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What is Pragmatism?

Updated on November 20, 2009

Pragmatism is the philosophical attitude that the validity of an idea lies in its practical consequences. Pragmatism is the first American philosophy developed independently of European schools of thought. Pragmatists have agreed with traditional empiricists that ideas must be tested against experience. However, they have departed from the empirical stress on the origin of ideas in experience in order to lay a new stress on the effect of ideas in experience. Charles Sanders Peirce, who first used the word "pragmatism" in 1878 in the Popular Science Monthly, focused on the meaning of ideas, rather than on whether they are true. He held that an idea's meaning consists only of all the practical consequences it might have. Peirce changed the name of his approach to "pragmaticism" after his contemporary William James used the term "pragmatism" to develop Peirce's theory of meaning into a theory of truth.

James held that the consequences of an idea determine its meaning and that the truth of the idea can be measured by whether the consequences work satisfactorily in ordering a person's life. His pragmatic theory is sometimes expressed as "What works is true." James used the pragmatic approach in his theories of morals and religion and also in his influential psychological works. He consistently denied that he was undermining morals and truth by teaching a philosophy of sheer relativism.

Peirce and James were active into the early 20th century. Their contemporary John Dewey, who worked well into the mid-20th century, developed pragmatism into a theory of inquiry that he called instrumentalism. Dewey held that ideas are best thought of simply as instruments, or tools, that men use to inquire into and solve their problems. Dewey believed that most problems are basically social in nature. He particularly applied his pragmatic approach in social and educational theory. His ideas have been highly influential on American liberalism.

In addition to its American advocates, pragmatism gained a noted spokesman in the English thinker F.C.S. Schiller. He agreed basically with James' view that personal satisfaction measures the truth of an idea, but he insisted that this satisfaction is always relative to the individual and to circumstance. Schiller concluded that judgments of true and false, good and bad, and right and wrong can never be absolutely true.


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    • hazelbrown profile image

      hazelbrown 6 years ago from Central PA

      Nice hub! I just took a grad class (religious studies) on pragmatism. A lot of people had trouble distinguishing between "what works is true" and moral relativism. I found it fascinating!