Pragmatism is a philosophical school of thought that, broadly, is interested in the effects and usefulness of theories and claims.

Pragmatism is a distinct school of philosophical thought that began at Harvard University in the late 19th century. Charles Sanders Pierce and William James were members of the university’s ‘Metaphysical Club’ and both came to believe that many disputes taking place between its members were empty concerns. In response, the two began to form a ‘Pragmatic Method’ that aimed to dissolve seemingly endless metaphysical disputes by revealing that there was nothing to argue about in the first place.

How it came to be

Pragmatism is best understood as a school of thought born from a rejection of metaphysical thinking and the traditional philosophical pursuits of truth and objectivity. The Socratic and Platonic theories that form the basis of a large portion of Western philosophical thought aim to find and explain the “essences” of reality and undercover truths that are believed to be obscured from our immediate senses.

This Platonic aim for objectivity, in which knowledge is taken to be an uncovering of truth, is one which would have been shared by many members of Pierce and James’ ‘Metaphysical Club’. In one of his lectures, James offers an example of a metaphysical dispute:

A squirrel is situated on one side of a tree trunk, while a person stands on the other. The person quickly circles the tree hoping to catch sight of the squirrel, but the squirrel also circles the tree at an equal pace, such that the two never enter one another’s sight. The grand metaphysical question that follows? Does the man go round the squirrel or not?

Seeing his friends ferociously arguing for their distinct position led James to suggest that the correctness of any position simply turns on what someone practically means when they say, ‘go round’. In this way, the answer to the question has no essential, objectively correct response. Instead, the correctness of the response is contingent on how we understand the relevant features of the question.

Truth and reality

Metaphysics often talks about truth as a correspondence to or reflection of a particular feature of “reality”. In this way, the metaphysical philosopher takes truth to be a process of uncovering (through philosophical debate or scientific enquiry) the relevant feature of reality.

On the other hand, pragmatism is more interested in how useful any given truth is. Instead of thinking of truth as an ultimately achievable end where the facts perfectly mirror some external objective reality, pragmatism instead regards truth as functional or instrumental (James) or the goal of inquiry where communal understanding converges (Pierce).

Take gravity, for example. Pragmatism doesn’t view it as true because it’s the ‘perfect’ understanding and explanation for the phenomenon, but it does view it as true insofar as it lets us make extremely reliable predictions and it is where vast communal understanding has landed. It’s still useful and pragmatic to view gravity as a true scientific concept even if in some external, objective, all-knowing sense it isn’t the perfect explanation or representation of what’s going on.

In this sense, truth is capable of changing and is contextually contingent, unlike traditional views.. Pragmatism argues that what is considered ‘true’ may shift or multiply when new groups come along with new vocabularies and new ways of seeing the world.

To reconcile these constantly changing states of language and belief, Pierce constructed a ‘Pragmatic Maxim’ to act as a method by which thinkers can clarify the meaning of the concepts embedded in particular hypotheses. One formation of the maxim is:

Consider what effects, which might conceivably have practical bearings, we conceive the object of our conception to have. Then, our conception of those effects is the whole of our conception of the object.

In other words, Pierce is saying that the disagreement in any conceptual dispute should be describable in a way which impacts the practical consequences of what is being debated. Pragmatic conceptions of truth take seriously this commitment to practicality. Richard Rorty, who is considered a neopragmatist, writes extensively on a particular pragmatic conception of truth.

Rorty argues that the concept of ‘truth’ is not dissimilar to the concept of ‘God’, in the way that there is very little one can say definitively about God. Rorty suggests that rather than aiming to uncover truths of the world, communities should instead attempt to garner as much intersubjective agreement as possible on matters they agree are important.

Rorty wants us to stop asking questions like, ‘Do human beings have inalienable human rights?’, and begin asking questions like, ‘Should we work towards obtaining equal standards of living for all humans?’.  The first question is at risk of leading us down the garden path of metaphysical disputes in ways the second is not. As the pragmatist is concerned with practical outcomes, questions which deal in ‘shoulds’ are more aligned with positing future directed action than those which get stuck in metaphysical mud.

Perhaps the pragmatists simply want us to ask ourselves: Is the question we’re asking, or hypothesis that we’re posing, going to make a useful difference to addressing the problem at hand? Useful, as Rorty puts it, is simply that which gets us more of what we want, and less of what we don’t want. If what we want is collective understanding and successful communication, we can get it by testing whether the questions we are asking get us closer to that goal, not further away.