Pragmatic Philosophy

Pragmatic is a philosophical movement that understands knowledge of the world to be inseparable from our action within it. Its broad understanding of this idea has attracted a wide, sometimes contrary range of interpretations. For example, pragmatists have argued that any philosophical concept should be tested by scientific experimentation, that something is “true” only in so far as it serves its useful purpose (including the infamous dictum that if a philosophy doesn’t contribute to progress in the real world, it’s not worth bothering with), that the foundations of knowledge are a series of inferential connections rather than any particular hierarchy, that human language is more like a web than a hierarchical structure, and that experience consists in transacting with rather than representing nature.

For William James, the core of pragmatism was not merely an epistemological stance but a metaphysical one as well. He held that God, or any transcendent reality, may exist. However, as the pragmatists developed their position, it became clear that it was not intended as an apologetic for religion. James, for instance, endorsed the ontological claims of religions in so far as they soothed the mind and brought comfort. The pragmatists’ approach, as a whole, was based on the notion that “something is true only in so far as it works.”

As with other metaphysical traditions, pragmatism eventually faded into obscurity. The advent of a self-consciously rigorous import from the Vienna Circle, Ludwig Wittgenstein, gave rise to what has been called analytic philosophy, which left little room for the pragmatists’ broad, vague, and unsubstantiated dictums. Nevertheless, some of the original pragmatists—Charles Sanders Peirce, James, and Josiah Royce—remained active thinkers and scholars.

Today, pragmatism is a growing alternative to analytic and continental philosophies. Many applied fields—including public administration, leadership, and organizational behavior, among others—have incorporated its central tenets, including the connection between thought and action.

While it is still a fringe view in the mainstream of philosophy, pragmatism has become an important tool for philosophizing about technology and science. It is also used to explain how and why certain technologies—such as computers—work, and it has been a key inspiration for design thinking, an approach that focuses on solving real-world problems and maximizing the use of resources. Moreover, in recent years, philosophers and others have turned to pragmatic ideas when they are dealing with issues of social justice. A number of authors have argued that, in light of the widespread problems in the world, we need to rethink traditional approaches to justice and democracy, which are often seen as rooted in an essentially elitist philosophy. These ideas are reflected in a new movement in philosophy that is both pragmatic and democratic, known as the “post-pragmatism” movement. A number of leading post-pragmatists have written extensively on these issues.