Pragmatic Philosophy

Pragmatic is a philosophical movement that emerged in the latter half of the nineteenth century. It contends that an ideology is true if it works, that the meaning of a proposition is found in its practical consequences, and that unpractical ideas should be rejected. While pragmatism has influenced non-philosophers in areas such as law, education, politics, sociology, and psychology, this article deals only with its influence on philosophy.

The term pragmatism was first applied to the philosophical outlook by William James (1842-1910), though James scrupulously swore that he had simply pressed the same name into service that had been used earlier by his friend and collaborator Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914). Peirce viewed pragmatism as a synthesis of a number of different traditions–including utilitarianism, naturalism, and Hegelianism–and emphasized the importance of practical results.

In his essay “The Pragmatic Mean,” Peirce introduced the concept of pragmatics, which is the study of the context and meaning of an utterance, as well as its possible implications. While linguistics subfields such as semantics and syntax focus on the actual objects or ideas that a word or symbol refers to, pragmatics takes into account the social and cultural context in which the utterance occurs. For example, if someone asks “How are you?” when they meet a friend, they’re probably not seeking a detailed account of the speaker’s health.

Similarly, a pause during a conversation can communicate a great deal, depending on the specific dynamics of the situation and the norms that exist within the group. The study of linguistic pragmatics can therefore be very useful in understanding the nature and importance of human communication, both oral and written.

Classical pragmatism offers an epistemological perspective that allows researchers to steer clear of metaphysical debates about the nature of truth and reality, instead focusing on interrogating the value and significance of research through its practical consequences (Morgan, 2014b). This pragmatic approach to knowledge is compatible with qualitative-dominant interpretivist understandings of socially constructed reality, but differs from these approaches in its emphasis on examining what’s actually happening in practice rather than merely on theories of how things should work.

In the case of organizational research, pragmatism has guided the development of methodologies that look beyond the traditional focus on formal documentation. For example, pragmatism has led to the use of interviews and participant observation in order to capture the informal, everyday evaluative practices that occur during project implementation. These methodologies have helped scholars such as Lorino and others to develop what they call a pragmatic approach to the investigation of complex organizations. This pragmatic approach, which they label “dialogueical mediated inquiry,” seeks to go beyond the quantitative/qualitative divide and provide a more holistic understanding of the complexity of organizational processes. (Lorino et al, 2010).