Pragmatism is an American philosophical school. According to the founder of pragmatism, Charles Sanders Peirce, the meaning of an expression lies in its practical consequences. Peirce proposed the use of the word pragmaticism to distinguish his approach from non-philosophical uses of the word “pragmatism”. Indeed, in everyday language, pragmatism designates, in English as in French, the simple ability to adapt to the constraints of reality or even the idea that the end of intelligence is the ability to act, and not not knowledge. The word pragmaticism appears following the notoriety acquired by William James thanks to a cycle of conferences which will be published in a work entitled Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking and whose first edition dates from 1907. The neologism is thus partly justified by Peirce as repulsive enough not to be “kidnapped”, particularly by William James with whom he strongly disagrees.
The other two great figures of classical pragmatism (late 19th century-early 20th century) are William James and John Dewey. For these authors, pragmatism represents first of all a method of thought and apprehension of ideas which opposes Cartesian and rationalist conceptions without renouncing logic. According to the pragmatic perspective, to think of a thing amounts to identifying all of its practical implications, because for Peirce and his followers, only its implications confer meaning on the thought thing. Ideas thus become simple, but necessary, instruments of thought. As for the truth, it does not exist a priori, but it reveals itself gradually through experience.
Pragmatism is more a philosophical attitude than a set of dogmas. “Pragmatism” comes from the Greek pragma (the result of praxis, action in Greek) which attests to the concern to be close to the concrete, the particular, the action and opposed to the ideas considered abstract and vague of the ‘intellectualism. This is, in fact, radically empiricist thinking: the notion of practical effect is closely related to the question of what effects of a theory are expected in experience.
The pragmatist maxim is to ask, in order to resolve a philosophical controversy, “what difference would it make in practice if this option rather than another were true?” If this makes no difference in practice, then the controversy is pointless. Indeed, any theory, however subtle, is characterized by the fact that its adoption generates differences in practice.
This current was born in 1878 with Charles Sanders Peirce in the article How to make our ideas clear published in the Philosophical Review, then was taken up and popularized by William James in a collection.
For James, the most famous application of the pragmatist method concerns the problem of truth. This consists in saying that the true absolutely objective does not exist because one cannot separate an idea from its human conditions of production. The truth is necessarily chosen according to subjective interests. However, we cannot reduce the true to the useful, as the detractors of pragmatism have maintained, because this theory of truth retains on the one hand an idea of agreement with reality (accord defined as verification and not as term-to-term correspondence). On the other hand, what blocks the passage from subjective aesthetic or moral preferences to the decree of truth is the idea of internal coherence with the set of truths already adopted.
For John Dewey, the pragmatic attitude will be presented as the opposite of the spectatorial theory of knowledge. To know is not to see, as is the case, for example, within the framework of a schematic and extremely simplistic understanding of the Cartesian tradition (Descartes compared ideas to sorts of paintings), but to act. This leads to relativizing the notion of truth, which was, consequently, the main sign of recognition of belonging to pragmatism. As such, pragmatism was often caricatured.
For John Dewey, pragmatism is more and more akin to a social philosophy, even to a practice of political research. Philosophy, he suggests for example in Reconstruction in Philosophy, must reproduce in the socio-political field what modern science accomplishes in the technological field.
History of pragmatism
The pragmatist idea began to emerge at meetings of the Metaphysical Club, a philosophical club founded in January 1872 and dissolved in December 1872. Among the best known members are two of the great founders of pragmatism Charles Sanders Peirce (logician) and William James (psychologist), a jurist and future influential member of the Supreme Court of the United States, Oliver Wendell Holmes, but also Chauncey Wright (philosopher and mathematician), John Fiske (philosopher), Francis Ellingwood Abbot, Joseph Bangs Warner and Nicolas St. John Green, a jurist disciple of Jeremy Bentham, almost all alumni of Harvard University. Green, according to Peirce, introduced the group to Alexander Bain’s ideas on belief as a habit of action. This approach to belief, frequent at the time, would deeply mark Peirce and pragmatism. The very name Metaphysical Club was chosen “half ironically, half defiantly” because they never wanted to do metaphysics in the traditional sense, but at least for Peirce, to build a scientific and realistic metaphysics, that is non-nominalistic; the irony may also have been in the name, which evoked Britain’s largest and most famous Metaphysical Society. Peirce probably presented there a version of “How Belief Is Fixed” whose drafts date from 1872, and he formulates a more extensive version in the articles published in the Popular Science Monthly in 1877 and 1878 and which are considered as seminal pragmatism.
The appearance of the word and the Peirce/James opposition
Peirce, the coiner of the term, used the Greek and Kant’s use of the word practice (praktisch) as “the specific approach that human beings demand from the point of view of their belonging to the world”. If Peirce originated the word, it was William James who popularized it, both in an 1898 lecture titled “Philosophical Conception” and in the 1907 book simply titled Pragmatism. The word will be taken up very quickly by the newspapers and the popular language, which embarrasses Peirce who considers that it is misunderstood. This leads him to coin a word that cannot easily be taken over, “pragmaticism“. In fact, perhaps the most important motive for Peirce’s adoption of a new word is to be found in its profound divergence from the pragmatism of James. The last quoted being fundamentally nominalist, for him, “the true is only the expedient in our way of thinking, the good is only an expedient in our way of behaving” while Peirce claims to be Duns Scot and thinks that truth is the conformation to a truth independent of our thought, represents an existence independent of our thought. On the other hand, James gives pragmatism a humanistic vision whereas for Peirce it is “a method of conceptual clarification which must, once the false problems of traditional metaphysics are eliminated, lay the foundations for a new theory of meaning and knowledge, in the service of a purified metaphysics whose double characteristic will be to be scientific and realistic”.
Despite these differences, pragmatism is rapidly gaining ground in the United States to the point of being considered an American philosophy. At Harvard University, he influenced the thinking of two other great philosophers of the day: Josiah Royce and George Santayana.
The influence of pragmatism during the Dewey period (interwar period)
John Dewey, is a central figure of pragmatism during the interwar period. It analyzes and transforms various social subjects such as educational methods, relations with science, the conception of democracy, the approach to daily life, the meaning of gender equality, the place of values, the role of the arts or even the reconstruction of philosophy.
For him, he does not have the world on one side and consciousness on the other, which would register phenomena from without. He states that it is necessary to consider the experience and to grasp its meaning well to overcome the inability, inherited from the past, to see what must be seen through the continuities manifested by that which is in process and only that.
According to his conception of things, on the contrary, all experience and existence are constituted by interactions, reciprocal shapings, “transactions”, as he says, between a multitude of factors.
Pragmatism during the period of domination of logical empiricism
After the Second World War, pragmatic philosophy in its James-Dewey version gave way to analytical philosophy inspired in part by Bertrand Russell, and by the logical empiricism of Gottlob Frege and the Vienna Circle which would constitute its major element for twenty years. This influence was reinforced by the arrival in the United States of major figures of logical empiricism such as Rudolf Carnap, Hans Reichenbach and Carl Hempel. This philosophy will be more technical than that of James and Dewey and will attract American philosophers like Willard Van Orman Quine or Nelson Goodman who despite everything have also been influenced by pragmatism. In fact it is they who through their critique of the dogmas of logical empiricism will allow a revival of pragmatism which will be marked by “analytical philosophy and its developments”.
Includes texts translated and adapted from Wikipedia