Pragmatic Philosophy

Pragmatic is the philosophy that argues that truth is determined by its practical consequences, that knowledge is incremental and that it should be evaluated in terms of what one is able to do with it. It was a major movement in American philosophy in the later quarter of the nineteenth century, but it has also significantly influenced non-philosophers, particularly in law, education, politics, sociology, psychology, and literary criticism. Pragmatism is contrasted with skepticism, which tends to reject ideas that cannot be tested.

The most well-known pragmatist was John Dewey (1859-1952), who remained influential for over a decade after his move to Columbia University in 1904. Despite the popularity of his book Logic: The Theory of Inquiry (1938), Dewey never had a genuine successor to himself, and pragmatism lost much of its momentum.

This is not because of any philosophical incoherence, but rather because of the advent of a self-consciously rigorous import from England — analytic philosophy. Many American philosophers, including C. I. Lewis, Sidney Hook, Nelson Goodman, and Wilfrid Sellars, remained true to pragmatism, but in general analytic philosophy has left little room for pragmatic ideas.

Even among pragmatists, opinions have diverged widely on major issues such as perception, justification, fallibilism, realism, and the role of philosophy. There has been no pragmatist party-line, and even a pragmatist who thinks highly of his or her ancestors has not agreed about what those ancestors meant to say, let alone whether they said anything important at all.

There is, however, considerable agreement that a central issue in pragmatics concerns the nature of context. Various distinctions have been drawn between linguistic and extra-linguistic contexts, but all of them recognize that there are facts about utterances, beyond the basic fact of what expressions are used and what their meanings are, that can be relevant to what they do convey.

The fact that such facts are important to pragmatics is what makes pragmatism different from, for example, Peirce’s view of beliefs as rules for action; James’s teleological understanding of the mind; Popper’s mockery of Wittgenstein’s bucket theory of language; and Rorty’s rejection of the Cartesian picture of the world and the mind. The goal of pragmatism is to free philosophy from optional assumptions that generate insoluble problems.