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Pragmatism is a school of philosophy which originated in the United States in the late 1800s. Pragmatism is characterized by the insistence on consequences, utility and practicality as vital components of truth. Pragmatism objects to the view that human concepts and intellect represent reality, and therefore stands in opposition to both formalist and rationalist schools of philosophy. Rather, pragmatism holds that it is only in the struggle of intelligent organisms with the surrounding environment that theories and data acquire significance. Pragmatism does not hold, however, that just anything that is useful or practical should be regarded as true, or anything that helps us to survive merely in the short-term; pragmatists argue that what should be taken as true is that which most contributes to the most human good over the longest course. In practice, this means that for pragmatists, theoretical claims should be tied to verification practices--i.e., that one should be able to make predictions and test them--and that ultimately the needs of humankind should guide the path of human inquiry.

American philosophy

In the history of philosophy, pragmatism is perhaps the only peculiarly American school of thought. The name denotes a concern for the practical, taking human action and its consequences as the basic measure of truth, value, etc. This translates to experimentation not merely as a method of scientific investigation but as the primary way humans engage each other and the world around them. Different pragmatists have different models of experimentation—some are basically scientific (Charles Sanders Peirce), others so pluralistic and relativist (William James) as to be almost anti-scientific. However, all pragmatists embrace some process(es) of ongoing inquiry and transformation of knowledge as part of the basic task of human societies.

Pragmatism in history

A useful general account of pragmatism's origins during the late 19th and early 20th centuries is Louis Menand's The Metaphysical Club. According to Menand, pragmatism took form largely in response to the work of Charles Darwin (evolution, ongoing process, and a non-epistemological view of history), statistics (the recognition of the role of randomness in the unfolding of events, and of the presence of regularity within randomness), American democracy (values of pluralism and consensus applied to knowledge as well as politics), and in particular the American Civil War (a rejection of the sort of absolutizing or dualizing claims [i.e., to Truth] that provide the philosophical underpinnings of war).

Some scholars have noted a similarity between pragmatism and some elements in Buddhist philosophical thought, see Buddhism. William James himself noticed the similarity, writing in The Varieties of Religious Experience that "I am ignorant of Buddhism and speak under correction ... but as I apprehend the Buddhistic doctrine of Karma, I agree in principle with that."

Notable pragmatists

Classical Pragmatists

  • John Dewey (prominent philosopher of education, referred to his brand of pragmatism as instrumentalism)
  • William James (influential psychologist and theorist of religion, as well as philosopher. First to be widely associated with the term "pragmatism" due to Peirce's lifelong unpopularity.)
  • Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914) was the founder of American pragmatism (later called by Peirce pragmaticism), an extender of the Scotistic theory of signs (called by Peirce semeiotic), an extraordinarily prolific logician and mathematician, and a developer of an evolutionary, psycho-physically monistic metaphysical system. A practicing chemist and geodesist by profession, he nevertheless considered scientific philosophy, and especially logic, to be his vocation. In the course of his polymathic researches, he wrote on a wide range of topics, from mathematical logic to psychology.
  • George Herbert Mead (philosopher and social psychologist)
  • Reinhold Niebuhr (theologian and social critic)
  • Giovanni Papini
  • Josiah Royce (colleague of James who employed pragmatism in an idealist metaphysical framework, he was particularly interested in the philosophy of religion and community; his work is often associated with neo-Hegelianism)
  • George Santayana (often not considered to be a canonical pragmatist, he applied pragmatist methodologies to naturalism (philosophy), exemplified in his early masterwork, The Life of Reason)
  • F.C.S. Schiller (one of the most important pragmatists of his time, Schiller is largely forgotten today)

Neo-Classical Pragmatists

  • Susan Haack (teaches at the University of Miami, sometimes called the grand-daughter of C.S. Peirce)
  • Richard A. Posner (Judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, law professor, and prolific author of scholarly articles and books)
  • Hilary Putnam


Pragmatists in the Extended Sense


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