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American Pragmatism

An Introduction to Classic American Pragmatism

Raymond Pfeiffer, who edited this issue, takes a look at the scope of the Pragmatic tradition.

If pragmatism has meant different things to different people, which it has, then our current issue should ruffle few feathers. Purists may, of course react differently. But how could one be both a pragmatist and a purist?

In everyday speech, ‘pragmatism’ expresses a penchant for the practical. But as a philosophical movement, its roots run deeper. Its originator, the brilliant Charles Peirce, was a rebellious thinker who, in the second half of the nineteenth century, was gripped by both the natural sciences and the need to ponder great philosophical questions. The lead essay by Cornelis de Waal shows how scientific pursuits shaped Peirce’s philosophy. Pragmatism was originally the thesis that the meaning of an idea can be found by attention to its practical consequences. Such an idea is no mere penchant for the practical: Rather, it is a direct and specific theory of meaning with implications beyond the laboratory and the library.

As David Boersema points out in his essay on Peirce and Sartre, Peirce eschewed the possibility of some innate intuition of a priori knowledge. Although not a positivist, he thought natural science would approach the truth. Pragmatism was one way he applied logic and the methodology of science to philosophy. His theory of knowledge was fallibilist, breaking with much of the philosophical tradition and maintaining that some beliefs are true, some not, but that no knowledge is infallible, and that there is no certainty. Yet Perice wasn’t a skeptic – he didn’t go so far as to argue that we should suspend belief on all matters. He thought it worthwhile to pursue metaphysical (but still uncertain) knowledge by trying to identify and state the most general categories of all phenomena.

The second great pragmatist was William James, who seized upon Peirce’s pragmatic principle to understand the religious life. James argued that it could be entirely reasonable to live a religious life even though one did not know with any certainty about the truth of religion. If the choice is real, important and unavoidable, one’s full decision and commitment to live a fully and deeply religious life can be as rational, coherent and defensible as any decision we make in the presence of uncertainty. And all real human decisions are made in the presence of extensive uncertainty. James maintained that the practical needs of humans in this world might justify beliefs and practices that cannot otherwise be proven true. The faith of our fathers and mothers might be reasonable not because it is true, but because it is practical.

Kevin Decker points out that the third great pragmatist, John Dewey, was struck by the implications of the pragmatic maxim for human thought and history in a broad sense. A fallibilist like Peirce and James, Dewey viewed the old philosophical search for real, final, truths as a threat rather than a virtue. It is the search for knowledge that emerges from the junk heap of human thought and misguided prophets. Whatever promotes thinking, dialogue and rational inquiry should be encouraged, and whatever stifles it avoided. Dewey identified certain philosophical distinctions, called dualisms, as obstacles to improved understanding. In the end, both human experience and nature, for Dewey, lack sharp breaks, distinctions or dichotomies. Destructive dualisms include supposed sharp ontological and epistemological divisions between mind and body, between knowledge and inquiry, between logic and reality, and between government and society. Since Dewey, other philosophers such as W.V.O. Quine have harnessed the tools of linguistic analysis to level devastating attacks on distinctions between analytic and synthetic sentences, a priori and a posteriori knowledge, facts and theories. As Nikolas Gkogkas shows, Nelson Goodman continued the pragmatic juggernaut by attacking in analytic detail the distinction between art and science.

The influence of American pragmatism has been broad, and its interrelationships with other philosophies rich. Boersema’s essay reveals some suggestive and possibly historic relationships between the approaches and conclusions of Peirce and Jean-Paul Sartre. Both started their inquiries from similar points and came to similar conclusions about the nature of the human self.

Richard Rorty, one of the most influential recent American pragmatists, was interviewed by Giancarlo Marchetti. Rorty offers us reflections on James and Dewey and further thoughts on some more contemporary movements such as deconstructionism, forms of relativism, and anti-foundationalism. Rorty’s controversial political writings are briefly summarized by Carol Nicholson in her article about pragmatic patriotism.

Where Kevin Decker explains how Dewey sought to extend democracy to all areas of life and promote a dialogue that builds on openness of vision to promote justice, Nicholson addresses a philosophical problem of patriotism. Given Rorty’s recognition that a sense of patriotism can inspire the best in a people, how can it do so in the USA today? What can Americans draw from their rich and varied past that can, intellectually, bring moral leadership? Nicholson argues that Rorty’s choices, Dewey and Whitman, are not suitable. Yet, Decker’s essay offers possible grounds for defending Dewey from Nicholson’s charges.

So what then best characterizes American pragmatism? Consider six characteristics. 1) Questions of the meaning of language are best resolved by studying the practical consequences of the ideas and statements in question. 2) The extent to which an idea fulfills important human goals clarifies the idea and also provides important evidence for and against the likelihood of its truth. 3) There is no real need for and little to be gained from pursuit of a First Philosophy in Descartes’ sense, or of a foundation of our knowledge, or of the foundation of reality, or of the foundation of all value, or of some set of basic truths that will answer the great philosophical questions. 4) Sharp, fixed distinctions of thought and reality are not reflected in nature, where one thing fades off into the next, one flows into another and the complexity of our thought is clarified only by theories that give tentative illumination to reality. 5) Enlightenment by some form of a priori knowledge is illusory. Even the definitions of our terms may be changed later, as inquiry proceeds. 6) Whatever promotes reasoned dialogue, inquiry and further understanding is good, and what stifles it is bad.

Can one be a strict pragmatist? It seems unlikely if one is to steer clear of dualisms, recognize the tentative nature of concepts and theories and avoid commitment to a supposed First Philosophy. Pragmatism does not merely reach out in all directions to all forms of thought: it is self-conscious and self-reflective and self-critical. That is, it is prone to examine its own ideas as tentative. We may one day need to reformulate parts of some of our thinking about ourselves. And finally, no parts of our thinking are immune to the weight of evidence that might come in future experience.


Raymond Pfeiffer is Professor of Philosophy at Delta College, Michigan, and a US Editor of Philosophy Now. He would like to thank Cornelis de Waal for all the invaluable help that he gave early in the development of this issue.

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