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Pragmatism is a philosophical movement that includes those who claim that an ideology or proposition is true if it works satisfactorily, that the meaning of a proposition is to be found in the practical consequences of accepting it, and that unpractical ideas are to be rejected. Pragmatism began in the late nineteenth century with Charles Sanders Peirce and his pragmatic maxim. Through the early twentieth-century it was developed further in the works of William James, John Dewey and—in a more unorthodox manner—by George Santayana. Other important aspects of pragmatism include anti-Cartesianism, radical empiricism, instrumentalism, anti-realism, verificationism, conceptual relativity, a denial of the fact-value distinction, a high regard for science, and fallibilism.

Pragmatism enjoyed renewed attention from the 1960s on when a new analytic school of philosophy (W. V. O. Quine and Wilfrid Sellars) put forth a revised pragmatism criticizing the logical positivism dominant in the United States and Britain since the 1930s. Richard Rorty further developed and widely publicized the concept of naturalized epistemology; his later work grew closer to continental philosophy and is considered relativistic by its critics.

Contemporary pragmatism is divided into a strict analytic tradition, a more relativistic strand (in the wake of Rorty), and "neo-classical" pragmatism (such as Susan Haack) that adheres to the work of Peirce, James, and Dewey.


Charles Peirce: the American polymath who first identified pragmatism.

Pragmatism as a philosophical movement began in the United States in the late 1800s. Its overall direction was determined by the thought and works of Charles Sanders Peirce (Template:Pron-en like "purse") and William James (both members of The Metaphysical Club) as well as John Dewey and George Herbert Mead. The term pragmatism was first used in print by James, who credited Peirce with coining the term during the early 1870s. Prompted by James' use of the term and its attribution to him, Peirce also wrote and lectured on pragmatism to make clear his own interpretation. Peirce eventually coined the new name pragmaticism to mark what he regarded as the original idea, for clarity's sake and possibly (but not certainly) because he disagreed with James (cf. Menand 2001 on the former interpretation; below on the latter). He claimed the term was so ugly, nobody would be tempted to steal it (Haack 1998).

James and Peirce, inspired by crucial links among belief, conduct, and disposition, stated belief is a proposition on which a person is prepared to act.

Inspiration for the pragmatists were:

Pragmatist epistemology

The epistemology of early pragmatism was heavily influenced by Charles Darwin. Pragmatism was not the first to apply evolution to theories of knowledge: Schopenhauer advocated a biological idealism as what's useful to an organism to believe might differ wildly from what is true. Here knowledge and action are portrayed as two separate spheres with an absolute or transcendental truth above and beyond any sort of inquiry organisms use to cope with life. Pragmatism challenges this idealism by providing an "ecological" account of knowledge: inquiry is how organisms can get a grip on their environment. Real and true are functional labels in inquiry and cannot be understood outside of this context. It is not realist in a traditionally robust sense of realism (what Hilary Putnam would later call metaphysical realism), but it is realist in how it acknowledges an external world which must be dealt with.

With the tendency of philosophers to group all views as either idealistic or realistic, (along with William James' occasional penchant for eloquence at the expense of public understanding), pragmatism was seen as a form of subjectivism or idealism. Many of James' best-turned phrases—truth's cash value (James 1907, p. 200) and the true is only the expedient in our way of thinking (James 1907, p. 222)— were taken out of context and caricatured in contemporary literature as representing the view where any idea with practical utility is true. William James wrote:

It is high time to urge the use of a little imagination in philosophy. The unwillingness of some of our critics to read any but the silliest of possible meanings into our statements is as discreditable to their imaginations as anything I know in recent philosophic history. Schiller says the truth is that which 'works.' Thereupon he is treated as one who limits verification to the lowest material utilities. Dewey says truth is what gives 'satisfaction'! He is treated as one who believes in calling everything true which, if it were true, would be pleasant. (James 1907, p. 90)

In reality, James asserts, the theory is a great deal more subtle. (See Dewey 1910 for a 'FAQ')

The role of belief in representing reality is widely debated in pragmatism. Is a belief valid when it represents reality? Copying is one (and only one) genuine mode of knowing, (James 1907, p. 91). Are beliefs dispositions which qualify as true or false depending on how helpful they prove in inquiry and in action? Is it only in the struggle of intelligent organisms with the surrounding environment that beliefs acquire meaning? Does a belief only become true when it succeeds in this struggle? In Pragmatism nothing practical or useful is held to be necessarily true, nor is anything which helps to survive merely in the short term. For example, to believe my cheating spouse is faithful may help me feel better now, but it is certainly not useful from a more long-term perspective because it doesn't accord with the facts (and is therefore not true).

Concept of truth

Instead of truth being ready-made for us, James asserts we and reality jointly "make" truth. This idea has two senses: (1) truth is mutable, (often attributed to William James and F.C.S. Schiller); and (2) truth is relative to a conceptual scheme (more widely accepted in Pragmatism).

(1) Mutability of truth

"Truth" is not readily defined in Pragmatism. Can beliefs pass from being true to being untrue and back? For James, beliefs are not true until they have been made true by verification. James believed propositions become true over the long term through proving their utility in a person's specific situation. The opposite of this process is not falsification, but rather the belief ceases to be a "live option." F.C.S. Schiller, on the other hand, clearly asserted beliefs could pass into and out of truth on a situational basis. Schiller held that truth was relative to specific problems. If I want to know how to return home safely, the true answer will be whatever is useful to solving that problem. Later on, when faced with a different problem, what I came to believe with the earlier problem may now be false. As my problems change, and as the most useful way to solve a problem shifts, so does the property of truth.

