What is Pragmatic Philosophy?

Pragmatic is a word often used to describe people who are practical and reasonable. When someone is pragmatic, they are able to see all of the options and possibilities, then choose the most realistic path. Pragmatic people tend to focus on the end goal and are willing to compromise to get there. In philosophical circles, pragmatism is usually contrasted with idealism.

William James introduced a new name to an old way of thinking in 1907. He argued that philosophy has always been dominated by a clash between two different temperaments: the tough-minded who want to go by experience and the facts, and the tender-minded who prefer a priori principles based on ratiocination. He promised that pragmatism would bridge the gap and offer a new approach to truth.

A number of contemporary philosophers have taken up James’ challenge. The resulting pragmatist tradition is a growing third alternative to both the analytic and Continental philosophical traditions.

Pragmatism has many areas of rich philosophical application. Classic pragmatists (Charles Sanders Peirce, William James and Josiah Royce) worked on logic, epistemology, ethics, aesthetics, social theory and metaphysics, but pragmatism is currently most associated with the pragmatics of language. Pragmatics is a broad discipline that deals with the semantics of language and its pragmatic interpretations in context. It focuses on the fact that meaning is incremental and not just reflexive. It examines the ways that ambiguous language functions and enables us to understand what is really being said.

In the philosophy of science, pragmatism offers a new view of scientific method. It recognizes that scientific knowledge is a construct of human imagination and intuition, which is why the best scientist must combine a keen understanding of the facts with an ability to create hypotheses and test them. This is a process of pragmatic inference, and it is the essence of scientific inquiry.

Most pragmatists share a critical view of formal logic, arguing that it is too narrow and prescriptive in its assumptions about the nature of knowledge and the way that language works. This stance was influenced by the work of Charles Sanders Peirce and Stephen Toulmin. Contemporary pragmatists also employ the tools of semiotics, the study of signs and their relations to one another and to their interpreters.

Pragmatism has recently experienced a surge in popularity as a result of Richard Rorty’s bold and iconoclastic attacks on mainstream epistemology’s naive conception of language as’mirroring’ the world. His admonitions have birthed a movement called neopragmatism that has seen the participation of influential contemporary philosophers such as Hilary Putnam and Robert Brandom. Some neopragmatists have objected to Rorty’s blithe dismissal of truth as a topic that is better left undiscussed, but others have attempted to rehabilitate classical pragmatist ideals of objective truth-seeking. The pragmatists’ insights into the nature of knowledge have become very relevant in recent times with the rapid growth of scientific advances in evolutionary biology and information technology. In these areas, pragmatism can provide an approach to understanding how knowledge and truth are constructed that is both logically sound and practically helpful.