Pragmatic Philosophy

Pragmatic is the study of how people interact with each other and with their environment, and how they make decisions. It is a philosophy which seeks to examine practical considerations in decision-making and prioritizes solutions that work in the real world. Pragmatic people are down-to-earth, reasonable, and focused on achieving results.

The philosophy of pragmatism was developed in the United States around 1870. The first generation of pragmatists included Charles Sanders Peirce and William James, both of whom were influential psychologists as well as philosophers. Peirce’s maxim that a concept cannot be learned by analyzing its definition but only by observing its use in practice is the core of his pragmatist philosophy. James’s writings likewise emphasize this principle. Peirce and James were influenced by the scientific revolution then taking place in evolutionary theory, and they sought to apply this new knowledge to philosophical questions.

Following Peirce and James, a variety of scholars continued to develop and apply the pragmatist approach. The pragmatist philosophy is also characterized by an emphasis on the interdependence of human beings and of human society. This philosophy also stresses the role of intuition and imagination in learning. Several scholars have argued that pragmatism offers a more natural and realistic way to view life than the rationalism of classical philosophy or the metaphysical idealism of modern Continental philosophy.

By the middle of the 20th century, pragmatism had lost ground to analytic philosophy. While the philosophies of Russell and Wittgenstein had reshaped philosophical discourse, mainstream analytic philosophers had started to ignore the pragmatists. Quine’s (1908-2000) article “Two Dogmas of Empiricism” challenged positivist orthodoxy, but he qualified his enthusiasm for part of the pragmatist legacy by expressing his disagreement with Dewey and James (see Rorty 1993).

In the 1980s and 1990s, a number of philosophers who see themselves as neopragmatists rediscovered pragmatism. They have attempted to preserve the essentials of pragmatism while embracing the insights of other traditions, especially continental philosophy. They have criticized the hegemony of analytic philosophy and advocated the development of a third alternative.

The philosophy of pragmatism is still evolving and expanding. It has influenced many fields, including political philosophy, ethics, sociology, anthropology, and economics. It has been applied to such issues as democracy, education, science, law, and religion. Some of the more speculative applications of pragmatism have been developed by philosophers such as Cornel West, who advanced a form of neo-pragmatism with progressive social ideals. In this vein, he has emphasized the importance of community dialogue in the quest for truth and the need to avoid ideological distortions that interfere with this process. Other neo-pragmatists, such as Habermas, have sought to apply pragmatism in a discourse ethics, arguing that a pragmatist approach to epistemology can provide a foundation for a discourse ethics aimed at freeing inquiry from the influence of power and ideology (Habermas 2003).