rhino sleeping

Pragmatism comes from the ancient Greek word pragma, meaning act or deed.  Like Positivists, Pragmatists support science and verificationism, but they also argue for fallibility, that accepted truth could always be wrong, and conceptual relativity, that our ideas, conceptions and explanations correspond and conform to the real shared world, but only relatively, not absolutely.  Truth must be verified, but continuously, much as Wittgenstein hoped to demonstrate to Russell as he searched Russell’s room for a potential hidden rhino.  For Pragmatists, the goal of philosophy is not a system of truths, but intelligent practice.  Theories are maps, tools for solving particular problems, and they can be used with relative intelligence or ignorance.

wittgenstein graf

Pragmatists argue that both realism and idealism distort our picture of how knowledge works.  Realists, such as the Logical Positivists, rely on correspondence, whereas Idealists, such as Kantians and Hegelians, rely on metaphysics.  Against realism and much like Hegel and later Wittgenstein, Pragmatists argue that there is no Kantian ‘thing-in-itself’ beyond our conceptions to which our conceptions correspond.  Anything to which our concepts could compare themselves for verification is itself conceptualized, so our concepts cannot be compared to a preconceptualized world.  Against Idealism and much like Nietzsche and Heidegger, Pragmatists argue that there are no metaphysical rules beyond our conceptions by which our conceptions are determined, so our concepts should not be idealized as pure abstractions or immutable rules.

capital t and lower case t truth

Pragmatism attempts to balance the dogmatic faith in certainty with the skeptical doubt of absolute truth.  Genuine truth is obtained through inquiry, though it is never absolute or ideal.  This is sometimes referred to as lower case ‘t’ truth versus upper case ‘T’ Truth.  Knowledge and theory evolve, and so our conceptions and our practice involving these conceptions are always works-in-progress.  In various situations, there are particular justifications for belief and particular justifications for doubt, and these are weighed wisely or foolishly.  There is similarity here with the insight of Nietzsche that philosophy is a self-confession, a display of what one has done in life and what one hopes to do.


Charles Sanders Peirce (1839 – 1914 CE, pronounced ‘purse’ like the handbag, not ‘pierce’, like puncture) is considered the founder of Pragmatism.  While employed as a chemist, he made major contributions to philosophy, linguistics, logic and mathematics.  He met fellow founding pragmatist William James at Harvard, and the two were the founding members of the Metaphysical Club in 1872.  Peirce, James and the other club members wanted to free philosophy from Continental metaphysics, influenced by Hume, Berkeley, Kant and Hegel but in opposition to the metaphysical framework of their ideas.  As an undergraduate, Peirce slowly worked his way through Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, reading a few pages a day.  Later, Peirce lectured on logic at Johns Hopkins University, where fellow founding Pragmatist John Dewey studied with him as his student.  Bertrand Russell, not a fan of Utilitarianism or Pragmatism, considered Peirce to be the greatest of American philosophers.  Karl Popper, a philosopher of science we will examine next week, believed Peirce to be one of the greatest philosophers to have lived.

Alexander Bain

James credited Peirce with coining the term ‘Pragmatism’, though Peirce credited Alexander Bain with the invention of its core idea, as Bain had defined belief’ as that upon which one is willing to act.  This is similar in ways to the Unity of Knowledge and Action of the Neo-Confucian Wang Yangming, the idea that if one does not act compassionately, one does not in fact believe in compassion no matter how well one has memorized Confucius’ Analects.  Note that this says nothing about the abstract truth of the belief, but only that it is practically capable of inspiring action.  Peirce wanted to clarify philosophical thinking and make it practical so it could engage in action rather than mere metaphysical speculation.  Karl Marx famously said that philosophers have so far thought very much about the world, but the point is to change it.


Peirce adhered throughout his work to his pragmatic maxim:  “Consider what effects, that 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.”  A maxim is a general rule, one often good to follow, unlike an axiom which is an unproven rule that should always be followed as it is assumed to be true.  Like Heidegger, Wittgenstein and Mill, Peirce argued that things are how they are used and to what effect.  Consequently, truth is not static and abstract but dynamic and practical.  Peirce argued that human truth is always fallible, always capable of being wrong, but that the truth is objective and is discoverable.  This is similar to John Locke, who argued that human knowledge is incomplete but that primary objective qualities do exist.

triangle three points

In response to the work of Kant and Hegel, Peirce argued that there are three universal categories of the mind.  He used the concepts of ‘firstness’, ‘secondness’ and ‘thirdness’ repeatedly throughout his work.  Firstness is the vague and possible.  Secondness is the distinct and actual.  Thirdnessencompasses the first two as joined together, similar to Hegel’s idea of the unity of the objective and subjective as well as understanding and reason.  Peirce argued that communication and representation are a fusion of the possible and actual, of the vague and distinct.  For instance, when we reason about mathematics or ethics, we must inquire about vague abstractions such as the infinite and the good based on distinct facts we experience.


