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"Pragmatism" was the most influential philosophy in America in the first quarter of the twentieth century. Viewed against the widely diversified intellectual currents that have characterized American life, pragmatism stands out as an energetically evolved philosophical movement. As a movement it is best understood as, in part, a critical rejection of much of traditional academic philosophy and, in part, a concern to establish certain positive aims. It is in these respects, rather than because of any one idea or exclusive doctrine, that pragmatism has been the most distinctive and the major contribution of America to the world of philosophy. Among the Continental thinkers it has influenced and with whose philosophy it has been in harmony are Georg Simmel, Wilhelm Ostwald, Edmund Husserl, Hans Vaihinger, Richard Müiller-Freienfels, Hans Hahn, Giovanni Papini (leader of the Pragmatist Club in Florence), Giovanni Vailati, Henri Bergson, and Édouard Le Roy.


The origins of pragmatism are clear in outline, if not in detail. The familiar capsule description is as follows: Pragmatism is a method of philosophizingoften said to be a theory of meaningfirst developed by Charles Sanders Peirce in the 1870s; revived and reformulated in 1898 by William James, primarily as a theory of truth; further developed, expanded, and disseminated by John Dewey and Ferdinand Canning Scott Schiller.

This glossing of the facts is useful as a summary or for directing us where to look if we want to find out more about pragmatism. But it can be misleading. A reexamination or rewriting of the history is not to be embarked upon here; but the following cautionary points deserve mention. The specific formative conditions of the early evolution of pragmatism are not entirely clear for several reasons. The historical occasion of the birth of pragmatism is complicated because it was to some extent the product of cooperative deliberation and mutual influences within the "Metaphysical Club," founded by Peirce, James, and others in the 1870s in Cambridge. This may be one of the very few cases in which a philosophy club produced something notable philosophically (compare John Locke's account of the "club" in the 1670s that stimulated the writing of his great Essay ). But the paper (now lost) that Peirce drew up as a memento lest the club dissolve without leaving behind anything substantial, the paper in which pragmatism was first expressed, was not the free creation of one mind, even though the major credit surely goes to Peirce. Years later, undertaking to write on pragmatism, Peirce queried James: "Who originated the term pragmatism, I or you? Where did it first appear in print? What do you understand by it?" And James replied with the reminder: "You invented 'pragmatism' for which I gave you full credit in a lecture entitled 'Philosophical Conceptions and Practical Results.'"

In addition to some uncertainty as to the facts in the evolution of pragmatism, there areas we shall seeseveral problems of interpretation. Peirce and James often gave very different accounts of what they understood by "pragmatism." Usually this is explained by holding James responsible for distorting or even misunderstanding Peirce's ideas. That there were differences between Peirce and James on this score is clear. Peirce, despairing of what James (and his followers) were making of the idea, rebaptized his own view as "pragmaticism," a word ugly enough, he commented, to keep it safe from kidnapers. Historians usually side with Peirce, tending to discredit James's overzealous pronouncements upon pragmatism and applications of it to issues of the moral value and truth of religious belief. But with equal justice it can be maintained that James was developing a substantially different approach to a different type of philosophical problem, related in some ways to Peirce's thought, but mostly superficially; only his habitual overgenerosity led him to call what he was doing "pragmatism" and to cite Peirce as the "inventor."

There is, however, a more serious and persistent problem of interpretation entrenched in the history of pragmatism. This is the problem of determining with some precision what "pragmatism" means or stands for as a philosophical doctrine. As already suggested, pragmatism, by virtue of being an evolving philosophical movement, is to be viewed as a group of associated theoretical ideas and attitudes developed over a period of time and exhibitingunder the differing influences of Peirce, James, and Deweyrather significant shifts in direction and in formulation. We have the advantage of historical perspective and can make use of it to survey and select distinctive themes and phases in the formation of pragmatism, but a single definitive statement of a single thesis is not to be hoped for.

In the heyday of pragmatism its rapidly changing character proved to be a source of embarrassment and confusion to pragmatists and critics alike. Arthur O. Lovejoy, in a welcome effort at clarification, in 1908 distinguished thirteen possible forms of pragmatism. And Schiller, in an almost intoxicating pluralistic spirit, commented that there were as many pragmatisms as there were pragmatists (at the time a considerable company). Additional confusion over pragmatism was caused by the tendency of its spokesmen to find the philosophical past well populated with pragmatists. Thus Socrates, Protagoras, Aristotle, Francis Bacon, Benedict de Spinoza, Locke, George Berkeley, David Hume, Immanuel Kant, J. S. Mill, and an assorted variety of scientists were included in the fold.

These perplexities, once hotly debated in the journals, are now only of historical interest. They need not concern us in surveying and assessing what are undoubtedly the leading ideas of pragmatism. It suffices to note the irony in the fact that while pragmatism was supposed to have made its appearance in the paper by Peirce titled "How to Make Our Ideas Clear" (1878), pragmatists continued to have so much trouble in doing so.

Charles Sanders Peirce

What has come to be known as Peirce's pragmatism grew out of his study of the phenomenology of human thought and the uses of language. For Peirce, the investigation of thought and languageand, therefore, the way into specific studies of all kinds of claims, assertions, beliefs, and ideasdepended upon the understanding of "signs." One of Peirce's lasting ideals, resolutely pursued but never completely achieved, was to work out a general theory of signsthat is, a classification and analysis of the types of signs and sign relations and significations that, in the broadest sense, make communication possible. A sign is anything that stands for something else. While this ancient way of putting it admits of a trivial construction (signs are signs), for Peirce, the main thing was that signs are socially standardized ways in which something (a thought, word, gesture, object) refers us (a community) to something else (the interpretantthe significant effect or translation of the sign, being itself another sign). Thus, signs presuppose minds in communication with other minds, which in turn presupposes a community (of interpreters) and a system of communication.

pragmatic method

Put roughly, Peirce's pragmatism is a rule of procedure for promoting linguistic and conceptual claritysuccessful communicationwhen men are faced with intellectual problems. Because the emphasis is upon method, Peirce often remarked that pragmatism is not a philosophy, a metaphysic, or a theory of truth; it is not a solution or answer to anything but a technique to help us find solutions to problems of a philosophical or scientific nature.

One of Peirce's best-known statements of the technique was in "How to Make Our Ideas Clear" (1878): "Consider what effects, that might conceivably have practical bearings, we conceive the object of our conception to have. Then our conception of these effects is the whole of our conception of the objects." In a somewhat clearer account he said that "in order to ascertain the meaning of an intellectual conception one should consider what practical consequences might conceivably result by necessity from the truth of that conception; and the sum of these consequences will constitute the entire meaning of the conception" (Collected Papers, Vol. V, paragraph 9).

While Peirce often spoke of pragmatism as a method of clarifying the meaning variously of words, ideas, concepts (sometimes of objects), we can take his intended purpose to be as follows:

  1. Pragmatism is a method of clarifying and determining the meaning of signs. We must note the comprehensive status Peirce gives to signs in this connection, for example: "All thought whatsoever is a sign, and is mostly of the nature of language." The pragmatic method, however, does not apply to all the various kinds of signs and modes and purposes of communication. Peirce considered pragmatism "a method of ascertaining the meaning of hard words and abstract concepts" or, again, "a method of ascertaining the meanings, not of all ideas, but 'intellectual concepts,' that is to say, of those upon the structure of which, arguments concerning objective fact may hinge."
  2. The aim of the method is to facilitate communication, and in particular cases, the degree to which this is accomplished determines the relevance and justification of the method. This aim takes two main forms illustrated in Peirce's writings. The first is of a critical nature: Where disputes or philosophical problems seem to have no discoverable or agreed-upon solution, pragmatism advises that words are being used in different ways or without definite meaning at all. For example, says Peirce, pragmatism will "show that almost every proposition of ontological metaphysics is either meaningless or else absurd." And it is in this critical capacity that Peirce remarked: "Pragmatism solves no real problem. It only shows that supposed problems are not real problems."

But the second role the method performs is much less negative: Where signs (that is, ideas, concepts, language) are unclear, the method supplies a procedure for reconstructing or explicating meanings. Here the method is directed to translating (or systematically replacing) unclear concepts with clearer ones. It is in this spirit that Peirce offered his explications of the concepts of "hardness," "weight," "force," "reality." His procedure consisted in translating and explicating a sign (a term, such as hard, or sentences of signs, such as "x is hard") by providing a conditional statement of a given situation (or class of situations) in which a definite operation will produce a definite result. Thus, to say of some object O that it is "hard" is to mean that "if in certain situations the operation of scratch-testing is performed on O, then the general result is: O will not be scratched by most substances." The sign (or concept) "hard" in statements asserting that some object is hard is replaceable and clarified pragmatically with a conditional statement of the sort just given. Peirce refers to this method of conditional explication of signs as a "prescription" or "precept." The conditionals are recipes informing us what we must do if we wish to find out the kind of conditions determining the meaningful use of a sign.


For Peirce, two points are of considerable importance in the pragmatic procedure for determining meaning, (a ) Where one cannot provide any conditional translation for a sign, its (pragmatic) meaning is empty. This is what Peirce intended by such characteristic statements as that our conception of an object is our conception of its "practical effects" or "sensible effects." He did not mean (as James sometimes did) that the meaning of a concept is the practical effect it has in particular cases when you use it. All Peirce argued was that a concept must have some conceivable consequences, or "practical bearings," and that these must be specifiable in the manner just discussed if the concept is to play a significant role in communication, (b ) Peirce's pragmatism thus is offered as a schema for getting at the meaning, or empirical significance, of language. As a schema it is not a theory of meaning in the sense of some general definition of meaning; it is a theoretical device for getting at the empirically significant content of concepts by determining the roles they play in classes of empirically verifiable statements. This procedure, or schema, clearly foreshadowed the later programs of operationalism and the verifiability theory of meaning.

Despite some serious difficulties that jeopardize portions of Peirce's method, the general aspects of his approach appear to be sound canons of scientific practice. Peirce's recondite statements of pragmatism have created considerable confusion. But Peirce seemed less concerned with the problem of providing an accurate and complete statement of the "maxim" of pragmatism than with its use and justification. This he attempted to show in much of his later philosophical inquiries of a scientific and metaphysical sort.

Peirce's schema, or prescriptive method, for "determining the meaning of intellectual concepts" has several sources in addition to his familiarity with scientific technique. Suggestions of it are to be found in Berkeley and in Kant. Peirce's view that meanings take a general form expressed in schema or formulas that prescribe kinds of operations and results and conceivable consequences and rules of action was directly linked to Kant. Peirce says he was led to the method of pragmatism by reflecting on Kant's Critique of Pure Reason and on the Kantian use of pragmatisch for empirical, or experimentally conditioned, laws, "based on and applying to experience."

inquiry and truth

It should be noted, finally, that Peirce's pragmatism is part of a more general account of "inquiry," aspects of which he elaborated with some care and most of which was taken up into Dewey's extensive construction of a theory of inquiry. Peirce described the function of thought as a form of behavior initiated by the irritation of doubt and proceeding to some resolution in a state of belief. Belief is a condition of organic stability and intellectual satisfaction, but these latter do not determine the truth of beliefs. Peirce outlined a scientific and pragmatic method of clarifying and justifying belief. It was this aspect of Peirce's analysis of inquiry and belief that suggested a pragmatic theory of truth. On this matter he was unclear and wavering. Sometimes truth and pragmatic meaning overlapped or coalesced in his discussions of them. But Peirce also argued that truth theory and pragmatism are entirely separate considerations. Generally, the idea of truth, for Peirce, is drawn from Kant and is to be understood as a regulative idea, one that functions solely to order, integrate, and promote inquiry. Taken as a "correspondence" or "coherence" theoryor criticized from the point of view of such theoriesPeirce's account of truth looks strange, cumbersome, and naive.

