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edit classify history index Pragmatism
For non-technical usage see Pragmatism (non-technical usage).
For themes emphasized by Charles Sanders Peirce see Pragmaticism.

Pragmatism, as a school of philosophy, is a collection of many different ways of thinking. Given the diversity among thinkers and the variety among schools of thought that have adopted this term over the years, the term pragmatism has become all but meaningless in the absence of further qualification. Most of the thinkers who describe themselves as pragmatists point to some connection with practical consequences or real effects as vital components of both meaning and truth. The precise character of these links to pragmata is however as diverse as the thinkers who do the pointing.

Some pragmatists disagree with the view that beliefs represent reality, and instead argue that beliefs are dispositions which qualify as true or false depending on how helpful a disposition proves in accomplishing the believer’s goals. For this type of pragmatist it is only in the struggle of intelligent organisms with the surrounding environment that theories acquire meaning, and only with a theory’s success in this struggle that it becomes true. As a rule, however, pragmatists do not hold that anything that is practical or useful, or that anything that helps to survive merely in the short-term, should be regarded as true. Instead, most of them argue that what should be taken as true is that which contributes the most good over the longest course. In the case of C.S. Peirce’s pragmatism, this means that theoretical claims should be tied to verification practices — that is, one should be able to make predictions and test them. Truth is defined, for Peirce, as the ultimate outcome of inquiry by a (usually) scientific community of investigators. For William James and many of his followers, the meaning of any term consisted, rather, in the grasping of the consequences for action that the acceptance of the truth of the term entails. Truth itself, on this view, is not that which contributes the most good to the community, but that which contributes the most good to the individual.


As a philosophical movement, pragmatism originated in the United States in the late 1800s, with the thought and works of Charles Sanders Peirce, William James, John Dewey, and George Herbert Mead figuring most prominently in its overall direction. These originators, however, typically point back to the influence of several earlier thinkers, with especial mention of Immanuel Kant and Alexander Bain, the latter having forged the crucial links among belief, conduct, and disposition by saying that a belief is that on which a person is prepared to act.

Like any philosophical movement, the nature and content of pragmatism is subject to considerable debate, whether it is one of exegesis (determining what the original pragmatists thought it was) or substantive philosophical theory (what is the most defensible theory that satisfies certain goals). The term pragmatism was first used in print by James, who credited the coining of the term to Peirce during the early 1870’s. Prompted by James’ use of the term and his crediting of the idea to him, Peirce began writing and lecturing on pragmatism to try and correct James’ incorrect interpretation of what he had meant by the term. Peirce eventually coined the new name pragmaticism to mark what he regarded as the original idea.

What is common to all three thinkers’ philosophy — and with other loosely affiliated thinkers such as Oliver_Wendell_Holmes — is a broad emphasis on the importance of practical effects in connection with theoretical ideas as they impact on the human way of life in general and the life of inquiry in particular. One famous aspect of this view is Peirce’s insistence that contrary to Descartes’ famous and influential method in the Meditations on First Philosophy, doubt cannot be feigned or created for the purpose of conducting philosophical inquiry. Doubt, like belief, requires justification, that is, it arises from confrontation with some specific recalcitrant matter of fact (from what 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.

The questions of meaning, reality, and truth are inextricably linked in pragmatic thinking, making what is more tersely called the pragmatic theory of truth a central topic in the work of Peirce, James, and Dewey, however differently each thinker may have expressed himself on the subject. James especially had a penchant for the well-turned phrase, not all of whose consequences for misunderstanding he foresaw in the act of utterance, and many of his best-turned phrases — “truth’s cash value” (1907, p. 200) and “the true is only the expedient” (1907, p. 222) — would be taken out of context and turned against the utterer afterwards. As a result, the pragmatic account is often caricatured in contemporary literature as the view that ‘truth is what works’, or that any idea that has practical utility is true. In reality the theory is a great deal more subtle, and bears a striking resemblance to better-respected contemporary views, particularly Crispin Wright‘s ’superassertibility’ (see his book Truth and Objectivity).

Late in the 20th century Hilary Putnam (1994, p. 152) “cursorily summarized” a group of theses that he regarded as being “the basis of the philosophies of Peirce, and above all of James and Dewey”, namely these:

  • Antiskepticism. The thesis that doubt requires justification just as much as belief.
  • Fallibilism. The thesis that there is no metaphysical warrant that a given belief will never need modification.
  • Fact-value continuity. The thesis that there is no fundamental dichotomy between descriptive_facts and normative_values.
  • Primacy of practice. The thesis that, in a certain sense, practice is primary in philosophy.

