Pragmatic Philosophy

Pragmatic is a word that has historically described the approach of people and ideas more concerned with real-world application than abstract notions. A pragmatic person, for instance, might be the sort to say that a four-year-old’s desire for a unicorn for his or her birthday is not practical, because a Unicorn will not fit into the space at the party. Pragmatism is also a philosophical school of thought — an approach to thinking and reasoning that puts practical consequences at the forefront of all philosophical decisions.

William James and John Dewey are the most prominent classical pragmatists whose ideas had considerable influence on American intellectual life during the first half of the 20th century. Their philosophy, however, lost momentum after their deaths. The school has recently experienced something of a revival. Richard Rorty’s bold, iconoclastic attacks on mainstream epistemology, which he saw as naively conceiving of language and thought as mirroring the world, birthed a so-called neopragmatism that has influenced an enormous number of contemporary philosophers, including Hilary Putnam, Robert Brandom and Huw Price. Other pragmatists have objected to Rorty’s blithe dismissal of truth as a topic better left undiscussed and sought to rehabilitate classical pragmatist ideals of objectivity.

One of the most basic flaws of pragmatism is that simply because something appears to work, it does not automatically follow that it is true. The example of the gremlin theory in children’s stories illustrates this point. The theory works because it creates the desired psychological effects, but this does not mean that gremlins actually exist.

The other main flaw of pragmatism is that it does not adequately account for the fact that the world is more than the products of human minds. Attempts to reduce the world to the product of human thinking ignore the inescapable fact that the world is a physical reality that entails natural laws and a range of other phenomena.

Despite these flaws, there are still many advantages to the pragmatist approach. For example, it allows for a more holistic and inclusive understanding of experience and knowledge than does the purely analytical philosophy associated with Descartes. It also enables a greater appreciation of the interdependence of all human activity, which is particularly useful for addressing issues such as globalization. For these reasons, pragmatism continues to be a viable philosophical alternative to other schools of thought. Its influence is also evident in the fields of psychology, sociology, education and political science. It is particularly influential in the field of bioethics, where its focus on discourse ethics has helped to spawn such important developments as discourse analysis and the theory of semiotics. In addition, the pragmatist concept of action as communication provides a rich framework for understanding the operation of organizations and their practices. These activities, in turn, offer an objective basis for evaluating and criticizing institutions. This is a valuable contribution that should be considered seriously by anyone interested in the well-being of society.