What is Pragmatism? This series aims to make learning about philosophy as easy as possible by bringing together the best videos, podcasts, and articles from across the internet and allowing you to choose the type of content that best suits your learning style. Simply choose one of following links to get started:
If you want a comprehensive overview of Pragmatism:
- Read the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on Pragmatism. However, you should keep in mind that the Stanford Encyclopedia in often quite technical and this article may be difficult for beginners. It’s also quite long at around 10,000 words. Here’s a short excerpt that introduces the idea of pragmatism:
“Pragmatism was a philosophical tradition that originated in the United States around 1870. The most important of the ‘classical pragmatists’ were Charles Sanders Peirce (1839–1914), William James (1842–1910) and John Dewey (1859–1952). . . .”
On a visit to the mountains, [William James’] friends engage in a ‘ferocious metaphysical dispute’ about a squirrel that was hanging on to one side of a tree trunk while a human observer was standing on the other side:
“This human witness tries to get sight of the squirrel by moving rapidly round the tree, but no matter how fast he goes, the squirrel moves as fast in the opposite direction, and always keeps the tree between himself and the man, so that never a glimpse of him is caught. The resultant metaphysical problem now is this: Does the man go round the squirrel or not? (1907: 27f)”
James proposed to solve the problem by pointing out that which answer is correct depends on what you ‘practically mean’ by ‘going round’. If you mean passing from north of him to east, then south, then west, then the answer to the question is ‘yes’. If, on the other hand, you mean first in front of him, then to his right, then behind him, and then to his left, before returning to being in front of him again, then the answer is ‘no’. Pragmatic clarification disambiguates the question, and once that is done, all dispute comes to an end. The ‘pragmatic method’ promises to eliminate all apparently irresoluble metaphysical disputes.
So James offers his pragmatism as a technique for clarifying concepts and hypotheses. He proposed that if we do this, metaphysical disputes that appear to be irresoluble will be dissolved. When philosophers suppose that free will and determinism are in conflict, James responds that once we compare the practical consequences of determinism being true with the practical consequences of our possessing freedom of the will, we find that there is no conflict.
If you’re looking for a somewhat shorter and and more engaging introduction:
- Read Sam Dresser’s article: To my best belief: just what is the pragmatic theory of truth? [1200 words]
If you’d prefer a video introduction:
If you prefer audio and podcasts:
- Listen to Peter Godfrey-Smith discuss Pragmatism – A very American philosophy on The Philosopher’s Zone podcast [24:30 mins]
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