Putnam goes on to suggest that the reconciliation of antiskepticism and fallibilism is the central claim of American pragmatism.




[Pragmatism]. The doctrine that the whole “meaning” of a conception expresses itself in practical consequences, consequences either in the shape of conduct to be recommended, or in that of experiences to be expected, if the conception be true; which consequences would be different if it were untrue, and must be different from the consequences by which the meaning of other conceptions is in turn expressed. If a second conception should not appear to have other consequences, then it must really be only the first conception under a different name. In methodology it is certain that to trace and compare their respective consequences is an admirable way of establishing the differing meanings of different conceptions. (James 1902, cf. Peirce, CP 5.2).



Not to be confused with Friedrich Schiller

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. By this, Schiller has framed his philosophy in a manner very similar to that of James and Peirce’s pragmatism. Schiller argues that restricting our description of the world to only the material world of concrete particulars was doomed to lead to epistemic and moral skepticism, as would the ignoring of the material world for a more perfect dreamland of wild metaphysical speculation and abstraction. While Schiller is vague about the exact sort of middle ground he is trying to establish, in the articles he published after “Riddles”, Schiller argued that abstraction and metaphysics was something engaged in to help explain the material world. That the scientist should not be adverse to utilizing metaphysics as a tool in his inquiry, so long as he does not lose sight of his entire purpose for engaging in metaphysical speculation--namely, explaining the physical world. Schiller once said that escaping Plato’s_Cave was nothing, if it did not enable you to re-enter the cave and better deal with the shadows you found there.

This was the proto-pragmatism Schiller had independently developed before coming under the heavy influence of William James, after which Schiller became a vigorous defender of both James’ will to believe doctrine as well as James’ pragmatist_theory_of_truth. In this capacity as “James’ Bulldog”, Schiller’s most famous work was his essay “Axioms as Postulates” were he utilized the will to believe doctrine to justify the axioms of logic, mathematics, and Kant’s synthetic a priori. Later he would publish two collections of his essays defending pragmatism entitled “Humanism” and “Studies in Humanism.” (Schiller preferred name of “Humanism” over that of “Pragmatism,” a preference that James would eventually also adopt.)

Later in 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 criticism of Schiller’s book was nicely summarized by him near his death, in an essay entitled “Are All Men Mortal?” 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 attempts to construct a new logic to replace formal logic he has 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.

After his death Schiller came to be nearly universally ignored. By many, Schiller is considered one of the philosophers who gave pragmatism a bad name by his over-the-top rhetoric and defence of the most extreme form of pragmatism. Secondary sources on the work of Schiller are extremely rare, as are his primary works.


Pragmatism is word in ordinary use, with senses that range from a term of abuse to a term of art. From time to time, a professional philosopher will pick up the banner of pragmatism with very little awareness, or little more than a nodding acknowledgment, of those who bore it before, and run off in a direction that bears but token kinship to the aims of its forebearers.


My pragmatism is derived from Mr Russell; and is, of course, very vague and undeveloped. The essence of pragmatism I take to be this, that the meaning of a sentence is to be defined by reference to the actions to which asserting it would lead, or, more vaguely still, by its possible causes and effects. Of this I feel certain, but of nothing more definite. (Ramsey 1927/1990, p. 51).


Carnap, Lewis, and others take a pragmatic stand on the question of choosing between language forms, scientific frameworks; but their pragmatism leaves off at the imagined boundary between the analytic and the synthetic. In repudiating such a boundary I espouse a more thorough pragmatism. Each man is given a scientific heritage plus a continuing barrage of sensory stimulation; and the considerations which guide him in warping his scientific heritage to fit his continuing sensory promptings are, where rational, pragmatic. (Quine 1951/1980, p. 46).



Contemporary echoes

In the twentieth-century, the movements of logical positivism, behaviorism, and ordinary language philosophy all have similarities with pragmatism. Like pragmatism, logical positivism provides a verification criterion of meaning that is supposed to rid us of nonsense metaphysics. However, there is not the stress on action in logical positivism as there is in pragmatism. Furthermore, the pragmatists rarely used their maxim of meaning to rule out metaphysics as nonsense. Usually, pragmatism was put forth to construct correct metaphysical doctrines (empirically verifiable ones) rather than reject metaphysics.

Ordinary language philosophy does not resemble pragmatism in many respects, but it does lay stress upon the connection between meaning and action in a way logical positivism does not.