William James

It was James who launched pragmatism as a new philosophy in a lecture "Philosophical Conceptions" in 1898; it was under his leadership that pragmatism came to be famous; and it was primarily his exposition that was received and read by the world at large.

Although Peirce and James were lifelong friends and exerted much intellectual influence upon each other, they differed in ways that had important effects upon their respective versions of pragmatism. Peirce was a realist (calling himself a scholastic realist); James was far more of a nominalist. Where Peirce sought meaning in general concepts and formulas of action, James sought meaning in experienced facts and plans of action. James looked to the concrete, immediate, practical level of experience as the testing ground of our intellectual efforts; for Peirce, the immediate sensory experience is all but destitute of "intellectual purport." Furthermore, while Peirce's pragmatism took a logical and scientific character, James, despite being an eminent man of science, was first and foremost a moralist in his pragmatism.


Moral interests and moral language appear in almost every important passage of James's writing on pragmatism. In Pragmatism James made his moral conception of philosophy unmistakably evident in saying that "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." The phrase "what definite difference at definite instants of our life" is by and large James's way of critically judging the meaning and truth of ideas. For James, meaning and truth are included in a more fundamental category of value; to determine the meaning or truth of ideas one must evaluate their "practical consequences," "usefulness," "workability." In several famous pronouncements, James spoke of truth as what is good or expedient in our beliefs. In a phrase that permanently shocked some of his readers, James described the meaning and truth of ideas as their "cash value."

Generally, for James, the function of thought is that of assisting us to achieve and sustain "satisfactory relations with our surroundings." The value of ideas, beliefs, and conceptual dealings is to be determined accordingly, on each of numerous occasions, by their effectiveness and efficiency as the means of carrying us propitiously "from any one part of our experience to any other part, linking things satisfactorily, working securely, simplifying, saving labor."

James was thus primarily concerned with issues of belief and conceptual renditions of experience in their role of enabling men to deal with environments and to enrich the fare of daily experience. It is the level of life experience that interested James. Hence, his own statements of pragmatism resemble those of Peirce but emphasize the importance of immediate experience and practical consequences and clues to action. For James, our thoughts of an object pragmatically considered lead us to "what conceivable effects of a practical kind the object may involvewhat sensations we are to expect from it, and what reactions we must prepare. Our conception of these effects, whether immediate or remote, is then for us the whole of our conception of the object." If we compare this statement from Pragmatism with those cited earlier from Peirce, it is not difficult to see that in James's pragmatism the emphasis is upon the way individuals interpret environing conditions for purposes of successful action. The passage also reflects how James's view differed from Peirce's Kantian conception; James explained "pragmatism" as coming from the Greek πράγμα, meaning "practice," "action." Indeed, so fundamental are action, exploration, and life experience in James's philosophy that some of his critics have taken great pains to demonstrate the value of inaction and the general uselessness of philosophy. In this endeavor, it may be said, they have been on the whole successful.


It was James's conception of truth that became a cause célèbre for pragmatism and its critics, until eventually James, tiring of the matter, turned his attention to other philosophical pursuits, leaving to Dewey the defense and development of pragmatism. Aside from truth, the other major critical issue in pragmatism was James's argument for the justification of moral and religious belief. James's interest in the meaning and function of belief was that of a skilled and perceptive psychologist and moralist. His general view was this: When, for a given person P, a belief B answers or satisfies a compelling need (of P to see or interpret the world in a certain way), the "vital good" supplied by B in the life of P (the difference it makes as a beneficial causal condition in the psychological and physiological behavior of P ) justifies B. It must be noted that James argued for this justification procedure only when (a ) the choice of B or not-B is, for a given individual at a given time, "live," "forced," and "momentous"; (b ) the evidence for or against B is equal, or admits of no rational adjudication of one over the other; (c ) the effect or consequences of B are a "vital benefit." These three qualifications work against ascribing to James some popular defense or universal apologia for religious belief. He thought he was correct in pointing to a psychological and moral right to belief analogous to the justification of postulates or posits (in Kantian and Fichtean transcendental philosophizing) or of certain theoretical hypotheses in science.

Peirce and Dewey, among others, were highly critical of this defense of the will to believe. James the psychologist and literary artist brilliantly described the working consequences of types of religious belief for characteristic types of persons. But James the philosopher tended to confuse a descriptive analysis of how belief functions and why men believe with questions of the evaluation or verification of specific cases of belief. (Thus, for example, the fact that B answers a need of P is not of itself evidence that the content of belief B is warranted or that P has correctly understood his "need.")

However, it was this side of James that was enthusiastically received as the moral core of his pragmatism by Schiller in England and Giovanni Papini in Italy. Here also James's views have affinities with those of Bergson, Vaihinger, and Simmel. James seemed to be a democratic, energetic, and lovable Johann Gottlieb Fichte, an artist and scientist exhorting men to trust their beliefs and, above all, to leave the classroom and cloister and start living and acting in the world.

John Dewey

In the article "The Development of American Pragmatism," Dewey described Peirce's views as stemming from an "experimental, not a priori, explanation of Kant" and James's pragmatism as inspired by British empiricism. But he also noted this difference: "Peirce wrote as a logician and James as a humanist." There was, in fact, a cross-fertilization of these strains; but the characterization is apt and traceable enough in the history of pragmatism and in Dewey, too, to be of expository aid. Dewey began to appreciate James while still under the influence of Hegelian and Kantian idealism; later he recognized the importance of Peirce, whose insights and ideas were in many respects anticipations of those Dewey had started to work out on his own. The Hegelian synthesis of the logical and humanistic sides of pragmatism was achieved by the disenchanted Hegelian Dewey.


Through Dewey's patient, critical, and indefatigable efforts, pragmatism was carefully and thoroughly reformulated into what Dewey called Instrumentalism, "a theory of the general forms of conception and reasoning." Instrumentalism was a single philosophical theory within which the two evolving aspects of pragmatism found coherent expression. Instrumentalism was both theory of logic and a guiding principle of ethical analysis and criticism. For Dewey, this theory bridged the most persistent and noxious of "dualisms" in modern thoughtthe separation of science and values, knowledge and morals.

Instrumentalism was Dewey's theory of the conditions under which reasoning occurs and of the forms, or controlling operations, that are characteristic of thought in establishing future consequences. In the paper cited above, Dewey wrote:

Instrumentalism is an attempt to constitute a precise logical theory of concepts, of judgments and inferences in their various forms, by considering primarily how thought functions in the experimental determinations of future consequences it attempts to establish universally recognized distinctions and rules of logic by deriving them from the reconstructive or mediative function ascribed to reason. It aims to constitute a theory of the general forms of conception and reasoning.

A suggestive and vital feature of this theory for Dewey was that while the subject matters of scientific inquiry and moral and social experience differ, the method and forms of thought functioning "in the experimental determinations of future consequences" do not differ in kind. The method of thought and the forms of reflective behavior exhibit a common functional pattern whenever problematic situations become resolved through inquiry yielding "warranted assertion."

inquiry and truth

"Warranted assertion" is the term for Dewey's version of truth. Inquiry is initiated in conditions of doubt; it terminates in the establishment of conditions in which doubt is no longer needed or felt. It is this settling of conditions of doubt, a settlement produced and warranted by inquiry, which distinguishes the warranted assertion. Whereas Dewey once defined "truth" as the "working" or "satisfactory" or "verified" idea or hypothesis, he was led, laterpartly as a result of several critical controversies over truth with Bertrand Russell during the 1930s and 1940sto restate his view of truth as warranted assertion.

In his Logic Dewey gave his general definition of inquiry as "the controlled or directed transformation of an indeterminate situation into one that is so determinate in its constituent distinctions and relations as to convert the elements of the original situation into a unified whole." The theory of inquiry was developed over many years and in many writings; into it went the products of Dewey's reflections on the nature of thought, his contributions to psychology and education, the influence of the biological and functional aspects of James's Principles of Psychology, and the influence of Peirce on the nature of scientific inquiry. In his analysis of the biological and cultural conditions of inquiry and in his account of intelligence as a function of these interacting conditions in a particular situation with respect to a problem and its outcome, Dewey was also guided by some of the basic ideas in the philosophical social psychology of G. H. Mead, once Dewey's colleague at Michigan and Chicago and one of his closest friends. The definitive statement of the theory is in Dewey's Logic: The Theory of Inquiry (1938).

For Dewey, the theory of inquiry is a generalized description of the organic, cultural, and formal conditions of intelligent action. Such action is provoked by problems of diverse kindspolitical, ethical, scientific, and aesthetic. But irrespective of the specific content of human problems or the nature of problem situations, inquiry is a reflective evaluation of existing conditionsof shortcomings and possibilitieswith respect to operations intended to actualize certain potentialities of the situation so as to resolve what was doubtful. The purpose of inquiry is to create goods, satisfactions, solutions, and integration in what was initially a wanting, discordant, troubled, and problematic situation. In this respect all intelligence is evaluative, and no separation of moral, scientific, practical, or theoretical experience is to be made. So commanding an achievement was Dewey's last-mentioned work that "pragmatism" is often identified with the position he expounded there as a naturalistic logic for evaluating and reconstructing human experience.

More Recent Tendencies

A somewhat different articulation of pragmatism, deriving less from James and Dewey than from Peirce, was set forth by C. I. Lewis in the 1920s as "conceptualistic pragmatism." Lewis emphasized the role of mind in supplying the a priori principles and categories by which we proceed to organize and interpret sense experience. But he also stressed the plurality of categories and conceptual schemes by which experience can be interpreted and the evolutionary character of our systems. Because a priori principles impose no necessary order on the world or upon sense experience (determining only our ways of organizing experience), Lewis argued for a "pragmatic a priori." Decisions to accept or reject conceptual principles, indeed the very function of those principles, rest upon socially shared needs and purposes and upon our interest in increased understanding and control over experience. According to Lewis (in Mind and the World Order ), "The interpretation of experience must always be in terms of categories and concepts which the mind itself determines. There may be alternative conceptual systems giving rise to alternative descriptions of experience, which are equally objective and equally valid. When this is so, choice will be determined, consciously or unconsciously, on pragmatic grounds."

Lewis's pragmatism resulted in a theory of conceptual and empirical meaning and in an analysis of empirical judgments as probable and evaluative modes of acting upon passing and future experience.