C.S. Peirce considered the idea that beliefs are true at one time but false at another (or true for one person but false for another) to be one of the "seeds of death"[1] by which James allowed his pragmatism to become "infected." For Peirce the pragmatic view implies theoretical claims should be tied to verification processes (i.e. they should be subject to test). They shouldn't be tied to our specific problems or life needs. Truth is defined, for Peirce, as what would be the ultimate outcome (not any outcome in real time) of inquiry by a (usually scientific) community of investigators. John Dewey, while agreeing with this definition, also characterized truthfulness as a species of the good: if something is true it is trustworthy and reliable and will remain so in every conceivable situation. Both Peirce and Dewey connect the definitions of truth and warranted assertability. Hilary Putnam also developed his internal realism around the idea a belief is true if it is ideally justified in epistemic terms. About James' and Schiller's view, Putnam says:

Truth cannot simply be rational acceptability for one fundamental reason; truth is supposed to be a property of a statement that cannot be lost, whereas justification can be lost. The statement 'The earth is flat' was, very likely, rationally acceptable 3000 years ago; but it is not rationally acceptable today. Yet it would be wrong to say that 'the earth is flat' was true 3,000 years ago; for that would mean that the earth has changed its shape. (Putnam 1981, p. 55)

Rorty has also weighed in against James and Schiller:

Truth is, to be sure, an absolute notion, in the following sense: "true for me but not for you" and "true in my culture but not in yours" are weird, pointless locutions. So is "true then, but not now." [...] James would, indeed, have done better to say that phrases like "the good in the way of belief" and "what it is better for us to believe" are interchangeable with "justified" rather than with "true." (Rorty 1998, p. 2)

(2) Conceptual Relativity

With James and Schiller we make things true by verifying them—a view rejected by most pragmatists. However, nearly all pragmatists do accept the idea there can be no truths without a conceptual scheme to express those truths. That is,

Unless we decide upon how we are going to use concepts like 'object', 'existence' etc., the question 'how many objects exist' does not really make any sense. But once we decide the use of these concepts, the answer to the above-mentioned question within that use or 'version', to put in Nelson Goodman's phrase, is no more a matter of 'convention'. (Maitra 2003 p. 40)

F.C.S. Schiller used the analogy of a chair to make clear what he meant by the phrase that truth is made: just as a carpenter makes a chair out of existing materials and doesn't create it out of nothing, truth is a transformation of our experience—but this doesn't imply reality is something we're free to construct or imagine as we please.

Central pragmatist tenets

The primacy of practice

The pragmatist proceeds from the basic premise that the human capability of theorizing is integral to intelligent practice. Theory and practice are not separate spheres; rather, theories and distinctions are tools or maps for finding our way in the world. As John Dewey put it, there is no question of theory versus practice but rather of intelligent practice versus uninformed, stupid practice and noted in a conversation with William Pepperell Montague that "[h]is effort had not been to practicalize intelligence but to intellectualize practice". (Quoted in Eldridge 1998, p. 5) Theory is an abstraction from direct experience and ultimately must return to inform experience in turn. Thus an organism navigating his or her environment is the grounds for pragmatist inquiry.

Anti-reification of concepts and theories

Dewey, in The Quest For Certainty, criticized what he called "the philosophical fallacy": philosophers often take categories (such as the mental and the physical) for granted because they don't realize that these are merely nominal concepts that were invented to help solve specific problems. This causes metaphysical and conceptual confusion. Various examples are the "ultimate Being" of Hegelian philosophers, the belief in a "realm of value", the idea that logic, because it is an abstraction from concrete thought, has nothing to do with the act of concrete thinking, and so on. David L. Hildebrand sums up the problem: "Perceptual inattention to the specific functions comprising inquiry led realists and idealists alike to formulate accounts of knowledge that project the products of extensive abstraction back onto experience." (Hildebrand 2003)

Naturalism and anti-Cartesianism

From the outset, pragmatists wanted to reform philosophy and bring it more in line with the scientific method as they understood it. They argued that idealist and realist philosophy had a tendency to present human knowledge as something beyond what science could grasp. These philosophies then resorted either to a phenomenology inspired by Kant or to correspondence theories of knowledge and truth. Pragmatists criticized the former for its a priorism, and the latter because it takes correspondence as an unanalyzable fact. Pragmatism instead tries to explain, psychologically and biologically, how the relation between knower and known 'works' in the world.

In "The Fixation of Belief" (1877), C.S. Peirce denied that introspection and intuition (staple philosophical tools at least since Descartes) were valid methods for philosophical investigation. He argued that intuition could lead to faulty reasoning, e.g. when we reason intuitively about infinity. Furthermore, introspection does not give privileged access to knowledge about the mind - the self is a concept that is derived from our interaction with the external world and not the other way around. (De Waal 2005, pp. 7–10) By the time of his Harvard Lectures in 1903, however, he had become convinced that pragmatism and epistemology in general could not be derived from principles of psychology: what we do think is too different from what we should think. This is an important point of disagreement with most other pragmatists, who advocate a more thorough naturalism and psychologism.

Richard Rorty expanded on these and other arguments in Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature in which he criticized attempts by many philosophers of science to carve out a space for epistemology that is entirely unrelated to - and sometimes thought of as superior to - the empirical sciences. W.V. Quine, instrumental in bringing naturalized epistemology back into favor with his essay Epistemology Naturalized (Quine 1969), also criticized 'traditional' epistemology and its "Cartesian dream" of absolute certainty. The dream, he argued, was impossible in practice as well as misguided in theory because it separates epistemology from scientific inquiry.

