Pragmatic Philosophy

Pragmatic is an approach to philosophy which emphasises the practical consequences of philosophical concepts, hypotheses and arguments rather than their mere theoretical value. It was first put forward by the philosopher William James in a series of lectures published in 1898, though James scrupulously swore that the term had been coined earlier by his friend and colleague Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914).

Peirce’s ideas were developed further by the pragmatic philosophers Chauncey Wright (1830-1875), Oliver Wendell Holmes (1841-1935) and James himself. Eventually the philosophy of pragmatism emerged as an independent movement within American philosophy, and it flourished as the Deweyan ‘New Deal’ era came to a close and a new age began.

The rise of pragmatism was soon threatened, however, by the emergence of the analytic philosophy of Moore, Russell and Wittgenstein. This new philosophy relegated pragmatism to the margins, and it was not until the post-World War II era that a number of self-consciously ‘pragmatist’ philosophers began to re-assert its relevance. Among the most significant were C. I. Lewis (1903-1964) and Sidney Hook (1902-1989).

Those who work in the area of pragmatism today draw on a broad range of influences. They interpret contemporary issues in areas such as philosophy of mind, philosophy of language and philosophical logic through the lens of classical pragmatism. They also seek to apply pragmatism to the social sciences, and they consider the implications of their own work for education and society.

A core aspect of pragmatism is the theory of meaning, and one of the most important contributions to this theory has been made by the philosopher of language Paul Grice (d. 1992). Grice formulated a set of rules for understanding and being understood that have become known as the Gricean maxims: 1. Be clear. Say what you mean, and only what you mean. 2. Be polite. Don’t use insulting or inflammatory language, or use sarcasm or ridicule. 3. Be relevant. Only say what is needed to achieve your purpose in speaking. 4. Be cooperative. Be willing to compromise when you can, and respect the views of others.

Another key element of pragmatism is the concept of truth-conditions, an idea which was elaborated upon by the neopragmatist philosopher William Brandom. In his books on pragmatism, Brandom discusses how different vocabularies understand words in quite different ways. He argues that these differences have pragmatic consequences and may help to explain the ‘diversity of meanings’ that we encounter in our daily lives. In doing so, he tries to reconcile the claims of classical pragmatism with those of analytic philosophy. This is a significant challenge, and it is not yet clear whether his efforts will be successful. In the meantime, a variety of liberatory projects in areas such as feminism, ecology, Native American and Latin American philosophy are looking to pragmatism for inspiration. A further issue is that pragmatists often differ over which aspects of pragmatics they consider to be central. Some neopragmatists, such as Korta and Perry, emphasize the reflexive meaning of words and their effects on our experience, whilst others, such as Rorty and Brandom himself, focus on linguistic semantics and grammar.