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Pragmatism is the collective name for a family of theories emphasizing the practical consequences of holding a belief as a means to evaluating the truth of that belief. This focus on the practical was born of attempts to evade or escape many of the traditional metaphysical and epistemological puzzles and problems of traditional Western philosophy. Rather than continuing to deploy philosophical talents and energies in the service of seemingly endless debates about potentially irresolvable problems, pragmatists instead have addressed the specifics of actual, troubling difficulties felt by philosophers and non-philosophers alike.

Pragmatic theories of truth, for instance, seek to avoid the difficulties of traditional appeals to correspondence and coherence. A correspondence theory of truth typically claims that statements are true if and only if such statements correspond to actually existing and independent state of affairs in the world. Such a theory raises epistemological problems of knowing these relations among statements and the world, as well as the question of our ability to know any state of affairs independent of our ability to capture that state in language and description. A coherence theory of truth typically claims that a statement is true if and only if it coheres with the set of our other beliefs. Such a theory raises the immediate difficulty of possessing a large and coherent web of false beliefsadding one more coherent belief to this web does nothing to make such a set any more true. Pragmatic theories of truth, instead, typically appeal to the practical consequences of holding a belief. A belief is true if it brings about a satisfactory result in a particular inquiry or investigation. Truth cannot be separated from the specific context of an investigation, nor can it be divorced from the interests of the inquirer, the history of such investigations, or the habits of the culture and persons involved. The specifics of such a theorywhat constitutes a satisfactory outcome, how settled a situation must be in order to count as resolved, and the nature and influence of previous such inquiries, for instanceare the subject of much debate and form much of the history of pragmatism's development.

Charles Sanders Peirce

Charles Sanders Peirce (18391914) was a logician, mathematician, philosopher, and semiotician. He never published any books, nor did he hold an academic position for any significant period of his life. Nevertheless, Peirce is often credited with being the father of pragmatism. For Peirce, pragmatism was primarily a theory of meaning. He intended it to stand in opposition to various strands of idealismto force mere theorizing to test the effects of beliefs in the "real" world.

His famous formulation set forth pragmatism as a method for testing the meaning of any belief, idea, or term by means of analyzing the effects of its adoption on future conduct and belief. For Peirce, beliefs were guides for action. Beliefs typically endure until some reason for calling them into doubt arises. Once one is confronted by doubt, he or she needs to once again arrive at some belief or beliefs as guides to future actions. Peirce explicated four methods of "fixing" such beliefs: tenacity, authority, an a priori method, and science, or experimentation. Tenacity and authority refer to the clinging to old beliefs in the face of present doubt due to, respectively, personal or institutional commitments. An a priori belief is fixed solely by an appeal to some version of "reasonableness" or other already existing preferences. Experimentation, for Peirce, was the preferred method of fixing belief, entailing the testing of hypotheses against public and verifiable observations.

Although Peirce coined the term pragmatism in 1878, it was William James who later went on to popularize it. This led Peirce to introduce, in 1905, the term pragmaticism, thus distinguishing his theory from that of James. Peirce intended pragmatism to be a means to an objective and impersonal realityWilliam James's interests lay in a very different direction.

William James

William James (18421910), brother of novelist Henry James, was a psychologist, physician, and philosopher. For William James, pragmatism was personal and pluralistic. His attention to the affective elements of experience, such as feelings of volition, intention, and personal identity, mark the breaking point from Peirce's version of pragmatism. James was always more the psychologist, Peirce the logician and mathematician. Author of numerous influential books and essays, James's popularizing of pragmatism gained both him and the movement great notoriety.

James's landmark The Principles of Psychology (1890) described consciousness as an activity of selection. This selection occurs within a "stream of consciousness" (a term coined in The Principles ). James worked to make psychology a natural science, using human physiology and employing the scientific method.

Endeavoring, as a man of that type naturally would, to formulate what he so approved, he framed the theory that a conception, that is, the rational purport of a word or other expression, lies exclusively in its conceivable bearing upon the conduct of life; so that, since obviously nothing that might not result from the experiment can have any direct bearing upon conduct, if one can define accurately all the conceivable experimental phenomena which the affirmation or denial of a concept could imply, one will have therein a complete definition of the concept, and there is absolutely nothing more in it. For this doctrine he invented the name pragmatism.

source: Charles Sanders Peirce, "What Pragmatism Is" (1905)

It is astonishing to see how many philosophical disputes collapse into insignificance the moment you subject them to this simple test of tracing a concrete consequence. There can be no difference anywhere that doesn't make a difference elsewhereno difference in abstract truth that doesn't express itself in a difference in concrete fact and in conduct consequent upon that fact, imposed on somebody, somehow, somewhere and some-when. The whole function of philosophy ought to be to find out what definite difference it will make to you and me, at definite instants of our life, if this world-formula or that world-formula be the true one.

source: William James, "What Pragmatism Means" (1907).