Hilary Putnam asserts that the combination of antiskepticism and fallibilism is a central feature of pragmatism.

The reconciliation of anti-skepticism and fallibilism

Hilary Putnam suggests that the reconciliation of antiskepticism and fallibilism is the central goal of American pragmatism. Although all human knowledge is partial, with no ability to take a 'God's-eye-view,' this does not necessitate a globalized skeptical attitude. Peirce insisted that contrary to Descartes' famous and influential methodology in the Meditations on First Philosophy, doubt cannot be feigned or created for the purpose of conducting philosophical inquiry. Doubt, like belief, requires justification. It arises from confrontation with some specific recalcitrant matter of fact (which Dewey called a 'situation'), which unsettles our belief in some specific proposition. Inquiry is then the rationally self-controlled process of attempting to return to a settled state of belief about the matter. Note that anti-skepticism is a reaction to modern academic skepticism in the wake of Descartes. The pragmatist insistence that all knowledge is tentative is actually quite congenial to the older skeptical tradition.

Pragmatism in other fields of philosophy

While pragmatism started out simply as a criterion of meaning, it quickly expanded to become a full-fledged epistemology with wide-ranging implications for the entire philosophical field. Pragmatists who work in these fields share a common inspiration, but their work is diverse and there are no received views.

Philosophy of science

In the philosophy of science, instrumentalism is the view that concepts and theories are merely useful instruments whose worth is measured not by whether the concepts and theories somehow mirror reality, but by how effective they are in explaining and predicting phenomena. Instrumentalism does not state that truth doesn't matter, but rather provides a specific answer to the question of what truth and falsity mean and how they function in science.

One of C.I. Lewis' main arguments in Mind and the World Order: Outline of a Theory of Knowledge was that science does not merely provide a copy of reality but must work with conceptual systems and that those are chosen for pragmatic reasons, that is, because they aid inquiry. Lewis' own development of multiple modal logics is a case in point. Lewis is sometimes called a 'conceptual pragmatist' because of this. (Lewis 1929)

Another development is the cooperation of logical positivism and pragmatism in the works of Charles W. Morris and Rudolph Carnap. The influence of pragmatism on these writers is mostly limited to the incorporation of the pragmatic maxim into their epistemology. Pragmatists with a broader conception of the movement don't often refer to them.

W. V. Quine's paper "Two Dogmas of Empiricism," published 1951, is one of the most celebrated papers of twentieth-century philosophy in the analytic tradition. The paper is an attack on two central tenets of the logical positivists' philosophy. One is the distinction between analytic truths, statements which are true simply in value of the meanings of their words ('all bachelors are unmarried'), and synthetic truths, which are grounded in empirical fact. The other is reductionism, the theory that each meaningful statement gets its meaning from some logical construction of terms which refers exclusively to immediate experience. Quine's argument brings to mind Peirce's insistence that axioms aren't a priori truths but synthetic statements.


Later in his life Schiller became famous for his attacks on logic in his textbook "Formal Logic." By then, Schiller's pragmatism had become the nearest of any of the classical pragmatists to an ordinary language philosophy. Schiller sought to undermine the very possibility of formal logic, by showing that words only had meaning when used in an actual context. The least famous of Schiller's main works was the constructive sequel to his destructive book "Formal Logic." In this sequel, "Logic for Use," Schiller attempted to construct a new logic to replace the formal logic he had just decimated in "Formal Logic." What he offers is something philosophers would recognize today as a logic covering the context of discovery and the hypothetico-deductive method.

Whereas F.C.S. Schiller actually dismissed the possibility of formal logic, most pragmatists are critical rather of its pretension to ultimate validity and see logic as one logical tool among others - or perhaps, considering the multitude of formal logics, one set of tools among others. This is the view of C.I. Lewis. C.S. Peirce developed multiple methods for doing formal logic.

Stephen Toulmin's The Uses of Argument inspired scholars in informal logic and rhetoric studies (although it is actually an epistemological work).


James and Dewey were empirical thinkers in the most straightforward fashion: experience is the ultimate test and experience is what needs to be explained. They were dissatisfied with ordinary empiricism because in the tradition dating from Hume, empiricists had a tendency to think of experience as nothing more than individual sensations. To the pragmatists, this went against the spirit of empiricism: we should try to explain all that is given in experience including connections and meaning, instead of explaining them away and positing sense data as the ultimate reality. Radical empiricism, or Immediate Empiricism in Dewey's words, wants to give a place to meaning and value instead of explaining them away as subjective additions to a world of whizzing atoms.

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The "Chicago Club" including Whitehead, Mead and Dewey. Pragmatism is sometimes called American Pragmatism because so many of its proponents were and are Americans.

William James gives an interesting example of this philosophical shortcoming:

[A young graduate] began by saying that he had always taken for granted that when you entered a philosophic classroom you had to open relations with a universe entirely distinct from the one you left behind you in the street. The two were supposed, he said, to have so little to do with each other, that you could not possibly occupy your mind with them at the same time. The world of concrete personal experiences to which the street belongs is multitudinous beyond imagination, tangled, muddy, painful and perplexed. The world to which your philosophy-professor introduces you is simple, clean and noble. The contradictions of real life are absent from it. [...] In point of fact it is far less an account of this actual world than a clear addition built upon it [...] It is no explanation of our concrete universe (James 1907, pp. 8-9)

F.C.S. Schiller's first book, "Riddles of the Sphinx", was published before he became aware of the growing pragmatist movement taking place in America. In it, Schiller argues for a middle ground between materialism and absolute metaphysics. The result of the split between these two explanatory schemes that are comparable to what William James called tough-minded empiricism and tender-minded rationalism, Schiller contends, is that mechanistic naturalism cannot make sense of the "higher" aspects of our world (freewill, consciousness, purpose, universals and some would add God), while abstract metaphysics cannot make sense of the "lower" aspects of our world (the imperfect, change, physicality). While Schiller is vague about the exact sort of middle ground he is trying to establish, he suggests metaphysics as a tool that can aid inquiry and is only valuable insofar as it actually does help in explanation.