In more recent literature, under the influence of Dewey and Lewis as well as Rudolf Carnap, Charles Morris, Ernest Nagel, Willard Van Orman Quine, and others, "pragmatism" connotes one broad philosophical attitude toward our conceptualization of experience: Theorizing over experience is, as a whole and in detail, fundamentally motivated and justified by conditions of efficacy and utility in serving our various aims and needs. The ways in which experience is apprehended, systematized, and anticipated may be many. Here pragmatism counsels tolerance and pluralism. But, aside from aesthetic and intrinsic interests, all theorizing is subject to the critical objective of maximum usefulness in serving our needs: Our critical decisions, in general, will be pragmatic, granted that in particular cases decisions over what is most useful or needed in our rational endeavors are relative to some given point of view and purposes.

An expression of this attitude that is of current interest was advanced by Peirce, James, and Dewey, as well as by F. P. Ramsey, the brilliant English philosopher influenced by Peirce and James. This is an interpretation of the laws and theories of science as "leading principles," or instrumental procedures, for inferring stated conditions from others. Construed as leading principles, theories function as guides for logical inference, indicating how certain formulations are to be derived from other formulations of events, rather than as descriptively true statements of reality serving as premises from which conclusions are deduced. Pragmatically, theories are inference policies, neither true nor false (except pragmatically) but nonetheless critically assessable as to their utility and clarity and the fruitfulness of the consequences that result from adopting them.

While there continues to be an interest in the philosophies of Peirce, James, Dewey, and Schiller, pragmatism as a movement, in the form outlined in these pages, cannot be said to be alive today. But pragmatism has succeeded in its critical reaction to the nineteenth-century philosophical background from which it emerged; it has helped shape the modern conception of philosophy as a way of investigating problems and clarifying communication rather than as a fixed system of ultimate answers and great truths. And in this alteration of the philosophical scene, some of the positive suggestions of pragmatism have been disseminated into current intellectual life as practices freely adopted and taken for granted to an extent that no longer calls for special notice.

The measure of success pragmatism has achieved in encouraging more successful philosophizing in our time is, by its own standards, its chief justification. To have disappeared as a special thesis by becoming infused in the normal and habitual practices of intelligent inquiry and conduct is surely the pragmatic value of pragmatism.

See also Pragmatics; Pragmatist Epistemology.


general works on pragmatism

Ayer, A. J. The Origins of Pragmatism: Studies in the Philosophy of Charles Sanders Peirce and William James. San Francisco: Freeman, Cooper, 1968.

Dewey, John. "The Development of American Pragmatism." In his Philosophy and Civilization. New York: Minton Balch, 1931. Ch. 2.

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

Quine, W. V. O. "Two Dogmas of Empiricism" In his From a Logical Point of View. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1951.

Rorty, Richard. Objectivity, Relativism, and Truth. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

Rorty, Richard. "A Pragmatist View of Contemporary Analytic Philosophy." Utopia y Praxis Latinoamericana 7 (2002): 2940.

Scheffler, I. Four Pragmatists: A Critical Introduction to Peirce, James, Mead, and Dewey. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1974.

Schneider, H. W. History of American Philosophy. New York: Columbia University Press, 1946. Chs. 3941.

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

Thayer, H. S. "Pragmatism." In A Critical History of Western Philosophy, edited by D. J. O'Connor, 437462. New York: Free Press of Glencoe, 1964.

Wiener, Philip P. Evolution and the Founders of Pragmatism. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1949.

works by peirce

Collected Papers. 8 vols, edited by C. Hartshorne, P. Weiss, and A. W. Burks. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 19311958. Vols. V and VIII especially.

Charles S. Peirce: Selected Writings, edited by P. P. Weiner. New York: Dover, 1966.

works on peirce

Buchler, Justus. Charles Peirce's Empiricism. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1939.

Gallie, W. B. Peirce and Pragmatism. Harmondsworth, U.K.: Penguin, 1952.

Murphey, Murray G. The Development of Peirce's Philosophy. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1961.

Rosenberg, Jay F. "How not to Misunderstand PeirceA Pragmatist's Account of Truth." In What Is Truth?, edited by Richard Schantz. Berlin: de Gruyter, 2002.

works by james

"Philosophical Conceptions and Practical Results." University of California Chronicle (1898). Reprinted in his Collected Essays and Reviews, 406437. New York: Longman, 1920.

Pragmatism and the Meaning of Truth. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1979.

The Will to Believe and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1979.

works on james

Myers, G. E. William James: His Life and Thought. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1986.

Perry, R. B. The Thought and Character of William James. 2 vols. Boston: Little Brown, 1935.

works by dewey

Democracy and Education. New York: Macmillan, 1916.

Essays in Experimental Logic. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1916.

Reconstruction in Philosophy. New York: Holt, 1920. Reprinted in paperback edition with a new introduction. New York, 1950.

Human Nature and Conduct. New York: Holt, 1922.

Logic: The Theory of Inquiry. New York: Holt, 1938.

The Early Works, the Middle Works, the Later Works. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1990.

works on dewey

Geiger, G. R. John Dewey in Perspective. New York: Oxford University Press, 1958.

Hook, Sidney. John Dewey. New York: Day, 1939.

Thayer, H. S. The Logic of Pragmatism. New York: Humanities Press, 1952.

White, Morton. The Origin of Dewey's Instrumentalism. New York: Columbia University Press, 1943.

other pragmatists

Abel, Reuben. The Pragmatic Humanism of F. C. S. Schiller. New York: King's Crown Press, Columbia University, 1955.

Lewis, C. I. An Analysis of Knowledge and Valuation. La Salle, IL: Open Court, 1946.

Lewis, C. I. Mind and the World Order. New York: Scribners, 1929.

Lewis, C. I. "A Pragmatist Conception of the A Priori." Journal of Philosophy 20 (1923): 169177.

Mead, George H. Mind, Self, and Society. Edited by C. W. Morris. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1934.

Mead, George H. The Philosophy of the Act. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1938.

Mead, George H. Selected Writings. Edited by Andrew J. Reck. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1964.

Schiller, F. C. S. "Axioms as Postulates." In Personal Idealism, edited by Henry Sturt, 47133. London: Macmillan, 1902.

Schiller, F. C. S. Logic for Use. London: G. Bell, 1929.

Schiller, F. C. S. Studies in Humanism. New York: Macmillan, 1907.

H. S. Thayer (1967)

Bibliography updated by Benjamin Fiedor (2005)


views updated May 23 2018


Pragmatism, the Greek root word of which means "action," grew out of a turn-of-the-century reaction in American philosophy to Enlightenment conceptions of science, human nature, and social order. Generally, it has sought to reconcile incompatibilities between philosophical idealism and realism. In the former, reality is conceived of as existing only in human experience and subjectivity, and is given in the form of perceptions and ideas. In the latter, reality is proposed as existing in the form of essences or absolutes that are independent of human experience. These two traditions have grounded different approaches to empiricism and in their extremes can be found, respectively, in the solipsism of the British philosopher George Berkeley and the positivistic embracement of natural law by the French sociologist Auguste Comte.

As a response and an alternative to these traditions, pragmatism has not been developed as a unified philosophical system. Rather, it has existed as a related set of core ideas and precepts that are expressed as versions or applications of pragmatic thought. Variation within that thought ranges across the realism–idealism continuum and is largely a function of different analytical agendas. Despite that variation, however, pragmatism has become quite broad in its application to theoretical and research problems. Acknowledged as the most distinctive and profound contribution of American intellectual thought, its influence can be found in all contemporary disciplines in the humanities and social sciences. Its intellectual roots are described in Rucker (1969), Martindale (1960), and Konvitz and Kennedy (1960), and its core ideas are described in Shalin (1986), Rochberg-Halton (1986), and Rosenthal (1986).


In summary form, the main ideas embodying the thrust of pragmatism are as follows. First, humans are active, creative organisms, empowered with agency rather than passive responders to stimuli. Second, human life is a dialectical process of continuity and discontinuity and therefore is inherently emergent. Third, humans shape their worlds and thus actively produce the conditions of freedom and constraint. Fourth, subjectivity is not prior to social conduct but instead flows from it. Minds (intelligence) and selves (consciousness) are emergent from action and exist dialectically as social and psychical processes rather than only as psychic states. Fifth, intelligence and consciousness are potential solutions to practical problems of human survival and quality of life. Sixth, science is a form of adjustive intelligibility and action that is useful in guiding society. Seventh, truth and value reside simultaneously in group perspectives and the human consequences of action. Eighth, human nature and society exist in and are sustained by symbolic communication and language. In these core ideas can be seen the neo-Hegelian focus on dialectical processes and the concurrent rejection of Cartesian dualisms, the Darwinian focus on the emergence of forms and variation through adjustive processes, and the behavioristic focus on actual conduct as the locus of reality and understanding. These ideas were embraced and developed by a variety of scholars and thinkers, including Ralph Waldo Emerson, Percy Bridgman, C. I. Lewis, Morris Cohen, Sidney Hook, Charles Morris, Charles Peirce, William James, Charles Horton Cooley, John Dewey, and George Herbert Mead. Of these, Peirce, James, Cooley, Dewey, and Mead will be reviewed here for purposes of assessing the relevance of pragmatism to social science and sociology.

Charles S. Peirce (1839–1914) is generally credited as the originator of the term pragmatism and the formulation of some of its basic tenets. One of his earliest statements (1877–1878) pertained to methods for resolving doubt about conclusions, in which he argued in favor of science because of its flexibility and self-correcting processes. This view contrasts sharply with the Cartesian basis of science in subjectivism and individualism proposed by Descartes. Rather than focusing on belief and consciousness as definitive, Peirce focused on probability. Both truth and scientific rationality rest in a community of opinion in the form of perpetual doubt and through a process of revisions are measured in terms of movement toward the clarification of ideas. The emphasis in this process is both evolutionary, since Peirce saw modes of representing knowledge moving from chance (firstness) to brute existence (secondness) to generality or order (thirdness), and pragmatic, since truth is meaningful only in terms of future consequences for human conduct (the "pragmatic rule").

William James (1842–1910) was driven by the problem of determinism and free will. This problem was expressed in his monumental Principles of Psychology (1890), in which he established a functional view assimilating biology and psychology and treated intelligence as an instrument of human survival, and in his brilliant analysis of consciousness (1904), in which he characterized human experience as an ongoing flow instead of a series of psychic states. Pragmatist principles were sharply articulated in these works. James accepted Peirce's pragmatic rule that the meaning of anything resides in experimental consequences. Accordingly, the distinction between subject and object as fundamental was denied and was replaced with the idea that relations between the knower and the known are produced by and in ongoing experience. This more dialectical conceptualization informed his theory of emotions, which stressed bodily responses as producers of emotional responses (e.g., we feel afraid because we tremble) and his theory of the self, emphasizing the "I" (self as knower) and the "Me" (self as known) as tied to multiple networks of group affiliation. His focus throughout was on the operations of ongoing experience, and his formulations not only specified and elaborated pragmatist principles but anticipated or contributed to behaviorism, gestalt psychology, and operationalism.

