Pragmatism is a school of philosophy which originated in the United States in the late 1800s. Pragmatism is characterized by the insistence on consequences, utility and practicality as vital components of truth. Pragmatism objects to the view that human concepts and intellect alone accurately represent reality, and therefore stands in opposition to both formalist and rationalist schools of philosophy. Rather, pragmatism holds it is only in the struggle of intelligent organisms with the surrounding environment that theories and data acquire significance. Pragmatism does not hold, however, that just anything that is useful or practical should be regarded as true, or anything that helps us to survive merely in the short-term; pragmatists argue that what should be taken as true is that which most contributes to the most human good over the longest course. In practice, this means that for pragmatists, theoretical claims should be tied to verification practices--i.e., that one should be able to make predictions and test them--and that ultimately the needs of humankind should guide the path of human inquiry.
Pragmatism is perhaps the only peculiarly American school of philosophy. The name denotes a concern for the practical, taking human action and its consequences as the basic measure of truth, value, etc. This translates to experimentation not merely as a method of scientific investigation but as the primary way humans engage each other and the world around them. Different pragmatists have different models of experimentation—some are basically scientific (Charles Sanders Peirce), others so pluralistic and relativist (William James) as to be almost anti-scientific. However, all pragmatists embrace some process(es) of ongoing inquiry and transformation of knowledge as part of the basic task of human societies.
Pragmatism in history
A useful general account of pragmatism's origins during the late 19th and early 20th centuries is Louis Menand's The Metaphysical Club. According to Menand, pragmatism took form largely in response to the work of Charles Darwin (evolution, ongoing process, and a non-epistemological view of history), statistics (the recognition of the role of randomness in the unfolding of events, and of the presence of regularity within randomness), American democracy (values of pluralism and consensus applied to knowledge as well as politics), and in particular the American Civil War (a rejection of the sort of absolutizing or dualizing claims (i.e., to Truth) that provide the philosophical underpinnings of war).
Some pragmatists and related thinkers:
- John Dewey (prominent philosopher of education, referred to his brand of pragmatism as "instrumentalism")
- William James (influential psychologist and theorist of religion, as well as philosopher. First to be widely associated with the term "pragmatism" (due to Peirce's lifelong unpopularity), though he would have preferred "humanist")
- George Herbert Mead (philosopher and social psychologist)
- Reinhold Niebuhr (theologian and social critic)
- Charles Sanders Peirce (note: pronounced "SAWN-ders PURSE": coined the term, though because he was so widely hated and seldom read, was not a prominent figure during his lifetime; he eventually distinguished his own philosophy from James's by calling it "pragmaticism." Peirce was also involved in semiotics)
- Hilary Putnam (though not in the core canon of the neo-pragmatists)
- Willard van Orman Quine (pragmatist philosopher, concerned with language, logic, and philosophy of mathematics)
- Richard Rorty (controversial neo-pragmatist)
- Wilfrid Sellars (broad thinker, attacked foundationalism in the analytic tradition)
- Cornel West (important thinker on race, politics, and religion; operates under the sign of "prophetic pragmatism")