In the second half of the twentieth century, Stephen Toulmin argued that the need to distinguish between reality and appearance only arises within an explanatory scheme and therefore that there is no point in asking what 'ultimate reality' consists of. More recently, a similar idea has been suggested by the postanalytical philosopher Daniel Dennett, who argues that anyone who wants to understand the world has to adopt the intentional stance and acknowledge both the 'syntactical' aspects of reality (i.e. whizzing atoms) and its emergent or 'semantic' properties (i.e. meaning and value).

Radical Empiricism gives interesting answers to questions about the limits of science if there are any, the nature of meaning and value and the workability of reductionism. These questions feature prominently in current debates about the relationship between religion and science, where it is often assumed - most pragmatists would disagree - that science degrades everything that is meaningful into 'merely' physical phenomena.

Philosophy of mind

Both John Dewey in Nature and Experience (1929) and half a century later Richard Rorty in his monumental Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (1979) argued that much of the debate about the relation of the mind to the body results from conceptual confusions. They argue instead that there is no need to posit the mind or mindstuff as an ontological category.

Pragmatists disagree over whether philosophers ought to adopt a quietist or a naturalist stance toward the mind-body problem. The former (Rorty among them) want to do away with the problem because they believe it's a pseudo-problem, whereas the latter believe that it is a meaningful empirical question.


Pragmatism sees no fundamental difference between practical and theoretical reason, nor any ontological difference between facts and values. Both facts and values have cognitive content: knowledge is what we should believe; values are hypotheses about what is good in action. Pragmatist ethics is broadly humanist because it sees no ultimate test of morality beyond what matters for us as humans. Good values are those for which we have good reasons, viz. the Good Reasons approach. The pragmatist formulation pre-dates those of other philosophers who have stressed important similarities between values and facts such as Jerome Schneewind and John Searle.

File:William james small.png

William James tried to show the meaningfulness of (some kinds of) spirituality but, like other pragmatists, refused to see religion as the basis of meaning or morality.

William James' contribution to ethics, as laid out in his essay The Will to Believe has often been misunderstood as a plea for relativism or irrationality. On its own terms it argues that ethics always involves a certain degree of trust or faith and that we cannot always wait for adequate proof when making moral decisions.

Moral questions immediately present themselves as questions whose solution cannot wait for sensible proof. A moral question is a question not of what sensibly exists, but of what is good, or would be good if it did exist. [...] A social organism of any sort whatever, large or small, is what it is because each member proceeds to his own duty with a trust that the other members will simultaneously do theirs. Wherever a desired result is achieved by the co-operation of many independent persons, its existence as a fact is a pure consequence of the precursive faith in one another of those immediately concerned. A government, an army, a commercial system, a ship, a college, an athletic team, all exist on this condition, without which not only is nothing achieved, but nothing is even attempted. (James 1896)

Of the classical pragmatists, John Dewey wrote most extensively about morality and democracy. (Edel 1993) In his classic article Three Independent Factors in Morals (Dewey 1930), he tried to integrate three basic philosophical perspectives on morality: the right, the virtuous and the good. He held that while all three provide meaningful ways to think about moral questions, the possibility of conflict among the three elements cannot always be easily solved. (Anderson, SEP)

Dewey also criticized the dichotomy between means and ends which he saw as responsible for the degradation of our everyday working lives and education, both conceived as merely a means to an end. He stressed the need for meaningful labor and a conception of education that viewed it not as a preparation for life but as life itself. (Dewey 2004 [1910] ch. 7; Dewey 1997 [1938], p. 47)

Dewey was opposed to other ethical philosophies of his time, notably the emotivism of Alfred Ayer. Dewey envisioned the possibility of ethics as an experimental discipline, and thought values could best be characterized not as feelings or imperatives, but as hypotheses about what actions will lead to satisfactory results or what he termed consummatory experience. A further implication of this view is that ethics is a fallible undertaking, since human beings are frequently unable to know what would satisfy them.

A recent pragmatist contribution to meta-ethics is Todd Lekan's "Making Morality" (Lekan 2003). Lekan argues that morality is a fallible but rational practice and that it has traditionally been misconceived as based on theory or principles. Instead, he argues, theory and rules arise as tools to make practice more intelligent.


John Dewey's Art as Experience, based on the William James lectures he delivered at Harvard, was an attempt to show the integrity of art, culture and everyday experience. (Field, IEP) Art, for Dewey, is or should be a part of everyone's creative lives and not just the privilege of a select group of artists. He also emphasizes that the audience is more than a passive recipient. Dewey's treatment of art was a move away from the transcendental approach to aesthetics in the wake of Immanuel Kant who emphasized the unique character of art and the disinterested nature of aesthetic appreciation.

A notable contemporary pragmatist aesthetician is Joseph Margolis. He defines a work of art as "a physically embodied, culturally emergent entity", a human "utterance" that isn't an ontological quirk but in line with other human activity and culture in general. He emphasizes that works of art are complex and difficult to fathom, and that no determinate interpretation can be given.

