Theory, originally developed by American scientist and philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914), that the meanings of concepts and propositions lay in their possible effects on our experiences and practices. He also originated the pragmatic theory of truth.

Peirce was thinking mainly of scientific or intellectual concepts, and called his own view pragmaticism when his follower William James (1842-1910) broadened the theory to cover the senses and emotions.

Another notable pragmatist was the American educationalist John Dewey (1859-1952). More generally, pragmatist features can be found in many philosophers otherwise not closely related, such as Henri Bergson (1859-1941), Frank Plumpton Ramsey (1903-1930), and many writers associated with conventionalism, instrumentalism, operationalism and positivism.

A Rorty, ed.. Pragmatic Philosophy (1966)


Charles Peirce: the American polymath who first identified pragmatism

Pragmatism as a philosophical movement began in the United States around 1870.[2] Charles Sanders Peirce (and his pragmatic maxim) is given credit for its development,[3] along with later 20th century contributors, William James and John Dewey.[4] Its direction was determined by The Metaphysical Club members Charles Sanders Peirce, William James, and Chauncey Wright as well as John Dewey and George Herbert Mead.

The first use in print of the name pragmatism was in 1898 by James, who credited Peirce with coining the term during the early 1870s.[5] James regarded Peirce’s “Illustrations of the Logic of Science” series (including “The Fixation of Belief” (1877), and especially “How to Make Our Ideas Clear” (1878)) as the foundation of pragmatism.[6][7] Peirce in turn wrote in 1906[8] that Nicholas St. John Green had been instrumental by emphasizing the importance of applying Alexander Bain’s definition of belief, which was “that upon which a man is prepared to act”. Peirce wrote that “from this definition, pragmatism is scarce more than a corollary; so that I am disposed to think of him as the grandfather of pragmatism”. John Shook has said, “Chauncey Wright also deserves considerable credit, for as both Peirce and James recall, it was Wright who demanded a phenomenalist and fallibilist empiricism as an alternative to rationalistic speculation.”[9]

Peirce developed the idea that inquiry depends on real doubt, not mere verbal or hyperbolic doubt,[10] and said that, in order to understand a conception in a fruitful way, “Consider the practical effects of the objects of your conception. Then, your conception of those effects is the whole of your conception of the object”,[1] which he later called the pragmatic maxim. It equates any conception of an object to the general extent of the conceivable implications for informed practice of that object’s effects. This is the heart of his pragmatism as a method of experimentational mental reflection arriving at conceptions in terms of conceivable confirmatory and disconfirmatory circumstances—a method hospitable to the generation of explanatory hypotheses, and conducive to the employment and improvement of verification. Typical of Peirce is his concern with inference to explanatory hypotheses as outside the usual foundational alternative between deductivist rationalism and inductivist empiricism, although he was a mathematical logician and a founder of statistics.

Peirce lectured and further wrote on pragmatism to make clear his own interpretation. While framing a conception’s meaning in terms of conceivable tests, Peirce emphasized that, since a conception is general, its meaning, its intellectual purport, equates to its acceptance’s implications for general practice, rather than to any definite set of real effects (or test results); a conception’s clarified meaning points toward its conceivable verifications, but the outcomes are not meanings, but individual upshots. Peirce in 1905 coined the new name pragmaticism “for the precise purpose of expressing the original definition”,[11] saying that “all went happily” with James’s and F. C. S. Schiller’s variant uses of the old name “pragmatism” and that he nonetheless coined the new name because of the old name’s growing use in “literary journals, where it gets abused”. Yet in a 1906 manuscript, he cited as causes his differences with James and Schiller.[12] and, in a 1908 publication,[13] his differences with James as well as literary author Giovanni Papini. Peirce in any case regarded his views that truth is immutable and infinity is real, as being opposed by the other pragmatists, but he remained allied with them on other issues.[13]

Pragmatism enjoyed renewed attention after Willard Van Orman Quine and Wilfrid Sellars used a revised pragmatism to criticize logical positivism in the 1960s. Inspired by the work of Quine and Sellars, a brand of pragmatism known sometimes as neopragmatism gained influence through Richard Rorty, the most influential of the late 20th century pragmatists along with Hilary Putnam and Robert Brandom. Contemporary pragmatism may be broadly divided into a strict analytic tradition and a “neo-classical” pragmatism (such as Susan Haack) that adheres to the work of Peirce, James, and Dewey.

