What Is Pragmatism? (Philosophy, History, Notable Proponents)

What is the philosophy of pragmatism, and why should we study it?

Oct 22, 2023By Marnie Binder, PhD Humankind and Thought in History, MA Humanities and Social Thought, BA History and Psychology

what is pragmatism philosophy


Pragmatism is the most influential philosophical movement to come out of American philosophy. Its most basic foundational principle is that of the pragmatic method, that is, the methodological prioritization of practical consequences over everything else. In this article, we will provide a basic overview of this philosophical movement, along with covering some of its most notable proponents, such as Peirce, James, Dewey, and Rorty.


What is Pragmatism?

The Thinker by Auguste Rodin, 1904, at the Musée Rodin in Paris, France


What is the philosophy of pragmatism? Asking this question presumes that such an inquiry is possible, but that alone does not guarantee that it is, in fact, possible. But even if it is not possible, there is something gained in the process of contemplation; in the action and process of positing this inquiry in the first place. If a practical difference can be made in the conjecturing and advancing of this inquiry, then something has been gained. What we can say about that something may not be absolutely certain, but at least for the time in which it is proposed, and possibly later adopted, it shapes our views—even if later, new data comes to light that completely discredits that initial inquiry.


This is, essentially, both a way to think of pragmatism and pragmatism itself at work. I say “way to think” because like with several “movements” in the history of philosophy, many of those included in that category defied such a label because of some very different philosophical views.


The history of philosophy is ripe with debates over what philosophy is in the first place, and, accordingly, how to define and label traditions. Is it enough to have a group of thinkers that span one or two generations contemplating similar concerns (and how many)? I leave this philosophical debate up to the reader to consider, but certainly, it can be argued that there are enough shared interests among those labeled “pragmatists” to at least warrant a conversation about what pragmatism is.

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The Pragmatic Method

The Philosopher’s Lamp by René Magritte, 1936, private collection.


Pragmatism emphasizes practice and action. This means it is best understood as a method. As pragmatism is a method rather than a doctrine, it best serves as a complement to other views, and as such, it is incomplete. This is consistent with the basic pragmatic tendency to move away from the pursuit of absolute truths, categories, or principles, and to instead focus on consequences and results.


Human life can be seen as comprised of a series of problems that we need to solve, and this makes us natural problem-solvers—so much so that we sometimes even create problems to solve when there are none. And this is the focus of pragmatism: on the process of solving problems. As such, pragmatism aims to make life better. But another point of agreement among those categorized as “pragmatists” is that there is no essence to pragmatism.


The History of Pragmatism

Portrait of Richard Rorty by Steve Pyke, 2003, via Flowers Gallery.


Despite the lack of consensus surrounding the meaning of the label “pragmatist” among those thinkers traditionally included in this canon, there is agreement on when the pragmatic method was born. While the ideas behind it germinated during the meetings of the Metaphysical Club, as it was called (a group of thinkers in 1872 who met in Cambridge, Massachusetts to discuss philosophy and important topics of the day), its more precise origins date to Charles Sanders Peirce’s publication of “How to Make Our Ideas Clear” in 1878.


In this paper, Peirce laid out the pragmatic maxim as follows:


“Consider what effects, that might conceivably have practical bearing, we conceive the object of our conception to have. Then our conception of these effects is the whole of our conception of the object.”


For various reasons, it was William James who would popularize the ideas of pragmatism, bringing the term into focus during a 1898 lecture he gave at UC Berkeley.


Pragmatism, therefore, was developed during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It was the first fully North American philosophical movement (though it should be noted there were adherents in other parts of the world as well). And like with other movements in the history of philosophy, such as the contemporaneously developing existentialism, part of the inspiration came from dissatisfaction with the previous history of philosophy and the state of affairs in the world.


Pragmatism and Its Misconceptions

Photo of Jane Addams by Bain News Service, ca. 1924, via Library of Congress.


As with other movements in the history of philosophy, many misconceptions abound about pragmatism. There are two main reasons pragmatism fell out of favor. First, there was an immediate and gross misunderstanding of what it aimed to do—sadly, the same misconceptions are still quite prevalent. Second, the growth of logical positivism and analytic philosophy presented itself as an unjustified and stark contrast to the ideas of pragmatism.


