Pragmatism is a school of philosophical thought that traces back to the efforts of American philosophers who first began developing a distinctively practical view of philosophy (1). In the broad sense, pragmatism is the view that a belief is true in light of its practicality (i.e. if it works in practice, is useful, and if makes a positive difference to human life). According to Will Buckingham et al.,
“If we are taking a pragmatic perspective, we should not be asking “is this the way things are?” but rather, “what are the practical implications of adopting this perspective?” (2)
The pioneer of pragmatism was the mathematician Charles Sanders Peirce (d. 1914) who was struck by just how little practicality philosophy had. Peirce noticed how much of philosophy engaged in discussions and debates that had no connection to the world people live in, an insight that led him to propose the pragmatic maxim to “Consider the practical effects of the objects of your conceptions. Then, your conception of those effects is the whole of your conception of the object.” Peirce suggested that to understand the meaning of a proposition one should consider what happens if he accepts it and then acts upon it. One should determine whether or not a belief makes any practical difference to his or her life. Peirce proposed a philosophy that said ideas are valid for as long as they are useful.
William James (d. 1910) was another seminal thinker in this tradition. James adopted and developed Peirce’s philosophy, and argued that truths are different from facts. For James, facts are not true in and of themselves; rather, truth is what emerges if believing them to be true has a “cash value”, or makes a practical difference to human lives. He did not see beliefs as being either true or false depending on how well they represent or relate to reality; instead, beliefs are true only if they help us make our way through an unpredictable world. James was also influenced by Charles Darwin’s (d. 1882) theory of evolution in the On the Origin of Species (1859). Just as Darwin argued that only the fittest of species survived and that this is due to the development of superior biological characteristics, so James claimed that beliefs become true if they help humans to survive. Equally, beliefs become false when they have no utility. If ideas do not conflict with science or the laws of nature and if they provide enough predictive power for our purposes, James believes there is no reason to doubt that they are true. James still maintained that ideas should be able to withstand scrutiny and that evidence should support them.
John Dewey (d. 1952) taught at various universities during his career and also ran with the pragmatist line of seeing philosophical problems as not being abstract issues detached from human life, but rather as the messiness produced by human beings attempting to make sense of the world and how to best act within it. Philosophy should find a means to discover practical solutions to problems of life. Philosophy is not about obtaining a true image of the way the world is; rather, it is about practical problem-solving. To Dewey, the world in which humans live is fundamentally unstable, which means existence is itself threatened. The environments in which humans exist change unpredictably. One might think of how agricultural yields can be adversely affected by unpredictable weather, or such things as over-population or pollution that hurt the environment, or the diseases that afflict people. To Dewey, rather than appealing to higher powers such as God or spirits that “dispense fortune”, people ought to be practical in their attempt to gain an understanding of the environment to improve their conditions. It is through practical means that people come to build houses for shelter, develop means to grow crops artificially, or build satellites to predict the weather. In these ways, people learn to transform the environment to their own benefit. Dewey does not believe people will ever have full control over the environment; rather, they can minimize the threats the environment can have on people through practical solutions.
Richard Rorty (d. 2007) was a proponent of the neo-pragmatist school who, in his Consequences of Pragmatism (1982), argued that we have no fundamental self or soul and that knowledge is produced by conversation and social practice. On Rorty’s view, knowledge based on experience is a myth because none of what we learn about the world is based upon raw data. People only come to learn about something through concepts that are learned through language. Knowledge is not something that corresponds to reality but is, in Rorty’s words, that which “society lets us say.” Knowledge is thus limited by social context and what others around us allow us to say: “Truth is what your contemporaries let you get away with.” But there are strong implications to this view. One such implication is that it does away with moral culpability for there are no morally blamable acts on this pragmatic view. Rorty thus rejected moral objectivity and absolutes since what we consider to be moral is simply what society says we can consider as such. Rorty nonetheless maintained that humans have little choice but to remain loyal to others and promote human decency.
1. Garvey, James., and Stangroom, Jeremy. 2012. The Story of Philosophy: A History of Western Thought. London: Hachette UK.
2. Buckingham, Will., Burnham, Douglas., Hill, Clive., King, Peter., Marenbon, John., and Weeks, Marcus. 2018. The Little Book of Philosophy. Penguin Random House.
3. Buckingham, Will., et al. 2018. Ibid. p. 146-148, 132-134, 196-199.