In "The Will to Believe" (1897), James advocated a freedom of choice or belief when empirical evidence does not provide sufficient warrant to commit us to one belief or another, and when the situation presents us with a "forced, living, and momentous" decision. Here James employed the notion of selectivity he had earlier developed to describing the volitional function of consciousness.

In Pragmatism (1908) and Essays in Radical Empiricism (1912), James went on to develop a nondeterministic and nondualistic theory of knowledge. In these works, James advocated the notion of truth as the "cash value" of a proposition or belief. James called for a consideration of philosophical dilemmas in terms of the effects of their resolutions. If it benefits us to hold a particular belief, we should take those benefits into account when considering the advisability of adopting such a belief as true.

In addition to Peirce, James's influences include Charles Bernard Renouvier (18151903) and F. C. S. Schiller (18641937). For example, James's diary entry from April 30, 1870, addressed Renouvier's definition of free will as "the sustaining of a thought because I choose to when I might have other thoughts." James's response was to write, "My first act of free will shall be to believe in free willI will assume for the presentuntil next yearthat it is no illusion." And James worked with Schiller to establish pragmatism as a form of humanism.

Perhaps the most important philosopher to benefit directly from James's work was American educator, psychologist, and public philosopher John Dewey.

John Dewey

John Dewey's (18591952) life spanned nearly a full century, and his written work reflects a corresponding breadth of influences and interests. Dewey brought pragmatism to maturity by focusing on the pragmatic method of inquiry as an ever-ongoing, self-correcting, and social process. Dewey used the scientific method as a paradigm of controlled and reflective inquiry, and referred, in various works, to his version of pragmatism as "instrumentalism" and "experimentalism." Dewey combined Peirce's community-sense of inquiry with the affective elements of James's work. Furthermore, Dewey added a historical consciousness he inherited from his study of G. W. F. Hegel (17701831). As a result, Dewey's version of pragmatism deemphasized knowledge and belief as the sole ends of inquiry, and instead sought to combine intelligent reflection with intelligent action.

Dewey was born the same year as the publication of On the Origin of Species (1859), and Darwin's evolutionary thought had a profound impact on Dewey's contributions to pragmatism. Dewey's instrumentalism is a theory of the process of the transformation of an inchoate, problematic situation into a coherent unified one where knowledge is the product of inquiry and the means, or instrument, by which further inquiries may be made. Dewey's fallibilism, inherited from Peirce, holds that no belief, view, or claim to knowledge is immune to possible future revision. Whereas Peirce's fallibilism emphasized the revisability of scientific theories, Dewey sought to advocate the ways in which ongoing communication among diverse persons and experiences may inform and refine each other. Knowledge, for Dewey, was the product of inquiry, built out of the raw materials of experience. Knowledge, or "warranted assertability," is not a private affair. Rather, it is the result of intelligent and public interaction between communicating inquirers and their world.

Other Key Figures in the History of Pragmatism

Ralph Waldo Emerson (18031882) was no pragmatist himself, but his provocative insistence upon the value of experience and the power of democracy provided the background for much of pragmatic thought. Other important figures in the history of pragmatism include: institutional economist Thorstein Veblen (18571929); philosopher, educational theorist, and social activist Jane Addams (18601935); sociologist and psychologist George Herbert Mead (18631931); critical race theorist, critic of capitalism, and social activist W. E. B. DuBois (18681963); philosopher William Ernest Hocking (18731966); philosopher and logician C. I. Lewis (18831964); philosopher Alain Locke (18851954); Marxist philosopher and Dewey's student Sidney Hook (19021989); philosopher Justus Buchler (19141991); and sociologist C. Wright Mills (19161962).

Recent Developments in Pragmatism

Willard Van Orman Quine (19082000) wanted to naturalize epistemology, to make it a part of the physical sciences. In "Two Dogmas of Empiricism" (1953), he rejected the analytic-synthetic distinction, and the strong distinction between math and logic, on the one hand, and the empirical sciences, on the other. Furthermore, he claimed that experience works on all of our beliefs holistically, and not as a piecemeal series of revisions.

Hilary Putnam (b. 1926) argues, by employing the writings of classical pragmatists, for various versions of realism. His use of figures like James and Dewey has not only served to revitalize interest in their work, but also to bring pragmatic points of view into conversation with many of the important contemporary debates in philosophy of mind.

