Recent Modern Philosophy: Pragmatism

John Dewey

By Dr. Garth Kemerling / 11.12.2011
Professor of Philosophy
Capella University

Philosophy Pages

Charles Sanders Peirce: The Pragmatist Principle

The most significant indigenous philosophical movement of the United States is pragmatism. Pursuant to discussions of the “Metaphysical Club” at Harvard (which also included William James and Oliver Wendell Holmes as members), Charles Sanders Peirce proposed an important set of methodological principles for scientific investigation.

Noting that the pace of progress in science is often accompanied by confusion about its underlying principles, Peirce suggested in The Fixation of Belief (1877) that this confusion can be eliminated by devoting appropriate attention to the structure of logical inference. This, in turn, Peirce understood to be nothing other than a habit of mind that leads us toward the truth.

According to Peirce, all human inquiry is a struggle against the irritation of uncertainty or doubt. Feeling keenly dissatisfied by any suspension in judgment, we invariably seek to eliminate it by forming a belief, to which we then cling firmly even in the face of evidence to the contrary. So powerful is this urge to believe something in every circumstance that many people (as Bacon had noted centuries before) adopt beliefs upon whatever seems ready-to-hand, including individual interest, appeals to authority, or the dictates of a priori reasoning. But Peirce—rebelling against the excessive rationalism of Hegel, argued that reliance upon such principles is bound to distract us from what matters.

Productive human inquiry, Peirce maintained, must be grounded firmly in reality; only then will our beliefs tend to correspond with the facts. Inquiry of this kind is the process described by scientific method—a systematic set of suggestions that guide us in the acquisition of habits of belief that tend to conform to the ways in which our experiences are most likely to turn out. Although the alternative methods offer many personal advantages, Peirce noted, only science selects for acceptance a belief that is true in the sense that “if acted on it should . . . carry us to the point we aim at and not astray.” Preference for such beliefs is the starting-point for Peirce’s pragmatism.

Life and Works

Charles Sanders Peirce studied philosophy and chemistry at Harvard, where his father, Benjamin Peirce, was professor of mathematics and astronomy. Although he showed early signs of great genius, an unstable personal life prevented Peirce from fulfilling his early promise. He wrote widely and delivered several series of significant lectures, but never completed the most ambitious of his philosophical projects. After a respectable scientific career studying the effects of gravitation with the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey, Peirce taught logic and philosophy for five years at Johns Hopkins University. In 1887, however, he retired to a life of isolation, poverty, and illness in Milford, Pennsylvania.

Peirce’s early philosophical development relied on a Kantian theory of judgment, but careful study of the logic of relations led him to abandon syllogistic methods in favor of the study of language and belief. His place as the founder of American pragmatism was secured by a pair of highly original essays that apply logical and scientific principles to philosophical method. In The Fixation of Belief (1877) Peirce described how human beings converge upon a true opinion, each of us removing the irritation of doubt by forming beliefs from which successful habits of action may be derived. This theory was extended in How to Make Our Ideas Clear (1878) to the very meaning of concepts, which Peirce identified with the practical effects that would follow from our adoption of them.

In his extensive logical studies, Peirce developed a theory of signification that anticipated many features of modern semiotics, emphasizing the role of the interpreting subject. To the traditional logic of deduction and induction, Peirce added explicit acknowledgement of abduction as a preliminary stage in productive human inquiry. Continuing to defend a Kantian system of categories, Peirce proposed a descriptive metaphysics that presumed the reality of external referents for our sensations.

Comprehending Reality

In a sequel article entitled How to Make Our Ideas Clear (1878), Peirce applied similar principles to the nature of our conceptions of the world. Decrying the obscurity and confusion surrounding us of the notion of clear and distinct ideas in traditional logic, Peirce proposed a new way of thinking about our mental contents:

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.

This principle arises directly from the notion of belief as a habit of thinking that tends to provide a suitable guide to action. But the examples of its application Peirce presented make it even more clear that his pragmatic principles govern the very meaning, as well as the truth, of our beliefs.

