What Is Pragmatic Philosophy?

Pragmatic is a philosophical school of thought that emphasizes the connection between thoughts and actions. Its tenets are often found in applied fields like public administration, political science, leadership studies, and research methodology.

The word pragmatic has been in use since the late 19th century and is derived from the Latin pragma, meaning “to practise.” The original pragmatists were American and focused on Dewey’s idea that knowledge is an activity that is always in flux and must be continually tested in the struggle to adapt to reality.

A pragmatist approach is a useful tool to help us navigate ambiguity in everyday life and make better decisions. For example, when the word “by” can mean either by a tree or by humans, our knowledge of pragmatics allows us to disambiguate the ambiguity and choose the most likely interpretation.

Classical pragmatists were critical of metaphysical doctrines that relegate change to the lowest level and emphasized the practical function of knowledge as an instrument for adapting to reality and controlling it. They were also sceptical of theories that asserted ultimate validity for any concept or statement. Some pragmatists, like Peirce and Mead, viewed existence as fundamentally concerned with action and were critical of the idea that any concept can be said to represent reality unless it is useful in the struggle for survival.

Some pragmatists came close to seeing meaning as a process of verification, with the claim that beliefs qualify as true or false according to how well they prove helpful in inquiry and action. Others, like James, saw something much more fundamental about the role of ideas as instruments. For James, it is not just a question of whether an idea is practical or useful, but rather whether it represents an intelligent organism’s struggle with reality.

Contemporary pragmatists have shifted the focus of their work to linguistic pragmatics and pragmatic theory. They are on more solid ground when addressing the speech-act and justification projects, but less so with the metaphysical project of truth (although many neopragmatists have been reluctant to reject such claims).

The philosophers who framed the earliest pragmatism in this sense are Mead, Dewey, James, and Whitehead. Later pragmatists include Rorty, Austin and Habermas.