Pragmatism is a philosophical school of American origin, generally and internationally acknowledged as a genuine American contribution to the world philosophical heritage (the word “pragmatism” has its origin in the Greek “pragma”—”action,” “affair”). It reflects the broader American social experience and cultural context with its roots in Puritan theology, with Calvinistic ethics of hard work in the precariousness of frontier life, with a desire for success in the New World experiment, with the encouragement of inventiveness, and a practical sense of making the ideal of good life work, and so on, having provided the necessary, though not sufficient, background for emerging such a philosophy. The first tenets of pragmatist thought sprang from seminal discussions of the Metaphysical Club in the academic milieu of Cambridge, MA, in the 1870s. This narrow circle of various scholars included polymath Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914), psychologist William James (1842-1910), mathematician Chauncey Wright (1830-1875), historian John Fiske (1842-1901), Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.
(1841-1935), philosopher Francis Ellingwood Abbot (1836-1903), and Nicholas St. John Green (18301876). However, Peirce and James as renowned progenitors of pragmatism were modest enough to mention several non-American predecessors (such as the Greek schools of Sophists and Skeptics, F. Bacon, G. Berkeley, A. Schopenhauer, J. S. Mill, A. Bain, Ch. Darwin, and, notably, I. Kant.), who provided similar ideas and attitudes, such as an evolutionary approach to nature, life, and reason, theory of the practical and inferential nature of knowledge, the purposive character of belief, and the role of will and desire in forming belief. Based on the integration of these concepts, Peirce established the principle of pragmatism in his 1878 paper, “How to Make Our Ideas Clear,” as follows: “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.” This principle was intended to serve as the method of finding the meaning and testing the truth and value of scientific concepts and theories and as providing an objective criterion for an empirical (experimental and observational) scientific practice (owing to which pragmatism is, improperly, identified with positivism). Twenty years later Pierce’s colleague, James, in a lecture titled “Philosophical Conceptions and Practical Results,” and delivered at the University of California in 1898, modified and subsequently popularized this principle, while crediting Peirce as the father of pragmatism, as follows: “The ultimate test for us of what a truth means is indeed the conduct it dictates or inspires.” Pragmatism, according to James, is not only a “a new name for some old ways of thinking” but much more a “temper of mind, an attitude; it is also a theory of the nature of ideas and truth; and finally, it is a theory about reality.” To this extending of the principle to human practical life and action in general, Peirce reacted with disgust and suggested rather to label his conception as “pragmatism,” a “term ugly enough to be safe from kidnappers.” The move, made by James, had meant for Peirce the departure from objectivity to subjectivity and from science to religion. Whereas Peirce felt it important to find a method of true science, James believed that human happiness was important. James’s project was to show that truth is a much broader concept that extends the lines of science and relates to human life and action not only as an epistemological ideal but also as a practical value and need. Thus, science and religion are both legitimate endeavors in human life, while both have different purposes. Pragmatism appreciates science but is by no means a scientism. It makes substantial room for human values, ethics, education, and social life. Roughly at the same time, in the late 1890s, John Dewey (1859-1952), who was partially inspired by both Peirce and James and partially influenced by Hegel and Darwin, accomplished definitely the move in the same direction by forming his experimental school at Chicago and formulating his “instrumentalism.” Dewey regarded science as important but only a fraction of the human process of inquiry. He believed that science is being developed and corrected in the name of human happiness. The value of science is subordinated to the values of life, which are of a communal nature. By collaborating with Dewey, the trio of the founding fathers of pragmatism had been completed and the three versions of classical pragmatism formed: scientific/methodological, which incorporates logic and semiotics as the theory of signs and language (Peirce); psychological/humanistic, which incorporates ethic and religious belief (James); and social/political, which incorporates culture and education (Dewey). Thus pragmatism provides and develops the relationship of philosophy to these three important areas: science and knowledge, life and action, community and democracy.