Like Heidegger and Wittgenstein, preceding them both and possibly influencing them both, Peirce was interested in the use of signs, such as Wittgenstein’s roadsigns and Heidegger’s turn signal.  The sign, what it signifies, and the interpretation of its signification forms a triad.  As for Heidegger and Wittgenstein, Peirce saw the ‘interpretant’, not the interpreter but the result of interpretation, as social and not merely individual.  As we learn to drive, we learn what turn signals mean in the culture of driving, and thus agree with each other in interpretations and practices.  Peirce worked on a typology of signs through which he hoped to better understand the methods of human thought and logical argument.

William James

William James (1842 – 1910 CE) was a philosopher and psychologist, one of the first to teach psychology classes in America.  His father was a Swedenborgian theologian, a believer in the unity of science and religion for the understanding of human psychology and metaphysics, and James is most famous for his work on the psychology of religion, author of the influential book The Varieties of the Religious Experience (1902).  His godfather was the Transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson, and James later joined the Theosophical Society, early proponents of Buddhism and esoteric spiritualism, very much the New Agers of their day and the group from which Krishnamurti emerged.  As Peirce’s friend from his Harvard school days, James is credited with being one of the founding Pragmatists.  Later, he was a friend and colleague of Dewey, Russell, Freud, and Bergson.

gertrude stein
george santayana
Koryak Shaman

Like Nietzsche, James suffered from many health conditions throughout his life.  He taught philosophy and psychology at Harvard for his entire career.  His students include Gertrude SteinTheodore RooseveltW. E. B. Du Bois and George Santayana.  James was a strong supporter of Pragmatism in philosophy and functionalism in psychology, both similar positions.  His functionalism influenced his view that religion is not about the verifiable truth of beliefs but about their social function and benefit.  An opponent of Hegel, James argued that Hegelian dialectics were an unhelpful system of metaphysics that was more limiting than revealing.


James argued that beliefs are true if they are useful.  While, like a Positivist, James argued that useful truth would be correspondent and coherent, would fit together with the world and fit together with itself, he argued, like a Pragmatist, that these are dimensions of its usefulness, not categories that can be abstractly applied.  The most ancient of human beliefs were based on new discoveries and debatable, yet in both ancient and modern times, he wrote, “Purely objective truth…is nowhere to be found”.  Entirely objective analysis is impossible in a situation that is always in motion.


James similarly argued that consciousness is a stream, often referred to as “stream of consciousness”, and so individual and social forms of thought are never in an entirely stable place to take full account of themselves.  This is similar to Heidegger’s idea that the world is inarticulate unless an area is of particular concern to us.  For James, our thought process is similarly a flow that we only articulate in part.  Some have speculated that Heidegger may have borrowed his idea of flow from James, as he had a colleague at Freiburg who studied the work of James and other American Pragmatists.

john dewey

John Dewey (1859 – 1952 CE) was a Pragmatist philosopher, functionalist psychologist like James, and major influence on American education.  He is also well known for his aesthetic philosophy, his philosophy of art and beauty, from his popular book Art as Experience (1934).  He taught both elementary and high school before deciding he was better suited for teaching at the college level.  Dewey attended graduate school at Johns Hopkins where he studied the novel philosophy of Pragmatism under Peirce and obtained his doctorate, his thesis titled The Psychology of Kant.  He then taught at the University of Chicago, where he focused on Pragmatism and the development of education.  He later left to teach at Columbia, a university known for its progressivism, and he was at one time the president of both the American Philosophical Association and the American Psychological Association.

