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Pragmatism refers to the philosophical position that the test of an idea’s truth is its practical consequences. Pragmatism is a reaction against abstract, romantic, and idealistic philosophies, countering instead that the truth of an idea arises from observing its consequences.
Pragmatism was in many ways a product of its era. Pragmatism’s roots are in empiricism and the scientific method, and the energies and enthusiasm of late nineteenth-century American life are obvious in pragmatism. After the Civil War (1861–1865), the United States was exploding with advances in communications, transportation, and technology resulting in scientific breakthroughs and technical innovations such as immunizations, the telephone, the mechanization of industry, and the like. Thus, American pragmatism—focused on experience and consequences—was extremely different from the romanticism and idealism of much of contemporaneous European philosophy and the arts.
Pragmatism developed in discussions of the Metaphysical Club, a group of faculty and professionals meeting to discuss the issues of the day at Harvard University during the 1870s. Members of the club included the scientist Charles Sanders Peirce (1839–1914), the mathematician Chauncey Wright (1830–1875), the historian John Fiske (1842–1901), the psychologist William James (1842–1910), and lawyers such as Oliver Wendell Holmes (1841–1935), Joseph B. Warner (1848–1923), and Nicholas St. John Green (1830–1876).
Trained as a mathematician and physicist, Peirce is hailed as the father of pragmatism. He first used the term pragmatism in an 1878 article in Popular Science Monthly titled “How to Make Our Ideas Clear.” Peirce’s famous guide was, “Consider what effects which might conceivably have practical bearings we consider the object of our conception to have. Then our conception of these effects is the whole of our conception of the object” (Peirce 1878, p. 24). Peirce, who later renamed his pragmatism pragmaticism, argued that it was a powerful empirical and philosophical tool because it demanded that ideas be examined for their consequences, not for the elegance of some abstract metaphysical model. He wrote about pragmatism:
It will serve to show that almost every proposition of ontological metaphysics is either meaningless gibberish—one word being defined by other words, and they by still others, without any real conception ever being reached—or else is downright absurd; so that all such rubbish being swept away, what will remain of philosophy will be a series of problems capable of investigation by the observational methods of the true sciences. (Peirce 1905, p. 171)
William James and John Dewey
Certainly the best-known proponent of pragmatism was William James. Trained in medicine, he spent most of his adult life studying and teaching the new field of psychology at Harvard University. James popularized pragmatism, giving Peirce credit for its founding in a 1908 address at the University of California. In his chosen profession of psychology, James is famous for his notion of “stream of consciousness.” The term is much misused today, but for James it meant that the mind is active in giving meaning to experiences that it encounters. James’s pragmatism is rooted in his understanding of psychology.
James argued that the “truth” of ideas lay not in their abstract formulation but in their “cash value” as consequences in human experience. He wrote: “The whole function of philosophy ought to be to find out what definite difference it will make to you and me, at definite instants of our lives, if this world-formula or that worldformula be the true one” (James  1986, p. 50).
James applied his theories to a number of philosophical areas, including the question of religion and the supernatural. In his famous works The Will to Believe (1897) and The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902), James explored the power of the individual “will to believe.” James concluded that although the materialist might wrongly conclude that religion was a fallacy, the positive effects on the life of the individual adherent (rather than the existence of God) demonstrate the “truth” of religion. He wrote: “On Pragmatic principles, if the hypothesis of God works satisfactorily in the widest sense of the word, it is true” (James  2002, p. 299).
James’s contemporary, John Dewey (1859–1952), chair of the philosophy department at the University of Chicago at the turn of the century, is best known for his work on education and social issues. Dewey’s guiding philosophy, instrumentalism, is a strand of pragmatism. Dewey was critical of abstract and theological notions of truth and reality. He defined his instrumentalism as “an attempt to constitute a precise logical theory of concepts, judgments, and inferences in their various forms, by primarily considering how thought functions in the experimental determinations of future consequences” (Dewey 1903, p. 21). Dewey’s approach utilized a praxis formula for inquiry as the method for advancing knowledge. Dewey believed that through experience the mind acquires knowledge, but over time new experiences challenge the previously held beliefs. The process of inquiry, challenging staid ideas and the resulting new synthesis, is the process by which truth becomes known to the individual.
