Pragmatic Philosophy

Pragmatic is a word that describes a philosophy that values practicality over ideas or notions of truth. Its root is Greek, meaning “deed”; think of the four-year-old who wants a unicorn for her birthday rather than a doll or book. A pragmatic person is one who takes a realistic approach to life—and philosophical matters. Pragmatism is also the name of a philosophy, developed in America in the 1870s, that offers a third alternative to the analytic and continental (“Continental”) philosophical traditions worldwide. It is also sometimes called American pragmatism because so many of its early proponents were Americans (Charles Sanders Peirce, William James, Josiah Royce, and John Dewey).

A central feature of pragmatism is that beliefs and ideas are considered to be true or false not according to any objective criteria, but only in terms of their usefulness and utility. Is a belief “true” if it helps us in our struggle with reality? Are beliefs dispositions that qualify as true or false based on their success in inquiry and action? Does a belief become “true” insofar as it proves helpful or survives the struggle with the environment? These and related questions are central to pragmatism.

Other pragmatist features include forms of empiricism, fallibilism, verificationism, and a Quinean naturalist metaphilosophy. Many pragmatists are epistemological relativists, though others argue that such relativism is fundamentally misguided. Some pragmatists, including Quine himself, have reacted against pragmatism’s epistemological relativism by embracing a form of objectivism or positivism (see Objectivism).

In general, pragmatism aims to provide a non-idealistic, realistic approach to philosophical problems. It is often compared to realism because both are alternatives to idealism and skepticism.

Some analytic philosophers have embraced elements of pragmatism, but it remains a minority view in contemporary philosophy. It has gained increasing popularity in recent years, however, with the rise of pragmatist philosophers such as Richard Rorty, who has argued that a rereading of Peirce can overcome some of the traditional criticisms of pragmatism. Some liberatory philosophical projects such as feminism, ecology, Native American philosophy, and Latin American philosophy also look to pragmatism for inspiration.