Pragmatism has important ties to process philosophy. Each of the classical pragmatists formulated a type of process metaphysics, and much of their work developed in dialogue with process philosophers like Henri Bergson and Alfred North Whitehead, who aren’t usually considered pragmatists. [1] Rescher, N. “Process Philosophy”. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy Edward N. Zalta (ed.) URL= Richard Rorty has pointed to strong connections between pragmatism and existentialism.[2] Nietzsche is also sometimes considered a process philosopher,[3]. A form of pragmatism has also been attributed to Heidegger.[4]

Some scholars have noted a similarity between pragmatism and some elements in Buddhist_philosophical_thought.[5] [6]

Notable pragmatists

Classical pragmatists

  • William James (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.)

  • Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914) was the founder of American pragmatism (later called by Peirce pragmaticism), an extender of the Scotistic theory of signs (called by Peirce semeiotic), an extraordinarily prolific logician and mathematician, and a developer of an evolutionary, psycho-physically monistic metaphysical system. A practicing chemist and geodesist by profession, he nevertheless considered scientific philosophy, and especially logic, to be his vocation. In the course of his polymathic researches, he wrote on a wide range of topics, from mathematical logic to psychology.

  • Reinhold Niebuhr (theologian and social critic, though many deny he was a pragmatist; he was extremely critical of Dewey)

  • Josiah Royce (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)

  • F.C.S. Schiller (one of the most important pragmatists of his time, Schiller is largely forgotten today)

Neo-classical pragmatists

  • Susan Haack (teaches at the University of Miami, sometimes called the intellectual grand-daughter of C.S. Peirce)

  • Richard A. Posner (Judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, law professor, and prolific author of scholarly articles and books)

Neo-pragmatists (see Neopragmatism)

  • Cornel West (important thinker on race, politics, and religion; operates under the sign of “prophetic pragmatism”)

Pragmatists in the extended sense

Legal pragmatists

Notes and references

  1. Douglas Browning, William T. Myers (Eds.) (1998). Philosophers of Process (Revised Expanded Edition). Bronx: Fordham University Press. ISBN 0823218783
  2. Richard Rorty (2000). Philosophy and Social Hope. Penguin. ISBN 0140262881
  3. and his work has other similarities with pragmatism. Nietzsche and pragmatism also share a common influence in the work of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Goodman, R. “Ralph Waldo Emerson”. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (ed.) Edward N. Zalta URL=
  4. Mark Okrent (1991). Heidegger’s Pragmatism: Understanding, Being, and the Critique of Metaphysics. Cornell University Press. ISBN 0801499623
  5. Miranda Shaw (1987). “William James and Yogaacaara philosophy: A comparative inquiry”. Philosophy East and West volume 37, no.3. pp. 223-244}
  6. Richard P. Hayes, “Did Buddhism Anticipate Pragmatism?” (pdf)

  • Baldwin,_James_Mark (ed., 1901–1905), Dictionary of Philosophy and Psychology, 3 volumes in 4, Macmillan, New York, NY.

  • 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.

  • James, William (1907), Pragmatism, A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking, Popular Lectures on Philosophy, Longmans, Green, and Company, New York, NY.

  • James, William (1909), The Meaning of Truth, A Sequel to ‘Pragmatism’ , Longmans, Green, and Company, New York, NY.

  • Peirce, C.S., The Essential Peirce, Selected Philosophical Writings, Volume 1 (1867–1893), Nathan Houser and Christian Kloesel (eds.), Indiana University Press, Bloomington and Indianapolis, IN, 1992.

  • 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

  • Johnson, R.B., and Onwuegbuzie, A.J. (2004), “Mixed Methods Research: A Research Paradigm Whose Time Has Come”, Educational Researcher 33(7), 14–26.

  • Putnam,_Hilary (1995), Pragmatism: An Open Question, Blackwell Publishers, Oxford, UK. 1st published, Il Pragmatismo: Una Questione Aperta, Giuseppe Laterzi and Figli Spa, Roma–Bari, Italy, 1992.

  • Rorty,_Richard (1991), Objectivity, Relativism, and Truth: Philosophical Papers, Volume 1, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK.

  • Turner, William (1911), “Pragmatism”, Catholic Encyclopedia, vol. 12, Robert Appleton Company. Online edition, K. Knight (©) 2003, Eprint

  • Whipps, Judy (2004), “Pragmatist Feminism”, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Eprint.

See also


External links

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