Throughout his writings, Richard Rorty (b. 1931) argues for antifoundationalism and antiessentialism. According to Rorty, we know our experiences through "final vocabularies," which are always already products of social and historical contingencies. Philosophers do much of the work of clearing out dead vocabularies so that "strong poets" may develop the key terms of new ones.

The extremely prolific Cornel West (b. 1953) continues to develop a "prophetic pragmatism," emphasizing the religious and liberatory elements of pragmatic thought and social action. Through writings, audio recordings, and public presentations on television and radio, West has marked himself as an important advocate for the thoughtful exchange of ideas and the challenging of the political and social status quo.

The online "Pragmatism Cybrary" ( is the chief Internet source of information and interest in the work of past and contemporary pragmatic thinkers. The leading print journals of pragmatism include Transactions of the Charles Sanders Peirce Society and the Journal of Speculative Philosophy.

See also Epistemology: Modern ; Truth .


Dewey, John. The Collected Works of John Dewey, 18821953, edited by Jo Ann Boydston. 37 vols. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 19691991.

Flower, Elizabeth and Murray Murphey. A History of Philosophy in America. 2 vols. New York: Putnam's, 1977.

James, William. The Works of William James, edited by Frederick H. Burkhardt and Fredson Bowers. 19 vols. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 19751988.

McDermott, John J. Streams of Experience: Reflections on the History and Philosophy of American Culture. Amherst, Mass.: University of Massachusetts Press, 1986.

Peirce, Charles Sanders. Collected Papers, 8 vols., edited by Charles Hartshorne and Paul Weiss (vols. 16) and Arthur Burks (vols. 78). Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 19311966.

Quine, Willard Van Orman. From a Logical Point of View. New York: Harper and Row, 1953.

Rorty, Richard. Consequences of Pragmatism. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1982.

Schneider, Herbert W. A History of American Philosophy. New York: Columbia University Press, 1946.

Seigfried, Charlene Haddock. Pragmatism and Feminism: Reweaving the Social Fabric. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996.

West, Cornel. The American Evasion of Philosophy: A Genealogy of Pragmatism. Madison, Wis.: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989.

Stephen Barnes

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Pragmatism refers to the philosophical position that the test of an ideas truth is its practical consequences. Pragmatism is a reaction against abstract, romantic, and idealistic philosophies, countering instead that the truth of an idea arises from observing its consequences.

Pragmatism was in many ways a product of its era. Pragmatisms roots are in empiricism and the scientific method, and the energies and enthusiasm of late nineteenth-century American life are obvious in pragmatism. After the Civil War (18611865), the United States was exploding with advances in communications, transportation, and technology resulting in scientific breakthroughs and technical innovations such as immunizations, the telephone, the mechanization of industry, and the like. Thus, American pragmatismfocused on experience and consequenceswas extremely different from the romanticism and idealism of much of contemporaneous European philosophy and the arts.

Pragmatism developed in discussions of the Metaphysical Club, a group of faculty and professionals meeting to discuss the issues of the day at Harvard University during the 1870s. Members of the club included the scientist Charles Sanders Peirce (18391914), the mathematician Chauncey Wright (18301875), the historian John Fiske (18421901), the psychologist William James (18421910), and lawyers such as Oliver Wendell Holmes (18411935), Joseph B. Warner (18481923), and Nicholas St. John Green (18301876).

Trained as a mathematician and physicist, Peirce is hailed as the father of pragmatism. He first used the term pragmatism in an 1878 article in Popular Science Monthly titled How to Make Our Ideas Clear. Peirces famous guide was, Consider what effects which might conceivably have practical bearings we consider the object of our conception to have. Then our conception of these effects is the whole of our conception of the object (Peirce 1878, p. 24). Peirce, who later renamed his pragmatism pragmaticism, argued that it was a powerful empirical and philosophical tool because it demanded that ideas be examined for their consequences, not for the elegance of some abstract metaphysical model. He wrote about pragmatism:

It will serve to show that almost every proposition of ontological metaphysics is either meaningless gibberishone word being defined by other words, and they by still others, without any real conception ever being reachedor else is downright absurd; so that all such rubbish being swept away, what will remain of philosophy will be a series of problems capable of investigation by the observational methods of the true sciences. (Peirce 1905, p. 171)


Certainly the best-known proponent of pragmatism was William James. Trained in medicine, he spent most of his adult life studying and teaching the new field of psychology at Harvard University. James popularized pragmatism, giving Peirce credit for its founding in a 1908 address at the University of California. In his chosen profession of psychology, James is famous for his notion of stream of consciousness. The term is much misused today, but for James it meant that the mind is active in giving meaning to experiences that it encounters. Jamess pragmatism is rooted in his understanding of psychology.

