This page contains a list of the seven best books on pragmatism. Finding good introductory philosophy books can be difficult for two reasons. First, searching google for recommendations usually doesn’t bring up anything useful. Second, phrases like “best books on pragmatism” are ambiguous. One person may be looking for a short, beginner friendly introduction, someone else may want a comprehensive academic overview, a third person may be looking for classic works on pragmatism. This list tries to account for this ambiguity by recommending different types of books on pragmatism. Here are the best books on pragmatism in no particular order:
Pragmatism: A Guide for the Perplexed – Robert B. Talisse & Scott Aikin
Publisher description: The recent revival of interest in pragmatism has reintroduced into mainstream philosophy the insights and arguments of great American philosophers such as C.S. Peirce, William James and John Dewey. But it has also led to the use of the term ‘pragmatism’ in a huge variety of contexts, such that students and readers can find this fascinating subject confusing.
Pragmatism: A Guide for the Perplexed seeks to dispel some of the ambiguity surrounding the term ‘pragmatism’. The book offers a clear and thorough account of this important philosophical movement. Thematically structured, it lays out the historical development and surveys the key thinkers. Crucially, it concentrates on the ways in which pragmatists, both contemporary and historical, have attempted to address some of the most important problems in philosophy. Geared towards the specific requirements of students who need to have a sound understanding of pragmatism, the book serves as an ideal companion to study of this most important and influential of movements.
The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America – Louis Menand
Publisher description: The Metaphysical Club was an informal group that met in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1872, to talk about ideas. Its members included Oliver Well Holmes, Jr., future associate justice of the United States Supreme Court; William James, the father of modern American psychology; and Charles Sanders Peirce, logician, scientist, and the founder of semiotics. The Club was probably in existence for about nine months. No records were kept. The one thing we know that came out of it was an idea — an idea about ideas. This book is the story of that idea.
Holmes, James, and Peirce all believed that ideas are not things “out there” waiting to be discovered but are tools people invent — like knives and forks and microchips — to make their way in the world. They thought that ideas are produced not by individuals, but by groups of individuals — that ideas are social. They do not develop according to some inner logic of their own but are entirely depent — like germs — on their human carriers and environment. And they thought that the survival of any idea deps not on its immutability but on its adaptability.
The Metaphysical Club is written in the spirit of this idea about ideas. It is not a history of philosophy but an absorbing narrative about personalities and social history, a story about America. It begins with the Civil War and s in 1919 with Justice Holmes’s dissenting opinion in the case of U.S. v. Abrams-the basis for the constitutional law of free speech. The first four sections of the book focus on Holmes, James, Peirce, and their intellectual heir, John Dewey. The last section discusses some of the fundamental twentieth-century ideas they are associated with. This is a book about a way of thinking that changed American life.”
Pragmatism: A Reader – Louis Menand
Publisher description: Pragmatism has been called America’s only major contribution to philosophy. But since its birth was announced a century ago in 1898 by William James, pragmatism has played a vital role in almost every area of American intellectual and cultural life, inspiring judges, educators, politicians, poets, and social prophets.
Now the major texts of American pragmatism, from William James and John Dewey to Richard Rorty and Cornel West, have been brought together and reprinted unabridged. From the first generation of pragmatists, including the Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes and the founder of semiotics, Charles Sanders Peirce, to the leading figures in the contemporary pragmatist revival, including the philosopher Hilary Putnam, the jurist Richard Posner, and the literary critic Richard Poirier, all the contributors to this volume are remarkable for the wit and vigor of their prose and the mind-clearing force of their ideas. Edited and with an Introduction by Louis Menand, Pragmatism: A Reader will provide both the general reader and the student of American culture with excitement and pleasure.
The Cambridge Companion to Pragmatism – Alan Malachowski
Publisher description: Pragmatism established a philosophical presence over a century ago through the work of Charles Peirce, William James and John Dewey, and has enjoyed an unprecedented revival in recent years owing to the pioneering efforts of Richard Rorty and Hilary Putnam. The essays in this volume explore the history and themes of classic pragmatism, discuss the revival of pragmatism and show how it engages with a range of areas of inquiry including politics, law, education, aesthetics, religion and feminism. Together they provide readers with an overview of the richness and vitality of pragmatist thinking and the influence that it continues to exert both in philosophy and other disciplines. The volume will be of interest to students and scholars of pragmatism, American philosophy and political theory.
Pragmatism – William James
Publisher description: A profoundly influential figure in American psychology, William James (1842–1910) was also a philosopher of note, who used Charles S. Peirce’s theories of pragmatism as a basis for his own conception of that influential philosophy. For James, this meant an emphasis on “radical empiricism” and the concept that the meaning of any idea — philosophical, political, social, or otherwise — has validity only in terms of its experiential and practical consequences.
James propounded his theories of pragmatism in this book, one of the most important in American philosophy. In a sense, he wished to test competing systems of thought in the “marketplace of actual experience” to determine their validity, i.e. whether adopting a particular philosophical theory or way of looking at the world makes an actual difference in individual conduct or in how we perceive and react to the varieties of experience. In these pages, James not only makes a strong case for his own ideas, but mounts a powerful attack against the transcendental and rationalist tradition.
For anyone interested in William James or the history of American philosophical thought, Pragmatism is an essential and thought provoking reference. In this handy, inexpensive edition, it will challenge and stimulate any thinking person.
The Essential Peirce – C. S. Peirce
Publisher description: A convenient two-volume reader’s edition makes accessible to students and scholars the most important philosophical papers of the brilliant American thinker Charles Sanders Peirce. This first volume presents twenty-five key texts from the first quarter century of his writing, with a clear introduction and informative headnotes. Volume 2 will highlight the development of Peirce’s system of signs and his mature pragmatism.
The Essential Dewey – John Dewey
Publisher description: In addition to being one of the greatest technical philosophers of the twentieth century, John Dewey (1859-1952) was an educational innovator, a Progressive Era reformer, and one of America’s last great public intellectuals. Dewey’s insights into the problems of public education, immigration, the prospects for democratic government, and the relation of religious faith to science are as fresh today as when they were first published. His penetrating treatments of the nature and function of philosophy, the ethical and aesthetic dimensions of life, and the role of inquiry in human experience are of increasing relevance at the turn of the 21st century.
Based on the award-winning 37-volume critical edition of Dewey’s work, The Essential Dewey presents for the first time a collection of Dewey’s writings that is both manageable and comprehensive. The volume includes essays and book chapters that exhibit Dewey’s intellectual development over time; the selection represents his mature thinking on every major issue to which he turned his attention. Eleven part divisions cover: Dewey in Context; Reconstructing Philosophy; Evolutionary Naturalism; Pragmatic Metaphysics; Habit, Conduct, and Language; Meaning, Truth, and Inquiry; Valuation and Ethics; The Aims of Education; The Individual, the Community, and Democracy; Pragmatism and Culture: Science and Technology, Art and Religion; and Interpretations and Critiques. Taken as a whole, this collection provides unique access to Dewey’s understanding of the problems and prospects of human existence and of the philosophical enterprise.
This list was created by following a method that I’ve found to be useful when searching for introductory philosophy books. It involves:
- browsing required reading lists on university course syllabi
- searching for books using the Open Syllabus Project
- browsing the bibliographies of articles on the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
- searching for recommendations on philosophy forums
The following sources were used to build this list:
University Course Syllabi:
- Bibliography for the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on Pragmatism
- Bibliography for the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on Pragmatism
If you’d like to learn more about Pragmatism, check out this collection of beginner friendly resources on Pragmatism.
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