Core tenets

A few of the various but often interrelated positions characteristic of philosophers working from a pragmatist approach include:

  • Epistemology (justification): a coherentist theory of justification that rejects the claim that all knowledge and justified belief rest ultimately on a foundation of noninferential knowledge or justified belief. Coherentists hold that justification is solely a function of some relationship between beliefs, none of which are privileged beliefs in the way maintained by foundationalist theories of justification.
  • Epistemology (truth): a deflationary or pragmatic theory of truth; the former is the epistemological claim that assertions that predicate truth of a statement do not attribute a property called truth to such a statement while the latter is the epistemological claim that assertions that predicate truth of a statement attribute the property of useful-to-believe to such a statement.
  • Metaphysics: a pluralist view that there is more than one sound way to conceptualize the world and its content.
  • Philosophy of science: an instrumentalist and scientific anti-realist view that a scientific concept or theory should be evaluated by how effectively it explains and predicts phenomena, as opposed to how accurately it describes objective reality.
  • Philosophy of language: an anti-representationalist view that rejects analyzing the semantic meaning of propositions, mental states, and statements in terms of a correspondence or representational relationship and instead analyzes semantic meaning in terms of notions like dispositions to action, inferential relationships, and/or functional roles (e.g. behaviorism and inferentialism). Not to be confused with pragmatics, a sub-field of linguistics with no relation to philosophical pragmatism.
  • Additionally, forms of empiricism, fallibilism, verificationism, and a Quinean naturalist metaphilosophy are all commonly elements of pragmatist philosophies. Many pragmatists are epistemological relativists and see this to be an important facet of their pragmatism (e.g. Joseph Margolis), but this is controversial and other pragmatists argue such relativism to be seriously misguided (e.g. Hilary Putnam, Susan Haack).

Anti-reification of concepts and theories

Dewey in The Quest for Certainty criticized what he called “the philosophical fallacy”: Philosophers often take categories (such as the mental and the physical) for granted because they don’t realize that these are nominal concepts that were invented to help solve specific problems.[14] This causes metaphysical and conceptual confusion. Various examples are the “ultimate Being” of Hegelian philosophers, the belief in a “realm of value”, the idea that logic, because it is an abstraction from concrete thought, has nothing to do with the action of concrete thinking.

David L. Hildebrand summarized the problem: “Perceptual inattention to the specific functions comprising inquiry led realists and idealists alike to formulate accounts of knowledge that project the products of extensive abstraction back onto experience.”[14]:40

Naturalism and anti-Cartesianism[edit]

From the outset, pragmatists wanted to reform philosophy and bring it more in line with the scientific method as they understood it. They argued that idealist and realist philosophy had a tendency to present human knowledge as something beyond what science could grasp. They held that these philosophies then resorted either to a phenomenology inspired by Kant or to correspondence theories of knowledge and truth.[citation needed] Pragmatists criticized the former for its a priorism, and the latter because it takes correspondence as an unanalyzable fact. Pragmatism instead tries to explain the relation between knower and known.

In 1868,[15] C.S. Peirce argued that there is no power of intuition in the sense of a cognition unconditioned by inference, and no power of introspection, intuitive or otherwise, and that awareness of an internal world is by hypothetical inference from external facts. Introspection and intuition were staple philosophical tools at least since Descartes. He argued that there is no absolutely first cognition in a cognitive process; such a process has its beginning but can always be analyzed into finer cognitive stages. That which we call introspection does not give privileged access to knowledge about the mind—the self is a concept that is derived from our interaction with the external world and not the other way around (De Waal 2005, pp. 7–10). At the same time he held persistently that pragmatism and epistemology in general could not be derived from principles of psychology understood as a special science:[16] what we do think is too different from what we should think; in his “Illustrations of the Logic of Science” series, Peirce formulated both pragmatism and principles of statistics as aspects of scientific method in general.[17] This is an important point of disagreement with most other pragmatists, who advocate a more thorough naturalism and psychologism.

Richard Rorty expanded on these and other arguments in Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature in which he criticized attempts by many philosophers of science to carve out a space for epistemology that is entirely unrelated to—and sometimes thought of as superior to—the empirical sciences. W.V. Quine, instrumental in bringing naturalized epistemology back into favor with his essay “Epistemology Naturalized” (Quine 1969), also criticized “traditional” epistemology and its “Cartesian dream” of absolute certainty. The dream, he argued, was impossible in practice as well as misguided in theory, because it separates epistemology from scientific inquiry.

Hilary Putnam asserts that the combination of antiskepticism and fallibilism is a central feature of pragmatism.

