pragmatism

pragmatism (prăgˈmətĭzəm) [key], method of philosophy in which the truth of a proposition is measured by its correspondence with experimental results and by its practical outcome. Thought is considered as simply an instrument for supporting the life aims of the human organism and has no real metaphysical significance. Pragmatism stands opposed to doctrines that hold that truth can be reached through deductive reasoning from a priori grounds and insists on the need for inductive investigation and constant empirical verification of hypotheses. There is constant protest against speculation concerning questions that have no application and no verifiable answers. Pragmatism holds that truth is modified as discoveries are made and is relative to the time and place and purpose of inquiry. In its ethical aspect pragmatism holds that knowledge that contributes to human values is real and that values play as essential a role in the choice of means employed in order to attain an end as they do in the choice of the end itself.

The philosophy was given its name by C. S. Peirce (c.1872), who developed the principles of pragmatic theory as formal doctrine. He was followed by William James, who held that in vital matters of faith the criterion for acceptance was the will to believe, and who was the key figure in promoting the widespread influence of pragmatism during the 1890s and early 1900s. John Dewey in his works developed the instrumentalist aspects of the doctrine. In Europe, F. C. S. Schiller (1864–1937) and others took up the theory. The succeeding generation of pragmatists included C. I. Lewis (1883–1964), whose conceptual pragmatism involves the application of Kantian principles to the investigation of empirical reality. W. V. O. Quine has upheld the validity of some a priori knowledge, pointing out that mathematics greatly facilitates scientific research. Richard Rorty has argued that theories are ultimately justified by their instrumentality, or the extent to which they enable people to attain their aims. Pragmatism dominated American philosophy from the 1890s to the 1930s and has reemerged as a significant element in contemporary thought.

See W. James, Pragmatism and Other Essays (ed. by R. B. Perry, 1965); A. J. Ayer, The Origins of Pragmatism (1968); H. S. Thayer, Meaning and Action: A Critical History of Pragmatism (1968, repr. 1981); C. Morris, The Pragmatic Movement in American Philosophy (1970); R. Rorty, Consequences of Pragmatism (1982); D. S. Clarke, Rational Acceptance and Purpose: An Outline of a Pragmatist Epistemology (1989); L. Menand, Pragmatism: A Reader (1997) and The Metaphysical Club (2001); M. Dickstein, ed., The Revival of Pragmatism (1999).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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