James argued that the truth of ideas lay not in their abstract formulation but in their cash value as consequences in human experience. He wrote: The whole function of philosophy ought to be to find out what definite difference it will make to you and me, at definite instants of our lives, if this world-formula or that world-formula be the true one (James [1907] 1986, p. 50).

James applied his theories to a number of philosophical areas, including the question of religion and the supernatural. In his famous works The Will to Believe (1897) and The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902), James explored the power of the individual will to believe. James concluded that although the materialist might wrongly conclude that religion was a fallacy, the positive effects on the life of the individual adherent (rather than the existence of God) demonstrate the truth of religion. He wrote: On Pragmatic principles, if the hypothesis of God works satisfactorily in the widest sense of the word, it is true (James [1902] 2002, p. 299).

Jamess contemporary, John Dewey (18591952), chair of the philosophy department at the University of Chicago at the turn of the century, is best known for his work on education and social issues. Deweys guiding philosophy, instrumentalism, is a strand of pragmatism. Dewey was critical of abstract and theological notions of truth and reality. He defined his instrumentalism as an attempt to constitute a precise logical theory of concepts, judgments, and inferences in their various forms, by primarily considering how thought functions in the experimental determinations of future consequences (Dewey 1903, p. 21). Deweys approach utilized a praxis formula for inquiry as the method for advancing knowledge. Dewey believed that through experience the mind acquires knowledge, but over time new experiences challenge the previously held beliefs. The process of inquiry, challenging staid ideas and the resulting new synthesis, is the process by which truth becomes known to the individual.

Pragmatism was applied to law by members of the Metaphysical Club, including Supreme Court justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. and Nicholas St. John Green. Holmes argued that the law should be interpreted not on static historical observation of the original intent of the framers of the constitution but by considering the practical outcomes of the law or judgment in question. In other words, the cardinal rule of jurists should be the practical policy consequences of a given outcome in their deliberation. Holmes recognized that such a view of the judiciary empowers it with a dynamic and legislative function akin to that of the Congress. This practical approach to the outcomes of the law, in distinction to theories of law rooted in tradition, religion, and metaphysics, is shared among legal pragmatists.


In philosophical terms, pragmatism is generally considered to be nominalistic and pluralistic. Ideas are not real as abstract, formal categories, but change as experiences are apprehended and given meaning by the mind. The philosopher Ferdinand C. Schiller (18641937) wrote: Concepts are tools slowly fashioned by the practical intelligence for the mastery of experience (Schiller 1907, p. 64). Thus, for Schiller there is no single Truth, although there are truths that are relevant within a given context. James agreed, citing that truth was not static but ambulatory, directly related to human experiences. Moreover, old truths may no longer be relevant to the contemporary setting because they no longer adequately convey meaning about the world as it is. Thus, they are no longer true.

For pragmatists, ideas are contextual and their worth derives from the utility of their consequences. This epistemology is rooted in a rejection of Western teleology and monism. For the pragmatist, there is no first cause, nor is there a single ultimate end. Rather, the world is pluralistic in that social and empirical phenomena are connected but it is the individual who gives meaning to experience, and therefore the value of a concept is in its practical consequences. James wrote: The distinctions between thoughts and things the conceptions of classes with subclasses within them surely all these were once definite conquests made at historic dates by our ancestors in their attempts to get the chaos of their crude individual experiences into a more shareable and manageable shape (James 1909, p. 62).

Although not exclusively an American philosophical tradition, pragmatism is usually identified with Americans such as Peirce, Holmes, Dewey, Wright, Schiller, and especially William James. However, pragmatism crossed the ocean, influencing and being influenced by others, such as the Italian authors Giovanni Papini (18811956) and Luigi Pirandello (18671936) and the French philosopher Henri Bergson (18591941). Other well-known pragmatists included George Herbert Mead (18631931), James Hayden Tufts (18621942), and Sidney Hook (19021989). Many of the assumptions of pragmatism were to influence later twentieth-century philosophical currents, particularly that of secular humanism.

SEE ALSO Civil War; James, William


Dewey, John. 1903. Studies in Logical Theory. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Dickstein, Morris, ed. 1998. The Revival of Pragmatism: New Essays on Social Thought, Law, and Culture. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

James, William. 1986. Writings, 19021910. New York: Library of America.

