The Philosophy of Pragmatism

The word “pragmatic” derives from the Greek (pragma), meaning action. The pragmatists were an action-oriented group of philosophers, and their philosophy is about how best to live and think. Their philosophical goal was to provide a guide to the good life that would help the individual find his or her way in a confusing world of values, desires, and beliefs. Their philosophy was a set of guidelines for thinking and living that offered a practical alternative to dogmatic ideologies such as realism, empiricism, and idealism.

In its broadest sense, pragmatism was a philosophical attitude toward the formation of concepts, hypotheses, and theories, and how they might be validated. For pragmatists, the molding of language and thought was a continuous process of evaluation for their usefulness in fulfilling human needs and intentions. Even the raw facts of experience are subject to the pragmatist’s critical evaluation, since our epistemic access to reality is necessarily mediated by our concepts and descriptions of reality. The pragmatists were thus skeptical of old-time empiricists who asserted that intuition is direct and unmediated. Sellars, Rorty, Davidson, and Putnam were some of the pragmatists who challenged this foundationalist picture.

Another tenet of the pragmatists is that truth, like everything else, is a function of use. A true idea must copy its reality. For example, if you shut your eyes and think of yonder clock on the wall, the impression you get will be just that: a true picture or copy of it. The same is true of ideas about the actions or functions of things. If you think of a clock that works, your idea will be just that: an accurate copy or picture of the clock’s function.

John Dewey, the third figure from the golden era of classical American pragmatism, had surprisingly little to say about the concept of truth compared with his voluminous writings on other topics. He emphasized that a down-to-earth pragmatist should avoid metaphysical disputes and instead settle matters by asking what concrete differences would result if one theory were true and its rival(s) false.

In recent decades, a number of scholars have attempted to develop an account of the relationship between pragmatics and truth and knowledge. The general view is that there is a line between the two: Semantics occupies the near side, and Pragmatics the far. Near-side pragmatics deals with such issues as resolution of ambiguity and vagueness, the reference of proper names, indexicals and demonstratives, and anaphors. It also addresses the issues of what is conveyed beyond saying.

The far side of Pragmatics is concerned with the ways in which people manage to communicate with each other despite a variety of constraints. This includes how people conceive of the world, how they structure their arguments and rhetoric, what is meant by words, and so on. It is in this area that a large part of the work of the classic pragmatists was done. It is also in this field that some contemporary pragmatists have sought to build on the work of the classic pragmatists.