Pragmatism Essay

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United States in the later nineteenth century. It has since enjoyed broad, if sometimes sporadic, influence in philosophy, political science, sociology, legal studies, and, more recently, in literary theory, and also the humanities more generally speaking.

Main Ideas

Pragmatic thought beg ins with the so-called pragmatic maxim, which says, “There is no distinction of meaning so fine as to consist in anything but a possible difference of practice.” The pragmatist holds that any meaningful belief commits one to a particular set of expectations regarding the likely consequences of a given course of action. For example, if one believes that something (e.g., a diamond) is hard, then one is committed to the expectation that it will not be scratched by other substances under normal conditions.

If the meaning of a belief consists in the consequences that are expected to follow from acting on it, its validity depends on whether or not those expectations are met in practice. To the extent that they are not, one is said to be in a state of doubt with respect to that belief. For example, if one believes that a given stone is a diamond, and finds that it fails to scratch glass, then that belief will be thrown into doubt. Doubt for the pragmatist is always practical doubt; that is, to be in doubt is to be uncertain about what to do—just as to have a belief is to be disposed to do things in a certain way. The response to doubt is to posit a new belief—a hypothesis—that would account for the doubts, identifying the consequences that would be expected to follow if that belief were correct, and then acting—experimenting—in such a way to see whether those consequences follow in practice. The pragmatic theory of inquiry is thus closely related to, and was in fact inspired by, the methods of modern experimental science.

According to the pragmatist, inquiry necessarily begins with the beliefs that one actually has—not from a self-evident, context-independent foundation—and when one or more of belief is thrown into doubt inquiry is conducted in order to arrive at better ones—better, again, in the sense of better answering the practical demands of a given context, not of meeting a universal or timeless standard of truth.The pragmatist is therefore not concerned to show how valid beliefs are possible in principle, but only to determine how one should go about revising beliefs once a particular doubt arises.

For the pragmatist, it is not beliefs themselves, but only changes in belief, that are in need of justification—just as for Galileo and Isaac Newton it is not motion itself, but only changes in motion, that are in need of explanation. In fact, doubt itself is only possible against a background of stable beliefs, just as motion can only be perceived against a background of stable reference points. Thus the pragmatist endorses fallibilism while rejecting skepticism: any one of an individual’s beliefs might be called into doubt at any given time, but it is literally unthinkable that all of this person’s beliefs might be called into doubt at the same time.


The philosopher and logician Charles Sanders Peirce (1839– 1914) first formally stated the pragmatic maxim in an essay titled “How to Make Our Ideas Clear,” published in 1878. Peirce’s work was largely ignored until his more famous friend, the philosopher and psychologist William James (1842–1910), drew on it in the lecture “Philosophical Conceptions and Practical Results” that he delivered at Berkeley in 1898, and in a series of essays and lectures that he published over the course of the next decade. It was James who first publicly used the word pragmatism to describe Peirce’s views, and by applying Peirce’s maxim to controversial questions such as the existence of God, the reality of free will, the meaning of truth, and the implications of metaphysical pluralism, he brought the term to the forefront of philosophical debate.

The philosopher and educational theorist John Dewey (1859–1952) most systematically developed pragmatic ideas. Dewey extended these ideas into nearly all of the traditional areas of philosophical inquiry. Along with the sociologist George Herbert Mead (1863–1931), Dewey was also responsible for introducing pragmatism into the social sciences. The pragmatic tradition was largely neglected from the time of Dewey’s death until the 1970s, when the philosopher Richard Rorty (1931–2007) drew attention to the connection between Dewey’s work and some of the central themes in twentieth century philosophy. Rorty’s writings helped spark a rich and far-reaching revival of pragmatic thinking that continues to the present day.

Influence In Political Science

The four aspects of pragmatic thought that have had the greatest influence on the study of politics are (1) its ant essentialism about concepts, (2) its social theory of meaning, (3) its community-oriented theory of inquiry, and (4) its ant foundationalism about matters of justification.

Pragmatists were among the first to argue that social scientists should study the actual practice of politics, rather than the formal properties of political institutions or the formal relationships between political concepts. Prominent examples of this line of inquiry include Oliver Wendell Holmes’s legal realism, Arthur F. Bentley’s process-oriented theory of governance, Harold J. Laski’s pluralistic theory of sovereignty, and Dewey’s functionalist theory of the state.

The idea that meaning is constituted through social practices has led some pragmatists to conclude that social life ultimately rests on communication oriented toward mutual understanding. This idea, which is most closely associated with the work of Mead, has been especially influential in recent German social theory, playing a prominent role, for example, in Jürgen Habermas’s theory of communicative action and in Axel Honneth’s theory of mutual recognition.

The idea that knowledge is best acquired through experimental inquiry has given rise to a distinctively pragmatic strain of democratic theory. Dewey, for example, associates democratic citizenship with participation in an open and inclusive community of inquirers, and Habermas’s defense of deliberative democracy, along with that of Karl-Otto Apel, relies heavily on Peirce’s idea that truth is best thought of as the ideal endpoint of collective inquiry.

Pragmatism’s antifoundational implications have been most influentially explored by Rorty, who argues that social criticism necessarily begins and ends with the ethnocentric self-understanding of a given community. His pragmatic weaving together of themes from postanalytic and postmodern philosophy has given rise to a novel and influential defense of liberalism and has also helped to inspire, among other things, a pragmatic jurisprudence and a pragmatic literary theory.


  1. Apel, Karl-Otto. Charles S. Peirce: From Pragmatism to Pragmaticism. Translated by John Michael Krois. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1981.
  2. Brint, Michael, and William Weaver, eds. Pragmatism in Law and Society Boulder: Westview Press, 1991.
  3. Dewey, John. The Essential Dewey. Edited by Larry A. Hickman and Thomas M. Alexander. 2 vols. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998.
  4. Dickstein, Morris, ed. The Revival of Pragmatism: New Essays on Social Thought, Law, and Culture. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1998.
  5. James, William. Pragmatism and the Meaning of Truth. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1978.
  6. Joas, Hans. Pragmatism and Social Theory. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993.
  7. Mead, George Herbert. Selected Writings. Edited by Andrew J. Reck. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1964.
  8. Peirce, Charles Sanders. The Essential Peirce. Edited by Nathan Houser and Christian Kloesel. 2 vols. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998.
  9. Rorty, Richard. Consequences of Pragmatism: Essays, 1972–1980. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1982.
  10. Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

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