Pragmatic Philosophy

Pragmatic is a philosophy that emphasizes the connection between thought and action. Applied fields like public administration, leadership studies, political science, international relations, and research methodology frequently incorporate the tenets of pragmatism. It is not often discussed in introductory philosophy courses, however. That may be due to the fact that pragmatism is not as logical or philosophically rigorous as other branches of philosophy.

Rather than focusing on concepts, truth, or grammar, pragmatics focuses on the underlying meaning of an utterance in its context. Several theories of pragmatics exist, but they generally share certain characteristics. The most important of these are that a speaker’s communicative intentions are primary and that the meaning of an utterance is incremental.

The pragmatists believe that the only reliable way to know what something means is to see how it is used in practical situations. They think that most philosophical topics—including the nature of language, knowledge, and beliefs—are best viewed in terms of their practical use or success. John Dewey and William James are the two best-known pragmatist philosophers.

Many pragmatists have also made significant contributions to other disciplines, including psychology and sociology. The philosophy of language has close ties to pragmatism, as do semantics and the philosophy of mathematics. Behaviorism and functionalism have roots in pragmatism, and a similar approach is taken by the pragmatic school of social theory.

The triumvirate of Dewey, James, and Peirce was soon overshadowed by the new breed of self-conscious analytic philosophers—especially those who read Wittgenstein, Moore, Russell, and the Vienna Circle. In contrast to these new, more rigorous imports, the pragmatists were less concerned with formal logic and more interested in the more practical aspects of philosophy.

Although pragmatism lost its momentum in the academic world, its ideas continue to be influential. A number of prominent analytic philosophers—such as Quine and Sellars—have expressed a qualified enthusiasm for parts of the pragmatist legacy, but most have ignored it.

The most significant challenge to pragmatism has come from anarchists who have criticized its rejection of traditional values and principles in favor of a “freedom of speech” that is unconstrained by societal norms. A related challenge has been from naturalists who have argued that the pragmatists have failed to take into account the limits of human knowledge. The pragmatists have responded to these challenges by moving pragmatism closer to continental philosophy and by recasting its notion of truth. For example, a recent article by Nelson Goodman argues that pragmatism is essentially metaphysical in its view of the structure and nature of reality, but that pragmatism can accommodate naturalist views of the structure of knowledge and beliefs. Goodman believes that this recasting of pragmatism will make it more attractive to analytic philosophers who are currently skeptical of the legacy of the triumvirate. Goodman calls his approach Cultural Realism. A similar project has been advanced by Richard Rorty, who tries to bring classical pragmatism into a rapprochement with continental philosophy. In addition, some pragmatic philosophers have recast the concept of reality as a continuum between physical and spiritual realities.