Democracy and education john dewey

In his book Democracy and Education, Dewey argues that an intelligent and good society provides education and supports a diversity and plurality of ideas and opinions.  A prosperous democracy requires that public opinion be informed and authorities held accountable.  Dewey practically (and pragmatically) invented everything that progressive educators obsess about.  Dewey was a democratic socialist, angering some of his Marxist colleagues in his disagreements with the philosophy of Marx and the practices of Stalin.  He even formed the Dewey Commission and went to Mexico in 1937 to clear Trotsky of Stalin’s charges of treason, finding Trotsky innocent.  Dewey lectured and traveled in China, excited about the changes taking place in the country, though he argued that the change should come through gradual reform driven by progressive education, not violent revolution.


Dewey in his early years was committed to the philosophy of Hegel, particularly British Neo-Hegelianism, the Hegelians who angered and confused Bertrand Russell.  Dewey called his particular form of Pragmatism Instrumentalism, the term which Russell uses to refer to attack Pragmatism and Utilitarianism under the same banner.  I gave you Russell’s piece on Dewey next to Dewey’s own The Need for a Recovery of Philosophy as it best frames the difference between Positivism and Pragmatism.  Russell was, like Dewey, a socialist who tried to reform and liberalize education such that humanity would evolve towards prosperity and peace.  Russell writes that he and Dewey agree on much, but he cannot agree with Dewey that the goal of education and philosophy is not ‘truth’ but continuous inquiry, just as like Sextus Empiricus said is the cornerstone of skepticism, the fruitfulness of the search rather than the permanency of the results.  Russell rightly says that Dewey, though influenced by Hegel, did not believe that truth results in a final Absolute, though it does grow and progress.

columbus lands in america

Russell argues that sentences can be true given a culture that supports particular language use.  He uses the example, “Columbus crossed the ocean in 1492”, which is true in English.  If one translated it into Arabic, Russell notes that the sentence would be false unless you changed 1492 in accord with the Islamic calendar.  Russell, the great mathematician, fails to do the arithmetic here and tell us that 1492 is, for Muslims, 897.  According to the Islamic system, it is currently the year 1434, and 1492 has not yet happened.  Thus, for a Muslim, “Columbus crossed the ocean in 1492” would be false.

cup of coffee

Russell says that Dewey’s idea of continuous inquiry is itself impractical, a good charge to level against a pragmatist if it is true.  Russell considers the case of being asked whether he had coffee with breakfast.  Should we experiment, and try believing and saying we had coffee and then try believing and saying that we did not, and see what the results are?  The experimentation would not end there, because we would then have to see if believing that the results of this are the results or not leads to good or bad results, resulting in an infinite regress.  Just as Mill responded to the paradox of the bad as good example, Dewey would likely respond, similar to Heidegger, that we are thrown into a world in which lying about having coffee would be assumed, from the flow of our social practice, to be a fruitless place to search for good results.

textile factory

Interestingly, Russell connects Dewey’s Pragmatism to industrialization in America, and then is surprised when Dewey, upset by Russell making this connection, responds that Pragmatism should no more be connected so simply with the obnoxious aspects of American industrialization than Positivism should be connected with the interests of the British aristocracy.  Notice that Positivism is quite dogmatic, like the persistence of the British aristocracy, and Pragmatism is quite progressive, like the pace of American industry and commercialism.  Russell, an atheist, is afraid that Nietzsche’s individualism and Dewey’s pragmatism leads to the “danger of cosmic impiety”, that humanity believes itself to be God, capable of creating truth however it wishes.

WWI hand dropped bomb

In Dewey’s piece I gave you, written as World War I was happening, he argues against both realism and idealism.  Sometimes, truth must be radically changed, so it should not be considered objectively real nor metaphysically ideal.  Dewey argues, as the bombs fall in Europe, that it is time for a radical change for philosophy and its fundamental idea of objective, complete and ideal truth.  Unless it does this, it will continue to be further alienated from modern times and the general public.  We should learn from the great philosophers, and then move beyond them.

Butter clam

We are shaped by our environment, but we can shape our environment, which we do even if we try to close ourselves off from the world in a “clam-like fashion”.  This too affects truth and meaning.  Much as the Buddha, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche taught, existence is suffering, desiring things in the world and suffering as a result, affecting the world and being affected, and this is the price we pay for development and progress.  We should dwell in the openness of the future rather than in the closure of the past, using hope to counter anxiety.  In the past, people held faith in the truth of religion, and in the present, people hold faith in the truth of science, but the simple and independent truths, the “given and finished facts” in which we had and have faith are not found in our experience.

lock boxes

Dewey argued elsewhere that many fall for what he called the Philosopher’s Fallacy, thinking that the labels we apply to things are exclusive categories.  He used the example of body and mind, which Descartes exclusively separated with his dualism at the very beginning of modern European philosophy.  ‘Body’ and ‘mind’ are not exclusively different things, but labels used to solve particular problems.  Wittgenstein argues very similarly in his Philosophical Investigations, writing that names are like physical labels and that many confuse this for metaphysical categories.  Dewey argued that in particular situations our beliefs are unsettled, and then we attempt to reconcile our beliefs with what contradicts them to resolve our beliefs and return to a settled state.  This is very similar to Hegel’s conception of dialectic and the history of thought.