James, William. [1902] 2002. The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature. New York: Routledge.

James, William [1907] 1986. Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking. In Writings, 19021910, 112113. New York: Library of America.

James, William. 1909. The Meaning of Truth: A Sequel to Pragmatism. New York and London: Longmans, Green.

Murphy, John P. 1990. Pragmatism: From Peirce to Davidson. Boulder, CO: Westview.

Peirce, Charles S. 1878. How to Make Our Ideas Clear. Popular Science Monthly 12: 286302.

Peirce, Charles S. 1905. What Pragmatism Is. The Monist 15 (2): 161181.

Rescher, Nicholas. 2000. Realistic Pragmatism: An Introduction to Pragmatic Philosophy. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Schiller, Ferdinand C. 1907. Studies in Humanism. New York: Ayer.

Eric Patterson

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PRAGMATISM is the name given to a worldwide philosophic movement that was most important in the United States in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century. Two centers of "classic" pragmatism existed in the United States. The one at the University of Chicago was led by John Dewey, who later taught at Columbia University in New York City, and included James H. Tufts, George Herbert Mead, and Addison W. Moore. The other had its nucleus at Harvard University and included Charles S. Peirce, William James, and Josiah Royce. Later in the twentieth century Harvard continued to be an influential stronghold of academic pragmatism, while New York City's intellectual life reflected Dewey's concerns. At the end of the twentieth century an important revival of pragmatism took place in scholarly disciplines outside of philosophy.

Pragmatism arose as the most sophisticated attempt to reconcile science and religion in the wake of the widespread acceptance of Darwinian biology. The early pragmatists argued that the truth of an idea lay primarily in its ability satisfactorily to orient individuals to the world of which they were a part but also in its consistency with other ideas and its aesthetic appeal. Ideas were plans of action and would be deemed true if action in accordance with them "worked" in the long run. The pragmatists rejected what later became known as "representationalism," the belief that a true idea corresponded to its object. Truth was not a connection something mental had to something outside the mind but instead characterized a way of behaving. For the pragmatists, philosophers should not look for answers to speculative problems by cogitation in the library; rather, the practices of communities of inquirers should be explored. Accordingly the pragmatists accepted the findings and methods of the sciences and urged that their methods be applied in all areas of study. But they also thought that religious ideas, for example, belief in the existence of God and in a benign universe, might be justified if they had survival value.

Pragmatism at Harvard

In "How to Make Our Ideas Clear," published in Popular Science Monthly in 1878, Peirce originally expressed these views in connection with the meaning of the concepts of the physical sciences. James's exposition was vigorously and forcefully popular, especially in his collected essays Pragmatism (1907). For James the chief virtue of the pragmatic account of truth was that it made philosophy concrete. James's position reflected his early interest in physiology and psychology, and he elaborated his insights in a long argument with his Harvard colleague Royce, who formulated a less-individualistic doctrine called "absolute pragmatism." Counting the emotional benefits of holding a belief to be true as part of the meaning of truth, James defended heartfelt spiritual creeds, and Peirce, calling his own views "pragmaticism," dissociated himself from James's nontechnical theorizing. James had an international reputation, and his support assisted in the promulgation of his ideas by F. C. Schiller in England, Henri Bergson in France, and Giovanni Papini in Italy.

Pragmatism at Chicago and Columbia

Steeped in the cultural thought of German idealism, Dewey used his version of pragmatism, called "instrumentalism," to attack educational, social, and political problems, as in The School and Society (1899) and Liberalism and Social Action (1935). Throughout Dewey's long and prolific career he was involved in controversy and led many liberal intellectual causes. His beliefs about "experimentalism" and the use of the "method of intelligence" in social life became the theoretical underpinning of the social sciences in the American university that of ten tilted against the status quo. A crude form of pragmatism became widely known as the rationale behind reformist politics: the political pragmatist was the liberal who restricted progressive goals to what was obtainable practically, to programs that could succeed.

A second period of pragmatism was under way when Dewey retired from teaching in 1929. In New York City a version of his system was propagated first of all by a younger group of "Columbia naturalists," including Ernest Nagel, John Herman Randall, and Herbert Schneider. For these thinkers intelligence grew out of a "natural" biological realm that yet provided an adequate locus for a moral and political life valuing humanism, social democracy, and internationalism. The naturalists also included among their allies Morris Cohen of the City College of New York, who sent generations of students to Columbia for graduate study; Dewey's student Sidney Hook, who articulately defended his mentor's ideas and pragmatism's public role from his position at New York University; and Alvin Johnson, director of the New School for Social Research, who presided over an expansion of instrumentalist ideas in sociology and political science.

