more severely for attempting a coup d’etat. One of the main problems with the Weimar Republic was that the judiciary was not sympathetic to the regime and would punish the antics of the Far Right much less severely than they deserved.Report

              • Mike Schilling in reply to LeeEsq says:

                The main problem with the aftermath of the Beer Hall Putsch was that
                the NSDAP leadership was still alive afterward. It’s one case where I’d applaud a complete overreaction by the police, even as far to shooting their German Shepherds.Report

        • BlaiseP in reply to LeeEsq says:

          It was a narrow scrape, Lee. If FDR had been any less adroit and ruthless a politician, I believe the fascists would have won, exactly as they did elsewhere.

          My conclusions are admittedly of the woulda-coulda-shoulda sort. But seen through the lenses of those times, FDR viewed Huey Long as one of the two most dangerous man in America, Douglas MacArthur being the other — which lends some credence to your point about a direct military coup.

          It could have happened here.Report

          • DRS in reply to BlaiseP says:

            And context matters too. The ’20’s did not roar for everyone. There were a lot of agrarian populist governors in the south who had got elected on platforms of standing up for the little guy – and who didn’t have a clue what to do when they got into office and found out life was complicated.

            Some of them had no problem with being called socialists, even while their economic theories weren’t coherent enough to be anywhere close to socialism, and their personal views were pretty drenched in fundamentalist old-time religion. Others ranted against socialism and capitalism both and proclaimed their devotion to Americanism, for want of a better term. And they had conflicting views of Long and later on, Roosevelt – not being sure if they wanted real change or even being sure what real change would look like if it came.Report

            • BlaiseP in reply to DRS says:

              So Huey Long was building bridges and roads all over Louisiana. Very few local firms were employed: The Kingfish hired in outsiders and pocketed a good deal of the proceeds in kickbacks.

              So at turns, various people would ask him “Why aren’t you employing locals to do this work?”

              The Kingfish replied, “Those guys are teaching us poor Cajuns how to build bridges.”Report

        • Kimsie in reply to LeeEsq says:

          Bonus Army not ringing any bells?Report

        • On the question of whether the U.S. might have succumbed to fascism, we have to take into account what fascism in the American context might have meant. Thankfully, it probably would not have meant something on the order of Nazi Germany or Fascist Italy.

          Given America’s traditions of subsidiarity, it might have meant something milder and in some ways not all that different from what the U.S. was like in the 1930s. I think the Jim Crow South in some ways can be called “fascist,” with an imagined “nation-state” in the confederacy and the region’s “peculiarity” being a nod to a diffuse but in many ways brutal “leader principle.” New Deal era federal intervention was in some ways “fascist like” in that it tried to set up and recognize certain corporate entities–organized labor, employers–and balance them against each other.

          I’m not saying the New Deal era U.S. or what happened later was “fascist” (although the Jim Crow south comes very close, but then, the New Deal arguably was based on an evolving political realignment that helped make the civil rights movement, which had already begun, possible). But I am suggesting that as long as we adopt a malleable definition of fascism, we can see similarities and dangers.Report

    • Tod Kelly in reply to DRS says:

      Good choices as well, although in truth I have never read Inside Right. Now I want to ask Brian John Spencer about his take on it.Report

      • DRS in reply to Tod Kelly says:

        You’ll find out just how un-conservative most American “conservatives” really are. Right-wing, definitely, Republican, usually, but not conservative.Report

    • Pierre Corneille in reply to DRS says:

      I’m a pretty big fan of Voices of Protest as well. Some people I know think Brinkley underplays Coughlin’s antisemitism, though. I’m not sure I agree with them, but they might have a point.Report

  11. NewDealer says:

    A Theory of Justice by John Rawls

    Political Liberalism by John Rawls

    On Liberty by John Stuart Mill (even though I am not much for utiltarianism)

    Politics by Aristotle

    Niomachean Ethics by Aristotle

    The Origins of Totalitarianism by Hannah Arendt

    Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil by Hannah Arendt

    On Revolution by Hannah Arendt

    The Anatomy of Melancholy by Robert Burton

    Reconstruction by Eric Forner

    Angels in America by Tony Kushner

    Pillar of Fire, At Canan’s Edge, Parting the Waters (America in the King Years) by Taylor Branch