Also like Hegel, as well as Comte, Dewey saw history unfolding in three stages, and that he was lucky enough to be in the third and final stage.  The first stage is “self action”, in which things are thought to posses their own powers in themselves, independent of other things, the prescientific period.  The second stage is “interaction”, in which things are thought to posses their powers in terms of a complete and closed system, the period of the European Enlightenment and the work of Newton.  The third stage is “transaction”, in which things are rightly understood to possess their powers in their relationship to other things, but without any complete system, stable essences, or objective reality.  Unfortunately, as for Hegel and Comte, all development beyond the first stage are European developments, if we say that American Pragmatists are largely European.

John Dewey stamp

Like Comte, Dewey saw the European Enlightenment as a period still bogged down in faith in metaphysics, but unlike Comte he saw this progressing not to a unified system of the sciences but to an abandonment of any belief in a unified objective system, progressing not to Positivism but to Pragmatism.  Dewey criticized Logical Positivism for dealing in abstractions that are outside of the real world, incapable of reaching the reality in which we live.  For Dewey, Positivism merely believed itself to have discarded metaphysics, but its faith in objective truth and the complete unification of science is merely the substitution of a new metaphysics for that of Newton, Kant, Hegel and the Enlightenment.  While Comte sees Positivism as advancing beyond the second stage, Dewey saw Positivism as the final expression of the second stage, similar in ways to Marx’s view of Hegel.  Like Hegel, Dewey sees a unification of objective and subjective truth as the final third stage.

As mentioned last time, there was a surge of criticism that rose against Positivism in the 1960s, which corresponded with a surge of new interest in Pragmatism, sometimes called Neo-Pragmatism, departing somewhat from the work of Peirce, James and Dewey just as Post-Positivism departed somewhat from the work of Russell and the Vienna Circle.  Two of the most famous American Pragmatists are Richard Rorty and Cornel West.

Richard Rorty

Richard Rorty (1931 – 2007 CE) was the most prominent philosopher of the Pragmatist resurgence.  He studied as an undergraduate at the University of Chicago, but long after Dewey, who was in his final years at the time, had departed for Columbia.  In the 1960s, Rorty did work in the Analytic Positivist tradition at Princeton, but later he turned to Pragmatism and studied Dewey and the later work of Wittgenstein for inspiration.

Richard Rorty Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature

In his most famous work, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, Rorty argued that philosophy has been held back by the assumption that ideas “mirror” nature, also called correspondence.  It has been assumed that if the concepts of our minds match and mirror our world accurately, our ideas are true and objective.  Rorty argued that this picture was mistaken, and that philosophy and science use open evolving systems of vocabulary and method that change based on their usefulness and adaptability.  Consider that we do not use our concept of apples the way that we use apples.  Whenever we reach for our concept, it is most often there, and one can possess it for free though cannot eat it for nourishment.  Like Wittgenstein argued in his Philosophical Investigations, we can mistakenly confuse our concepts for the things themselves, but they are additional elements that form an open complex network.

Vase Gazes into Mirror

Like Hegel, Rorty argues that society is an open conversation.  Like Merleau-Ponty and Lakoff, Rorty argues that human conceptions are based in metaphors, and social interactions become closed and oppressive when metaphors are taken literally and dogmatically.  Just as many would accuse religion of taking metaphors too literally, Rorty argued that philosophy and science have taken the metaphor of the mirror too literally.  When we come to see that words and concepts have their own forms, and are not simply mirrors of objective reality, society will be more tolerant and peaceful.