Philosophy of religion

Both Dewey and James have investigated the role that religion can still play in contemporary society, the former in A Common Faith and the latter in The Varieties of Religious Experience.

It should be noted, from a general point of view, that for William James, something is true only insofar as it works. Thus, the statement, for example, that prayer is heard may work on a psychological level but (a) will not actually help to bring about the things you pray for (b) may be better explained by referring to its soothing effect than by claiming prayers are actually heard. As such, pragmatism isn't antithetical to religion but it isn't an apologetic for faith either.

Joseph Margolis, in Historied Thought, Constructed World (California, 1995), makes a distinction between "existence" and "reality". He suggests using the term "exists" only for those things which adequately exhibit Pierce's Secondness: things which offer brute physical resistance to our movements. In this way, such things which affect us, like numbers, may be said to be "real", though they do not "exist". Margolis suggests that God, in such a linguistic usage, might very well be "real", causing believers to act in such and such a way, but might not "exist".

Analytical, neoclassical and neopragmatism

Neopragmatism is a broad contemporary category used for various thinkers, some of them radically opposed to one another. The name neopragmatist signifies that the thinkers in question incorporate important insights of, and yet significantly diverge from, the classical pragmatists. This divergence may occur either in their philosophical methodology (many of them are loyal to the analytic tradition) or in actual conceptual formation (C.I. Lewis was very critical of Dewey; Richard Rorty dislikes Peirce). Important analytical neopragmatists include the aforementioned Lewis, W.V.O. Quine, Donald Davidson, Hilary Putnam and the early Richard Rorty. Stanley Fish, the later Rorty and Jürgen Habermas are closer to continental thought.

Neoclassical pragmatism denotes those thinkers who consider themselves inheritors of the project of the classical pragmatists. Sidney Hook and Susan Haack (known for the theory of foundherentism) are well-known examples.

Not all pragmatists are easily characterized. It is probable, considering the advent of postanalytic philosophy and the diversification of Anglo-American philosophy, that more philosophers will be influenced by pragmatist thought without necessarily publicly committing themselves to that philosophical school. Daniel Dennett, a student of Quine's, falls into this category, as does Stephen Toulmin, who arrived at his philosophical position via Wittgenstein, whom he calls "a pragmatist of a sophisticated kind" (foreword for Dewey 1929 in the 1988 edition, p. xiii). Another example is Mark Johnson whose embodied philosophy (Lakoff and Johnson 1999) shares its psychologism, direct realism and anti-cartesianism with pragmatism. Conceptual pragmatism is a theory of knowledge originating with the work of the philosopher and logician Clarence Irving Lewis. The epistemology of conceptual pragmatism was first formulated in the 1929 book Mind and the World Order: Outline of a Theory of Knowledge.

'French Pragmatism' is attended with theorists like Bruno Latour, Michel Crozier and Luc Boltanski and Laurent Thévenot. It is often seen as opposed to structural problems connected to the French Critical Theory of Pierre Bourdieu.

Contemporary Reverberations

In the twentieth century, the movements of logical positivism and ordinary language philosophy have similarities with pragmatism. Like pragmatism, logical positivism provides a verification criterion of meaning that is supposed to rid us of nonsense metaphysics. However, logical positivism doesn't stress action like pragmatism does. Furthermore, the pragmatists rarely used their maxim of meaning to rule out all metaphysics as nonsense. Usually, pragmatism was put forth to correct metaphysical doctrines or to construct empirically verifiable ones rather than to provide a wholesale rejection.

Ordinary language philosophy is closer to pragmatism than other philosophy of language because of its nominalist character and because it takes the broader functioning of language in an environment as its focus instead of investigating abstract relations between language and world.

Pragmatism has ties to process philosophy. Much of their work developed in dialogue with process philosophers like Henri Bergson and Alfred North Whitehead, who aren't usually considered pragmatists because they differ so much on other points. (Douglas Browning et al. 1998; Rescher, SEP)

Behaviorism and functionalism in psychology and sociology also have ties to pragmatism, which is not surprising considering that James and Dewey were both scholars of psychology and that Mead became a sociologist.

Utilitarianism has some significant parallels to Pragmatism and John Stuart Mill espoused similar values.

Influence of pragmatism in social sciences

Increasing attention is being given to pragmatist epistemology in social sciences, which have struggled with divisive debates over the status of social scientific knowledge [2] [3]

Enthusiasts suggest that pragmatism offers an approach which is both pluralist and practical [4].

The classical pragmatism of Dewey, James and Pierce has influenced research in the field of Public Administration. Scholarship that assesses education[5], contracting out or outsourcing[6], financial management, [7]performance measurement[8], urban quality of life initiatives[9], and city planning[10] explicitly draws on the ideas of classical pragmatism in the development of the conceptual framework and focus of analysis.

Pragmatism and Feminism

Since the mid 1990s, feminist philosophers have re-discovered classical pragmatism as a source of feminist theories. Works by Seigfried, [11] Duran,[12] Keith, [13] and Whipps [14] explore the historic and philosophic links between feminism and pragmatism. The connection between pragmatism and feminism took so long to rediscover because pragmatism itself was eclipsed by logical positivism during the middle decades of the 20th century. As a result it was lost from feminine discourse. The very features of pragmatism that led to its decline are the characteristics that feminists now consider its greatest strength. These are “persistent and early criticisms of positivist interpretations of scientific methodology; disclosure of value dimension of factual claims”; viewing aesthetics as informing everyday experience; subordinating logical analysis to political, cultural and social issues; linking the dominant discourses with domination; “realigning theory with praxis; and resisting the turn to epistemology and instead emphasizing concrete experience” [15]. These feminist philosophers point to Jane Addams as a founder of classical pragmatism. In addition, the ideas of Dewey, Mead and James are consistent with many feminist tenets. Jane Addams, John Dewey & George Herbert Mead developed their philosophies as all three became friends, influenced each other and were engaged in the Hull-House experience and women’s rights causes.


