What Is Pragmatism?

To attain perfect clearness in our thoughts of an object, then, we need only consider what conceivable effects of a practical kind the object may involve—what sensations we are to expect from it, and what reactions we must prepare.

- William James, Pragmatism

Podcast of the Day

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the American philosophy of pragmatism. A pragmatist "turns away from abstraction and insufficiency, from verbal solutions, from bad apriori reasons, from fixed principles, closed systems, and pretended absolutes and origins. He turns towards concreteness and adequacy, towards facts, towards action and towards power". A quote from William James' 1907 treatise Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking. William James, along with John Dewey and Charles Sanders Peirce, was the founder of an American philosophical movement which flowered during the last thirty years of the nineteenth century and the first twenty years of the 20th century. It purported that knowledge is only meaningful when coupled with action. Nothing is true or false - it either works or it doesn't. It was a philosophy which was deeply embedded in the reality of life, concerned firstly with the individual's direct experience of the world he inhabited. In essence, practical application was all. But how did Pragmatism harness the huge scientific leap forward that had come with Charles Darwin's ideas on evolution? And how did this dynamic new philosophy challenge the doubts expressed by the Sceptics about the nature and extent of knowledge? Did Pragmatism influence the economic and political ascendancy of America in the early 20th century? And did it also pave the way for the contemporary preoccupation with post-modernism?

Listen to Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss Pragmatism on the In Our Time podcast

Video of the Day

Short Article of the Day

...This [cultural] chasm is especially notable since the only official philosophy America ever produced goes by that very name — pragmatism. It is centered in the ideas of a small group of late 19th- and early 20th-century thinkers that includes John Dewey, William James and Charles Sanders Peirce (whom James acknowledged as pragmatism’s philosophical founder). American pragmatism’s influence in both academic and intellectual life was significant but not long-lived. As analytic philosophy gained footholds in the American university system, the influence of pragmatism faded, though it was revived and revised when it was taken up again by philosophers, Richard Rorty foremost among them, in the post-Cold War era.

In a 1906 lecture, “What Pragmatism Means,” James said that the pragmatic method sought to “interpret each notion by tracing its respective practical consequences.” I would argue that at this moment, that method seems more Chinese than American....

Continue reading Stephen T. Asma's short article: From China, With Pragmatism

Further Reading

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.

Continue reading the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on Pragmatism by Christopher Hookway

Each day I post short quotes by great thinkers on a particular philosophical, scientific or historical topic, along with videos, interviews and articles by contemporary thinkers that explore each topic in more detail. Find me on Facebook or Twitter or enter your email below to learn about the ideas that helped shape our world.