Charles Horton Cooley (1864–1929), building on the work of James, rejected the legitimacy of all dualisms. In his famous statement that "self and society are twin-born," he asserted the inseparability of individuals and society. Individuals, he proposed, are merely the distributive phase and societies the collective phase of the same social processes. The indissoluble connection of self and society, which was the dominant theme of Cooley's writings, is manifested in their necessary interdependence. His theory of the social self held that self-concepts are behaviorally derived through reflected appraisals of the actions of others—the looking-glass self. Especially important in the process of self-acquisition are primary groups (family, friends), which link the person to society. Correspondingly, society significantly exists in the form of personal imaginations or mental constructs; society, Cooley stated, is an interweaving and interworking of mental selves. Cooley's approach was thoroughly holistic and organic, with human consciousness and communication being the most critical processes, and his work added further to the pragmatist's dismantling of the Cartesian split between mind and society.

John Dewey (1859–1952) was perhaps the most influential and prolific of the early pragmatists. Coming philosophically to pragmatism from Hegelianism, he emphasized intelligence, process, and the notion that organisms are constantly reconstructing their environments as they are being determined by them. He contributed forcefully to the critique of dualistic thought in his analysis of stimulus-response theory (1896). Instead of constituting an arc, in which the stimulus leads to a response (a dualistic conception), Dewey argued that they are merely moments in an overall division of labor in a reciprocal, mutually constitutive process (a dialectical conception). Central to those dialectics was communication, which according to Dewey was the foundation and core mechanism of social order. He developed an instrumentalist theory of language (1925)—language as a tool—which was generalized into a broader instrumentalism. One of his central interests was moral and social repair through the application of intelligence and scientific methods. He merged theory and practice in the view that ideas are instruments for reconstructing and reconstituting problematic situations. Those ideas may be moral judgements or scientific findings, but both take the general form of hypotheses, which are proposals for action in response to difficulties. Dewey thus built upon Peirce's and James's pragmatic rule by arguing that validity and truth statements, whether theological or scientific, are established by examining the consequences of action derived from hypotheses.

George Herbert Mead (1863–1931) sought understanding of emergent human properties, such as the ability to think in abstractions, self-consciousness, and moral and purposive conduct. His central argument was that these properties are grounded in the development of language and social interaction as humans adjust to the conditions of their environments and group life (Mead 1934). His position is said to be one of social behaviorism, in which the social act is the unit of analysis and out of which minds and selves develop. The act has covert and overt phases. It begins in the form of an attitude (an incipient act), is constructed through role-taking processes (imaginatively placing oneself in the position of others), and is manifested in overt conduct. All social behavior involves a conflation of subjective and objective processes through which persons adjustively contend with the facts of their environments and simultaneously create social situations. Mead's explicit theory of time and sociality places these adjustments squarely in the dialectics of continuity and discontinuity (Maines et al. 1983).

In these five brief summaries can be seen how the early pragmatists wove together strands of scientific method, evolutionary theory, language, and behaviorism into a radically new perspective. Pragmatism provided a clear alternative to perspectives based on Cartesian dualisms and reconstituted science, morality, aesthetics, political theory, and social development in terms of dialectical transactions. Philosophical idealism and realism were brought into a common framework in the proposition that human experience and facts of nature and society (the "world that is there," as Mead called them) are only phases of ongoing social processes that mediate persons and their environments in terms of transacted meanings. The variation within pragmatism hinges largely on individual affinities for idealism and realism: James and Cooley tended toward idealism, Peirce toward realism, and Dewey and Mead toward a transactional midpoint between the two. Moreover, there is variation in pragmatism's influence in the social sciences and humanities. Dewey has been enormously influential in education and communication, Mead and Cooley in sociology and social psychology, Peirce in semiotics, and James in psychology. That variation, however, only represents modal tendencies, since pragmatism as a whole has had a significant impact across disciplines.


Since 1980 there has been a major resurgence of interest in pragmatism (Bernstein 1986). Its compatibilities with quantum mechanics and relativity theory have been articulated, as has its relevance for the development of a more social semiotics and discourse analysis (Perinbanayagam 1986). The relation of pragmatism to hermeneutics, from the tradition of German Idealism, has been reexamined (Dallmayr 1987), as has its relation to critical theory in the work of Jürgen Habermas (McCarthy 1984), literary criticism (Rorty 1982), phenomenology (Ricoeur 1985), cultural studies (Carey 1989), and modernization theory (Rochberg-Halton 1986). According to some, such as Richard Bernstein and more recently John Diggins (1994), this resurgence indicates that the early pragmatists were ahead of their time. Some scholars in the 1990s have continued to revise pragmatist thought on its own terms. Wiley (1995) has proposed a sophisticated modification of Mead's theory of the self through Peirce's triadic, semiotic perspective. Joas (1993), while not writing on pragmatism, per se, has shown how pragmatist precepts have been intrinsic both to classical and contemporary theory. He also (Joas 1996) has retheorized creativity, long at the heart of pragmatism's emphasis on novelty and indeterminism, for dominant sociological models based on structural differentiation, rational adaptation, and self-enhancement.

Other scholars have sought to reinvigorate pragmatism's relevance for contemporary political and cultural agendas. Noting that the seeds of a feminist pragmatism existed in the work and practices of the classical thinkers (Mead, Dewey, James), Seigfried (1996) politicizes pragmatism in the common struggles of women, ethnic minorities, and the sexually marginalized. While retaining the traditional center of the perspective, she seeks to move it toward a reconsideration of contextual ethics and reciprocal moral responsibility and to promote the search for pragmatic truths that would emancipate people from distorted beliefs and values that become sedimented into accepted fact. These scholars also include Cornell West (1989), who articulated his version of "prophetic pragmatism" in The American Evasion of Philosophy and followed it with his influential Race Matters (1994), which was more politically engaged and contributed to a more vibrant democracy that better empowers local participation in institutional concerns. Still others have sought more radical revisions of pragmatism. Denzin (1992, 1996), drawing in part from West, provides a revision of pragmatism in postmodernist, cultural studies terms that seeks to transform it into a mechanism of cultural critique. Such works find audiences in humanistic circles, but have met with mixed reactions among social scientists. Farberman (1991) and Lyman (1997) reject the postmodernist project partly on the grounds of its nihilistic implications, Van Den Berg (1996) because of its limited vision of Enlightenment philosophy, and Maines (1996) because its core concepts are already contained in pragmatist thought. Others, such as Seidman (1996) have attempted more even-handed critiques and seek the common ground of postmodernism and pragmatism. Regardless of recent interpretations of pragmatism, the collapse of hegemonic theories and the corresponding import of post-positivistic debate in social scientific theorizing has brought the basic tenets of pragmatism back into the search for new paradigms in social theory.

These recent influences and developments notwithstanding, there has been a long tradition of direct influence of pragmatism on social science research and theory. Sociology's first research classic was Thomas and Znaniecki's (1918–1920) study of Polish immigrant adaptation to American urban life. They were interested in questions of personal adjustment, family relations, neighborhood formation, delinquency, and cultural assimilation, and they used the principles of pragmatism, especially as expressed by G. H. Mead, to answer those questions. Their monumental five-volume work presented their attitude-value scheme as a general theory of the adjustive relations between individuals and society. "Attitudes" referred to the individual's tendencies to act and represented human subjectivity; "values" referred to the constraining facts of a society's social organization and represented the objective social environment. Both are present in any instance of human social conduct, they argued, but the relationships between the two are established in processes of interpretation that they called "definitions of the situation." Thomas and Znaniecki thus placed human agency at the center of their explanations, and they conceptualized society as the organization of dialectical transactions.

That research contained pragmatist ideas pertaining to the social psychological and social organizational aspects of human behavior. These aspects were developed during the 1920s and 1930s at the University of Chicago by Ellsworth Faris and Robert Park. Faris (1928) examined attitudes, especially in terms of the nature of their influence on behavior. He argued that human subjectivity is a natural datum for sociological research and proposed that wishes and desires, not attitudes, have a direct bearing on overt conduct. Park (1926) was more interested in large-scale historical issues such as urban organization and racial stratification. He directly applied Dewey's focus on society as communication to his research on urban communities. These communities, he argued, have objective spatial patterns, but those patterns are not separable from human consciousness. Urban ecology thus has a moral dimension composed of meanings that collectivities attribute to urban areas. The pragmatist roots of Park's sociology recently has been reemphasized in his theory of human ecology (Maines et al. 1996), his influence on applied sociology (Reitzes and Reitzes 1992; see also Maines 1997), and as a framework for describing and theorizing urban public space (Lofland 1998).

The pragmatist themes of individual/society inseparability and human behavior as transactions were pursued by other sociologists. In 1937, Herbert Blumer coined the phrase symbolic interaction to refer simultaneously to how humans communicate and to a sociological perspective. He applied that perspective to a wide range of research areas such as social psychology, collective behavior, race relations, and social problems (Maines 1989). Blumer's posthumous volume on industrialization and social change (1990) elaborates the Thomas and Znaniecki formulations by presenting a conceptualization of causal influences that hinge on human agency and interpretation. Stone's research on clothing and fashion (1962) similarly focuses on human behavior as transactions. In particular, his analysis of identity establishment identifies dialectical processes of communication through which individuals are located and placed in the social organization of society. His treatment of interpersonal identities is sympathetic to Cooley's emphasis on the importance of primary groups, while his treatment of structural relations corresponds with Thomas and Znaniecki's concept of values and predates contemporary social psychological research on individuals and social structure.

Studies of social organization have been directly influenced by pragmatist principles, as previously mentioned, but that influence has been especially apparent since the early 1970s (see Hall 1987 and Fine 1993 for summaries). Anselm Strauss's research on occupations and formal organizations has been prominent in this recent work and has led to the development of the "negotiated order" perspective (Strauss 1978). Negotiations, he argues, are processes through which collective actions occur and tasks are accomplished. These processes are influenced by actor characteristics, the immediate situation, and larger structural contexts. However, those larger contexts are also influenced reciprocally by actual negotiations and their situations. Strauss's model of social organization thus is a recursive and dialectical one. Stryker (1980) presents a slightly different version but one that is no less pragmatist. He incorporates traditional role theory to argue that social structural arrangements limit options and opportunities by channeling people into status and role positions. So located, people construct their identities in terms of social meanings that are hierarchically organized. Both Strauss's and Stryker's applications of pragmatism have stimulated considerable research and theoretical development.

Such development has continued with some vigor throughout the 1990s. Pestello and Saxton (2000) draw on explicit principles of pragmatism to reframe the study of deviance in terms of the dialectics of inclusion and exclusion. While closer to the classical statements, they share with the neopragmatists such as West, Seigfried, and Rorty the interest in reclaiming the vision of emancipatory democracy that has always been present in the perspective. Other scholars have used pragmatist principles to further develop areas of sociological theory. Fine (1992) addresses the relationship between agency and structure, and theorizes both the obdurate and interpretive dimensions of the relations among contexts of action. Musolf (1998) shows how agency and structure relations are expressed in an array of standard sociological areas (socialization, gender, deviance, power, society), while Hall (1997) offers an updated version of his earlier conceptual framework (Hall 1987) that allows analysts to better specify dimensions of agency-structure relations. Five dimensions are identified: strategic agency, rules and conventions, structuring situations, culture construction, and empowering delegates. He then shows how power is expressed along these dimensions and links together situations and contexts.

