Pragmatic Philosophy

Pragmatic is a philosophical tradition with origins in the United States that presents a growing third alternative to both analytic and ‘Continental’ philosophical traditions worldwide. Its first generation was initiated by the so-called ‘classical pragmatists’ Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914), who defined and defended the view, and his close friend and colleague William James (1842-1910), who further developed it and ably popularized it. James’ Harvard colleague Josiah Royce (1855-1916) was initially more allied with absolute idealism but later adopted many of the more practical and functionalist aspects of the pragmatist approach.

The word pragmatic is derived from the Greek root pragma, meaning “to do, to act.” Thus a pragmatic person is concerned with things and facts that one can touch and change for some practical purpose. In contrast, an idealist is more interested in ideas and theories.

Classical pragmatism is often contrasted with anti-pragmatism, which holds that truth does not exist or that only some forms of truth are possible. The most common use of pragmatism today is as a philosophy of language, which seeks to clarify the relations between an utterance and its environment through pragmatics, a theory of the role of language in communication.

In the philosophy of language, pragmatics seeks to distinguish between semantics (the literal meaning of a word) and syntax (the ways words interact with one another). Semantics focuses on the objects or ideas to which words refer, while syntax focuses on how these relationships are expressed. Pragmatics attempts to explain how these concepts are used in practice by examining the consequences of various linguistic choices.

It is important to note that pragmatism does not deny the existence of transcendent realities. It leaves open the possibility that the ontological claims of religions are true if they are effective in their spiritual goals. For example, if prayer soothes the spirit and helps one cope with life’s difficulties, then it is probably true that prayers are heard.

The pragmatists are influenced by a variety of disciplines including psychology and sociology. This has helped them to become influential in areas such as discourse ethics, although Habermas is critical of Peirce’s notion of inquiry-based analysis of truth, calling it overly idealised (Habermas 2003).

The pragmatist tradition has broad implications and is found in many branches of philosophy. It has been an inspiration for liberatory projects such as feminism and ecology, as well as more practical philosophical endeavours such as the study of language, logic, philosophy of science and education. It has also been incorporated into other philosophical approaches such as Cultural Realism, which is being developed by Richard Rorty, who sees it as an avenue towards a rapprochement with Continental philosophy. It is also found in other philosophies such as Ordinary Language Philosophy, and has strong connections with the work of James and Dewey in their respective fields of philosophy of mind and anthropology. In addition, it has an interest in the social nature of thought and action. A more technical article on this topic can be found in Zalta’s Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Pragmatism.