Pragmatism was applied to law by members of the Metaphysical Club, including Supreme Court justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. and Nicholas St. John Green. Holmes argued that the law should be interpreted not on static historical observation of the original intent of the framers of the constitution but by considering the practical outcomes of the law or judgment in question. In other words, the cardinal rule of jurists should be the practical policy consequences of a given outcome in their deliberation. Holmes recognized that such a view of the judiciary empowers it with a dynamic and legislative function akin to that of the Congress. This practical approach to the outcomes of the law, in distinction to theories of law rooted in tradition, religion, and metaphysics, is shared among legal pragmatists.
The Philosophy of Pragmatism
In philosophical terms, pragmatism is generally considered to be nominalistic and pluralistic. Ideas are not “real” as abstract, formal categories, but change as experiences are apprehended and given meaning by the mind. The philosopher Ferdinand C. Schiller (1864–1937) wrote: “Concepts are tools slowly fashioned by the practical intelligence for the mastery of experience” (Schiller 1907, p. 64). Thus, for Schiller there is no single Truth, although there are truths that are relevant within a given context. James agreed, citing that truth was not static but “ambulatory,” directly related to human experiences. Moreover, old “truths” may no longer be relevant to the contemporary setting because they no longer adequately convey meaning about the world as it is. Thus, they are no longer true.
For pragmatists, ideas are contextual and their worth derives from the utility of their consequences. This epistemology is rooted in a rejection of Western teleology and monism. For the pragmatist, there is no first cause, nor is there a single ultimate end. Rather, the world is pluralistic in that social and empirical phenomena are connected but it is the individual who gives meaning to experience, and therefore the value of a concept is in its practical consequences. James wrote: “The distinctions between thoughts and things … the conceptions of classes with subclasses within them … surely all these were once definite conquests made at historic dates by our ancestors in their attempts to get the chaos of their crude individual experiences into a more shareable and manageable shape” (James 1909, p. 62).
Although not exclusively an American philosophical tradition, pragmatism is usually identified with Americans such as Peirce, Holmes, Dewey, Wright, Schiller, and especially William James. However, pragmatism crossed the ocean, influencing and being influenced by others, such as the Italian authors Giovanni Papini (1881–1956) and Luigi Pirandello (1867–1936) and the French philosopher Henri Bergson (1859–1941). Other well-known pragmatists included George Herbert Mead (1863–1931), James Hayden Tufts (1862–1942), and Sidney Hook (1902–1989). Many of the assumptions of pragmatism were to influence later twentieth-century philosophical currents, particularly that of secular humanism.
- Dewey, J 1903. Studies in Logical Theory. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- Dickstein, Morris, 1998. The Revival of Pragmatism: New Essays on Social Thought, Law, and Culture. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
- James, W 1986. Writings, 1902–1910. New York: Library of America.
- James, W  2002. The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature. New York: Routledge.
- James, William  Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking. In Writings, 1902–1910, 112–113. New York: Library of America.
- James, W 1909. The Meaning of Truth: A Sequel to “Pragmatism.” New York and London: Longmans, Green.
- Murphy, John P. Pragmatism: From Peirce to Davidson. Boulder, CO: Westview.
- Peirce, Charles 1878. How to Make Our Ideas Clear. Popular Science Monthly 12: 286–302.
- Peirce, Charles 1905. What Pragmatism Is. The Monist 15 (2): 161–181.
- Rescher, N 2000. Realistic Pragmatism: An Introduction to Pragmatic Philosophy. Albany: State University of New York Press.
- Schiller, Ferdinand 1907. Studies in Humanism. New York: Ayer.
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