In this paper, however, Peirce made it clear that the notion of truth involves not only an appropriate pragmatic connection with reality for the individual believer, but also entails a social relation with other believers. As each one of an indefinitely large number of individual people engages in scientific investigation, their habits of belief will—over the long run—tend to converge upon the same conception of the world, one that most clearly corresponds with reality. As Peirce noted, even human stubbornness, deception, and error can only delay, not completely prevent, our eventual acknowledgement of the natural order.

Philosophical Method

Having failed to gain the academic employment he desired, Peirce in his later years came to resent the greater popular attention that James achieved for pragmatism. In What Pragmatism Is(1905) Peirce correctly claimed credit for having invented the name of the movement—only to disavow it, claiming to prefer “pragmaticism” as a more descriptive title for his own philosophical method.

The method itself remained clear, however, with its firm basis in experimental reasoning, its determination of the meaning of concepts by reference to their consequences for future observation, and its hope for the eventual convergence of human opinion. In fact, Peirce declared even more directly that ontological claim failing to have clear implications for future experience must be dismissed as utterly meaningless. Since his more technical logical writings have only recently come to the attention of scholars who can appreciate them, it was this deliberately anti-metaphysical spirit that constituted Peirce’s lasting legacy to American philosophy.

William James: Pragmatism and Empiricism

William James was a fellow-member of the “Metaphysical Club,” where Peirce established the pragmatist movement. But James had greater academic success than his friend, using his M.D. as the basis for a respectable career teaching in the Department of Philosophy and Psychology at Harvard. Wide-ranging interests in human life, behavior, and religion led James to develop the pragmatic method more explicitly as a foundation for a thoroughly empiricist alternative to the prevailing idealism of his era.

James vigorously supported the development of psychology as an academic discipline independent of philosophy at Harvard. His own most significant contribution to the scientific study of mind was The Principles of Psychology (1890), a monumental compendium of psychological research. Although James presumed the reliability of an introspective method, his emphasis on empirical foundations helped to foster more narrowly experimental approaches.

Thus, for example, James’s study was tempered by his firm supposition that the self is invariably embodied. Sensation of the external world, memory, the formation of habit, and personal identity all therefore rest upon organic features of the living body. Such realism standpoint clearly differentiated James from the idealistic theories of his American philosophical contemporaries.

Nevertheless, James himself identified consciousness as the central object of psychological investigation and devoted great attention to the “stream of thought” as experienced by the individual thinker. Most dramatically, James analyzed human volition as a the result of a deliberate exercise of will that not only secures the freedom presupposed by moral agency but also established the person as an independent being. For James, free will is both theoretically and personally essential to the character of human life.

Life and Works

William James was raised in a highly intellectual household: his father Henry, Sr. was a Swedenborgian theologian, his sister Alice wrote lengthy, literary diaries, and his brother Henry, Jr. became a renowned novelist. William himself studied art and geology before recieving a professional medical degree from Harvard university, where he taught for thirty-five years. Despite an energetic constitution, James struggled throughout life with such severe bouts of hypochondria, melancholy, and depression that he regarded himself as persisting only by means of a deliberate effort of will. Upon his death, however, a friend expressed great respect for James’s wisdom, integrity, and equanimity.

Work in psychology with Hugo Munsterburg at Harvard resulted in publication of James’s Principles of Psychology (1890), the classic exposition of a discipline in transition from reliance upon anecdotal introspection toward its experimental foundations as a natural science. James himself emphasized the notion of the individual self or person as a continuous “stream of consciousness” capable of exercising free will.

In Pragmatism: A New Name for some Old Ways of Thinking (1907) James offered significant expansions of C.S. Peirce‘s philosophy of pragmatism.  He not only accepted Peirce’s method of using pragmatic meaning to resolve dispute, but also spelled out a pragmatic theory of truth as whatever is “expedient in the way of our thinking.” During the same period, James wrote the mature expression of his epistemological principles that was published posthumously in Essays in Radical Empiricism (1912). There, his application of empirical principles results in neutral monism as a foundation for a phenomenalist analysis of human experience.