Although many later pragmatists such as W.V.O. Quine were actually analytic philosophers, the most vehement criticisms of classical pragmatism came from within the analytic school. Bertrand Russell was especially known for his vituperative attacks on what he considered little more than epistemological relativism and short-sighted practicalism. Realists in general often could not fathom how pragmatists could seriously call themselves empirical or realist thinkers and thought pragmatist epistemology was only a disguised manifestation of idealism. (Hildebrand 2003)

Louis Menand argues[16] that during the Cold War, the intellectual life of the United States became dominated by ideologies. Since pragmatism seeks "to avoid the violence inherent in abstraction," it was not very popular at the time.

Neopragmatism as represented by Richard Rorty has been criticized as relativistic both by neoclassical pragmatists such as Susan Haack (Haack 1997) and by many analytic philosophers (Dennett 1998). Rorty's early analytical work, however, differs notably from his later work which some, including Rorty himself, consider to be closer to literary criticism than to philosophy - most criticism is aimed at this latter phase of Rorty's thought.

A list of pragmatists

Classical pragmatists (1850-1950)

  • Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914): was the founder of American pragmatism (later called by Peirce pragmaticism). He wrote on a wide range of topics, from mathematical logic and semiotics to psychology.
  • William James (1842-1910): influential psychologist and theorist of religion, as well as philosopher. First to be widely associated with the term "pragmatism" due to Peirce's lifelong unpopularity.
  • John Dewey (1859-1952): prominent philosopher of education, referred to his brand of pragmatism as instrumentalism.
  • F.C.S. Schiller (1864-1937): one of the most important pragmatists of his time, Schiller is largely forgotten today.

Important protopragmatists or related thinkers

  • George Herbert Mead (1863-1931): philosopher and sociological social psychologist.
  • Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882): the American protopragmatist.
  • Josiah Royce (1855-1916): colleague of James who employed pragmatism in an idealist metaphysical framework, he was particularly interested in the philosophy of religion and community; his work is often associated with neo-Hegelianism.
  • George Santayana (1863-1952): often not considered to be a canonical pragmatist, he applied pragmatist methodologies to naturalism (philosophy), exemplified in his early masterwork, The Life of Reason.

Fringe figures

  • Giovanni Papini (1881-1956): Italian essayist, mostly known because James occasionally mentioned him.
  • Giovanni Vailati (1863-1909): Italian analytic and pragmatist philosopher.
  • Hu Shi (1891-1962): Chinese intellectual and reformer, student and translator of Dewey's and advocate of pragmatism in China.
  • Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971): American Philosopher and Theologian, inserted Pragmatism into his theory of Christian Realism.

Neoclassical pragmatists (1950-)

Neoclassical pragmatists stay closer to the project of the classical pragmatists than neopragmatists do.

  • Sidney Hook (1902-1989): a prominent New York intellectual and philosopher, a student of Dewey at Columbia.
  • Isaac Levi (1930): seeks to apply pragmatist thinking in a decision-theoretic perspective.
  • Susan Haack (1945): teaches at the University of Miami, sometimes called the intellectual granddaughter of C.S. Peirce, known chiefly for foundherentism.
  • Larry Hickman: philosopher of technology and important Dewey scholar as head of the Center for Dewey Studies.
  • David Hildebrand: like other scholars of the classical pragmatists, Hildebrandt is dissatisfied with neopragmatism and argues for the continued importance of the writings of John Dewey.
  • Nicholas Rescher

Analytical, neo- and other pragmatists (1950-)

(Often labelled neopragmatism as well.)

  • Willard van Orman Quine (1908-2000): pragmatist philosopher, concerned with language, logic, and philosophy of mathematics.
  • Clarence Irving Lewis (1883-1964).
  • Richard Rorty (1931 - 2007): famous author of Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature.
  • Hilary Putnam: in many ways the opposite of Rorty and thinks classical pragmatism was too permissive a theory.
  • Stanley Fish: Literary and Legal Studies pragmatist. Criticizes Rorty's and Posner's legal theories as "almost pragmstism"[17] and authored the afterword in the collection The Revival of Pragmatism[18].
  • Richard Shusterman: philosopher of art.
  • Mike Sandbothe: Applied Rorty's neopragmatism to media studies and developed a new branch that he called Media Philosophy. Together with authors like Juergen Habermas, Hans Joas, Sami Pihlstroem, Mats Bergmann, Michael Esfeld and Helmut Pape he belongs to a group of European Pragmatists who make use of Peirce, James, Dewey, Rorty, Brandom, Putnam and other representatives of American pragmatism in continental philosophy.
  • Stephen Toulmin: student of Wittgenstein, known especially for his The Uses of Argument.
  • John Hawthorne: Defends a pragmatist form of contextualism to deal with the lottery paradox in his Knowledge and Lotteries.
  • Jason Stanley: Defends a pragmatist form of contextualism against semantic varieties of contextualism in his Knowledge and Practical Interest.
  • Arthur Fine: Philosopher of Science who proposed the Natural Ontological Attitude to the debate of scientific realism.
  • Joseph Margolis still proudly defends the original Pragmatists and sees his recent work on Cultural Realism as extending and deepening their insights, especially the contribution of Peirce and Dewey, in the context of a rapprochement with Continental philosophy.
  • Robert Pirsig author of the philosophical novel, "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance", rejects the primacy of the subject-object dichotomy and gives precedence to a concept he calls "dynamic quality" – the precognitive leading edge of reality. Pirsig considers dynamic quality to be the simple, direct stimulus to awareness. Pirsig acknowledges the similarity of his approach to that of other pragmatists, particularly James.

