Pragmatic Philosophy

Pragmatic is a word that describes a person or solution that takes a realistic approach. For example, a four-year old who wants a unicorn for her birthday is not pragmatic—she’s idealistic.

Similarly, a philosophical tradition that focuses on real-world applications of ideas is called pragmatic. Pragmatism was first developed by Charles Peirce and William James in the 1870s and has a broad range of interpretations. Some of the most significant are: that philosophical concepts can only be tested through scientific experiment (a form of pragmatism known as methodism); that truth is a practical outcome of a process of inquiry and thus can never be fully defined (a form of pragmatism called empiricism); that human knowledge comes from experience rather than from reasoning alone (a form of pragmatism named realism); and that articulate language rests on a deep bed of shared, non-verbal practices that can never be made explicit (a form of pragmatism described as semiotics).

Early pragmatists differed significantly about how to interpret their theory and largely focused their attention on defining the concept of ‘truth’, clarifying the meaning of hypotheses by tracing their ‘practical consequences’, and identifying empty disputes in order to distinguish their own approach from ‘Cartesian’ and ‘Fallibilist’ alternatives. Today, a broad range of pragmatists are involved in a wide variety of philosophical activities, including epistemology, social philosophy, ethics and aesthetics.

For instance, the pragmatist epistemologist William James (1904-1980) argued that it is not possible to know anything unless one has some sort of practical relation to it (a ‘truth-functionalist’ position). Other pragmatists such as John Dewey (1863-1931), G. Herbert Mead (1863-1931), and Alain Locke (1885-1954) contributed to the philosophy of education, the philosophy of science, sociology and anthropology.

More recently, the pragmatist philosopher Richard Brandom (1904-2007) has worked to reconstruct a unified account of epistemology from a pragmatist point of view. In his view, a ‘pragmatic’ epistemology is a reinterpretation of the’standard-form’ of epistemic justification, in which we are entitled to make new moves in a ‘language-game’ based on the commitments we have assumed through our previous assertions. He also joins the pragmatists in denying that truth is an objective metaphysical property possessed by some propositions but not others, and in seeking to reconstruct an account of reference that makes a difference in practice.