Pragmatism is a late 19th Century and early 20th Century school of philosophy which considers practical consequences or real effects to be vital components of both meaning and truth. At its simplest, something is true only insofar as it works. However, Pragmatism is not a single philosophy, and is more a style or way of doing philosophy.
In general terms, 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. It argues that the meaning of any concept can be equated with the conceivable operational or practical consequences of whatever the concept portrays. Like Positivism, it asserts that the scientific method is generally best suited to theoretical inquiry, although Pragmatism also accepts that the settlement of doubt can also be achieved by tenacity and persistence, the authority of a source of ready-made beliefs or other methods. For more details, see the section on the doctrine of Pragmatism.
The school's founder, the American philosopher 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 Pragmatic Maxim is actually a family of principles, not all equivalent (at least on the surface), and there are numerous subtle variations with implications which reach into almost every corner of philosophical thought.
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.
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 includes 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 - ).