Other pragmatists

Legal pragmatists

  • Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.: justice of the Supreme Court of the United States.
  • Stephen Breyer: U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice.
  • Richard Posner: Judge on U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit.

Pragmatists in the extended sense

  • Cornel West: thinker on race, politics, and religion; operates under the sign of "prophetic pragmatism".
  • Wilfrid Sellars: broad thinker, attacked foundationalism in the analytic tradition.
  • Frank P. Ramsey
  • Karl-Otto Apel
  • Randolph Bourne


IEP Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy SEP Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

  • Elizabeth Anderson. Dewey's Moral Philosophy. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
  • Douglas Browning, William T. Myers (Eds.) Philosophers of Process. 1998.
  • Robert Burch. Charles Sanders Peirce. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
  • John Dewey. Donald F. Koch (ed.) Lectures on Ethics 1900–1901. 1991.
  • Daniel Dennett. Postmodernism and Truth. 1998.
  • John Dewey. The Quest for Certainty: A Study of the Relation of Knowledge and Action. 1929.
  • John Dewey. Three Independent Factors in Morals. 1930.
  • John Dewey. The Influence of Darwin on Philosophy and Other Essays. 1910.
  • John Dewey. Experience & Education. 1938.
  • Cornelis De Waal. On Pragmatism. 2005.
  • Abraham Edel. Pragmatic Tests and Ethical Insights. In: Ethics at the Crossroads: Normative Ethics and Objective Reason. George F. McLean, Richard Wollak (eds.) 1993.
  • Michael Eldridge. Transforming Experience: John Dewey's Cultural Instrumentalism. 1998.
  • Richard Field. John Dewey (1859-1952). Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
  • David L. Hildebrand. Beyond Realism & Anti-Realism. 2003.
  • David L. Hildebrand. The Neopragmatist Turn. Southwest Philosophy Review Vol. 19, no. 1. January, 2003.
  • William James. Pragmatism, A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking, Popular Lectures on Philosophy. 1907.
  • William James The Will to Believe. 1896.
  • George Lakoff and Mark Johnson. Philosophy in the Flesh : The Embodied Mind and Its Challenge to Western Thought. 1929.
  • Todd Lekan. Making Morality: Pragmatist Reconstruction in Ethical Theory. 2003.
  • C.I. Lewis. Mind and the World Order: Outline of a Theory of Knowledge. 1929.
  • Keya Maitra. On Putnam. 2003.
  • Joseph Margolis. Historied Thought, Constructed World. 1995.
  • Louis Menand. The Metaphysical Club. 2001.
  • Hilary Putnam Reason, Truth and History. 1981.
  • W.V.O. Quine. Two Dogmas of Empiricism. Philosophical Review. January 1951.
  • W.V.O. Quine Ontological Relativity and Other Essays. 1969.
  • N. Rescher. Process Philosophy. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
  • Richard Rorty Rorty Truth and Progress: Philosophical Papers. Volume 3. 1998.
  • Stephen Toulmin. The Uses of Argument. 1958.
  • William Egginton/Mike Sandbothe (Eds.) The Pragmatic Turn in Philosophy. Contemporary Engagement between Analytic and Continental Thought. 2004.
  • Mike Sandbothe. Pragmatic Media Philosophy. 2005.

Notes and other sources

Papers and online encyclopedias are part of the bibliography. Other sources may include interviews, reviews and websites.

  • Gary A. Olson and Stephen Toulmin. Literary Theory, Philosophy of Science, and Persuasive Discourse: Thoughts from a Neo-premodernist. Interview in JAC 13.2. 1993.
  • Susan Haack. Vulgar Rortyism. Review in The New Criterion. November 1997.
  • Pietarinen, A.V. “Interdisciplinarity and Peirce's classification of the Sciences: A Centennial Reassessment," Perspectives on Science, 14(2), 127-152 (2006). vvv

