What Is Pragmatism?

A Brief History of Pragmatism and Pragmatic Philosophy

Portrait of William James
William James first used the term pragmatism in print. FPG / Staff/Archive Photos/Getty Images

Pragmatism is an American philosophy that originated in the 1870s but became popular in 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 in any metaphysical attributes. Pragmatism can be summarized by the phrase “whatever works, is likely true.” Because reality changes, “whatever works” will also change—thus, truth must also be regarded as changeable, which means that no one can claim to possess any final or ultimate truth.

Pragmatists believe that all philosophical concepts should be judged according to their practical uses and successes, not on the basis of abstractions. 

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 that was believed to be capable of producing the same progress through inquiry into subjects like morals and the meaning of life.

Important Philosophers of Pragmatism

Philosophers central to the development of pragmatism or heavily influenced by the philosophy include: 

  • William James (1842 to 1910): First used the term pragmatism in print. Also considered the father of modern psychology. 
  • C. S. (Charles Sanders) Peirce (1839 to 1914): Coined the term pragmatism; a logician whose philosophical contributions were adopted in the creation of the computer. 
  • George H. Mead (1863 to 1931): Regarded as one of the founders of social psychology. 
  • John Dewey (1859 to 1952): Developed the philosophy of Rational Empiricism, which became associated with pragmatism.  
  • W.V. Quine (1908 to 2000): Harvard professor who championed Analytic Philosophy, which owes a debt to earlier pragmatism.
  • C.I. Lewis (1883 to 1964): A principle champion of modern Philosophical Logic. 

Important Books on Pragmatism

For further reading, consult several seminal books on the subject: 

  • 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

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 an actual 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 the scholar 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 Peirce's and James’ philosophies of pragmatism. Instrumentalism was thus both about logical concepts as well as ethical analysis. Instrumentalism describes Dewey’s ideas on 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.