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Introduction | History of Pragmatism
Introduction Back to Top

Pragmatism (or Pragmaticism) is the view that considers practical consequences or real effects to be vital components of both meaning and truth. More simply, something is true only insofar as it works. It argues that the meaning of any concept can be equated with the conceivable operational or practical consequences of whatever the concept portrays.

Like the related notion of Instrumentalism, Pragmatism asserts that any theory that proves itself more successful in predicting and controlling our world than its rivals can be considered to be nearer the truth. Thus, slow and stumbling ratiocination is not necessarily to be automatically preferred over instinct, introspection and tradition, which are all valid methods for philosophical investigation, even if they each have their own drawbacks. The scientific method is generally best suited to theoretical inquiry, although the settlement of doubt can also be achieved by tenacity and persistence, the authority of a source of ready-made beliefs or other methods.

Pragmatists believe that truth is not "ready-made", but that truth is made jointly by us and reality. Some pragmatists also believe that truth is mutable (beliefs can pass from being true to being untrue and back again), and that truth is relative to a conceptual scheme.

History of Pragmatism Back to Top

Charles Sanders Peirce first stated the Pragmatic Maxim in the late 19th Century (and re-stated it in many different ways over the years) as a maxim of logic and as a reaction to metaphysical theories. The school of Pragmatism reached its peak in the early 20th Century philosophies of William James and John Dewey. The term "pragmatism" was first used in print by James, who credited Peirce with coining the term during the early 1870s.

Earlier thinkers that inspired Pragmatism include Sir Francis Bacon, who coined the phrase "knowledge is power"; Niccolo Machiavelli, who suggested that a ruler may need to do immoral things in order to achieve his goals; David Hume, for his naturalistic account of knowledge and action; Thomas Reid (1710 - 1796), for his direct realism; Immanuel Kant, for his Idealism, and from whom Peirce derived the name "pragmatism"; Georg Hegel, for his introduction of temporality into philosophy; John Stuart Mill, for his Nominalism and Empiricism; and Alexander Bain (1818 - 1903), who examined the crucial links among belief, conduct and disposition.

The Epistemology of the early pragmatists was also influenced by Darwinian thinking, although they were not the first to see the relevance of evolution for theories of knowledge.

After the first wave of Pragmatism, the movement split and gave rise to three main sub-schools, in addition to other more independent, non-aligned thinkers:

  • Neo-Classical Pragmatism inherits most of the tenets of the classical Pragmatists, and its adherents include Sidney Hook (1902 - 1989) and Susan Haack (1945 - ).
  • Neo-Pragmatism (sometimes called Linguistic Pragmatism) is a type of Pragmatism, although it differs in its philosophical methodology or conceptual formation from classical Pragmatism, and its adherents include C. I. Lewis (1883 - 1964), Richard Rorty (1931 - 2007), W. V. O. Quine, Donald Davidson (1917 - 2003)and Hilary Putnam (1926 - ).
  • French Pragmatism is a specifically French off-shoot of the movement, and includes Bruno Latour (1947 - ), Michel Crozier (1922 - 2013), Luc Boltanski (1940 - ) and Laurent Thévenot (1949).

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