In a related approach to matters of agency and structure, Strauss (1993) builds on his earlier theory of negotiations to focus analysis on ordering processes. He begins by articulating over a dozen assumptions drawn from pragmatism that guide his analysis. He then presents a "processual order" theory that focuses on how larger scale processes and structures condition organizations and situations within which people interpret and construct their conduct and how local decisions have consequences for larger scale processes and structures. This theory has been used in research by Fischer and Dirsmith (1995) to examine organizational strategies and technology use in large accounting firms. Ulmer (1997) also has used the theory to explain how state sentencing guidelines are filtered through state and local political processes, and how local court communities set "going rates" for actual criminal sentencing. Ulmer's research is especially relevant because it simultaneously presents data on statewide sentencing outcomes and the contextual practices that produce those outcomes.

Yet another related line of development has focused on what W. I. Thomas ([1927] 1966) called "situational analysis," which examines the interplay of actors' interpretations and the obdurate qualities of situations. Katovich and Couch (1992) draw on Mead's theory of time to show how pasts are used by people to become socially situated. Situations, they argue, are not merely settings in which human conduct occurs, but rather are forms of conduct themselves and exist as transactions of pasts and futures. Gusfield (1996) presents his long line of research on alcohol problems, and addresses how those problems are constructed. He discusses various claims-makers within the alcoholism movement, and then dissects actual alcohol problems in terms of their situations—situations of drinking, of driving, of accountability—and the ideologies and logics-in-use that connect them. Hall and McGinty (1997) analyze educational policy processes from the "transformation of intentions" perspective. In a statewide study of the Missouri career ladder program, they show how various contexts (state legislature, advisory committees, bureaucratic offices, school districts, local schools) influence the original intended policy. Actual policy effects, accordingly, are strongly influenced by situational contingencies that render policy processes themselves less-than-rational. Similarily, Deutscher and colleagues (1993) analyze the contradictory findings from decades of attitude-behavior research, and provide a situational approach for explaining the inconsistencies between attitudes (what people say about themselves) and behavior (what people do). To understand consistency and inconsistencies between attitudes and behavior, they argue, we must understand the situations that produce those kinds of relationships.

One of the distinctive characteristics of social science research and theory that has been grounded in pragmatism is the reluctance to give credence to dualisms such as micro–macro or individual–society. While issues of scale have always been acknowledged and used, as the work of Park, Blumer, Stone, Stryker, Strauss, Hall, and Fine has demonstrated, the focus has been on the examination of social processes that produce, maintain, and change social orders. These social processes have generally been conceptualized as communicative in nature, and the central thrust has been on how large- and small-scale phenomena are simultaneously or similarly transacted by individuals and groups. The focus on those processes has maintained the action orientation of pragmatism, and the central precepts of the perspective are finding increasing currency and relevance in contemporary work in the social sciences and humanities.

(see also: Social Philosophy; Social Psychology)


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David R. Maines


views updated May 08 2018


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


views updated Jun 11 2018





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


views updated May 17 2018


It is a commonplace to describe Americans as pragmatic—sometimes that tag is a compliment; more often it is a slur. However, the philosophy referred to as "pragmatic" involves stances on the nature of reality (metaphysics) and the nature of knowledge (epistemology) even as it embraces an agenda of psychological, social, and ethical positions. While philosophical pragmatism eventually evolved into a sophisticated and subtle body of doctrines, initially it was a response to a cultural endowment of concepts and problems. That is, a common matrix energized the intellectuals—the artists, jurists, clergy, journalists, scientists, philosophers, and novelists—of the turn of the nineteenth century in America even as the big three pragmatists, Charles Sanders Peirce (1839–1914), William James (1842–1910), and John Dewey (1859–1952) systematically worked out the details of philosophical pragmatism.

Any treatment of classical American pragmatism must begin with C. S. Peirce's seminal pair of articles, "The Fixation of Belief" (1877) and "How to Make Our Ideas Clear" (1878), both of which first appeared in Popular Science Monthly. Peirce's approach repudiates the whole project of René Descartes (1596–1650), the father of modern philosophy, who postulated methodic doubt to establish an indubitable foundation from which humans embark upon the project of achieving certitude. John Dewey echoes Peirce's stance, explaining that postmodern philosophy had abandoned "the quest for certainty."

Peirce argued that Descartes's goal of certitude was unrealistic, even impossible, and that his strategy of manufactured doubt was, at best, a make-believe exercise and, at worst, could undermine confidence in one's ability to understand and deal with the world. In his 1868 paper "Some Consequences of Four Incapacities," describing Cartesian doubt as alternatively feigned and corrosive, Peirce states:

We cannot begin with complete doubt. . . . Hence this initial skepticism will be a mere self-deception, and not real doubt; and no one who follows the Cartesian method will ever be satisfied until he has formally recovered all those beliefs which in form he has given up. . . . Let us not pretend to doubt in philosophy what we do not doubt in our hearts. (Collected Papers 5:265)

Instead, Peirce offers a triad of belief (defined as a habit of action), doubt (described as an irritation prompted by failure), and inquiry (characterized as the process of fixing a problematic situation by proposing a satisfactory plan of action in the form of a replacement belief). In place of wondering whether my hand is before my eyes, whether I am now dreaming, or whether I am being deceived by an evil genius, as Descartes urges us to do, the founder of pragmatism suggests that the paradigm for intellectual inquiry is real-life problem solving. When my car will not start I experience real doubt. The situation demands that I inquire in order to fix the problem so that when the solution is found I can drive down the road in a calm and satisfactory state of belief. In a masterfully compressed sketch of the intellectual development of individuals as well as the human race, Peirce argues that four strategies for fixing belief have evolved: first, tenacity, then authority, then reasonableness, and finally the scientific method. The first three methods are infected with subjectivity and a full range of human biases. Only the fourth method allows reality itself to shape, objectively and systematically, one's beliefs instead of vice versa. Moreover, the scientific method is self-corrective and is the only method that can use doubt as an opportunity (instead of a threat) as it turns difficulties into additional hypotheses waiting testing. Close at hand are redefinitions of both meaning and truth.

If the hypothetical-deductive method is to become the strategy to fix beliefs, then all questions, problems, concepts, and issues will have to be translatable (without loss of content) into patterns of action. Thereby, the meaning of an idea is the behavior it prompts, and its fruitfulness (or failure) will measure its truth (or falsity) as a pattern of action. In the nearly seventy-five years between the publication of Peirce's seminal articles and John Dewey's death in 1952, American pragmatists worked out the profit of and the problems with this radical redefinition of truth and meaning and more generally proposed, as a consequence, a fundamental recasting of the nature of philosophy. (After Dewey's death, classical American pragmatism's influence declined precipitously only to experience a stunning renaissance triggered by the publication of critical editions of the works of Peirce, James, and Dewey in the early 1970s and the emergence of the high-energy, high-profile neopragmatism of Richard Rorty in the 1980s and 1990s.) Though there are many individual differences of detail and emphasis among even the big three pragmatists—Peirce, James, and Dewey—a cluster of six commonly shared commitments can be discerned.


As noted above, the American pragmatists rejected the search for certain, timeless, universal answers to ultimate questions about Reality, Truth, God, and the Good. Rather than a theoretical pursuit, philosophy is seen as an instrument responding to concrete and tractable real problems. In his seminal essay, "The Influence of Darwinism on Philosophy"(1909), Dewey explains that "the bearing of Darwinian ideas upon philosophy" is that "the new logic outlaws, flanks, dismisses—what you will—one type of problems and substitutes for it another type. Philosophy forswears inquiry after absolute origins and absolute finalities in order to explore specific values and the specific conditions that generate them" (Collected Writings: Middle Works 4:10).


The classical American pragmatic philosophers would be hard-pressed to improve upon Frank Norris's account of pragmatic truth in his essay "The Need of a Literary Conscience," which appeared in the December 1901 World's Work. Norris explains that though unreflective persons may think truth is "an abstraction, a vague idea," it has instead "to do with practical, tangible, concrete work-a-day life. . . . [It is] as concrete as the lamp-post on the corner, as practical as a cable-car, as real and homely and work-a-day and commonplace as a boot-jack" (p. 1158).

Also noteworthy in their nod to pragmatism are the last chapters of The Sea-Wolf and Jack London's description of the wildly implausible success that Humphrey Van Weyden (society dandy recently become able-bodied sailor with minimal help from his fiancée, Maud) has in rehabilitating the wrecked and gutted sealing schooner the Ghost. When Humphrey tells Maud he is certain that the foremast he has heroically hoisted and refitted will work, she asks, "Do you know Dr. Jordan's final test of truth?" And then she eloquently pragmaticizes, "'Can we make it work? Can we trust our lives to it?' is the test" (London, Novels and Stories, p. 755). Her source, Donald Pizer points out, was an article by David Starr Jordan, "The Stability of Truth," which appeared in Popular Science Monthly in March 1897 (London, The Sea-Wolf, p. 1017). This was the journal that had, a decade earlier, published the seminal statements of pragmatism, "The Fixation of Belief" and "How to Make Our Ideas Clear" by C. S. Peirce.

Dewey further argued that all forms of intelligence are inherently critical; philosophy, because of its generality and fundamental nature, is "criticism of criticisms." Accordingly, philosophy's duty of cultural critique is in the service of social reconstruction and the amelioration of human suffering. "Philosophy," he wrote in a 1917 paper ("The Need for a Recovery of Philosophy"), "recovers itself when it ceases to be a device for dealing with the problems of philosophers and becomes a method, cultivated by philosophers, for dealing with the problems of men" (Collected Writings: Middle Works 10:46).


Pragmatists deem a comprehensive perspective and a total picture beyond the ken of humans. Philosophy's claims are understood to be inherently partial, context-dependent, tentative, and transactional articulations of the human perspective. William James is especially keen on these characteristics. Note these comments from his highly influential Pragmatism (1907): first on pluralism and then on humanism:

But as the sciences have developed farther, the notion has gained ground that most, perhaps all, of our laws are only approximations. The laws themselves, moreover, have grown so numerous that there is no counting them; and so many rival formulations are proposed in all the branches of science that investigators have become accustomed to the notion that no theory is absolutely a transcript of reality, but that any one of them may from some point of view be useful. Their great use is to summarize old facts and to lead to new ones. They are only a man-made language, a conceptual shorthand, as someone calls them, in which we write our reports of nature; and languages, as is well known, tolerate much choice of expression and many dialects. (Works: Pragmatism, p. 33)

Laws and languages at any rate are thus seen to be man-made: things. Mr. Schiller [a contemporary European pragmatist] applies the analogy to beliefs, and proposes the name of "Humanism" to the doctrine that to an unascertainable extent our truths are man-made products too. Human motives sharpen all our questions, human satisfactions lurk in all our answers, all our formulas have a human twist. . . .You see how naturally one comes to the humanistic principle: you can't weed out the human contribution. Our nouns and adjectives are all humanized heirlooms, and in the theories we build them into, the inner order and arrangement is wholly dictated by human considerations, intellectual consistency being one of them. Mathematics and logic are themselves fermenting with human rearrangements; physics, astronomy and biology follow massive cues of human preference. (Works: Pragmatism, pp. 116–117, 122)

Note how sweeping is James's claim: not just philosophy, literature, and the humanities in general but also mathematics, logic, and the empirical sciences are humanistic enterprises. Humans, insists James, must continually acknowledge the irreducible plurality of experience and the inescapable lens of perspective.


