Pragmatic Philosophy and NGO Processes

Pragmatic is an approach to philosophy that is primarily concerned with the application of ideas to real-world problems. It seeks to steer clear of metaphysical debates about truth and reality and instead concentrate on practical understandings of concrete, real-world issues (Patton, 2005). This is an approach that works well in conjunction with qualitative-dominant interpretivist understandings of socially constructed realities and is especially useful for navigating qualitative applied social research on NGO processes.

It was originally introduced by Charles Peirce in the 1870s and then developed further by William James. Pragmatism gained a wide following in the early 20th century as a response to what Dewey called the ‘American Evasion of Philosophy’ – an antipathy towards philosophical inquiry, particularly that based on abstract concepts and propositions rather than on experiences and observations.

Peirce developed a pragmatic maxim – ‘the criterion of pragmatism is that the maxim of what will hold good in practice must be superior to that of what would have been better in theory’ (Peirce, 1934). This approach can be helpful in establishing a pragmatic basis for decisions made in a range of contexts. For example, in making choices about which to study or which methodology to adopt, it can help a researcher decide whether the aims of the research are appropriate for a case study or not by considering how well they will be able to be achieved in practice.

In contrast to traditional metaphysical approaches, pragmatism also emphasises the importance of experience. This is a key feature of Dewey’s pragmatism, and one which has been further developed by a number of other scholars – particularly George Herbert Mead and W.E.B Du Bois – who have applied the concept of human experience to their analyses of the self, the community and the societal environment in general.

The pragmatic tradition has continued to develop and expand throughout the 20th century. As an approach to philosophical thought, it has found application in a wide variety of disciplines including psychology, sociology and education. It is also well established in the field of business ethics, where it has been used to analyse how businesses make decisions.

Although neopragmatism has been influenced by the work of classical pragmatists, it is also marked by significant critical distance from them. For example, Brandom focuses exclusively on linguistic meaning and has rejected the notion of an experiential background for his interpretations of pragmatism (Brandom 2011). This neglect of an important element of classical pragmatism is common amongst neopragmatists. Other neopragmatists have taken more expansive views and have drawn on the ideas of philosophers such as Wilfrid Sellars, Quine and his mentor Richard Rorty, as well as historical readings of thinkers like Kant and Hegel. They have argued that a pragmatist perspective is especially useful in research because it helps to avoid the trap of prematurely reaching conclusions based on limited empirical evidence. This can lead to premature action and the loss of resources that can otherwise be put to more productive uses.