The Philosophy of Pragmatism
Pragmatic is a word that describes a person who is concerned with results and consequences rather than ideas about what could or should be. People who are pragmatic think for themselves instead of taking others’ thoughts into account when making decisions. This is not to say that pragmatists are selfish or uncaring, but rather that they focus on what works. This type of thinking can have its problems when applied to certain areas such as morality, but for the most part it is a useful way of viewing things.
The philosophy of pragmatism was developed during the early 1870s by two Harvard-educated men who met for informal philosophical discussions at the Metaphysical Club in Cambridge, Massachusetts. These men were Charles Sanders Peirce, a logician, mathematician and scientist; and William James, a psychologist and philosopher. These men made ambitious claims for a pragmatist philosophy that would solve many of the problems of previous philosophies.
Peirce emphasized that meaning has a predictive component, and he created the Pragmatic Maxim to identify this process. He also argued that a true definition of a concept should include the process by which the concept is verified in practice. This characterization of meaning was revolutionary and paved the way for the subsequent development of pragmatics, an area of study that concentrates on speakers’ communicative intentions in speech or writing contexts, and how these intentions affect how hearers interpret what they mean.
In addition to focusing on communication, pragmatism has had an important influence on other areas of philosophy such as metaphysics, the philosophy of science, ethics, law and the philosophy of religion. For example, the notion of discourse ethics that focuses on how speakers communicate with one another was influenced by the pragmatic philosophy of John Dewey. The pragmatist philosophy has also had major influences in sociology and economics.
A problem with the pragmatist philosophy, however, is that there is no pragmatist creed that contains a neat list of essential tenets endorsed by all pragmatists. There are a number of major themes and theses that have loomed large over the history of pragmatism, though.
Most pragmatists believe that truth is a property of an idea’s being useful. They also agree that the criterion for what is useful is the social context of the idea’s application. Thus, a daughter’s statement that “Eating cookies makes you fat” is a statement that is true in a literal sense, but the mother may interpret the sentence as an accusation that her daughter is calling her fat. This interpretation is based on the social context and is therefore pragmatic. The same principle applies to legal judicial decisions where the decision to go against precedent is considered pragmatic because it will have a positive outcome for society as a whole. For this reason, a pragmatic approach to law is often considered a form of relativism. This is especially evident when the pragmatist philosophy is applied to matters of morality and ethics, but it can be just as easily seen in other areas such as the sciences.