Pragmatism and its influence on contemporary philosophy

Truth is what works.
The Buddha

Pragmatism is sometimes considered as American national philosophy because of its emphasis on the practical side of things. It is perceived as embodying the spirit of modern industrial capitalism as well as the outlook of modern science, that is, science in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (before the advent of relativity and quantum mechanics). Americans as a nation have always been more interested in getting things done rather than in intricate abstract theories which do not motivate action and have not much of a practical relevance. The philosophy of pragmatism codifies this attitude into a formal structure, though it is much more than the mindset of a progressive nation.

Philosophy has always been thought of as the search for truth. But pragmatism deviates from this paradigm. It does not seek so much to answer the questions What is true and What can we believe in as it seeks to probe How does something work for us if we believe in it The English philosopher C.E.M Joad, in 1924, described pragmatism as being more of a philosophical attitude than a philosophical theory. This is so because the main proponents of pragmatism  Charles Peirce, William James, John Dewey, George Mead, F.C.S. Schiller and others  had significantly divergent views with regard to nature of reality and our place within the universe, but still stuck to the pragmatist framework. The Columbia Encylopedia (2007) defines Pragmatism as a method of philosophy in which the truth of a proposition is measured by its correspondence with experimental results and by its practical outcome. As such, it is a method of philosophy or an approach to philosophy rather than a body of philosophical doctrine.

Although it has ancient roots, the modern philosophical tradition of pragmatism was popularized by the American psychologist and philosopher William James (1842  1910) around the turn of the century. James accredited his long-time friend and fellow member of The Metaphysical Club, Charles Sanders Peirce (1839  1914), for originating the basic concepts of pragmatism. Despite the fact that most of his works were only published posthumously, Peirce is generally regarded as the founding father of pragmatism. Another towering philosopher prominently associated with the school of pragmatism is John Dewy (1859  1952).
Pragmatism was very much in vogue in the early decades of the twentieth century but its influence gradually declined in the subsequent decades. However, since the 1970s it saw something of a revival and the ideas of the classical pragmatists once again gained circulation. Thinkers such as Richard Rorty and Hilary Putnam have tried to extend the scope pragmatist thinking so that they could become more relevant to the modern world. 

The philosophy of pragmatism is hence both influential and evolving nearly one hundred years after its heyday. But its essence remains the same, which is encapsulated in the pragmatist maxim of logic as originally formulated by Peirce in the 1870 in a paper titled How to Make our Ideas Clear
It appears, then, that the rule for attaining the third grade of clearness of apprehension is as follows Consider what effects, which might conceivably have practical bearings, we conceive the object of our conception to have. Then, our conception of these effects is the whole of our conception of the object. (Wikipedia)

The pragmatist maxim suggests a method for clarifying the validity of a proposition by mapping it to its practical consequences (although the term practical consequence is not clearly defined). Peirce himself has tried on several occasions to clarify his maxim by restating it and elaborating upon it, but put simply it means We clarify a concept by identifying its practical consequences. In other words, if a concept of truth does not have any practical consequences of note, it can be dismissed as having no power in promoting our understanding of the world. Utilitarianism, in a very broad sense, is the touchstone of philosophical theorizing. The pragmatist maxim urges us to think about what a philosophical proposition means in terms of action and what are the consequences of its truth.

As William James put it
Pragmatism asks its usual question Grant an idea or belief to be true, it says, what concrete difference will its being true make in anyones actual life How will the truth be realized What experiences will be different from those which would obtain if the belief were false What, in short, is the truths cash-value in experiential terms (

As we can see, realization and experience are more important than merely mental conceptualizing. Pragmatism was above all a movement to bring out philosophy from the obscure metaphysical gropings that philosophers such as Kant and Hegel indulged in and into the broad daylight of everyday action. At first it might appear strange that pragmatism emerged from the discussions of the members of The Metaphysical Club, but this is in fact very understandable. Pragmatism is an approach, an effort, a movement, to make deeper things of life such as metaphysics, epistemology, the study of mind and consciousness, more relevant and applicable to the day to day world. Pragmatism can be seen as a bridge between the two dominant streams of thought in the philosophical tradition, the metaphysical rationalism and the scientific empiricism. Pragmatism is in fact a bridge or via media between several opposing trends, and as such can be seen as advocating the Middle Way, just in the manner Buddha did in the ancient world.

