What is Pragmatic Philosophy?

Pragmatic is a philosophy that focuses on the way we make choices. When we are in a tricky situation we need to be able to think clearly and make pragmatic calls. A pragmatic person is someone who can remain calm and think logically rather than being swayed by their emotions or by big-picture ideals.

The word pragmatic is derived from the Latin verb pragma, meaning “to make up one’s mind”. Pragmatic thinking means that we are not fixed in our beliefs. Instead, we adjust our beliefs to fit the realities of a given situation. This flexible approach to thinking and the ability to adapt to changing circumstances is what makes a pragmatic person so valuable in a crisis.

In philosophy, pragmatic is also used as a synonym for an approach to truth that does not rely on a priori justification or derivation of truth statements. Pragmatists argue that there is no such thing as a purely objective truth; all truth claims are pragmatic, i.e. they are justified based on how useful or helpful they are in inquiry and action.

Pragmatism emerged in America around 1870 and presented a challenge to both analytic philosophy and the continental philosophies of that time. The so-called classical pragmatists include Charles Sanders Peirce, who developed and popularized the theory, his more famous Harvard colleague William James (who was a critic of absolute idealism), and G.H. Mead, who contributed extensively to the social sciences and influenced philosophy of race.

After Dewey, however, pragmatism went into decline and was gradually superseded by analytic philosophy. Some pragmatists continued to write, but they were mainly specialized scholars whose work was not widely read. The pragmatists that did have a wider audience were the Chicago School, which included Richard Rorty and John Davidson, who drew on the works of Peirce, James, Mead and Dewey but also other influences such as Wittgenstein and Hegel.

The pragmatists who wrote at this time emphasized the connection between thought and action, and the notion that truth was a consequence of inquiry and the struggle to survive. This view of reality has led to the development of many practical applications, including in public administration, political science, leadership studies, international relations and research methodology.

Today a small number of philosophers are still pragmatists, but they have different concerns. For example, Robert Brandom argues that pragmatist ideas can be integrated with analytic philosophy, albeit in a modified form. He argues that a discourse ethics based on a pragmatic understanding of the relationship between saying and doing can help to free us from the distortions of power and ideology. He is, however, critical of the classical pragmatists and their ideas. His own views are more influenced by the likes of Sellars, Quine, Davidson and Rorty.