See also

Notes and references

  1. See Peirce's 1908 "A Neglected Argument for the Reality of God", final paragraph.
  2. Baert, P. (2004). Pragmatism as a philosophy of the social sciences. European Journal of Social Theory, 7(3), 355-369.
  3. Biesta, G.J.J. & Burbules, N. (2003). Pragmatism and educational research. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.
  4. Cornish, F. & Gillespie, A. (2009). A pragmatist approach to the problem of knowledge in health psychology Journal of Health Psychology, 14(6), 1-10.
  5. Perez, Shivaun, "Assessing Service Learning Using Pragmatic Principles of Education: A Texas Charter School Case Study" (2000). Applied Research Projects. Texas State University Paper 76.
  6. Alexander, Jason Fields, "Contracting Through the Lens of Classical Pragmatism: An Exploration of Local Government Contracting" (2009). Applied Research Projects. Texas State University. Paper 288.
  7. Bartle, John R. and Shields, Patricia M., "Applying Pragmatism to Public Budgeting and Financial Management" (2008). Faculty Publications-Political Science. Paper 48.
  8. Wilson, Timothy L., "Pragmatism and Performance Measurement: An Exploration of Practices in Texas State Government" (2001). Applied Research Projects. Texas State University. Paper 71.
  9. Howard-Watkins, Demetria C., "The Austin, Texas African-American Quality of Life Initiative as a Community of Inquiry: An Exploratory Study" (2006). Applied Research Projects. Texas State University. Paper 115.
  10. Johnson, Timothy Lee, "The Downtown Austin Planning Process as a Community of Inquiry: An Exploratory Study" (2008). Applied Research Projects. Paper 276.
  11. Seigfried, C.H. (2001). Feminist interpretations of John Dewey. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press; Seigfried, C.H. (1996). Pragmatism and feminism: Reweaving the social fabric. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press; Seigfried, C. H. (1992). Where are all the pragmatists feminists? Hypatia, 6, 8-21.
  12. Duran, J. (2001). A holistically Deweyan feminism. Metaphilosophy, 32, 279-292. Duran, J. (1993). The intersection of pragmatism and feminism. Hypatia, 8
  13. Keith, H. (1999). Feminism and pragmatism: George Herbert Mead’s ethics of care. Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society, 35, 328-344.
  14. Whipps, J. D. (2004). Jane Addams social thought as a model for a pragmatist-feminist communitarianism. Hypatia, 19, 118-113.
  15. Seigfried, C.H. (1996). Pragmatism and feminism: Reweaving the social fabric. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. p. 21
  16. Harvard Gazette Feb 26 2004
  17. in: Stanley Fish, There's No Such Thing as Free Speech, Oxford University Press, 1994.
  18. Ed. Morris Dickstein, Duke University Press, 1998
  • Dewey, John (1900–1901), Lectures on Ethics 1900–1901, Donald F. Koch (ed.), Southern Illinois University Press, Carbondale and Edwardsville, IL, 1991.
  • Dewey, John (1910), How We Think, D.C. Heath, Lexington, MA, 1910. Reprinted, Prometheus Books, Buffalo, NY, 1991.
  • Dewey, John (1929), The Quest for Certainty: A Study of the Relation of Knowledge and Action, Minton, Balch, and Company, New York, NY. Reprinted, pp. 1–254 in John Dewey, The Later Works, 1925–1953, Volume 4: 1929, Jo Ann Boydston (ed.), Harriet Furst Simon (text. ed.), Stephen Toulmin (intro.), Southern Illinois University Press, Carbondale and Edwardsville, IL, 1984.
  • Dewey, John (1932), Theory of the Moral Life, Part 2 of John Dewey and James H. Tufts, Ethics, Henry Holt and Company, New York, NY, 1908. 2nd edition, Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1932. Reprinted, Arnold Isenberg (ed.), Victor Kestenbaum (pref.), Irvington Publishers, New York, NY, 1980.
  • Dewey, John (1938), Logic: The Theory of Inquiry, Henry Holt and Company, New York, NY, 1938. Reprinted, pp. 1–527 in John Dewey, The Later Works, 1925–1953, Volume 12: 1938, Jo Ann Boydston (ed.), Kathleen Poulos (text. ed.), Ernest Nagel (intro.), Southern Illinois University Press, Carbondale and Edwardsville, IL, 1986.
  • James, William (1902), "Pragmatic and Pragmatism", 1 paragraph, vol. 2, pp. 321–322 in J.M. Baldwin (ed., 1901–1905), Dictionary of Philosophy and Psychology, 3 volumes in 4, Macmillan, New York, NY. Reprinted, CP 5.2 in C.S. Peirce, Collected Papers.
  • Peirce, C.S., The Essential Peirce, Selected Philosophical Writings, Volume 2 (1893–1913), Peirce Edition Project (eds.), Indiana University Press, Bloomington and Indianapolis, IN, 1998.
  • Putnam, Hilary (1994), Words and Life, James Conant (ed.), Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA.
  • Quine, W.V. (1951), "Two Dogmas of Empiricism", Philosophical Review (January 1951). Reprinted, pp. 20–46 in W.V. Quine, From a Logical Point of View, 1980.
  • Quine, W.V. (1980), From a Logical Point of View, Logico-Philosophical Essays, 2nd edition, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 1980.
  • Ramsey, F.P. (1927), "Facts and Propositions", Aristotelian Society Supplementary Volume 7, 153–170. Reprinted, pp. 34–51 in F.P. Ramsey, Philosophical Papers, David Hugh Mellor (ed.), Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK, 1990.
  • Ramsey, F.P. (1990), Philosophical Papers, David Hugh Mellor (ed.), Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK.

Further reading

Important introductory primary texts
Note that this is an introductory list: some important works are left out and some less monumental works that are excellent introductions are included.

  • C.S. Peirce, The Fixation of Belief (paper)
  • C.S. Peirce, How to Make Our Ideas Clear (paper)
  • C.S. Peirce, A Definition of Pragmatism (paper)
  • William James, Pragmatism (especially lectures I, II and VI)
  • John Dewey, Reconstruction in Philosophy
  • John Dewey, Three Independent factors in Morals (paper)
  • John Dewey, A short catechism concerning truth (chapter)
  • W.V.O. Quine, Three Dogmas of Empiricism (paper)

Secondary texts

  • Cornelis De Waal, On Pragmatism
  • Louis Menand, The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America
  • Hilary Putnam, Pragmatism: An Open Question
  • Abraham Edel, Pragmatic Tests and Ethical Insights
  • D. S. Clarke, Rational Acceptance and Purpose
  • Haack, Susan & Lane, Robert, Eds. (2006). Pragmatism Old and New: Selected Writings. New York: Prometheus Books.
  • Louis Menand, ed., Pragmatism: A Reader (includes essays by Peirce, James, Dewey, Rorty, others)

There are several peer-reviewed journals dedicated to pragmatism, for example

Online resources

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