Since for James it was the consequences of believing that matter, he argued in “The Will to Believe” (1897) that belief must remain an individual process and that we may rationally choose to believe some crucial propositions even though they lie beyond the reach of reason and evidence. This position has important implications for religious convictions in particular, which James explored in detail in The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902).

A frequent commentator on public affairs, James proposed a system of national voluntary service in The Moral Equivalent of War (1906).

Pragmatic Meaning

James willingly incorporated many of Peirce’s pragmatic principles as part of his own conception of the philosophical method. In “What Pragmatism Means” (1907), for example, he offered a simple story about someone chasing a squirrel around a tree and suggested that a verbal dispute over whether or not the person “goes round” the squirrel can best be resolved by asking disputants about the practical bearing of each alternative. Thusly exemplified, the “pragmatic method” seems little more than the time-honored philosophical demand for precision in the use of language. As James noted,

A pragmatist . . .
. . . turns away from abstraction and insufficiency, from verbal solutions, from bad a priori reasons, from fixed principles, closed systems, and pretended absolutes and origins
. . . turns towards concreteness and adequacy, towards facts, towards action and towards power.

Here it is clear that pragmatism not only reacts againts the excesses of absolute idealism, but is likely to oppose rationalism in any form; it is small wonder that James published his later work in Essays in Radical Empiricism (1912) as radically empiricist.

Appealing to Dewey and Schiller as well as Peirce in “What Pragmatism Means,” however, James described the acquisition of new beliefs and their assimilation to old opinions as a complex process whose features somewhat resemble traditional idealistic applications of the coherence theory of truth. Ultimately, he supposed, the crucial issue is what it would be “better for us” to believe in every instance.

Pragmatic Truth

This amounts to the development of a distinctively pragmatic theory of truth. In a later lecture from the same series (“Pragmatism’s Theory of Truth”) James wrote:

Truth happens to an idea. It becomes true, is made true by events. Its verity isin fact an event, a process: the process namely of its verifying itself, its veri-fication.

Although he accepted the most general definition of truth as a correspondence with reality, James supposed that the most crucial aspect of reality is experiential regularity. It is, then, by reference to what we (pragmatically) expect to happen that any belief acquires its use for us.

Decrying as trivial all rationalistic efforts to define truth as a system of interconnected beliefs, James baldly asserted that “‘The true’ . . . is only the expedient in the way of our thinking.” Some reasonable qualifications follow, of course. The “payoffs” may take any number of different forms, and long-term outcomes matter more than those in the immediate present. There remains a clear sense that truth is the characteristic feature of beliefs that tend to help us to be ready for what happens in our experience. That is, belief has a function in the life of human beings—namely, to prepare us for successful action in the face of recurrent circumstances—and beliefs that best fulfil that function are the ones most deserve to be called true.

The Will to Believe

In some instances, naturally, we don’t yet have enough experiential evidence upon which to base a reliable judgment. English mathematician W. K. Clifford had argued in “The Ethics of Belief” (1879) that the proper response in such cases is an agnostic one: given the social consequences of adherence to particular beliefs, it would be immoral to accept the truth of any proposition about which we cannot be wholly certain. In “The Will to Believe” (1897), James took a very different approach, explicitly defending the exercise of faith.

Note well that James here considered only those cases in which the usual methods of arriving at the truth have not (yet) yielded satisfactory results. A genuine option between two (or more) undertain hypotheses arises only when:

  1. each hypothesis is living (rather than dead) in the sense that it holds some minimal degree of appeal;
  2. the choice among them is forced (rather than avoidable) in the sense that some course of action is inevitable; and
  3. the outcome is momentous (rather than trivial) in the sense that the alternatives are significant to the whole of life.

James argued that it is appropriate to resolve such cases on non-rational grounds, as a matter of choice, passion, or volition.

The goals or aims of human cognition include both “Believe truth” and “Shun error,” James pointed out, even though the two purposes may be contrary to each other in particular applications. According to James, Clifford honored the second maxim so rigidly as to risk violating the first, while a dogmatist would do the reverse. James himself supposed it vital at least to allow for a deliberate decision to believe in the absence of rational demonstration or scientific confirmation.