The philosophy of pragmatism in general is multi-faceted. However, it can be characterized by several key attitudes. It never has been, nor was it intended to be, a unified doctrine (while critics have accused it, improperly, of eclecticism). Rather it has been searching for the sort of “third” way in philosophy: between materialism and idealism in ontology and rationalism and empiricism in epistemology. This has brought up the pragmatist opposition to traditional theory of knowledge and truth, now labeled as anti-representationalism and antifoundationalism. The concept of the world in itself for us is not valid; there is just the world as we see it through our needs and goals. Humans, both within and without philosophy, provide the descriptions of the world that suit our intentions one way or another. Therefore, the pragmatist fundamental philosophical intention from the onset has been the “reconstruction in philosophy,” as Dewey called it, directed against the main European streams of thought such as Platonism, Cartesianism, and Kantianism. However, it may best be described, in a sense, as “Anti-Philosophy,” I (i.e., anti-dualism comprising the reworking of all substantial traditional philosophical oppositions such as subject-object, mind-world, theory-practice, morality-prudence, individual-society, science-religion, etc.) into a coherent and contextual conception formed from the viewpoint of philosophical anthropology based on the sense of, and orientation to, the gradual betterment of human practical life (owing to which interpreters have identified it, falsely, with Marxism). Simply, philosophy should change its topics and orientations in order to be renewed and keep itself alive and relevant within the culture. Because the platonic quests for absolutes, certainty and eternal principles are as self-deceptive as futile; philosophy should be the critical public discourse aimed at, as Dewey stated, solving the “problems of men and women” and, as Rorty added, an edifying conversation.
Pragmatism is an open, anti-dogmatic, pluralistic, and practice-oriented philosophy (while critics have accused it, improperly again, of typically American success-oriented and pay-off doctrine). The idea that the practical consequences pay (owing to which interpreters have identified it, falsely again, with utilitarianism) has become the pragmatist standard for evaluating the truth, meaning, and value—these are taken as equivalent to the practical, empirical consequences derivable from them and should be judged according to what they mean practically for humans and their lives. By “practical,” pragmatism does not understand the “bread and butter” consequences, but the empirical, experiential, particular, and concrete, and includes also such considerations as logical consistency, intellectual satisfaction, and harmony of mental content. If these do not affect human life, experience, and action, they are supposed to bear only a very restricted and dubious meaning. The idea “works,” if its consequences fulfill our expectations and goals, i.e., if it brings satisfaction to us. The function of the mental (thought, inquiry, experience) is not theoretical but practical—it consists not in providing knowledge as such, but knowledge, thought, and feeling as a presupposition to better action. Pragmatism has emphasized the “plastic” nature of reality and the practical function of knowledge as an instrument for adapting to reality and controlling it. Pragmatism stresses live, dynamic experience over fixed principles. To think as a pragmatist is to consider the consequences, to imagine the definite differences that follow from each alternative, and to decide in that way which of the two “works” better. The alternative, which works better, is true.
The most contested aspect of pragmatist philosophy has been its conception of truth. In opposition to traditional epistemologies, which take truth as a representation of reality in our cognition “as it is in itself” and regard it as an epistemic goal “for itself,” the pragmatist approach to truth is Darwinian, or “functional,” or “instrumentalist.” Truth is a non-epistemological, practical value, and a means rather than an end. First, it is highly dubious that humans have a privileged capacity to attain such a representation of reality that corresponds to it as a true copy; second, humans make use of their representations of reality they dub as truth—and even of all representations—in order to achieve their practical ends. The human mind works in a truly Darwinian mode: it is permanently providing the selections of all representations of its content so that it is able to select those that can best serve all various kinds of purposes that human beings can pursue. Such a selection is naturally fallible and corrigible; as such, the concept of a truth that is applicable to all kinds of human condition and situation cannot be. Thus there is no static truth, much less absolute truth; there are truths, and these are constantly being made true. There are no necessary truths or axioms; there are only postulates. Truth has no metaphysical or transcendental essence; it is fully the outcome of human inquiry, which includes both thought and experience, and is a critical, self-corrective social process. There is no other warrant of truth apart from this inquiry.
