American Pragmatism

14 January 2007

[Tom Burke, a Stanford Ph.D. and author of Dewey's New Logic, is associate professor of philosophy at the University of South Carolina (  I invited him to guest blog on the topic of pragmatism, which he didn't think we quite did justice to on our program of a few weeks ago. --jp]

What Is Pragmatism?

by Tom Burke
Department of Philosophy
University of South Carolina

Like any philosophical "ism," pragmatism lends itself to easily-refuted straw-man characterizations; and in any case, no doubt, there are inferior (short-sighted, self-serving, hard-nosed, unprincipled) forms of pragmatism. But the various views of Peirce, James, Dewey, Mead, and others are more sophisticated than one might think after reviewing such shallow characterizations. Professor McDermott made the claim that pragmatism is not so much a particular philosophical position as it is a philosophical attitude.  This handily disposes of critical strategies aimed at undermining pragmatism as a particular philosophical position, but more needs be said if we want to understand what pragmatism is.

First of all, pragmatism is not a single philosophy. There is no single pragmatist epistemology, no single pragmatist metaphysics. More particularly, there is not just one pragmatist theory of truth. Rather, pragmatism is a style or way of doing philosophy. As such, it allows a variety of views on just about any philosophical topic. It cannot be directly confirmed or refuted but will merely fail or succeed in ways that philosophical styles fail or succeed. So the question remains: what is it? How might we characterize pragmatism so as to clearly distinguish it from other ways of doing philosophy?

One could argue that the variety of possible pragmatist philosophies is a matter of family resemblance. That would not be very illuminating. I would claim instead (drawing more on historical hindsight than on what any particular pragmatist has ever said) that to qualify as pragmatist a philosophy need satisfy just one criterion: it must essentially and substantively endorse the pragmatic maxim. This maxim has been stated and interpreted in multiple ways, and such multiplicity is unavoidable. Nevertheless I'm suggesting that a pragmatist philosophy must formulate it, interpret it, and essentially depend on it, whether as a basic assumption or as derived from other basic assumptions. It's as simple as that.

James's 1898 Berkeley lecture where he first publicized pragmatism indeed cites and discusses Peirce's original 1878 statement of this maxim: "Consider what effects, which might conceivably have practical bearings, we conceive the object of our conception to have. Then, our conception of these effects is the whole of our conception of the object." It is clearly not a trivial matter to determine what this maxim actually says. James interpreted and used it in ways that Peirce apparently abhorred, and Peirce himself reformulated it a number of times in following years. But adherence to some version of this maxim is the one common feature of their respective views that makes those views pragmatist, no matter how much they disagree otherwise.

It may help, then, to formulate a more precise statement of the pragmatic maxim given that Peirce's original statement is such a convoluted tangle. We should note that pragmatism (in keeping with the etymology of the word itself) emphasizes practices or actions as much as it does effects or consequences. This is apparent in Peirce's emphasis on possible effects of possible practices, i.e., conceivable effects with conceivable practical bearings. On these grounds, working much later, Rorty is what we might call a discourse pragmatist given that the actions and effects he is concerned with are exclusively discursive in nature — not that discourse is all he is concerned with necessarily but that it is only with respect to conversation that some version of the pragmatic maxim does any work in Rorty's philosophy. Of course, other kinds of pragmatism acknowledge wider ranges of possible actions and their possible effects. To highlight how pragmatism may thus differ from mere discourse pragmatism and otherwise to indicate just how deep the pragmatic maxim is able to reach, recall Quine's famous dictum that "to be is to be the value of a variable." This is not itself a metaphysical claim though it places certain constraints on how to formulate metaphysical claims. It reflects a style or way of doing philosophy, as it were, that is fundamentally oriented to possible "entities" or "things" rather than to possible effects of possible actions. A pragmatist alternative to Quine's dictum might say something to the effect that "to be the possible effect of a possible action is to be the value of a variable," which is to say that variables associated with particular ways of acting would range over respective ranges of possible outcomes, basic propositions would pertain to relations holding between such outcomes and/or ways of acting, and so forth. This is hardly typical of a standard first-order semantics, in which case we would want to rethink the entire formal-logical foundation upon which contemporary analytic philosophy rests. The point here is that pragmatism, no less than Quine's first-order-logicism, puts constraints on how to formulate philosophical views by stipulating what one may take to be semantically basic. For Quine, our philosophical language takes entities or things as a semantic basis for devising theories and models of how the world works. For a pragmatist, one's philosophical language takes actions and their effects as a semantic basis for devising theories and models of how the world works. This is what Peirce meant, I claim, by asserting that possible effects of possible actions must ground our fundamental terminology for formulating and clarifying our ideas. The latter couple of sentences constitute what I think is a more precise statement of the pragmatic maxim.

