What is Pragmatic Philosophy?

Pragmatic is an approach to philosophy, primarily held by American philosophers, that holds that truth or meaning should be measured by its practical consequences. This is different from classic empiricism or positivism that seeks to determine what is true through empirical observation and experimentation. Classic pragmatists include William James and John Dewey.

The term pragmatic stems from the Greek word for “practical”, indicating that its primary focus is on the practical consequences of actions, thoughts, and beliefs. It is also known as a reformulation of classical empiricism or positivism, because it focuses on what works in actual life situations rather than the underlying theory behind something. Pragmatists are practical and results oriented individuals that are willing to compromise in order to achieve a desired outcome, even if this means they don’t always get everything they want.

In philosophical terms, pragmatism was founded as an alternative to the dogma of a priori epistemology, which was formulated by the German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). The classical pragmatists criticized a priori philosophies for being unconvincing and inconsistent. They argued that there is no objectively known way to prove or disprove a proposition and instead advocated a form of a posteriori epistemology in which the validity of a proposition is determined by how well it works in practice.

Another key principle of pragmatism is the concept of context, which is central to understanding human behavior and communication. The pragmatists saw that there are many ways in which people may be understood based on their context, including their culture, background, and other factors. In this way, it is possible to know what a person is really saying, even if it is not a direct quote.

The pragmatists viewed their work as an attempt to bring together all of these elements into a coherent whole that could be used to determine the validity of a proposition in any given situation. In this way, pragmatism was a method of analysis that could apply to the fields of logic, ethics, the philosophy of science, sociology, and more.

As the pragmatist movement grew, it attracted a wide range of followers from across the intellectual spectrum. In the field of psychology, for example, pragmatist theories have been influential in the development of cognitive psychology and psycholinguistics. In the philosophical world, Quine’s (1908-2000) landmark article ‘Two Dogmas of Empiricism’ challenged positivist orthodoxy and influenced analytic philosophers such as Ludwig Wittgenstein, Rudolf Carnap, Hans Reichenbach, and Karl Popper.

With the passing of the Deweyan era and the growth of analytic philosophy, however, the influence of pragmatism began to wane. In the 1980s, analytic philosophers such as Nelson Goodman and Wilfrid Sellars made a strong case for continuing a pragmatic tradition, but the movement has since largely faded from Anglo-American philosophy departments. Despite this, pragmatic concepts continue to be widely discussed in other disciplines, such as the social sciences and communication studies. For instance, the pragmatist concept of ‘implied meaning’ is a core element in communication studies.