What Is Pragmatic Philosophy?

Pragmatic is an approach to knowledge that looks at the value of ideas in explaining or predicting the world. It can be contrasted with realism, which is the belief that objects and events exist independently of human interpretation. It also differs from skepticism, which is the reluctance to accept something as true without extensive evidence.

A pragmatist will readily accept an idea as mostly likely true if it is useful in understanding or predicting reality. This can be seen in the way a person chooses what to wear based on how comfortable it will be when worn, or in the decision to travel to a country based on whether the weather forecast is favorable. This pragmatic approach can also be applied to beliefs and theories. For example, a pragmatist will be willing to accept a scientific theory as probably true if it is helpful in solving real-world problems, even though he may not have proof that the theory is exactly correct.

Many philosophers have criticized pragmatism for being too “epistemologically relativistic,” but others believe that it is an appropriate philosophy to guide our everyday decisions. Pragmatism can be used to evaluate all kinds of theories and models, from the smallest social interactions to the largest scientific experiments. It can help explain why some models and theories seem to work well in certain situations but not in others, as well as how our beliefs about the world around us are constantly shaped by new information.

A key idea of pragmatism is that humans do not directly experience reality, but rather construct it through their perceptions and interpretations. For this reason, a pragmatist will not argue that a fact is “given” in the sense of a purely empirical experience, because such an experience would be entirely devoid of concepts or descriptions. Pragmatists thus believe that all knowledge is theory-laden, and that theories should be judged primarily on their utility in problem-solving and life-coping, not on how they relate to a raw, unsullied sensuous “Given.”

Different pragmatic theorists have focused on different aspects of utterance meaning, including what is known as conversational implicature (what the speaker implies by saying something). Pragmatics is sometimes confused with other areas of linguistic study, such as semantics, syntax, or semiotics, although each has a distinct focus.

Though pragmatism lost popularity as an umbrella term after the 1940s, some contemporary philosophers have been identified as neo-pragmatists. These include Richard Rorty, John Davidson, and Hilary Putnam. They have each developed their own version of pragmatism, drawing on the work of Peirce, James, and Dewey. They also share a belief that we should treat ideas as hypotheses and that they can be modified, refined, or rejected as new evidence becomes available. Consequently, these neo-pragmatists have called for a revival of philosophical inquiry. Despite this, the movement has never gained much traction outside of academia. However, pragmatism has significantly influenced non-philosophers, especially those in fields such as law, education, politics, sociology, and psychology.