The Philosophy of Pragmatism

A pragmatic person is one who focuses on practical matters of fact rather than abstract notions. She or he does not expect a four-year-old to want a unicorn for her birthday, nor does she think a raincoat is a good idea for a trip to Seattle. The word pragmatic comes from Greek pragma, meaning “deed.” Pragmatists are concerned with the actual results of ideas and how to turn theory into practice.

While there is no neat list of essential tenets endorsed by all pragmatists, certain ideas have loomed large in the tradition. It is important to understand these themes in order to appreciate the philosophy.

One central theme in pragmatism is the role of experience and the qualitative in inquiry. This view is particularly well-developed in the work of John Dewey. Dewey argues that all thinking is qualitative, and that the qualitative dimension is responsible for much of the unity, continuity, coherence, direction, and self-regulation of inquiry. It is this claim that makes Dewey’s approach to inquiry so distinctive and valuable.

Another key feature of pragmatism is its emphasis on the interplay between language and action. A major part of pragmatics is how the meaning of an utterance depends on context and what other utterances it refers to. For example, if someone says, “John is inside. He told me to greet you,” you will likely assume that they mean a previous utterance in which you asked them who John was.

In addition to these two themes, pragmatists often stress the importance of the “cognitive” and social aspects of communication. In this respect, pragmatism has had significant influence on discourse analysis and the study of human interaction.

Pragmatics has also contributed to debates in metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics. These contributions have made pragmatism a useful approach in the face of challenges to positivist orthodoxy posed by Quine, Wittgenstein, Carnap, and other analytic philosophers.

Despite the success of pragmatism in the face of positivist orthodoxy, it is important to remember that there are limits to what this philosophy can accomplish. This is especially true with regard to its claim that all truth is practical. As a result, the philosophical foundations of pragmatism are still open to further criticism and improvement. For this reason, it is worth reexamining what pragmatists have to say about the nature of truth and knowledge. This essay aims to do just that. It will argue that pragmatics, with its focus on the nature of experiences and its rich conception of inquiry, is better off remaining a part of Pragmatism than being replaced by neopragmatism’s linguistic approach to truth. In the process, this essay will make clear what is at stake for Pragmatism if it gives up the notion of experience. In particular, it will demonstrate that experience continues to serve Pragmatism well in its conception of inquiry and avoid many of the problems endemic to LCP. It will then suggest the positive functional value of retaining that notion.