Pragmatists see Experience, not Reality, as the subject matter for reflection and analysis. John Dewey, for example, describes the project of metaphysics as the discovery of the generic traits of reality. Among the traits that Dewey examines are experience as stable, precarious, eventful, active, genuine, spurious, nurturing, hazardous, changing, continuous, practical and experimental, filled with initiations and consummations, funded with meanings, and social.

Pragmatism replaces the spectator view of knowledge, including its assumption that one's ideas "copy" a static universe, with the view that, as a knower, one is an involved participant who makes and remakes the universe. As part of pragmatism's war campaign against all dualisms (subject/object, matter/spirit, appearance/reality, means/ends), James and Dewey looked for terms that would get behind (or under) the known/knower opposition. Dewey, in particular, was adamant that experience (not reality or things or consciousness) is problematic and in need of investigation. To further stress the active and interactive process involved in knowing, Dewey initially described knowledge as a "transaction"; later he preferred the term "negotiation." "Experience," he writes in "The Need for a Recovery of Philosophy,"

is primarily a process of undergoing: a process of standing something; of suffering and passion, of affection, in the literal sense of these words. The organism has to endure, to undergo, the consequences of its own actions. Experience is no slipping along in a path fixed by inner consciousness. . . .Undergoing, however, is never mere passivity. . . .Experience, in other words, is a matter of simultaneous doings and sufferings. Our undergoings are experiments in varying the course of events; our active tryings are trials and tests of ourselves. (Collected Writings: Middle Works 10:8–10)

The impact of Darwinian evolution is pervasive in pragmatic philosophy. If all of reality is in evolutionary flux, there are no immutable natures to anchor knowledge or to ground values. Given the ascent of Darwin, everything is in process.


As also noted above, if the scientific method is the only trustworthy and defensible method of inquiry, then ideas are best understood as tools. If every belief is corrigible, one's standards for knowledge must be modestly downgraded to an expectation of high probability. Dewey offers "warranted assertability" (instead of certainty or Truth) as a realistic and assessable goal for true beliefs. Pragmatism's antifoundational stance treats every belief as criticizable and revisable. Peirce writing in 1897 observed that "no man of self-respect ever now states his result without affixing to it its probable error" (Collected Papers 1:9) a posture he dubbed "fallibilism." He further urged that all dogmas be greeted with extreme skepticism. Peirce kept every issue open to reexamination, offering as "the first rule of reason. . . . 'Do not block the road to inquiry'" (Collected Papers 1:136). In his famous "The Will to Believe" essay, James stresses the importance of sustaining a tension between trusting and questioning our beliefs.

I live, to be sure, by the practical faith that we must go on experiencing and thinking over our experience, for only thus can our opinions grow more true; but to hold any one of them—I absolutely do not care which—as if it never could be re-interpretable or corrigible, I believe to be a tremendously mistaken attitude, and I think that the whole history of philosophy will bear me out. (Works: The Will to Believe, p. 22)

The pragmatic notion of ideas as trustworthy tools can be highlighted by a favorite paradigm: an idea as map. Ideas do not duplicate sensations or impressions nor do they picture reality; ideas guide. A map is an extraordinarily compact summary of past experience that literally leads us. A reliable map gets one to one's destination (and a faulty one gets one lost). Note that one more naturally speaks of a reliable or good or useful map instead of a true one. In Pragmatism, James puts it this way:

Truth is one species of good, and not, as is usually supposed, a category distinct from good, and coordinate with it. The true is the name of whatever proves itself to be good in the way of belief, and good, too, for definite, assignable reasons. . . .

Her only test of probable truth is what works best in the way of leading us, what fits every part of life best and combines with the collectivity of experience's demands, nothing being omitted. (Works: Pragmatism, pp. 42, 44)

In short, for the pragmatists reflective thought is a response to concrete, real-life problems, and truth is proximately measured by its effectiveness in accomplishing specific, practical goals and ultimately gauged by its ability to promote long-term human flourishing.


Pragmatists reject both pessimism and optimism in favor of the view that improvement is possible. Accordingly humans are responsible for designing workable, ongoing, revisable solutions to better the lot of their fellows. Lest human freedom, initiative, and responsibility be compromised, God is seen as a powerful, though finite, partner in improving the world. In the final chapter of Pragmatism, James asks his readers to imagine God, at the moment of creation, putting the following case to his human cocreators:

I am going to make a world not certain to be saved, a world the perfection of which shall be conditional merely, the condition being that each several agent does its own "level best." I offer you the chance of taking part in such a world. Its safety, you see, is unwarranted. It is a real adventure, with real danger, yet it may win through. It is a social scheme of co-operative work genuinely to be done. Will you join the procession? Will you trust yourself and trust other agents enough to face the risk? (Works: Pragmatism, p. 139)

With regard to religion, the pragmatists are, predictably, more interested in assessing the valuable (and sometimes deleterious) effects of belief in God (rather than in engaging in debate about the perennial philosophical questions regarding the existence and attributes of God). In this connection, James argues that with no other reasons to believe in God, "men would postulate one simply as a pretext for living hard, and getting out of the game of existence its keenest possibilities of zest" (Works: The Will to Believe, p. 161). In other words, religion's chief value is as a catalyst for the strenuous mood.


Because pragmatism sees the assessment of social and public policies as an essential task, concerns with individual insight and personal satisfaction are relegated to the periphery. Even more fundamentally, a preexistent, inner transcendental self is supplanted by a model of selfhood in which both self-awareness and self-constitution are socially and behaviorally generated.

The pragmatists' interest in psychology is striking. Following the publication of his monumental and groundbreaking two-volume masterpiece The Principles of Psychology (1890), James turned in 1895 to applied psychology, giving summer school lectures in Boston, at the Chautauqua Institute in upstate New York, and as far west as Colorado Springs. These lectures were published as Talks to Teachers in 1899. Dewey's work followed the same pattern. Beginning with several volumes devoted to psychological issues, he then turned to pedagogy and related educational issues. His sustained critique of the American educational establishment's misguided views of human development and its faulty emphasis on recitation and memorization in the curricula had a profound impact upon American society.

With regard to human development, the contributions of a second-generation pragmatist, George Herbert Mead (1863–1931), are also noteworthy. Mead—who had been a disciple of John Dewey at theUniversity of Chicago—was neither a prolific nor a popular philosopher, but his theories were revolutionary and influential. His approach to selfhood is explicitly developmental and behavioristic. The title of one of his influential essays asked: "Mind Approached through Behavior—Can Its Study Be Made Scientific?" Mead's response to his own question was, of course, "yes"—as his study of the gestures of lower animals (concentrating on the growls and barks of dogs) led to his theories about human development:

How can an individual get outside himself (experientially) in such a way as to become an object to himself? This is the essential psychological problem of selfhood or of self-consciousness; and its solution is to found by referring to the process of social conduct or activity in which the given person or individual is implicated. . . . The individual experiences himself as such, not directly, but only indirectly from the particular standpoints of other individual members of the same social group, or from the generalized standpoint of the social group as a whole to which he belongs. . . . in so far as he first becomes an object to himself just as other individuals are objects to him or in his experience; and he becomes an object to himself only by taking the attitudes of other individuals toward himself within a social environment or context of experience and behavior in which both he and they are involved. . . . It is impossible to conceive a self arising outside of social experience. (Mead, Mind, Self, and Society, pp. 138–140)

Most of Mead's writings appeared from the mid-1930s onward. There is, therefore, good reason to believe that, in this case, the clear vector of influence was from literature to philosophy (and psychology). That is, American literary realism and naturalism—the focus upon behavior, environment, materialism, and the human animal, found in the work of such authors as Stephen Crane, Frank Norris, Jack London, and Theodore Dreiser—were undoubtedly the decisive influences upon philosophers, not vice versa.

See alsoPhilosophy; Pragmatism; Realism


Primary Works

Dewey, John. The Collected Writings of John Dewey, 1882–1953. 37 vols. Edited by Jo Ann Boydston. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1969–1991.

James, William. The Correspondence of William James. 11 vols. Edited by Ignas K. Skrupskelis and Elizabeth M. Berkeley. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1992–2003. Twelve volumes are projected.

James, William. The Works of William James. 19 vols. Edited by Frederick Burkhardt. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1975–1988.

London, Jack. Novels and Stories. New York: Literary Classics of the United States, 1982.

London, Jack. The Sea-Wolf. 1904. Edited by Donald Pizer. New York: Library of America, 1986.

Mead, George Herbert. The Individual and the Social Self: Unpublished Work of George Herbert Mead. Edited by David L. Miller. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982.

Mead, George Herbert. Mind, Self, and Society: From the Standpoint of a Social Behaviorist. Edited by Charles W. Morris. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1934.

Norris, Frank. "The Need of a Literary Conscience." In his Novels and Essays, pp. 1157–1160. New York: Library of American, 1986

Peirce, Charles Sanders. Collected Papers. 8 vols. Edited by Charles Hartshorne and Paul Wiess. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1960. Includes "Some Consequences of Four Incapacities" (1868), "The Fixation of Belief" (1877), and "How to Make Our Ideas Clear" (1878).

Peirce, Charles Sanders. Writings of Charles S. Peirce: A Chronological Edition. 6 vols. Edited by Max W. Fisch, Nathan Houser et al. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1982–2002. Thirty volumes are projected to complete this edition.

Rorty, Richard. The Consequences of Pragmatism: Essays, 1972–1980. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1982.

Secondary Works

Dooley, Patrick. "William James on the Human Way of Being." Personalist Forum 6 (1990): 75–85.

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

Menand, Louis. The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2001.

Menand, Louis. "The Return of Pragmatism." American Heritage 89 (October 1997): 48–63.

Singer, Marcus G., ed. American Philosophy. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1985.

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

Wilshire, Bruce. "But Where Are the Metaphysics?" Times Literary Supplement, 26 July 2002, pp. 28–29. Review of Menand's The Metaphysical Club.

Patrick K. Dooley


views updated Jun 27 2018


"Pragmatic" seems to have been used for the first time in the modern Western philosophical tradition by Immanuel Kant (1724–1804); for him, there was some connection with ethics, but little with science or technology in the modern sense. In the early twentieth century, pragmatics turns up as a third subdivision of a formal semantics triad (see Morris 1938), but it has only a remote connection to science by way of mathematics, and none to ethics or technology.