Later Pragmatisms

At Harvard the second period of pragmatism made Cambridge, Massachusetts, the premier place to study professional philosophy. A student of Royce and James, C. I. Lewis developed an epistemological system called "conceptual pragmatism." In his influential book of 1929, Mind and the World-Order, Lewis argued that the various frameworks of ideas by means of which people gained knowledge about the world were chosen on the basis of their practical value, but he emphasized the primacy of the hard sciences in obtaining knowledge. Over the next fifty years Lewis's academic writing was central to the "pragmatic analysts," the most significant group of American philosophers, Nelson Goodman, Willard Quine, and Hilary Putnam, all of whom subsequently taught at Harvard. These scholars and a host of lesser figures focused on logic and the philosophy of science. They intimated that humans lived in a Darwinian universe bereft of purpose and best explored by physics. At the same time they acknowledged that people selected conceptual structures with communal human purposes in mind and that of ten alternative structures were equally legitimate in accounting for the flux of experience and for attempts to navigate experience. A crucial explanation of these tension-laden concerns was laid out in Quine's celebrated essay, "Two Dogmas of Empiricism," published in the Philosophical Re-view in 1951.

The Revival of Pragmatism

In the last quarter of the twentieth century pragmatic ideas remained alive in the work of the pragmatic analysts but had neither the religious nor social dimension of the more publicly accessible views of James or Dewey. In the discipline of philosophy in the United States classic pragmatism was considered an old-fashioned and unrefined philosophical commitment. Nonetheless at the end of the century a large-scale pragmatic renewal depended on the arguments of the analysts but also resurrected the concerns of classic figures.

These developments began with the extraordinary publication of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions in 1962 by Thomas Kuhn, who had studied at Harvard and been influenced by Quine. Kuhn's thesis, that succeeding scientific worldviews were not progressive but incommensurable and thus to some degree relative, was ignored or patronized by many philosophers. Nonetheless his best-selling cross-disciplinary book was widely adopted by social scientists in a variety of disciplines, by departments of literature and the humanities generally, and by historians. It became common for many Kuhn-tinged thinkers to assert that The Structure of Scientific Revolutions had proved beyond doubt that no ideas could be proved true.

In 1979, using the ideas of Quine and Kuhn, Richard Rorty published Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, which gave some philosophical support to Kuhn's relativistic ideas. But Rorty also linked them to the classic pragmatists, urging that human beings had different "discourses" available to them to attain whatever ends they might have, but no one discourse, including that of natural science, was privileged above the others. All were to be justified by their ability to lead expeditiously to the achievement of goals. Critics argued that such a "linguistic" pragmatism was less robust in its public implications than that of James and Dewey, a charge that Rorty both accepted in his commitment to private concerns and rebutted in writings that promoted the political side of his pragmatism. Rorty had an impact within the discipline of philosophy, but he was more connected to programs in humanities and comparative literature and was most generously read outside of the discipline of philosophy. He in any event had led the way to a revitalized pragmatic movement that regarded the classic thinkers as engaged in debates relevant to the twenty-first–century world.


Kloppenberg, James T. Uncertain Victory: Social Democracy and Progressivism in European and American Thought, 1870–1920. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986. Puts pragmatism in an international context.

Kuklick, Bruce. A History of Philosophy in America, 1720–2000. Oxford and New York: Clarendon Press, 2001. Most recent synthesis with a large section on pragmatism.

Perry, Ralph Barton. The Thought and Character of William James. 2 vols. Boston: Little, Brown, 1935. The outstanding philosophical biography.

Stuhr, John J., ed. Pragmatism and Classical American Philosophy: Essential Readings and Interpretive Essays. 2d ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Thayer, H. S. Meaning and Action: A Critical History of Pragmatism. Indianapolis, Ind.: Bobbs-Merrill, 1968. A standard treatment.

Westbrook, Robert B. John Dewey and American Democracy. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1991. An excellent account of classic pragmatism.


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Is pragmatism the optimistic expression of the industrial era, deemed to be vanishing in the postindustrial society, or is it a serious philosophical alternative to traditional rationalism and empiricism, idealism and realism? What is labeled pragmatism ranges from the philosophy of nineteenth-century American scholar Charles Sanders Peirce (18391914), who claimed inquiry for truth's sake, to Richard Rorty's (b. 1931) twentieth-century neo-pragmatism, which claims, in an antirealist spirit, that criteria of evidence are not objective but only conversational constraints. Most pragmatists, however, try to find a middle way between metaphysical realism and relativism, between dogmatism and skepticism, by using the pragmatic maxim. This maxim holds that in order to ascertain the meaning of an idea one should consider the practical consequences that might conceivably result from it.