William James is the person who is usually most closely associated with pragmatism. Adhering to the pragmatist mode of thinking, in his lectures on pragmatism that first popularized the subject James did not really seek to expound the doctrine of pragmatism by offering formal definitions (in the manner of Wittgenstein, for example) but sought to elucidate the approach by offering relatable examples. Perhaps the best way to understand pragmatism is through examples, knowing how it is applied rather than just what it is. Just as James is known for pragmatism in the discipline of philosophy, he is known for functionalism in psychology. The functionalist school of psychology was built upon the philosophical basis of pragmatism. A very good way of seeing pragmatism in action  the application of the pragmatic method  is therefore by following the evolution of functionalism.

Functionalism is the pioneering school of thought in experimental psychology founded by William James and John Dewey in the 1880s. It emerged as a response to the structuralism, the very first school of modern psychology. Psychology as a formal scientific discipline had originated in the latter decades of the nineteenth century in Germany. In 1874, Wilhelm Wundt published his textbook of psychology titled Principles of Physiological Psychology and founded structuralism. In 1879 in Leipzig Wundt established a laboratory wholly dedicated to psychological research. On the other side of the Atlantic at around the same time, the psychology movement in America too was gathering momentum. A disciple of Wundt, Stanley Hall, returned to America and started the first American laboratory dedicated to experimental psychology at Johns Hopkins University in 1883. In the following years, numerous American universities set up their own research laboratories in the field of psychology. In 1890 there appeared a psychology textbook written by a professor at Harvard which would be highly influential in shaping the trends of psychological thought in America and around the world William James Principles of Psychology. This work also laid the foundations of functionalism and pragmatism.

Both functionalism and structuralism pioneered the rigorous method of experimental psychology. Wilhelm Wundt is known as the father of psychology, though often William James shares with him this unique distinction. Wundt began his experimental researches into the subject with a view to apply the objective scientific methodology to the study of the human mind. He showed a particular interest in a wide range of issues related to the study of human perception. Wundt and his fellow German researchers sought to investigate the nature of consciousness by studying its various components such as perception, sensation and affection. They trained their subjects to give reasonably reliable reports of their internal experiences within the experimental setup. Through eliciting the introspective descriptions of consciousness, these psychologists explored the hidden patterns of sensory elements (Boring 1953). Ultimately the structuralists wanted to answer the big question What is consciousness Their counterparts in the United States, however, felt that it was more pragmatic and useful to investigate the question What is consciousness used for. They wanted to study the function of basic mental processes that constitute consciousness, and hence they have come to be known as functionalists. So as to explain the normal mental processes in a more reliable manner, they placed a great emphasis on the study of the purpose of individual human behavior (Fancher 1996).

Pragmatism and functionalism can be considered to be offshoots of Darwins theory of evolution, and sometimes Charles Darwin is featured in the lists of major functionalist thinkers. Darwins theory of natural selection inspired the basic approach of functionalism. Darwin postulated that animals living in an ecosystem develop certain specific characteristics in order to better adapt to their environment. The individual animals which are better adapted to their environment have greater chances of survival as compared to those which failed to evolve such adaptive features. Darwins theories implicated a major paradigm shift from Newtons and Descartes mechanistic model of a clockwork universe. In Darwins worldview, Nature is an unpredictable and chaotic force. The pragmatists  functionalists rejected Descartes worldview in favor of that of Darwin. Hence in functionalism behavior was looked upon as more of an outcome of adaptive features rather than of some innate characteristics of a person. There was a great stress on the individual variations from person to person, rather than on the presumed universal laws of human behavior. As opposed to structuralism which directed its attention to look into the elements  structures  aspects of consciousness, functionalism was more interested in studying the relation of the mental processes of consciousness to the actual behavior.

This, in a sense, is the essence of the pragmatic approach. There is nothing wrong in studying the nature of consciousness in itself, but there is a more urgent need to study the conscious person in dynamic interaction with the environment.  

One would think that functionalism and structuralism complemented each other well, just in the way the study of structure and function of any object would, and that there is no essential dichotomy between these two. However such was not the case. These two schools of thought clashed because their worldviews differed fundamentally. As we have seen, structuralism aligned itself with Descartes model of a stable universe run on deterministic cause-and-effect principles, whereas functionalism was inspired by a more organic, flux-like model of the universe along the lines of Darwinian theory of evolution. Functionalism is a natural outgrowth of a pragmatist approach to the study of life and mind. Because of its emphasis on practical relevance, the philosophy of pragmatism moved into the domain of psychology, and further the psychological theories tried to translate themselves into social and educational practices.

At the turn of the century, pragmatism and functionalism were the philosophical doctrines capturing the imaginations of the American psychologists, and William James and John Dewey were the dominant intellectual figures. Pragmatism and functionalism were both very action-oriented programs... One appeal of such approaches is their potential for action research in real-life settings, with consequences for policy changes in educational and social practices. It was this seductive appeal to relevance that attracted American psychologists... 

