Pragmatic Philosophy – Meaning, History, and Facts

Pragmatic | Meaning, History, & Facts

The term pragmatic is derived from the Greek word praxa (deed; state business), and its synonyms include practical, down-to-earth, efficient, hardheaded, and logical. In philosophy, pragmatism is an approach to knowledge that emphasizes the link between thought and action. It is often associated with Dewey’s democratic ideal and with James’s pragmatic philosophy of life. It also has roots in Kant’s categorical imperative and in Wittgenstein’s inquiry-based analysis of truth. It is a rival to the more doctrinaire approaches of positivism and empiricism.

Pragmatism was first articulated by the members of what came to be known as The Metaphysical Club, a group of Harvard-educated men who met for informal philosophical discussions in Cambridge, Massachusetts during the early 1870s. The club included proto-positivist Chauncey Wright (1830-1875), future Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes (1841-1935), and two then-fledgling philosophers who became the first self-consciously pragmatists: Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914), a logician, mathematician, and scientist; and William James (1842-1910), a psychologist and moralist armed with a medical degree.

Peirce, James, and their followers emphasized that perceptions of reality are open to a range of interpretations, and that people don’t always say what they mean. They argued that the only way to resolve such ambiguities and vagueness is to use pragmatic knowledge of language: inferences from the general rules of linguistic usage—like recognizing homonyms, indexicals and demonstratives, and presupposition—and the facts about what expressions are used and their meanings.

Although mainstream analytic philosophy largely ignored pragmatism until the 1980s, influential writers such as Quine (1908-2000), who authored the landmark article “Two Dogmas of Empiricism” in 1951, drew on its legacy. Other analytic philosophers who have developed and extended pragmatism include Nelson Goodman (1906-1999), Wilfrid Sellars (1912-1989), and Thomas Kuhn (1922-1996).

More recently, pragmatism has been a significant influence in liberatory philosophical projects such as feminism, ecology, and Native American philosophy, among others. As such, it is increasingly being seen as a third alternative to both analytic and continental philosophy worldwide. This entry explores the classic pragmatists’ distinctive methods, which give rise to an original a posteriori epistemology. We will then consider how a near-side pragmatics focusing on semantics and the resolution of ambiguity—and perhaps some species of ampliative inference such as induction or Bayesian reasoning—distinguishes pragmatism from more conventional forms of philosophy, like mere instrumentalist or relativist epistemologies.