In most introductory accounts, "pragmatism" as a term for a philosophical approach is usually taken to be synonymous with a "pragmatic theory of truth." We can be sure about something if it has practical or real-world consequences. Enemies of philosophical pragmatism even caricature this as meaning that the test of the truth of a statement—even about ethics—is whether or not it works. Such characterizations are unfair to the nuanced thought of philosophers who have been willing to call themselves pragmatists—as has occurred during two periods: in the period of "classical American philosophy" (see Stuhr 2000) at the beginning of the twentieth century, and again at the end of the twentieth century.

Classical Pragmatists

In the early twentieth century, a number of philosophical pragmatisms sprang up, for example, that of Giovanni Papini (1881–1956) in Italy and Edouard Le Roy (1870–1954) (see Stebbing 1914) in France; but the best known of these was the school (in the loose sense) of American pragmatism, beginning with Charles Sanders Peirce (1839–1914) (who chose to call his approach "pragmaticism") and William James (1842–1910). But the best known of the American pragmatists was John Dewey (1859–1952), whose ideas were closely paralleled by those of his friend and colleague, George Herbert Mead (1863–1931). (On the classical pragmatists, their relationships with one another and with the term, see Menand 2001.)

The basic move of the classical pragmatists was to seek to replace what may be termed the epistemological account of knowledge as justified true beliefs (a definition that can be traced back to Plato [427–347 b.c.e.]) with an analysis of beliefs in terms of relationships to human action. Traditional epistemologies sought to identify the foundations of knowledge in some special cognitive activity or method. Peirce, however, adapting the suggestion of Alexander Bain (1818–1903)—a Scottish philosopher and friend of John Stuart Mill (1806–1873)—argued that beliefs are more properly interpreted as habits of acting than as representations of reality, and so not in need of some special foundations. All pragmatists reject both conceptual reference (concepts are true if they refer to real things) and coherence (concepts are true if they fit together logically) theories of knowledge prominent in empiricism and rationalism, respectively, in favor of some interpretation of inquiry that unites theoretical and practical knowledge as grounded in forms of learning to operate more effectively in the world. Such an approach easily ties knowing into science and technology, and in some instances to ethics, although this happens in different ways in different pragmatisms.

In this respect, the pragmatism of Dewey and Mead exhibited a special relationship to science, technology, and ethics. For Mead and Dewey, ethics is not a theoretical discipline but simply social problem solving using "the scientific method." What this meant for them was applying expert knowledge from all the sciences—from the natural sciences and engineering to sociology or social psychology—in democratic efforts of particular communities to solve urgent social problems. The communities in question ran the spectrum from families and technical communities all the way up to the world community, in the former League of Nations. As one of the best of recent interpreters of Dewey, Larry Hickman (2001, p. 51; see also Hickman 1990), puts the matter, Dewey thought that it is possible "to articulate a general method of intelligence that takes into account successful inquiry in many different areas of human activity," including various sciences, the arts, politics, jurisprudence, and so on. Yet while contemporary science-based technologies have made major contributions to this general method of intelligence, they are only one of many sources. In this way, Hickman thinks, Dewey avoids the charge that he favored scientism. Mead's version of the same general approach can be seen in the title of his "Scientific Method and the Moral Sciences" (1964).

Both Mead and Dewey had lifelong contacts with colleagues in the science departments of their universities and kept abreast of developments in the sciences, perhaps especially in physiological psychology but also in physics and biology and other fields. (On this aspect of Dewey's work, see Dalton 2002.) As for technology, both Mead and Dewey were highly critical of the then-new corporations, with their research and development laboratories. The problem was that the corporations were so often involved in what amounted to private wars to break the power of the new labor unions. For Dewey,"We must wrest our general culture from an industrialized civilization" in which science "is ultimately a reflex of the social conditions under which science is applied [in industry] so as to reach only a pecuniary fruition" (Dewey 1930, pp. 133–134). Mead's work with progressive reformers—for example, trying to mediate the struggle between strikebreaking corporate managers and the unions in Chicago in the early twentieth century—can be seen in Andrew Feffer's 1993 work The Chicago Pragmatists and American Progressivism.

Others among the early American pragmatists in some cases had similar views, but there were also many differences. James, for example, credited Peirce with the originating idea of American pragmatism, referring to Peirce's famous "pragmatic maxim": "A conception can have no logical effect or import differing from that of a second conception except, so far as ... it might conceivably modify our practical conduct" (from his "Lectures on Pragmatism," 1903). But Peirce was primarily a scientist, mathematician, logician, and philosopher of science, not a social reformer.

James accepted the pragmatic maxim, which he rendered this way: "Grant an idea or belief to be true," then, "what concrete difference will its being true make in one's actual life?" (James 1907; see also James 1909). He was certainly pro-science enough to have founded the experimental psychology program at Harvard, but he also dabbled in spiritualist theories in ways that alienated other experimental psychologists. Moreover, though James was progressive in a patrician sort of way, he seems never to have given a thought to union organizing, and watched the "Chicago school's" activism in, at best, a detached sort of way (see McDermott 1967 and Gale 1999).

In summary, among these early American pragmatists, Peirce was primarily a philosopher of science interested in doing away with any certainty-seeking foundationalism of a Cartesian sort. James was the suave elder statesman, interested in pushing science, especially evolution, as a new cultural force, while maintaining a place for a liberal religion in this new culture. Mead and Dewey pushed pragmatism in the direction of progressive social reform, including a critique of the newly-powerful science-based corporations, basing their reforms on "the scientific method." This meant primarily a respect for expertise of all kinds, as long as it was combined with a democratic citizen activism aimed at challenging old verities while working out new and better social arrangements. Dewey was explicit that the only contribution of theoretical philosophizing in the traditional sense (however important on other grounds) was in "divesting ourselves of the intellectual habits we take on and wear when we assimilate the culture of our own time and place" (1925, p. 40; the view is best represented in The Quest for Certainty, 1929, and Reconstruction in Philosophy, 1920).

John Stuhr (2000) places the early pragmatists within a tradition of "classical American philosophy," and in doing so he adds context. Their works appeared among and were related to writings of significant American women writers (Jane Addams [1860–1935]), American idealists and personalists (Borden Parker Bowne [1847–1910]), African-American philosophers (Alain Locke [1886–1954]), and non-pragmatist naturalists. (Stuhr, p. 695, cites John Herman Randall, Jr. [1899–1980], as an example.) A similar, equally controversial contextualizing, appears in Cornel West's The American Evasion of Philosophy (1989).

Late Twentieth Century Pragmatism

Joseph Margolis (2002) characterizes all the above as the "early" American pragmatism, with which he contrasts the "revival" of pragmatism in American analytic philosophy after about 1980. The main representatives of this revival are Willard Van Orman Quine (1908–2000), Donald Davidson (1917–2003), Hilary Putnam (born 1926), and Richard Rorty (born 1931). In the revived version of American pragmatism, the focus is not on Mead and Dewey's "meliorizing" progressivism, with its suspicion of large science-based corporations, but on quarrels over different versions of epistemology. With the exception of Rorty, who wants his pragmatism (he says it is more literary than philosophical) to join in leftist causes (1998), none of the revived pragmatists have much interest in ethics, less in technology, and an interest in science that is reducible to a scientistic model of human knowing—or opposition to it.

Margolis's is the best summary of these disputes, which he characterizes as involving two challenges to pragmatism: naturalism and postmodernism. The primary debate is between "pragmatism" and "naturalizing"—especially several debates between Rorty (claiming to speak for Quine and Davidson as well as himself) and Putnam. The conflict has to do with how to safeguard a "true" pragmatism from relapsing into a Cartesian quest for a guaranteed foundation of knowledge in science.

To summarize the account, at some cost to nuances, Margolis argues that although they call themselves pragmatists, Quine, Davidson, and Putnam are all concerned with essentially epistemological issues, and that they approach these in ways that are ultimately unfaithful to pragmatist inspirations. Insofar as Quine and others attempt to understand knowing in naturalistic or scientific terms, and turn epistemology into an empirical examination of cognition, they tend to put forth a new kind of foundationalism, which was just what the original pragmatists were at pains to avoid. The late-twentieth-century epistemological pragmatists tend toward realism rather than instrumentalism: that is, they want to defend a view of scientific knowledge as providing a privileged view of the world rather than the process of science as a privileged means or method for living in the world.

Margolis's account of the challenge of postmodernism and its manifestation in Rorty is easier to state. Postmodernism rejects not just science as a privileged form of knowing but science as a privileged method for living. Rorty's postmodernism is thus incompatible with classical pragmatism and its reliance on (but not idolization of) science specifically and expertise generally. For classical pragmatism, the need for the democratic governance of expertise does not reject or deny its benefits.

In the end, Margolis derives his own version of pragmatism from the failures of naturalism and postmodernism. This version places constructivism at the center of pragmatism. In Margolis's words, "questions of knowledge, objectivity, truth, confirmation, and legitimation are constructed in accord with our interpretive conceptual schemes." Thus, "though we do not construct the actual world, what we posit (constructively) as the independent world is epistemically dependent on our mediating conceptual schemes" (p. 22).

Future Prospects

At the end of his analysis, Margolis confesses doubt as to whether even his constructive pragmatism, with its unique combination of the best in pragmatism with the best in recent European philosophy, will succeed in the twenty-first century. (On European, especially German, interest in pragmatism, see Aboulafia, Bookman, and Kemp 2002.) Instead, Margolis fears that the naturalizers will continue to dominate analytical philosophy, especially in neo-Darwinism viewed as the best reductive model of the cultural world; in extreme linguistic views (originating with Noam Chomsky); and in a computational analysis of every form of human perception and intelligence. But Margolis still has hope, though he says at the end that pragmatists have little more than their original intuition to rely on. Other pragmatists would argue that pragmatisms are not based on mere intuition; that pragmatists have good arguments, for example, against reductionism.

All of this epistemological nitpicking among recent pragmatists would leave the earlier pragmatists shaking their heads. Mead and Dewey, and probably also James and Peirce, thought they had good reason to reject any epistemology based on foundationalist projects; such epistemologies are simply inconsistent with their scientific and progressive project (Palmer 2002). Mead (1934, p. 94), as one example, rejected all epistemology as "riff-raff"; and he pointed out, one by one, how all traditional epistemologies (traditional at the time of his writing) depended on individualist assumptions that are incompatible with a view of science as a social undertaking, dependent on a world taken for granted within particular science communities (Mead 1964).

Moreover, the earlier pragmatists have their non-analytic followers; examples include Larry Hickman (1990, 2001) on technology; Sharyn Clough (2003) on feminist science studies; and Glenn McGee (1997), providing a pragmatic ethics of genetic engineering.

Still, it is true that even the earlier version of American pragmatism has difficulties to face—in addition to Margolis's claim that it is analytically naïve and unsophisticated. Some criticisms of a Deweyan philosophy of technology have been collected in Paul Durbin's special issue of Techne (2003), and they come from Heideggerians and neo-Heideggerians, from critical theorists and neo-Marxists, among others. In the end, it should be obvious that even the best philosophical version of pragmatism will continue to have its detractors.


SEE ALSO Democracy;Dewey, John;Expertise;Pierce, Charles Sanders;Science Policy.


