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Pragmatism and philosophy

An original conception of philosophy

For several reasons, pragmatism has long passed, especially in Europe, for a non-philosophy or for an “American redneck”. First of all, pragmatism is an active philosophy that does not seek truth through intellectualism alone. Its founder, Charles Sanders Peirce opposes all the metaphysics of foundation which, from Aristotle to Descartes, via Locke or Hume, believe they can found philosophy on intuitions, sensory data or first ultimates, and wants to “get out of the labyrinth of words”. On the other hand, pragmatism is intended to be a method of conceptual clarification, as shown in the first pragmatic writings: How to Make Our Ideas Clear published in 1878 by Charles Sanders Peirce. If this vision of things is primarily specific to Peirce’s pragmatism (which we will see differs from that of William James), despite everything, pragmatism in general emphasizes philosophy as a way of making conscious and thinkable the problems. John Dewey following Peirce insists on this point stated that, from a certain point of view, the main role of philosophy consists in making conscious, in an intellectualized form, or in the form of problems, the most important shocks and troubles inherent in complex and changing societies, as they are dealing with value conflicts.

Finally, pragmatists do not have a contemplative vision of knowledge14, they focus rather on practical manifestations. This is how for Peirce, pragmatism is synthesized in what is called the pragmatic maxim, to consider what practical effects we think can be produced by the object of our design; the design of all these effects is the complete design of object.

For Peirce, this maxim has the effect of being able to account for a hypothesis by evaluating its practical consequences and therefore of allowing us to better understand what we will do or should do. The fact that William James will be content to study the practical consequences on the individual reflects a difference in perception of the maxim. For James, it is a metaphysical principle and for Peirce a logical principle component of the scientific method. Indeed, for him the pragmatic maxim must allow scientific tests to be carried out based on the idea that if the hypothesis is false then it will not have the foreseen consequences.


Pragmatists are strongly inspired by Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, and man is seen as an animal among other animals; man does not occupy a special place in the universe. Human reason is not a special faculty that could penetrate the heart of reality, but something that only aims to solve practical problems. They thus oppose the anthropocentrists.

Belief, fallibilism and reason

A philosophy of belief, not ideas

For Jean-Pierre Cometti, pragmatism is a philosophy of belief. By this, he wants to state two facts inherent in pragmatism. On the one hand, the pragmatic philosophers start not from an idea but from a belief, which opposes them to Descartes. On the other hand, pragmatism sees belief as a habit of action following the work of Alexander Bain (philosopher). For Pierce, a true belief or opinion is something upon which a man is prepared to act; it is therefore in a general sense a habit.

Charles Sanders Peirce criticizes Aristotle and the “spirit of Cartesianism” which, for him, includes a tradition that goes back to Aristotle from René Descartes to John Locke to make intuition the source of the axioms on which deductive reasoning rests. He also criticizes the English and Scottish empiricists (George Berkeley, David Hume, Thomas Reid) for thinking that simple ideas can be deduced from experience.

More specifically concerning Descartes, whose questioning of a thought is at the center of his philosophy, Peirce opposes him with at least three major arguments. On the one hand, for Peirce doubt is not natural and it must be justified which Descartes does not do. Moreover, for Peirce doubt is linked to the world in which we live. We touch here on another important point of pragmatism, namely that for him, unlike Descartes, the individual is not an atom but is in relation with others and that he is therefore partly determined by his environment. This vision of man, which is also that of the new English liberalism and of the social liberalism which is linked to it, also influences the conception of the democracy of pragmatism. Finally, Descartes starts from the awareness that we have of an idea. So what for Cartesians can be seen as two different ideas can be interpreted, for pragmatists who study ideas from the point of view of their practical consequences, as constituting a single idea, or to employ a still more pragmatic formula, as forming a single belief.

Peirce and his followers the pragmatists prefer to think that men follow beliefs which in them lead to habits which themselves provoke our actions. But unlike Thomas Reid, for Peirce beliefs are not first principles that lead to knowledge, they are hypotheses that must be subjected to criticism.

Questioning Beliefs: Fallibilism

Karl Popper(Karl Popper whose method of falsifiability is close to that of the pragmatists)

While the Cartesians want to start from exact premises in order to arrive at the truth, the pragmatists, who question the method by which Descartes thinks he arrives at these premises, believe that we must on the contrary test beliefs so as to be able through investigation and discussion identify and eliminate errors. In this sense, this method presents elements of proximity with Karl Popper’s falsifiability. Peirce’s method for scientifically examining beliefs is neither totally hypothetical-deductive nor totally inductive (empiricism). Indeed, to these two elements that he revisits, he adds abduction (epistemology).

For Peirce, any inquiry, whether it bears on ideas, hard facts, norms or laws, is triggered by a startling observation. The structure of abductive reasoning is therefore of the type “The surprising fact C is observed; but if A were true, C would be self-evident; there is therefore reason to suspect that A is true”. In 1903, Peirce states that pragmatism applies “the logic of abduction” and emphasizes its effectiveness. For him, indeed, it has at least two advantages: it is the only kind of reasoning capable of introducing new ideas, it encourages the testing of plausibility in an economic way.

The deduction phase has two stages: an explanatory stage, where the deduction can make it possible to test the premises and thus make them partly more certain; a demonstrative stage, where from true premises one can draw true conclusions through logical reasoning. Peirce uses induction in a rather innovative way. Indeed, for him, it means rather the testing of hypotheses, whether this ends with a confirmation or a refutation whereas usually it aims to obtain a law or a theory that is to say to say that it aims to establish what precisely this reasoning must test.

The Theory of Truth: The Peirce/James Opposition

Truth in Peirce’s Scholastic Realism

Peirce, following Duns Scotus, believes in the existence of universals and for him, thought must relate to real objects. This leads him to oppose both the metaphysical realism of the Platonists and the conceptual reductionism of the nominalists. Indeed, with him reality has something irreducible, indeterminate, so that it is not the particular which is the most natural, but the vague, the general, these two forms of indeterminacy real and irreducible. However, as with the classical philosophers and unlike William James, there exists with him and with some of the pragmatic philosophers, a reality independent of research and beliefs. He writes about the scientific method, which he makes one of the pillars of his philosophy, that its fundamental postulate translated into ordinary language is this: there exist realities whose characters are absolutely independent of the ideas that we can have of them.

For Pierce, the only realism worthy of the name is … that which identifies the real and the true; he is opposed on this point to what he calls nominalism which consists for him in John Locke, for example, in establishing a difference between what it is possible to know (the nominal essence) and what escapes knowledge (the real essence). The problem for Peirce is to make coexist a method of validation of beliefs by refutation which insists on the revisable character of knowledge with its realism. The idea developed is that which we find in the mathematical idea of ​​limit: at the limit we must tend towards the truth.

The Truth in William James

James speaks not of truth but of theory of truth. For him, pragmatism, unlike Peirce, is nominalistic and constantly appeals to particulars. James writes that, for the pluralistic pragmatist, truth arises, and grows, within the very data of finite experience. They all pose on top of each other; but the whole that they form, supposing that they form one, rests on nothing. All of our “homes” are in finite experience; but the latter has, as such, “neither fire nor place”. Nothing from without can assure the destiny of the flow of its data: it can count, for its salvation, only on the promises and the resources which it finds within itself.

Compared to Peirce, for James truth is not the property of a statement, it is much more subjective, more linked to interest. James often expands on the idea that ‘true consists simply in what is advantageous to our thinking.

(Includes texts from Wikipedia translated and adapted by Nicolae Sfetcu)

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