Reconciliation of anti-skepticism and fallibilism

Hilary Putnam has suggested that the reconciliation of anti-skepticism[18] and fallibilism is the central goal of American pragmatism.[citation needed] Although all human knowledge is partial, with no ability to take a “God’s-eye-view”, this does not necessitate a globalized skeptical attitude, a radical philosophical skepticism (as distinguished from that which is called scientific skepticism). Peirce insisted that (1) in reasoning, there is the presupposition, and at least the hope,[19] that truth and the real are discoverable and would be discovered, sooner or later but still inevitably, by investigation taken far enough,[1] and (2) contrary to Descartes’ famous and influential methodology in the Meditations on First Philosophy, doubt cannot be feigned or created by verbal fiat to motivate fruitful inquiry, and much less can philosophy begin in universal doubt.[20] Doubt, like belief, requires justification. Genuine doubt irritates and inhibits, in the sense that belief is that upon which one is prepared to act.[1] It arises from confrontation with some specific recalcitrant matter of fact (which Dewey called a “situation”), which unsettles our belief in some specific proposition. Inquiry is then the rationally self-controlled process of attempting to return to a settled state of belief about the matter. Note that anti-skepticism is a reaction to modern academic skepticism in the wake of Descartes. The pragmatist insistence that all knowledge is tentative is quite congenial to the older skeptical tradition.

Pragmatist theory of truth and epistemology

Pragmatism was not the first to apply evolution to theories of knowledge: Schopenhauer advocated a biological idealism as what’s useful to an organism to believe might differ wildly from what is true. Here knowledge and action are portrayed as two separate spheres with an absolute or transcendental truth above and beyond any sort of inquiry organisms used to cope with life. Pragmatism challenges this idealism by providing an “ecological” account of knowledge: inquiry is how organisms can get a grip on their environment. Real and true are functional labels in inquiry and cannot be understood outside of this context. It is not realist in a traditionally robust sense of realism (what Hilary Putnam later called metaphysical realism), but it is realist in how it acknowledges an external world which must be dealt with.[citation needed]

Many of James’ best-turned phrases—”truth’s cash value” (James 1907, p. 200) and “the true is only the expedient in our way of thinking” (James 1907, p. 222)—were taken out of context and caricatured in contemporary literature as representing the view where any idea with practical utility is true. William James wrote:

It is high time to urge the use of a little imagination in philosophy. The unwillingness of some of our critics to read any but the silliest of possible meanings into our statements is as discreditable to their imaginations as anything I know in recent philosophic history. Schiller says the truth is that which “works.” Thereupon he is treated as one who limits verification to the lowest material utilities. Dewey says truth is what gives “satisfaction”! He is treated as one who believes in calling everything true which, if it were true, would be pleasant. (James 1907, p. 90)

In reality, James asserts, the theory is a great deal more subtle. (See Dewey 1910 for a “FAQ.”)

The role of belief in representing reality is widely debated in pragmatism. Is a belief valid when it represents reality? “Copying is one (and only one) genuine mode of knowing” (James 1907, p. 91). Are beliefs dispositions which qualify as true or false depending on how helpful they prove in inquiry and in action? Is it only in the struggle of intelligent organisms with the surrounding environment that beliefs acquire meaning? Does a belief only become true when it succeeds in this struggle? In James’s pragmatism nothing practical or useful is held to be necessarily true nor is anything which helps to survive merely in the short term. For example, to believe my cheating spouse is faithful may help me feel better now, but it is certainly not useful from a more long-term perspective because it doesn’t accord with the facts (and is therefore not true).

In other fields of philosophy

While pragmatism started simply as a criterion of meaning, it quickly expanded to become a full-fledged epistemology with wide-ranging implications for the entire philosophical field. Pragmatists who work in these fields share a common inspiration, but their work is diverse and there are no received views.

Philosophy of science

In the philosophy of science, instrumentalism is the view that concepts and theories are merely useful instruments and progress in science cannot be couched in terms of concepts and theories somehow mirroring reality. Instrumentalist philosophers often define scientific progress as nothing more than an improvement in explaining and predicting phenomena. Instrumentalism does not state that truth does not matter, but rather provides a specific answer to the question of what truth and falsity mean and how they function in science.

One of C. I. Lewis’ main arguments in Mind and the World Order: Outline of a Theory of Knowledge (1929) was that science does not merely provide a copy of reality but must work with conceptual systems and that those are chosen for pragmatic reasons, that is, because they aid inquiry. Lewis’ own development of multiple modal logics is a case in point. Lewis is sometimes called a proponent of conceptual pragmatism because of this.[21]

Another development is the cooperation of logical positivism and pragmatism in the works of Charles W. Morris and Rudolf Carnap. The influence of pragmatism on these writers is mostly limited to the incorporation of the pragmatic maxim into their epistemology. Pragmatists with a broader conception of the movement do not often refer to them.