Aboulafia, Mitchell; Myrna Bookman; and Cathy Kemp, eds. (2002). Habermas and Pragmatism. London: Routledge.

Clough, Sharyn. (2003). Beyond Epistemology: A Pragmatist Approach to Feminist Science Studies. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Dalton, Thomas C. (2002). Becoming John Dewey: Dilemmas of a Philosopher and Naturalist. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Davidson, Donald. (1986). "A Coherence Theory of Truth and Knowledge." In Truth and Interpretation: Perspectives on the Philosophy of Donald Davidson, ed. Ernest LePore. Oxford, UK: Blackwell.

Dewey, John. (2003 [1920]). Reconstruction in Philosophy, enlarged edition. Mineola, NY: Dover.

Dewey, John. (1925). Experience and Nature. Chicago: Open Court.

Dewey, John. (1929). The Quest for Certainty. New York: Minton, Balch.

Dewey, John. (1930). Individualism, Old and New. New York: Minton, Balch.

Feffer, Andrew. (1993). The Chicago Pragmatists and American Progressivism. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Gale, Richard M. (1999). The Divided Self of William James. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Hickman, Larry A. (1990). John Dewey's Pragmatic Technology. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Hickman, Larry A. (2001). Philosophical Tools for Technological Culture: Putting Pragmatism to Work. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

James, William. (1907). Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking. New York: Longmans, Green.

James, William. (1909). The Meaning of Truth: A Sequel to "Pragmatism." New York: Longmans, Green.

Margolis, Joseph. (2002). Reinventing Pragmatism: American Philosophy at the End of the Twentieth Century. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

McDermott, John, ed. (1967). The Writings of William James: A Comprehensive Edition. New York: Random House.

McGee, Glenn. (1997). The Perfect Baby: A Pragmatic Approach to Genetics. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Mead, George Herbert. (1938). The Philosophy of the Act. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Mead, George Herbert. (1964). "Scientific Method and Individual Thinker." In Selected Writings, ed. Andrew J. Reck. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Mead, George Herbert. (1964). "Scientific Method and the Moral Sciences." In Selected Writings, ed. Andrew J. Reck. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Menand, Louis. (2001). The Metaphysical Club. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Morris, Charles W. (1938). Foundations of the Theory of Signs. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Palmer, L. M. (2002). "Vico and Pragmatism: New Variations on Vichian Themes." Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society XXXVIII(3): 433–440.

Papini, Giovanni. (1913). Pragmatismo. Milan.

Peirce, Charles Sanders. (1903). "Lectures on Pragmatism." In Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce, ed. C. Hartshorne and P. Weiss. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Putnam, Hilary. (1980). Reason, Truth, and History. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Putnam, Hilary. (1994). "Sense, Nonsense, and the Senses: An Inquiry into the Powers of the Human Mind." Journal of Philosophy 91(9): 445–517.

Quine, W. V. (1969). "Epistemology Naturalized." In Ontological Relativity, and Other Essays. New York: Columbia University Press.

Rorty, Richard. (1998). Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century America. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Rorty, Richard. 1986. "Pragmatism, Davidson, and Truth." In Truth and Interpretation: Perspectives on the Philosophy of Donald Davidson, ed. Ernest LePore. Oxford, UK: Blackwell.

Stebbing, L. Susan. (1914). Pragmatism and French Voluntarism. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

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

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


Durbin, Paul T., ed. (2003). Techne 7(1). Available from Special author-meets-critics issue on the Deweyan philosophy of technology of Larry Hickman.

Hickman, Larry A. (2003). "Revisiting Philosophical Tools for Technological Culture." Techne 7(1): 74–93. Available from


views updated May 29 2018


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.



views updated May 14 2018


Pragmatism, generally considered to be our only indigenous school of philosophic thought, has profoundly influenced the development of American jurisprudence in the twentieth century. This influence is evident in a variety of legal settings, including the field of constitutional law, where debates over the proper interpretive role of the courts continue to focus upon issues first raised in a systematic way by the early philosophers of pragmatism, notably John Dewey.

The school of philosophical pragmatism emerged only in the late nineteenth century, but it is more deeply rooted in the American past than that date implies. Thus, we see in alexis de tocqueville's description of the American philosophical method a preview of what later became, in the works of Charles Peirce, William James, Dewey, and others, a schematically developed general theory: "To evade the bondage of system and habit, of family-maxims, class opinions, and, in some degree, of national prejudices; to accept tradition only as a means of information, and existing facts only as a lesson to be used in doing otherwise and doing better; to seek the reason of things for oneself, and in oneself alone; to tend to results without being bound to means, and to strike through the form to the substance—such are the principal characteristics of what I shall call the philosophical method of the Americans." In this account of philosophical temperament are the core elements of the reconstruction in philosophy that came to dominate constitutional discourse in the twentieth century: an instrumental approach to knowledge based upon a rigorous empiricism, a demystification of the past as a predicate for facilitating change, and an ethical orientation that finds in the application of a norm or concept the criterion of its value.

The emergence of the pragmatic movement in philosophy occurred at a critical juncture in American constitutional history. At a time when constitutional orthodoxy was embodied in the person of Justice stephen j. field, the appeal of pragmatic ideas to critics of the dominant view lay in the promise it held for achieving a congruence between law and the needs of a society undergoing rapid flux and transition. In place of a formalistic approach characterized by the derivation of absolute principles that are grounded in nature and from which constitutional conclusions can be deduced with certainty in support of social inequality, the pragmatists offered the prospect of deriving relative principles that are grounded in experience and from which constitutional conclusions of a tentative nature can be inductively assembled in support of a more egalitarian society. The application of pragmatism to constitutional reasoning supported the claim that law should not be an impediment to progress, that the Constitution was not a document embodying immutable principles but one whose meaning depended upon the circumstances of time and place.

In developing their legal theory, the pragmatists both drew on and rejected existing jurisprudential schools of thought. They were critical of the syllogistic process of legal reasoning that they found common to both the philosophical and analytical schools. In the application of ethical considerations by the natural rights theorists and in the abandonment of such considerations by the analytical positivists, they also found a similar detachment from the realities of the social situation. In the first case ethics was not grounded in experience, and in the second, reality was disorted by the failure to understand the ethical imperitives implied in experience. The object of the pragmatists was thus to establish an empirical jurisprudence that included a consciousness of the moral basis of law. The attraction of pragmatic philosophy was its potential for steering a middle course between the positivistic seperation of law and morality, on the one hand, and, on the other, the natural-rights fusion law and morality according to the standards derived outside of experience. Both extremes led to judicial potection of the status quo, the first by accepting the legitimacy of any existing legal arrangments and the second by freezing the law into a mold formed by metaphysical abstractions. Justice, for the pragmatists, was not to be defined a priori; nor was it identifiable with the will of the sovereign. Rather, it was to be defined "transactionally," emerging out of social experience as an end to be juridically achieved. Acceptance of this view by jurists would make it unnecessary to appeal to noncontextual sources, such as an absolute standard of right conduct embodied in the text of the Constitution.

The principal theorists of legal pragmatism, benjamin n. cardozo and roscoe pound, wrote most often about private law, but both maintained that their prescriptions applied equally well to constitutional law. Cardozo's "method of sociology" and Pound's "theory of social interests" were intended in part to translate the precepts of Dewey and James into jurisprudential terms of potentially transformative significance for the Constitution. In the case of Dewey, who had addressed himself to legal questions, the translation was fairly straightforward. In his account of the law, legal rules and principles were viewed pragmatically as "working hypotheses" whose validity was to be ascertained by their application in concrete situations. Dewey also held the work of the Founding Fathers to be much less the object of reverence than had traditionally been the case: "The belief in political fixity, of the sanctity of some form of state consecrated by the efforts of our fathers and hallowed by tradition, is one of the stumbling-blocks in the way of orderly and directed change; it is an invitation to revolt and revolution." Just as the antifoundationalist emphasis in contemporary philosophy—the denial that knowledge must be based upon certain objective truths—owes much to the work of the early pragmatists, so too does the currently popular disparagement of the doctrine of original intent in constitutional interpretation. Therefore, the contention that the Constitution embodies foundational principles of justice that reflect the original intentions of its Framers, is doubly problematic, and it carries minimal weight in the pragmatic account of constitutional interpretation.

The judge most often associated with philosophical pragmatism is oliver wendell holmes. jr. Although he occasionally criticized some of the formulations of pragmatists, his work as a Supreme Court Justice (as well as his extrajudicial writings) often manifested a pragmatic approach to the Constitution. More important, his opinions inspired many others whose interest in pragmatism had less to do with the philosophical skepticism that appealed to Holmes than with the social reform possibilities implicit in its method. For example, Holmes's opinion in missouri v. holland (1920) suggested that the needs of the twentieth century need not be held hostage to the assumptions of the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries: "The case before us must be considered in the light of our whole experience and not merely in that of what was said a hundred years ago." His famous dissenting opinion in abrams v. united states (1919) expressed in one short sentence the essence of the pragmatic conception of the Constitution. The theory of the Constitution, Holmes said, was that truth would emerge in the marketplace of ideas; the document "is an experiment, as all life is an experiment." This view often led Holmes to advocate judicial self-restraint; but in time it came to express a sentiment that provided jurisprudential support for a more activist, socially engaged judiciary. The work of the warren court exemplified an important legacy of the pragmatists (especially Dewey): the increasing reliance by the judiciary upon social science evidence. Holmes's role in this development is suggested in an observation of his that Dewey, in the elaboration of his pragmatic philosophy, saw fit to quote: "I have had in mind an ultimate dependence of law [upon science] because it is ultimately for science to determine, as far as it can, the relative worth of our different social ends."

The pragmatic conception of the Constitution has generated considerable controversy. Criticism centers on two distinct but related problems. The first is that the importation of pragmatic ideas into the arena of constitutional interpretation inevitably leads to the abandonment of any meaningful distinction between judicial and legislative modes of decision making. This has the effect, it is claimed, of undermining the legitimacy of the Supreme Court, an unfortunate outcome rendered no less unfortunate by assertions about the enhanced quality of the Court's output. The second is that a pragmatic jurisprudence provides inadequate protection for constitutional rights. By effectively reducing self-evident and immutable truths to the level of tentative rules, pragmatic judges risk sacrificing fundamental rights on the altar of social expedience. If the Constitution is a document lacking fixed points of reference and thus deprived of meanings that are not simply contextual (that is, situated in the experience of changing historical moments), can it serve as guarantor of rights that are in their ultimate sense expressive of an unchanging human nature?

Gary J. Jacobsohn

(see also: Conservatism; Judicial Activism and Judicial Restraint; Liberalism; Political Philosophy of the Constitution.)


Grey, Thomas C. 1989 Holmes and Legal Pragmatism. Stanford Law Review 41:787–870.

Jacobsohn, Gary J. 1977 Pragmatism, Statesmanship, and the Supreme Court. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press.

Summers, Robert Samuel 1982 Instrumentalism and American Legal Theory. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press.


views updated May 18 2018


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

pragmatism (philosophy of)

views updated Jun 08 2018

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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