As a description of how many human beings do, in fact, arrive at beliefs upon which they are willing to live their lives, of course, this view is hard to dispute. But James clearly meant to recommend “the will to believe” as a practice, especially with regard to religious convictions. Like Pascal, he supposed that belief in the existence of god is, if undemonstrable, nevertheless a good wager.


Further Applications of Pragmatism: Dewey, Mead, and Addams

For the next generation of American philosophers, the pragmatism of Peirce and James became a powerful tool for understanding logical inquiry and improving the quality of human life.

Dewey: Experience and Nature

After studying with Peirce at Johns Hopkins, John Dewey pursued a lengthy academic career, expounding pragmatic principles in professional philosophical journals and promoting their application to social and educational settings. From the outset, he denied that there is any significant metaphysical distinction between mind and body. As “The Unit of Behavior (The Reflex Arc Concept in Psychology)” (1896) made clear, Dewey supposed that human awareness and action occur as indistinguishable elements within a coherent experience. In any adequate analysis, what we know is just what we do. Thus, as Dewey noted in “The Practical Character of Reality” (1908), the order of the natural world itself necessarily includes our interaction with it through scientific investigation. What the world isdepends upon what we do with it.

The pattern of our thought about the world is explicitly described inLogic: The Theory of Inquiry (1938). There, Dewey identifies a six-step process that includes:

  • the presence of an indeterminate situation in our experience of the world to which we respond with subjective doubt,
  • our recognition of this situation as a problem to which the principles of inquiry may be applied,
  • our invention of various hypotheses as potential solutions that might (if viable) resolve the problem,
  • our careful reasoning about the meaning of these solutions in relation to the problem itself and to our other convictions,
  • the application of our results to the facts of the situation, understood by reference to the operation of our observations on them, and
  • acceptance of a scientific or common-sense explanation of the situation that provisionally reduces the original indeterminacy.

Notice that at every stage of this process, Dewey emphasized the dynamic and tentative character of our knowledge of the world. The best outcome for which we can legitimately hope is what he called the “warranted assertability” of a belief upon which we can successfully act, without any presumption of its independent, universal, or timeless truth.

Dewey: Morality and Education

Dewey‘s moral philosophy was thoroughly naturalistic in its vigorous rejection of the traditional dichotomy between fact and value. Human conduct—like every other aspect of experience—is susceptible to the same pattern of thought, as Dewey argued in Logical Conditions of a Scientific Treatment of Morality (1903). Thus, in “The Construction of Good” (1929) Dewey argued that ethical and aesthetic choices are properly addressed as practical, scientific issues.

Judgments about values are judgments about the conditions and the results of experienced objects; judgments about that which should regulate the formation of our desires, affections, and enjoyments.

This, Dewey believed, completes the great work of empiricism. An experimental approach to moral decision making promises: to secure a proper regard for the future practical consequences of our actions; to reduce the dangerous influence of subjective egoism; and to encourage adoption of a reasonable, modest fallibilism with respect to our moral precepts.

Dewey’s application of pragmatic principles to educational and social contexts is expressed inDemocracy and Education (1916).

Mead and Addams: Social Dimensions

Dewey’s friend and colleague George Herbert Mead placed even greater emphasis on the application of pragmatic philosophy to human society. He argued in Social Consciousness and the Consciousness of Meaning” (1910) that social acts are the irreducible units of all human experience. This social behaviorism became even more explicit in The Social Self (1913), where Mead proposed that an adequate understanding of the self or person invariably requires consideration of its overt relations with other selves.

Also in Chicago, Jane Addams put pragmatism to work in vigorous public activities on behalf of social justice. Twenty Years at Hull House (1912), and Women, War, and Suffrage (1915) describes in detail her efforts to provide basic social services for the disadvantaged. She also participated in the campaign to secure women’s suffrage in the United States. [Why Women Should Vote (1915)] A Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Addams was a vocal pacifist, whose Democracy or Militarism (1899) and Newer Ideals of Peace (1907) offer reasoned defences of the potential social and economic value of world peace.