Cambridge Companion to Heidegger

As I was researching and writing this lecture, I found a piece in the Cambridge Companion to Heidegger by Rorty on the similarity of Pragmatism, early Heidegger and late Wittgenstein.  Rorty argues that Frege and early Wittgenstein imposed the idea that there is a closed structure of truth on Logical Positivism, but it was late Wittgenstein who freed Analytic thought from this picture.  Rorty says that Wittgenstein moved from the idea that form is separate from practice to Pragmatism, and that Heidegger, at the same time, moved from the Pragmatism of Being and Time, his early work, to the idea that there is true primordial thinking beyond or beneath how it was practiced in modern Europe, going in the opposite direction.  Heidegger became more radical, while Wittgenstein became more casual.

Circle & Line

In the Ancient Greek Philosophy class, we discuss the Problem of the Circle and the Line, found in the work of Aristotle, Plato and Sextus Empiricus.  Rorty argues that Wittgenstein saw a new form of this old problem in Russell’s attempt to put types above sets, to fix the rules with a higher separate set of rules.  Much like Wittgenstein’s child at the blackboard, if rules are not set in themselves, then no rule of the rules can be set in itself, leading to an infinite regress.  Rules are not useless, but they are tools we use when our practices have problems.

Infinite Regress

Interestingly, just as Russell accuses Dewey’s endless inquiry as leading to an infinite regress, Wittgenstein saw that Russell’s rules of the rules results in a similar infinite regress.  We will never be able to fully describe our descriptions, because this description would itself have to be described, and then this, and so on.  The Pragmatist’s answer to this, which Rorty argues the early Heidegger, the late Wittgenstein and Dewey saw quite well, is that our practices are never perfectly grounded, always open to change and dependent upon a changing situation.  Thus, as Sextus Empiricus the ancient Greek Pyrrhonian would point out, our practices are grounded in themselves and in each other, leading to continuous problems of infinite regress and self-circularity.

Judith Butler Head Shot

In his later years, Rorty focused on Continental thought, particularly the work of Nietzsche, Heidegger, Foucault, and Derrida.  Sadly, Rorty finished his career teaching in the Comparative Literature department at Stanford University, not the Philosophy department.  He joked that he had been made a “Professor of Trendy Studies”.  Like Judith Butler, who teaches in the Rhetoric department at UC Berkeley, Rorty was not an Analytic philosopher, and so there was no room for him in the philosophy department.  This is an incredible example of the domination of American philosophy departments by Positivism, as both Rorty and Butler are two of the most famous and well renowned American philosophers.

Cornel West Hannover Germany

Cornel West (1953 – not dead yet), a Pragmatist, socialist, and activist, is one of the most famous black American philosophers, along with bell hooks and Angela Davis.  West grew up in Sacramento, California, and as a teenager in the sixties became involved with the Civil Rights Movement.  Graduating from Harvard, he attended graduate school at Princeton, where he continues to teach.  Taught Neo-Pragmatism by Rorty, West got his PhD in 1980, the year after Rorty published his Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature.  With Descartes, I mentioned that the siblings who wrote The Matrixwere clearly inspired by philosophy classes.  West appears in both the second and third Matrix movies, and gives philosophical commentary as an extra feature for the box set.

cartographer map maker

West is quite possibly the most famous living American Pragmatist, and he also has many insights about black America, racism, education and economics, as well as an interesting Kierkegaardian Existential-Pragmatic take on his own spirituality, which he calls Prophetic Christianity, aimed at social criticism and progressive transformation of society.  West argues that Pragmatists such as his teacher Rorty are “master mappers”, demythologizing theory such that it can be put into practice by others.  While both Existentialists and Pragmatists are anti-foundationalists, both are concerned with the grounding of truth even if that ground is always shifting.  Existentialists, like Nietzsche, are concerned with creativity, while Pragmatists, such as Peirce, are concerned with science.


West quotes Rorty, who wrote that the strategy academics have for America is, “You let us have your gifted children for our universities, where we will estrange them from you and keep the best ones for ourselves.  In return, we will send the second-best back to keep you supplied with technology, entertainment and soothing presidential lies.”  West argues that the talented minds that stay in academics are deeply concerned with changing society and are uninterested in the hollow pursuit of money, they also find their work to be disconnected from society.  West hopes that Pragmatism connected with activism has the best chance at becoming visible outside the universities.  If we focus on particular changes for society like Dewey did for education, we can remain engaged, be entirely critical, and not worry about falling into absolute nihilism, a fear West finds in Nietzsche.  Just as Nietzsche was not religious, but used religion freely in his thinking, West is religious, but uses Nietzsche freely in his own.