Belief is considered to be guiding people's actions in that it is a habit, a disposition to behave. Its opposite is doubt, which, unlike René Descartes's methodological doubt, is involuntary and unpleasant, usually caused by some surprising phenomenon that is inconsistent with one's previously accepted beliefs. Inquiry starts when humans, like other organisms, strive to obtain an equilibrium with their environment, the inquiry manifesting itself in new habits and revised beliefs. Successful inquiry results in a stable viewpoint, but only temporarily stable, seen in the long run. Sophisticated inquirers will therefore always be motivated to further inquiry, transforming the primitive homeostatic process into scientific inquiry.

Universalizing pragmatism: John Dewey

American philosopher John Dewey (18591952) was deeply influenced by Peirce's idea of scientific method and inquiry, but Dewey broadens it to take on universal scope. He conceives of the scientific method simply as the way people actually think, or ought to think. Unlike Peirce, Dewey also emphasizes the immediacy of experience, generally characterized in terms of its aesthetic quality, as felt immediacy and, as such, basic and irreducible. Cognitive experience is the result of inquiry. The process starts when a person encounters some difficulty, proceeds through the stage of conceptual elaboration of possible resolutions, and results in a final reconstruction of the experience into a new unified whole. With this idea, Dewey and other pragmatists question what are labeled "spectator theories of knowledge," according to which knowledge is a kind of passive recording of antecedent facts. Instead, knowing is seen as a constructive conceptual activity, anticipating and guiding our adjustment to future experiential interactions with our environment. The classical ontological distinctions in philosophy between mind and body, between means and end, and especially between fact and value, therefore cannot be ascribed an absolute status but should rather be functionally and contextually understood. Consequently, Dewey rejects the idea of truth as correspondence of thought to unknowable thingsin-themselves. Instead, it is a matter of successful adjustment of ideas to problematic situations. For that reason, Dewey prefers to talk about warranted assertability.

Pragmatism in science: W. V. O. Quine

Like all pragmatists, the neo-pragmatist W. V. O. Quine (19082000), one of the leading American philosophers of the twentieth century, also rejects the idea of reaching the balance between language, truth, and reality once and for all as an unusable fiction. He develops the idea of the interactivity between conceptual invention and discovery of content in the sense that the conceptual system as a whole has to pass the test against experience. There is no guarantee that any kind of truth could be excepted from a future process of revision. Since there is no unique method of finding truth, nor any universal language for finding the final conceptualization of the world, there is no way of talking about reality as such. Nevertheless, for Quine, the danger of relativism is illusionary. What has been obtained in scientific research through epistemological and ontological decisions is absolutely binding, although in the future it will probably have to be modified or even given up. In what way there will be a change, however, lies beyond present cognitive abilities.

Pragmatism in religion: William James

The objection of subjectivism and relativism is also directed against nineteenth-century American philosopher William James's (18421910) conception of truth. Unlike Peirce (and to some extent Dewey), James does not focus only on the empirically testable consequences of a belief. He rather shifts the emphasis to what the consequences of a person having a belief are. True beliefs work. Not surprisingly, this conception of truth has been taken as a straight identification of truth with utility. James, however, distinguishes between the different ways that different beliefs work. Concerning empirical judgments, "true" means "verified through observation and experiment." Thus, the accusation of identifying truth with utility cannot be applied to empirical judgments. Neither does it affect a priori truths since they are truths that one is prepared to accept in the sense of conceptual presuppositions by means of which one talks about reality. Only concerning a third kind of truthsmoral, aesthetic, and religious onesis the pragmatic identification of truth and usefulness valid. The kind of judgment involved here cannot be empirically verified. The truth-value of such judgments is given by their practical working in life. If religions shall be more than idle talk, they have to have practical consequences for the people who choose them; they have to work psychologically satisfactorily in their lives. James defends people's right to have religious beliefs if the choice between believing them and disbelieving them is unavoidable, and if they offer a real option, even though religious beliefs cannot be decided on the basis of empirical evidence.

Pragmatism in science and religion

In one specific sense there is, according to pragmatism, no difference between science and religion. Both activities have to be understood in relation to the kind of beings human are. Neither science nor religion can address reality as independent of human experience. However, whereas science deals with experimental, observational experience, religion concerns existential experience. A theory is empirically adequate if it enables people to generate testable hypotheses and thereby maintain what is true in the observable world. Religions and their secular counterparts are existentially adequate if they provide people with conceptions of life at its best so that, in the tension between how life is and how it could be, they can attain a feeling for good and evil, right and wrong, and thus generate values and meaning, and express what is true in their lives.