While there are many misunderstandings about pragmatism, one of the most pervasive is to erroneously see it as an “anything goes” philosophy, meaning, that so long as there is a practical benefit, then something can be accepted and seen as “true” and “good.”


This looseness is not at all what was intended by any of the pragmatists. While the idea is to avoid rigid dogmatism while always maintaining an open mind, this is not meant to open the doors to a cost-benefit analysis that can be adapted and justified in any manner one chooses. Pragmatists aim to achieve a greater degree of clarity and more firmly justified settled beliefs. How they each set out to accomplish this differed, but they were all sensitive to how this could be misinterpreted. While the emphasis is on the practical, this must be coupled with sound reasoning.


Despite this last point, the growth of logical positivism and more broadly analytic philosophy set out to be all the opposite of this misconception about pragmatism: analytic philosophy proposed to advance the study of clear language and rigorous, sound argumentation as the core aims of philosophy—goals that are still dominant in philosophy departments. Again, this was certainly not wholly absent from the pragmatist agenda and there were several similarities (especially with Peirce and Dewey).


The Classical Philosophers of Pragmatism: Charles Sanders Peirce

Portrait of Charles Sanders Peirce, via Wikimedia Commons.


As noted, despite being classified under the umbrella of “pragmatist thinkers,” there were some very important differences and aims between the philosophers who were labeled this way.


Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914) was the most analytical of them all, as he was a very skilled mathematician, scientist, philosopher, and logician. Peirce made extensive studies into the logic of abduction, deduction, and induction. As his already mentioned article “How to Make Our Ideas Clear” suggests, he aimed to make our ideas clear. Thus, he developed a branch of semiotics (or as he termed it, semeiotics), i.e., the study of signs and representation.


At the risk of oversimplification by being very tersely stated, his view is as follows: signs are interpreted by humans. Representation involves the interpreter, the object, and a sign. Signs themselves, he argued, are further divided into symbols (signs that represent conventional rules), icons (signs that are similar to the object), and indices (signs that point directly to the object). Interpretation refers to the impact that a sign has on the person interpreting it, and this is fundamental to how Peirce argues we develop meaning.


Moreover, he wanted to make pragmatism more scientific. Peirce understood his pragmatic maxim to be a logical principle. The process of inquiry can be rationally pursued, even if ultimately settled beliefs are just habits of action. Peirce advocated “fallibilism,” or the position that beliefs are susceptible to doubt, but this should neither make us overly skeptical nor pessimistic about our beliefs.


Central to his view is also that of “meliorism,” or the notion that our beliefs can also be constantly improved. Sadly, much of the recognition of Peirce’s brilliance was posthumous, in part because of the difficulty of understanding his work, and in part because of his presumably quite temperamental persona.


The Classical Philosophers of Pragmatism: William James

Portrait of William James, 1903, via Harvard Library.


The next founding pragmatist is William James (1842-1910) who was a professor at Harvard specializing in psychology and philosophy (in fact, he is often referred to as both the father of modern psychology and the founding father of pragmatism).


Though they were dear friends, James wanted to move away from Peirce’s more rigorous stance and make the philosophical method more accessible, thus humanizing his position, which would indeed make it more popular, but this would also become the main source of critique. James’s objectives were loftier: he wanted to use this method to settle metaphysical disputes. He urged us to move away from abstractions and excessive faith in science and instead focus on how philosophy can help us live better through practical means. James would have us solve problems by asking what practical difference this or that answer might have, and when there is none, this would mean that the dispute is nonsense.


As he explained in his book Pragmatism: 


“What difference would it practically make to anyone if this notion rather than that notion were true? If no practical difference whatever can be traced, then the alternatives mean practically the same thing, and all dispute is ideal. Whenever a dispute is serious, we ought to be able to show some practical difference that must follow from one side or the other’s being right.”


James defined his position as that of “radical empiricism,” which emphasizes experience in an anti-dualist stance of the self and the world in a continuum of experienced relations. This connects back to his views in psychology, especially regarding his position that consciousness also forms part of a continuum, or a stream of consciousness. Together, reality and consciousness are incessant “pure experiences.”


