Pragmatic Philosophy

Pragmatic is a word that describes an approach that prioritizes results and consequences over grandiose ideals. A pragmatic person would not expect a unicorn for their birthday. To be pragmatic is to take a sensible, grounded, and practical approach — in philosophy as well as in everyday life.

Pragmatism as a philosophy dates back to the 1870s, with the formation of a group of Harvard-educated men called “The Metaphysical Club.” Members included Charles Sanders Peirce, a logician and mathematical scientist; William James, a physician and moralist; and John Dewey, a philosopher whose wide-ranging writings had considerable impact on American intellectual life for a half-century. Dewey was a major figure in the first pragmatist pantheon, with disciples and imitators aplenty. But after Dewey, pragmatism lost much of its momentum. By the 1940s, analytic philosophy had taken over most Anglo-American departments and derided pragmatism as passe.

In the decades that followed, some of pragmatism’s most distinguished figures tried to revitalize it. But even these neopragmatists differed among themselves. In general, they focused their philosophical projects on different disciplines and methodologies. For example, the analytic pragmatist Richard Rorty’s emphasis on language, rhetoric, and philosophy of mind is at odds with classical pragmatism’s concern with the world as a whole.

A more significant difference between neopragmists and classical pragmatists concerns the nature of pragmatics itself. Classical pragmatism sees pragmatics as a philosophy of language, an effort to understand how the meaning of words is affected by context. This involves an understanding of what speakers mean by their utterances, their intentions, and the ways that they communicate.

New pragmatists, on the other hand, often view pragmatics as an empirical psychological theory of communication. They are interested in a concept of communicative intention developed by Grice, and they also use concepts from the fields of semantics and philosophy of language. They also have a strong interest in how language is used by individuals and groups in a social context.

Another issue dividing neopragmatists from classical pragmatists is the place of experience within their framework. The classical pragmatists held that experiences were central to understanding and applying philosophy. The analytic pragmatists, however, have tended to neglect this aspect of pragmatics in favor of a more scientific approach to philosophy that focuses on concepts and arguments alone.

A final distinction between neopragmatists and classical pragmatists is their respective understandings of the nature of truth. Some neopragmatists, such as Carston (2001), have taken a position that is somewhat in between the two approaches. They have emphasized that a truth claim must be capable of surviving rational scrutiny and that it must be testable, but they have not specified what this means in practice. Other neopragmatists, like Brandom (2011), have focused on the notion of truth as a property that must be derived from experiences, but they have also rejected the view that experience is necessarily objective or unbiased. Whether or not a pragmatic theory of truth can reconcile these differences is still a matter for debate.