W. V. Quine’s paper “Two Dogmas of Empiricism”, published in 1951, is one of the more celebrated papers of 20th-century philosophy in the analytic tradition. The paper is an attack on two central tenets of the logical positivists’ philosophy. One is the distinction between analytic statements (tautologies and contradictions) whose truth (or falsehood) is a function of the meanings of the words in the statement (‘all bachelors are unmarried’), and synthetic statements, whose truth (or falsehood) is a function of (contingent) states of affairs. The other is reductionism, the theory that each meaningful statement gets its meaning from some logical construction of terms which refers exclusively to immediate experience. Quine’s argument brings to mind Peirce’s insistence that axioms are not a priori truths but synthetic statements.


Later in his life Schiller became famous for his attacks on logic in his textbook, Formal Logic. By then, Schiller’s pragmatism had become the nearest of any of the classical pragmatists to an ordinary language philosophy. Schiller sought to undermine the very possibility of formal logic, by showing that words only had meaning when used in context. The least famous of Schiller’s main works was the constructive sequel to his destructive book Formal Logic. In this sequel, Logic for Use, Schiller attempted to construct a new logic to replace the formal logic that he had criticized in Formal Logic. What he offers is something philosophers would recognize today as a logic covering the context of discovery and the hypothetico-deductive method.

Whereas Schiller dismissed the possibility of formal logic, most pragmatists are critical rather of its pretension to ultimate validity and see logic as one logical tool among others—or perhaps, considering the multitude of formal logics, one set of tools among others. This is the view of C. I. Lewis. C. S. Peirce developed multiple methods for doing formal logic.

Stephen Toulmin’s The Uses of Argument inspired scholars in informal logic and rhetoric studies (although it is an epistemological work).


James and Dewey were empirical thinkers in the most straightforward fashion: experience is the ultimate test and experience is what needs to be explained. They were dissatisfied with ordinary empiricism because, in the tradition dating from Hume, empiricists had a tendency to think of experience as nothing more than individual sensations. To the pragmatists, this went against the spirit of empiricism: we should try to explain all that is given in experience including connections and meaning, instead of explaining them away and positing sense data as the ultimate reality. Radical empiricism, or Immediate Empiricism in Dewey’s words, wants to give a place to meaning and value instead of explaining them away as subjective additions to a world of whizzing atoms.

The “Chicago Club” including Mead, Dewey, Angell, and Moore. Pragmatism is sometimes called American pragmatism because so many of its proponents were and are Americans.

William James gives an interesting example of this philosophical shortcoming:

[A young graduate] began by saying that he had always taken for granted that when you entered a philosophic classroom you had to open relations with a universe entirely distinct from the one you left behind you in the street. The two were supposed, he said, to have so little to do with each other, that you could not possibly occupy your mind with them at the same time. The world of concrete personal experiences to which the street belongs is multitudinous beyond imagination, tangled, muddy, painful and perplexed. The world to which your philosophy-professor introduces you is simple, clean and noble. The contradictions of real life are absent from it. … In point of fact it is far less an account of this actual world than a clear addition built upon it … It is no explanation of our concrete universe (James 1907, pp. 8–9)

F. C. S. Schiller’s first book Riddles of the Sphinx was published before he became aware of the growing pragmatist movement taking place in America. In it, Schiller argues for a middle ground between materialism and absolute metaphysics. These opposites are comparable to what William James called tough-minded empiricism and tender-minded rationalism. Schiller contends on the one hand that mechanistic naturalism cannot make sense of the “higher” aspects of our world. These include free will, consciousness, purpose, universals and some would add God. On the other hand, abstract metaphysics cannot make sense of the “lower” aspects of our world (e.g. the imperfect, change, physicality). While Schiller is vague about the exact sort of middle ground he is trying to establish, he suggests that metaphysics is a tool that can aid inquiry, but that it is valuable only insofar as it does help in explanation.

In the second half of the 20th century, Stephen Toulmin argued that the need to distinguish between reality and appearance only arises within an explanatory scheme and therefore that there is no point in asking what “ultimate reality” consists of. More recently, a similar idea has been suggested by the postanalytic philosopher Daniel Dennett, who argues that anyone who wants to understand the world has to acknowledge both the “syntactical” aspects of reality (i.e., whizzing atoms) and its emergent or “semantic” properties (i.e., meaning and value).[citation needed]

Radical empiricism gives answers to questions about the limits of science, the nature of meaning and value and the workability of reductionism. These questions feature prominently in current debates about the relationship between religion and science, where it is often assumed—most pragmatists would disagree—that science degrades everything that is meaningful into “merely” physical phenomena.

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