IHS monogram, photograph by Jastrow, 2006, via Wikimedia Commons.


Given the humanist leaning in James’s philosophy, he also explores connections to religion. In 1896 he published The Will to Believe, where he posited that there are cases, especially regarding God’s existence, when it is reasonable and acceptable to believe something without sufficient evidence because it can allow a person to live better. This anti-evidentialist position is what brought him some staunch critics. But it should be noted here that this does not imply zero verification; rather, it implies different forms and types of verification, such as how a belief may affect how a person lives his or her life.


The Classical Philosophers of Pragmatism: John Dewey

Portrait of John Dewey, via Library of Congress.


The third in the trio of classical American pragmatists is John Dewey (1859-1952), whose take on pragmatism was more comprehensive, including connections to society, education, politics, art, and ethics. Dewey spent time as a student and professor at several universities, including the University of Chicago and Columbia University.


While Dewey was probably a bit philosophically closer to James than Peirce, he did in some ways synthesize the two by focusing on implications for democracy and the educational system. Like Peirce, he sought to assimilate the scientific method into his community of pragmatist inquirers. His philosophy explored the acquisition of knowledge and the process of inquiry, always keeping at the forefront that there is no end to this. There are no “truths” that we can be certain of, he argued, rather what we can possibly maintain are “warranted assertions.” Success in inquiry, therefore, is measured by how well problems are solved or doubts are settled.


The International Prototype Kilogram, 2019, via Bureau International des Poids et Mesures.


Like Peirce, Dewey emphasized meliorism, especially when it comes to ethical and political issues, the inquiries for which are best pursued in an educational, communal setting. Thus, when confronted with problems, we should aim for reasonable confidence; life can be improved through intelligent effort. Dewey generally preferred to refer to his position as “instrumentalism” because of his emphasis on how meaning arises from the inquirer inextricably existing in a lived situation motivated by practical reasons.


There are other very important thinkers generally included in a canon of pragmatist works, such as C.I. Lewis, George Herbert Mead, Jane Addams, Chauncey Wright, Oliver Wendall Holmes, as well as later Wilfrid Sellars and W.V.O. Quine, among others. Then later came Hilary Putnam, Richard Rorty, Cornell West, and Robert Brandom, to name just some who in the second half of the twentieth century further reinvigorated the philosophy into a new wave called “neo-pragmatism.” Many others (such as W.E.B. Du Bois) could arguably be included, despite the challenges posed by defining not just what “pragmatism” is all about, but also what it means to “do philosophy.”


The Place of Pragmatism in the History of Philosophy

Portrait of Hilary Putnam, via Wikimedia Commons.


The varied positions on philosophy and pragmatism would be another point of embrace that they would all likely share, as pragmatism should be understood as a living philosophy with no end in sight; it is a philosophy that is meant to adapt to historical circumstances, as we are never able to extricate ourselves as beings within a temporally embedded community and society. This is why it is best understood as a method rather than a dogma, or even philosophical theory, as these latter terms are too restrictive, which for most labeled “pragmatists” is to be avoided.


But a method is also insufficient for logical reasoning, so pragmatism is again at times best viewed as a complement to other studies. However, neither does this emphasis on method and anti-dogmatism convert pragmatism into a philosophy of irrationalism, as it most certainly can offer us profound insights into how to solve problems and live better—the value of this can certainly not be overestimated. Hopefully, pragmatism will continue to circulate more widely in the philosophical dialogue.

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By Marnie BinderPhD Humankind and Thought in History, MA Humanities and Social Thought, BA History and PsychologyMarnie teaches Philosophy at California State University, Sacramento, and Humanities at Cosumnes River College. She holds a Ph.D. in Humankind and Thought in History from the University of Alcala, Madrid, Spain, an MA in Humanities and Social Thought from New York University, and a BA in History and Psychology from the University of California, San Diego. Her research interests are principally in the history of philosophy, pragmatism, and continental philosophy. She is the author of A Pragmatist Philosophy of History and multiple other publications.