On the one hand the philosophy of pragmatism sought to trickle down into every day life via its application to psychology, sociology and educational theories, but at the same time it ventured into the field of religion. A seminal work by William James is The Varieties of Religious Experience A Study of Human Nature, published in 1902. Religion usually deals with empty theological doctrines and beliefs, but there is component to most of the religions of the world called mysticism which is a search to realize and experience transcendence of self in this very life. James tried to analyze the nature of mysticism and concerned himself with the validity of the mystic experience. James believed mystical states of consciousness to be real and profound experiences, and available to most people.

In the field of religion, the Buddha was the first pragmatist who tried to divest religion from all theological doctrines and focused solely on that which can be experienced and attained. The tradition of Zen Buddhism developed from this emphasis on practice and achievement and marginalization of abstract metaphysical theory. As James acknowledges in the very title of his lectures on pragmatism, Pragmatism A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking (1907), though pragmatism is usually associated with America and American mindset, it had been prevalent in various parts of the world in different times of history. Pragmatism also drew inspiration from several famous Western (European) philosophers from Francis Bacon to J.S. Mill.

What James tried was to comprehensively systematize this pragmatic approach to life. He pursued far-ranging enquiries in America across the fields of psychology, philosophy and religious studies between 1890 and 1910  all of them within the framework of pragmatism.

Next in importance only to James was John Dewey, who was his younger contemporary and outlived James by several decades in which time he continued to contribute much to expand the scope of pragmatism and functionalism. Dewey wrote extensively about ethics, education and democracy, he also explored the role of religion and its relevance to society in his work, A Common Faith. Today, Dewy is considered as one of the (three) founders of pragmatism and a pioneer of the functionalist school in psychology as well as a great educational reformer. His approach to pragmatism was particularly influenced by Darwins theory of evolution. He also tried to reconcile pragmatism with its antithesis, Hegelian idealism. Dewey called his brand of pragmatism as instrumentalism and made a distinctive contribution in applying pragmatic instrumentalism to the psychological and social problems of education. He offered analysis of turbulent political situations across the world during his time. Dewey aspired to see a world free from poverty, ignorance, injustice, and disease, which he believed could be achieved if mans primitive impulses could be channeled through his higher rational faculties.

To help humans better adapt to their environment  was the primary thrust of functionalism  pragmatism. It is in consonance with the modes of thinking such as individualism and progressivism that characterized the dynamic American society at the turn of the century. Functionalism  pragmatism evolved with a belief that psychology and philosophy could play an important role in the betterment of society.

Pragmatism continues to have influence, directly or indirectly, on contemporary thought and society. Pragmatists originally set out to reform philosophy and bring it more in line with the scientific method so that it can bear tangible fruits. Though pragmatism was eclipsed by other streams of psychology and philosophy that dominated the mid-twentieth century, its light went on coruscating in many of these other streams. Behaviorism was the successor to the functionalist school it is an extreme and almost a perverted form of pragmatism, deriving its basic experimental methodology from functionalism. Later behaviorism paved way for cognitive science and in this wide-ranging field of cognitive science pragmatism can be considered to have found its fulfillment. The cognitive revolution took place in the 50s and 60s when cognitive psychology, which incorporated methodologies from structuralism and functionalism, mingled with philosophy, neuroscience and computer science to form a new super discipline. Like pragmatism, cognitive science is a synthesis of widely varying schools of thoughts and disciplines with a heavy slant on practical application. For decades now cognitive psychology has been the dominant paradigm in psychology and in it the pragmatic approach very much lives.

Moreover, a broad category of philosophy has emerged in the last decades of the 20th century that goes by the name of neopragmatism. It encompasses a wide variety of thinkers, who like their classical predecessors may diverge from one another markedly yet respect some easily identifiable pragmatist tenets. The approaches of these neopragmatists, such as C.I. Lewis, Hilary Putnam, Richard Rorty, Robert Brandom, are based on certain critical insights of the founders and pioneers of pragmatism but at the same time the neo breed have strong criticisms of the classical breed.  But there are also neoclassical pragmatists like Sidney Hook and Susan Haack who consider themselves to be the true inheritors of the classical pragmatists and criticize the neopragmatists on grounds such as excessive relativism. The welter of contemporary philosophers and their philosophies may be confusing but from all this complex variegation shines the simple pragmatist maxim that human consequences are the ultimate test of validity for all our abstract notions and conceptual discoveries. Something is truth, as William James said echoing the Buddha, only in so far as it works. 


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