What is Pragmatism? History of Pragmatism, Pragmatic Philosophy, Philosophers

Portrait of William James
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What is Pragmatism?

Pragmatism is an American philosophy from the early 20th century. According to Pragmatism, the truth or meaning of an idea or a proposition lies in its observable practical consequences rather than anything metaphysical. It can be summarized by the phrase “whatever works, is likely true.” Because reality changes, “whatever works” will also change — thus, truth must also be changeable and no one can claim to possess any final or ultimate truth.

Important Books on Pragmatism

Pragmatism, by William James
The Meaning of Truth, by William James
Logic: The Theory of Inquiry, by John Dewey
Human Nature and Conduct, by John Dewey
The Philosophy of the Act, by George H. Mead
Mind and the World Order, by C.I. Lewis

Important Philosophers of Pragmatism

William James
C. S. (Charles Sanders) Peirce
George H. Mead
John Dewey
W.V. Quine
C.I. Lewis

Pragmatism and Natural Science

Pragmatism became popular with American philosophers and even the American public in the early 20th century because of its close association with modern natural and social sciences. The scientific worldview was growing in both influence and authority; pragmatism, in turn, was regarded as a philosophical sibling or cousin which was believed to be capable of producing the same progress with inquiry into subjects like morals and the meaning of life.

C.S. Peirce on Pragmatism

C.S. Peirce, who coined the term Pragmatism, saw it as more a technique to help us find solutions than a philosophy or solution to problems.

Peirce used it as a means for developing linguistic and conceptual clarity (and thereby facilitate communication) with intellectual problems. He wrote:

  • “Consider what effects, which 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 object.”

    William James on Pragmatism

    William James is the most famous philosopher of Pragmatism and he’s the one who made Pragmatism itself famous. For James, Pragmatism was about value and morality: the purpose of philosophy was to understand what had value to us and why. James argued that ideas and beliefs have value to us only when they work.

    James wrote on Pragmatism:

    • “Ideas become true just so far as they help us to get into satisfactory relations with other parts of our experience.”

    John Dewey on Pragmatism

    In a philosophy he called Instrumentalism, John Dewey attempted to combine both Perice’s and James’ philosophies of Pragmatism. It was thus both about logical concepts as well as ethical analysis. Instrumentalism describes Dewey’s ideas the conditions under which reasoning and inquiry occurs. On the one hand it should be controlled by logical constraints; on the other hand, it is directed at producing goods and valued satisfactions.