See also Constructivism; Contextualism; Idealism; Realism


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eberhard herrmann

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pragmatism (prăg´mətĬzəm), method of philosophy in which the truth of a proposition is measured by its correspondence with experimental results and by its practical outcome. Thought is considered as simply an instrument for supporting the life aims of the human organism and has no real metaphysical significance. Pragmatism stands opposed to doctrines that hold that truth can be reached through deductive reasoning from a priori grounds and insists on the need for inductive investigation and constant empirical verification of hypotheses. There is constant protest against speculation concerning questions that have no application and no verifiable answers. Pragmatism holds that truth is modified as discoveries are made and is relative to the time and place and purpose of inquiry. In its ethical aspect pragmatism holds that knowledge that contributes to human values is real and that values play as essential a role in the choice of means employed in order to attain an end as they do in the choice of the end itself.

The philosophy was given its name by C. S. Peirce (c.1872), who developed the principles of pragmatic theory as formal doctrine. He was followed by William James, who held that in vital matters of faith the criterion for acceptance was the will to believe, and who was the key figure in promoting the widespread influence of pragmatism during the 1890s and early 1900s. John Dewey in his works developed the instrumentalist aspects of the doctrine. In Europe, F. C. S. Schiller (1864–1937) and others took up the theory. The succeeding generation of pragmatists included C. I. Lewis (1883–1964), whose conceptual pragmatism involves the application of Kantian principles to the investigation of empirical reality. W. V. O. Quine has upheld the validity of some a priori knowledge, pointing out that mathematics greatly facilitates scientific research. Richard Rorty has argued that theories are ultimately justified by their instrumentality, or the extent to which they enable people to attain their aims. Pragmatism dominated American philosophy from the 1890s to the 1930s and has reemerged as a significant element in contemporary thought.

See W. James, Pragmatism and Other Essays (ed. by R. B. Perry, 1965); A. J. Ayer, The Origins of Pragmatism (1968); H. S. Thayer, Meaning and Action: A Critical History of Pragmatism (1968, repr. 1981); C. Morris, The Pragmatic Movement in American Philosophy (1970); R. Rorty, Consequences of Pragmatism (1982); D. S. Clarke, Rational Acceptance and Purpose: An Outline of a Pragmatist Epistemology (1989); L. Menand, Pragmatism: A Reader (1997) and The Metaphysical Club (2001); M. Dickstein, ed., The Revival of Pragmatism (1999).

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pragmatism (philosophy of)

pragmatism (philosophy of) An influential and important, perhaps the central, North American philosophy. It rejects the quest for fundamental, foundational truths, and shuns the building of abstract philosophical systems. Instead, it suggests a plurality of shifting truths grounded in concrete experiences and language, in which a truth is appraised in terms of its consequences or usevalue. It is a down-to-earth philosophy, born in a period of rapid social change, which seeks to unify intelligent thought and logical method with practical actions and appeals to experience. William James, in his Pragmatism (1907), neatly summarizes the perspective when he states that ‘the Pragmatic method …is to try to interpret each notion by tracing its respective practical consequences. What difference would it practically make to anyone if this notion rather than that notion were true?’

Pragmatism has sometimes been maligned as the philosophy of capitalism— since it has an apparent emphasis upon the ‘cash value’ of ideas. While differing significantly in emphasis, its key proponents are generally agreed to be the realists Charles Sanders Peirce and John Dewey, and the nominalists William James and George Herbert Mead. It is identified with the Chicago School of sociology, and Paul Rock has argued (in The Making of Symbolic Interactionism, 1979) that it was important in shaping the theory of symbolic interactionism.

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prag·ma·tism / ˈpragməˌtizəm/ • n. 1. a pragmatic attitude or policy: ideology was tempered with pragmatism. 2. Philos. an approach that assesses the truth of meaning of theories or beliefs in terms of the success of their practical application. DERIVATIVES: prag·ma·tist n. prag·ma·tis·tic / ˌpragməˈtistik/ adj.

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pragmatism Philosophical school holding the view that the truth of a proposition has no absolute standing but depends on its practical value or use. Primarily supported by US philosophers, C. S. Peirce first formulated pragmatism, and William James and John Dewey adopted and adapted it.

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pragmatism a philosophical approach that assesses the truth of meaning of theories or beliefs in terms of the success of their practical application.

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