Next week, I’m going back to the topic of rhetoric, writing about apologetics.

Today, more quick notes. A simple paragraph on Pragmatism that I hope to return to later.

Pragmatism: Philosophical position that replaces Truth and Being with comedy and cold hard cash.

-R. Scott Bakker (@theDevilsChirp on Twitter)


 I was introduced to Pragmatism in college, by a statistics professor who happened to also teach this philosophy (his title: The Herbert A Simon Professor of Philosophy and Statistics…cough coughAs I had mentioned once before, the same year I learned about abduction in the context of design, I also was introduced to the formal concept of abduction as Peirce imagined it. A funny thing about Pragmatism is that many of its themes became so successful that they’re now taken for granted. There isn’t much of a single party line within Pragmatism, either, calling its continued existence into question. I wanted to credit at least the parts of the philosophy that I steal and bastardize from occasionally.


The triumvirate of classical Pragmatism:

  1. C. S. Peirce (pronounced “Purse”), the eccentric polymath philosopher/mathematician/logician founder who lived in relative obscurity, academically supported by his more prestigious friends. He also is considered a founder of semiotics.
  2. William James, influential psychologist and philosopher who popularized the concept of Pragmatism. (When the idea became too popular and over-used in literary journals, Peirce decided to rename his own school “Pragmaticism”, claiming the new name was “ugly enough to be safe from kidnappers”).
  3. John Dewey, public intellectual and traditional professor (at University of Chicago, my brother’s alma mater, and then later at Columbia), most well-known as an advocate of progressive education and mid-century liberalism. He called his pragmatism “Instrumentalism”, and his writings impacted American intellectualism for decades.

The Pragmatic Maxim: “Consider what effects, that 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.”

A Sample of Tenets:

Pragmatism is falliblist: It acknowledges that our understanding of the world around us could be wrong even while we are justified in believing what we do.

But Pragmatism is not radically skeptical: It does not claim that we do not or cannot know anything. The “quest for certainty”, as John Dewey would put it, is quixotic and unnecessary.

Pragmatism is coherentist, not foundationalist: Justification is the function of a relationship between beliefs, not necessarily anchored in anything immutable or special.

Pragmatism is instrumentalist: “A concept or theory should be evaluated by how effectively it explains and predicts phenomena, as opposed to how accurately it describes objective reality.” Sometimes pragmatism is described to reduce truth entirely to “usefulness”, but I don’t believe that this is a tenet of Pragmatism.

Pragmatism is naturalistic and anti-cartesian: I think Daniel Dennett explains this issue well when he talks about the “Cartesian Theater“.

Pragmatism stresses action as inquiry and observable effects as the currency of an idea. Pragmatism is about making beliefs pay rent, as Yudkowsky once put it.

William James coined the concept of a “stream of consciousness” (in contrast to a succession of ideas), and famously described a baby’s world as a “one great blooming, buzzing confusion”. He described human mental life as having a sort of rhythm, of “flights and perchings”.

Democracy and social reform were Dewey’s calling. John Dewey became famous for creeds such as “learn by doing”. He argued that “the most pervasive fallacy of philosophical thinking” was that institutions were “means for obtaining something for individuals. They are means for creating individuals.” There are no pre-social humans.

Many modern analytic philosophers accept the tenets of Pragmatism without calling themselves Pragmatists. (Mr. Dennett probably aligns himself more with the analytic tradition, although he was mentored by Quine, who is sometimes labeled a Pragmatist). Further, the advent of the computer has actually made many aspects of Pragmatism much easier to explain and grapple with.

There’s a lot here that I haven’t touched on that would upset my professor (or anyone who knows anything about Pragmatism). I haven’t mentioned any of the canonical texts and their nuanced approaches (ex. Peirce’s works “How to Make Our Ideas Clear” or “The Fixation of Belief”; William James’ “Will to Believe”) In fact, the aspects of Pragmatism that I’ve outlined above are broad and hardly contestable (for most readers of my blog that I’m aware of, anyway). But I never actually intended to teach a course on Pragmatism here. I’ll return to aspects of this post later.

Final say from the Pragmatism Cybrary:

There has been much talk of pragmatism’s “eclipse” during analytic philosophy’s greatest dominance from 1950 to 1990. The myth must be corrected:pragmatism was never eclipsed. While pragmatism was a prominent competitor with rival neo-idealisms and new realisms during the first two decades of the 20th century, pragmatism had few representatives across the top twenty philosophy departments. Already quite marginalized in the 1920s and 1930s, the handful of pragmatist professors such as Dewey at Columbia and Mead at Chicago encouraged many of their students to go into psychology, sociology, anthropology, linguistics, education, and economics. Many of the best new minds favorable towards pragmatism strongly influenced the social sciences during the 1940s – 1980s.

In philosophy departments, pragmatism remained marginalized. However, Harvard and Columbia were still fairly pragmatic and carried on the debate. C.I. Lewis, Morton White, and W.V. Quine at Harvard, along with Ernest Nagel, Signey Morgenbesser, and Isaac Levi at Columbia, each pursued some pragmatist themes. Many of their students have in turn defended selected pragmatist views, much diluted and transformed, but still consistent with pragmatic naturalism (eg. views seen in Putnam, Davidson, Dennett, Churchland, etc). Supplemented by the efforts of renegade analytic philosophers such as Richard Rorty, pragmatism remained marginalized, yet very potent and defended by a few major figures at prominent philosophy departments. Visit The Genealogy Center for details. When philosophy became more interdisciplinary in the 1990s, its encounters with linguistics, anthropology, cognitive science, semiotics, etc., brought it back into contact with flourishing pragmatist views.

In summary, pragmatism has been a small but potent philosophy before and after WW II. Its contemporary vitality is enhanced by philosophy’s re-engagement with the social and cognitive sciences. –J.S.