The significance of pragmatist philosophy for anthropology in particular can be seen to consist in several specific ways of answering the question: “What does it mean to be human?” First, being human is regarded as the self-image of humanity based on naturalism, evolutionism, and holism. By taking Darwinism seriously, pragmatism asserts the continuity of nature with culture, of natural and cultural evolution in the sense that humans practice the same as animals do, only in a different way and on a different level. Even if the purposes of both kinds of evolution are the same, to adapt to environment, humans maintain their lives via thought and intelligent action. Even such a unique phenomenon as human language is primarily a tool for coping with the world and coordinating human action. Due to this, human adaptations are much more dynamic and creative in comparison to all other nature. Humans adapt nature to their needs rather than simply adapting to it. The limits of human adaptive/transformational power seem to be almost unrestricted; the pragmatist conception of “meliorism” stems from this power (i.e., the idea that humans are able to cope, despite the fact that it is sometimes difficult, with the problems of their existence). It is also the self-image of humanity based on socio-cultural constructionism. Certain human creations have not and could not have preexisted culture and society, (e.g., according to James and Dewey this is the human self). Human power is self-transformational and via creating culture we create ourselves. Individual and social developments cannot be in any way separated from each other. The task, however, is not only to attempt self-creation of an individual, but at the same time attempt creation of a democratic and communicative cultural community. The creation of such a community means the most we humans can accomplish; it is the creation of our truly intelligent and social home environment. However, the creation of such a community is not to be taken as “the goal of human history.” It is the result of our free choice rather than of any kind of inner or outer necessity, and it can be achieved only thanks to our intelligent efforts. This amounts to the assertion that there hardly can be such concepts as the universal and stable human nature. From the broadest ethical and political points of view, humans are bequeathed to ourselves, and we are the only agents responsible for what we have, and shall become. There is no other authority residing above us to direct our human evolution and destiny. Humanity must form its values and decide to act on behalf of them. Thus, if we are to speak of any kind of “human nature,” according to pragmatism, this should consist in the intelligent and democratic creation of opportunities for better human action and satisfaction in life.
The pragmatist school has exerted influence, which has shown its peak in the first two decades of the 20th century even across the border of the United States, and is impacting the fields of law, education, political and social theory, art, and religion. Apart from resolute critics such as B. Russell and G. E. Moore from Cambridge, England, one of the most original followers of pragmatist thought is Oxford’s Ferdinand C. S. Schiller (1864-1937), who titled his own version of pragmatism “humanism.” Pragmatist philosophy had also been spread over such countries as France and Italy and even China and Japan, with protagonists including Ch. Renouvier, H. Poincare, M. Blondel, E. Le Roy, H. Bergson, G. Papini, G. Vailati, and M. Calderoni. However, with the demise of both James and Peirce, the movement slowed a gradual decline, and it was Dewey who had remained its almost single recognized spokesman in the first half of the 20th century. On the American side it was replaced by logical positivism and analytic philosophy of language. Nonetheless, it can be proved that pragmatism has never completely faded out and in American universities there always have been academics representing it (for example, J. Royce, C. S. Morris, C. I. Lewis, S. Hook). In the 1950s even the leading logical positivists such as Rudolph Carnap (1891-1970) and Willard V. O. Quine (1908-2000) started to recognize pragmatism’s importance, which has been featured in their own doctrines. Similarly, the progenitor of analytic philosophy, Ludwig Wittgenstein (18891953), in the whole later stage of his career had espoused ideas and attitudes similar to those of pragmatism. Thus the soil could have been prepared during the 1960s and 1970s for the “pragmatist turn” in Western philosophy, strongly inaugurated by Richard Rorty (1931-) with his salvo in Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (1979) and later confirmed in The Consequences of Pragmatism (1982) and other writings. This revived version of pragmatism (neo-pragmatism) has also been enriched by some influences of Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, Heidegger, Gadamer, Sartre, and Derrida. Thus, toward the turn of the millennia, we have witnessed the resurgence of pragmatism represented not only by Rortian “post-analytic neo-pragmatists,” but also by many versions of “neoclassical pragmatism,” such as “Neo-Percean,” “Neo-Jamesian,” and “Neo-Deweyan” associated with the whole range of contemporary American philosophers. Moreover, pragmatism has become a broader international philosophical movement, which includes, apart from such important figures as Jurgen Habermas (1929-) and Karl-Otto Apel (1922), many more followers and students worldwide.
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