    There is Power in a Union by Philip Dray

    American-Made: The Enduring Legacy of the WPA by Nick Taylor

    The Years of Lyndon B. Johnson by Robert A. Caro

    The Power Broker by Robert A. Caro

    Working, The Good War, Hard Times, Race and Division Street: America by Studs Terkel

    Terrible Honesty: Mongrel Manhattan in the 1920s by Ann Douglas

    The World of Our Fathers: The Journey of Eastern European Jews to America and the Life They Found and Made by Iriving Howe

    The Cider House Rules by John Irving

    The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism by Daniel Bell

    The Coming of Post-Industrial Society by Daniel Bell

    The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs

    Howl by Allen Ginsburg

    Modernism: The Lore of Heresey by Peter GayReport

    • Patrick in reply to NewDealer says:

      I really like this list but some of them fail the “If a book isn’t so accessible and enjoyable that just about anyone might finish reading it cover to cover, what the hell use is it for me to recommend it?” test.

      I cracked and included the Weimer and Vining book, which is dry as dirt but really good reading for the American public, so I’m guilty too.Report

    • Tod Kelly in reply to NewDealer says:


      That’s quite an extensive list, ND. I’ve read maybe half of them, but each one is a favorite. (I think the Caro series is the greatest biography ever written on anyone, ever.)

      I have to say, knowing what I know about the titles I know something about, it occurs to me that if you gave me this list before I’d written this post I think I might have said that the common thread was liberalism. So now I’m curious – do you agree with that assessment? If not, what am I missing that you’re seeing? If I”m right, why do you think it is that a principled pragmatic reading list would overlap so with a liberal one?

      I am very much intrigued.Report

  12. Chris says:

    This might be me giving it too much thought, but for whatever reason, the first book that came to my mind was Lorde’s Sister Outsider, so I spent off moments during the day wondering whether she was a pragmatist. I mean, she’s a feminist, and much more, so I worried that she might be classified as an idealist rather than a pragmatist. Then while I was riding home, I looked up one of the pieces in Sister Outsider, a speech she gave in 1982 reflecting on the legacy of Malcolm X, hardly a prototype of pragmatism, for her. It’s titled “Lessons from the 60s,” and you can read it all here. In the speech (given at Harvard, a bastion of pragmatism if there ever was one), she says things like,

    Revolution is not a one-time event. It is becoming always vigilant for the smallest opportunity to make a genuine change in established, outgrown responses; for instance, it is learning to address each other’s difference with respect.


    You do not have to be me in order for us to fight alongside each other. I do not have to be you to recognize that our wars are the same. What we must do is commit ourselves to some future that can include each other and to work toward that future with the particular strengths of our individual identities. And in order to do this, we must allow each other our differences at the same time as we recognize our sameness.


    If our history has taught us anything, it is that action for change directed only against the external conditions of our oppressions is not enough. In order to be whole, we must recognize the despair oppression plants within each of us – that thin persistent voice that says our efforts are useless, it will never change, so why bother, accept it. And we must fight that inserted piece of self-destruction that lives and flourishes like a poison inside of us, unexamined until it makes us turn upon ourselves in each other. But we can put our finger down upon that loathing buried deep within each one of us and see who it encourages us to despise, and we can lessen its potency by the knowledge of our real connectedness, arcing across our differences.

    These seem like perfect expressions of the sort of “principled pragmatism” that I could get behind. So I nominate Audrey Lorde’s Sister Outsider.Report

  13. DRS says:

    Also: the essays of Montaigne and Francis Bacon.

    Raymond Aron’s The Committed Observor (If you can find it anymore.)

    Isaiah Berlin’s The Crooked Timber of Humanity (Which is more available albeit in used bookstores.)Report

  14. Mike Schilling says:

    I got the Columbine book, based on your recommendation. And you’re absolutely right: everything I thought I knew about it is nonsense. I’m only part-way through, but so far it seems like a significant part of the blame goes to the inexperienced sheriff, who answered questions with what he thought he knew at the time when he should have said “No comment”.Report