What Is Pragmatic Philosophy?

Pragmatic is an influential philosophical view that offers a third alternative to the analytic and continental traditions worldwide. Its first generation was initiated by Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914) and his Harvard colleague William James (1842-1910). Their close associate Josiah Royce (1855-1916), although officially allied with absolute idealism, also provided a sympathetic interlocutor for these ideas.

Classical pragmatism is often seen as an epistemological theory. It rejects the correspondence theory of truth and instead argues that true opinions are those which inquirers will accept at the end of their inquiry, provided they have a reasonable prospect of success. In this way, pragmatism provides an original a posteriori epistemology.

Contemporary pragmatists have broadened the scope of their concerns to include ethics and aesthetics, in addition to epistemology and philosophy of science. These broader concerns make pragmatism an attractive option for many social scientists and social justice-oriented researchers.

Moreover, pragmatism is highly suited to the research of pragmatic language use, particularly in experimental contexts. In a typical experiment, scholars present participants with stimuli and then ask them to perform various tasks. Typically, these studies involve measuring averages of people’s performance across all the stimuli and/or different experimental conditions. By analyzing averages, scholars can find central tendencies of people’s behavior. However, it is well known that within-individual differences can significantly impact pragmatic performances. These within-individual variations can skew the averages of people’s behaviors and therefore should be taken into account in the interpretation of experimental results.

Because of the aforementioned in-individual variation, pragmatics is a highly complex field for which it remains challenging to create comprehensive theories. As a result, it is increasingly common to see experimental pragmatics papers reporting conflicting findings. This reflects a broader issue of the “replication crisis” in psychology, whereby scholars report failures to replicate earlier experimental results (for exact and conceptual replications).

In addition, it is widely acknowledged that the pragmatics of language use cannot be studied without reference to the contexts in which language is used. Thus, a pragmatist approach to the study of pragmatics requires a thorough examination of these contextual factors and their effects on people’s pragmatic abilities.

As a result, scholars have formulated neo-pragmatic approaches that take different positions with respect to these issues. One such approach, associated with Rorty, flirts with relativism and suggests that truth is not the important philosophical concept that it has long been taken to be. Another approach, more closely akin to the accounts of Peirce, James, and Dewey, frames truth in terms of ideal warranted assertibility.

While neo-pragmatism is now considered an established branch of philosophical thought, there remain serious objections to its fundamental claims. Some of these objections are philosophical, some are logical, and others are empirical. In the case of the latter, a number of eminent empirical philosophers have criticized aspects of neo-pragmatism in their work, including Ludwig Wittgenstein, Friedrich Carnap, Hans Reichenbach, Nelson Goodman, F.P. Ramsey, and Karl Popper.