With all of that said, one might (only) now begin to think about various pragmatist accounts of truth, or about how and whether a pragmatist might or might not be a realist. I hope it is clear that one can be all over the philosophical map with regard to either of those topics while still being a pragmatist, just as one can be all over the philosophical map while being a first-order logicist.

In particular, a pragmatist need not hold, as was claimed, that "both the meaning and the truth of any idea [are functions] of its practical outcome." A pragmatist might try to defend such a claim. But another pragmatist might reasonably hold that this statement is just too simple if not wrong in the way it sidles from talk about effects of actions to outcomes of ideas. What does it even mean to say that ideas have outcomes? That may be meaningful, but some kind of story is needed to connect such a claim with the pragmatic maxim. By itself, then, such a claim is not sufficient as a characterization of pragmatism. Likewise, a pragmatist may otherwise find such a statement hopelessly incoherent, in which case we could not say that it is a necessary feature of pragmatism either.

It was also claimed that "the pragmatists rejected all forms of absolutism and insisted that all principles be regarded as working hypotheses that must bear fruit in lived experience." Okay, some if not all existent pragmatists may have so insisted in one way or another; but it is not obvious that this is an essential feature of pragmatism given that one can insist thusly without being a pragmatist, i.e., with no cognizance whatsoever of the pragmatic maxim. Once again, talking in terms of experiential fruits of hypotheses may be understood, e.g., in purely Quinean first-order-logicist terms with no regard at all for the pragmatic maxim. Such a claim, then, is not sufficient as a characterization of pragmatism. Nor is it necessary, given that the pragmatic maxim does not by itself rule out all forms of absolutism. Not very many (if any) pragmatists have gone down that particular road, but that road is not obviously blocked by the pragmatic maxim alone.

The upshot of all of this is that understanding the pragmatic maxim is the key to understanding what pragmatism is. To determine whether a philosophical position is pragmatist, look to see whether, where, and how it puts this maxim to work. If this maxim is no where to be found or even if it can be found but it does no essential philosophical work, then the position, whatever else it may be, is not pragmatist.

Comments (3)

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Thursday, August 13, 2009 -- 5:00 PM

hi goodevening please can you give me an exam

hi goodevening
please can you give me an example of pragmatism that easy to understand and applicable in the student like me?

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Monday, October 12, 2009 -- 5:00 PM

My pragmatic principle is much simpler: Use what w

My pragmatic principle is much simpler: Use what works. In terms of epistemology, I've found that it all boils down to this idea: Truth is prediction. From those two simple ideas, you can build a complete pragmatic philosophy.
But at the core, it is a very simple concept. Unbeatable, in fact. Any philosophy that tries to prove 'better' than pragmatism, if it actually works better, then it *is* pragmatism. If it's not, then it doesn't beat pragmatism. Any 'truth' that makes better predictions *is* justified by pragmatism. If it doesn't, then how can we claim to know it is 'true'?

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Tuesday, January 12, 2010 -- 4:00 PM

Hello Alyssa, Take a look at the opening pages of

Hello Alyssa,
Take a look at the opening pages of William James's "What Pragmatism Means" (ch.2 of his 1907 book _Pragmatism_). The pragmatic method is nothing more nor less than a method of clarifying one's ideas, of defining one's terms. That's ALL. In this case, James uses the example of a dispute about what is meant by the phrase "going around" -- in a dispute, specifically, about whether someone can go around a squirrel on a tree if one can never get "behind" the squirrel even if one goes entirely around the tree. There are two different ways to "measure" your spatial position relative to the squirrel (north/east/etc or front/side/back/etc). In these "practical" terms there are thus two meanings of the given phrase. There is no point in arguing which is the right meaning once and for all, though you need to be clear which of the two you mean when you make a claim about going around the squirrel.