I. Definition and Key Ideas
In popular usage, a “pragmatist” is someone who always thinks about the practical side of things and doesn’t worry about theory or ideology. In philosophy, the term has a significantly different meaning.
In philosophy, pragmatism is a school of thought that starts from the insight that words are tools. Words don’t have inherent meanings attached to them from birth — rather, they gain their meanings through repeated use.
Nobody ever decided that “bear” would mean a furry creature with teeth; over time, people found this syllable was useful for pointing out the dangerous creatures, and this helped them survive and thrive.
The same is true for important theoretical concepts like power, freedom, or truth. For pragmatists, there’s no essential meaning to any of these terms — the terms are just tools that human beings use to go about their lives and accomplish their goals.
Pragmatists broadly critique philosophy for thinking that the terms have inherent meanings and trying to understand them. Political philosophers, for example, have often asked the question “What is power?” To a pragmatist, this is a bad question: “power” isn’t anything in particular. It’s just a general term for a set of various structures and experiences that human beings have at various times felt the need to tell stories and make arguments about. You can understand power by looking at how the word is used in a given place and time, but you’ll never understand it if you try to understand it “in and of itself.”
This is the way that “pragmatism” (in the popular usage) is similar to the philosophy of pragmatism: they both prioritize understanding things in terms of concrete tasks and activities rather than in terms of abstract theory.
Even though the pragmatists saw words as vague tools rather than eternal truths, they still believed in an important “pragmatic” notion of truth. They saw the human search for truth as similar to a doctor’s search for a diagnosis: the doctor will never know with absolute certainty what disease you have. But in order to treat you, she has to make a decision, so she does the best she can with the information available and then treats you on that basis. Similarly, for the pragmatists, we’ll never know the absolute truths of the universe — all we can do is try to understand things as best we can and then act, even though our information will always be incomplete and there’s always the real possibility of error.
II. Pragmatism vs. Positivism
Pragmatism is often contrasted with positivism, or the view that truth comes entirely from science or math. The positivists, who are active around the same time as the early pragmatists, argued that words had an objective meaning or “reference,” and that these references were real things which could be studied scientifically. The only valid truths in the world would come from this sort of verification.
Pragmatism has two problems with positivism: first, it argues that there are no objective “references,” because words are always vague categories with lots of grey area and fuzzy edges.
No matter how you define “human being,” there will always be grey areas (embryonic humans, brain-dead humans, etc.) that sort of fit the definition and sort of don’t.
Pragmatists argue that this fuzziness is all around us and that we are likely to make all sorts of errors if we forget that our words are hazy in this way.
Second, pragmatism argues that there are many important ideas that cannot be scientifically verified, but that may nonetheless be treated as true.
Ethics: how can you scientifically verify that being kind is better than being cruel? No matter how you try to make the argument, you always come up against the problem that scientific observations cannot justify moral arguments (this is called the is-ought problem).
From a pragmatist perspective, moral truths are true because they help us live better, and if positivism cannot account for these truths, then it’s not an adequate philosophy for human life.
III. Famous Quotations About Pragmatism
“The life of the law has not been logic; it has been experience.” (Oliver Wendell Holmes)
Oliver Wendell Holmes was a Supreme Court Justice who applied pragmatist philosophy to U.S. Constitutional law. His view of the law was similar to other pragmatists’ views of language: for Holmes, there were no essential, permanent truths of Liberty or Justice to be derived logically and applied eternally in the law: rather, there was the tradition and experience of a particular society, which over time evolved to suit their needs. The law for Holmes was a useful human tool, not an expression of eternal truths.
“The essence of belief is the establishment of a habit; and different beliefs are distinguished by the different modes of action to which they give rise.” (C.S. Peirce)
Peirce (pronounced like “purse”) was one of the most influential early pragmatists. He, too, argued that ideas should be understood in terms of doing things. Other philosophers at the time saw beliefs as statements about the world, which could be either true or false. But for Peirce, belief was about action: what you do defines what you believe, not the other way around.
IV. The History and Importance of Pragmatism
Pragmatism is widely considered to be the one great contribution that America has made to world philosophy. In this country’s short history, many philosophical ideas have been debated and developed, but most of them were ultimately European in origin. Pragmatism, however, was the brainchild of a small set of Americans living in Boston, D.C., and Chicago at the end of the 19th century.
Some historians have argued that pragmatism was a philosophical response to the horrors of the Civil War. The early pragmatists were veterans of that bloody conflict, and those who came later had seen siblings, parents, and neighbors wounded or killed. But how could a war produce a revolution in the philosophical understanding of language?
The answer lies in the strength with which northerners and southerners held on to their beliefs that their cause was the most virtuous. Each side believed that they were fighting God’s fight in an effort to preserve eternal principles of justice, order, and liberty. It’s somewhat ironic to think of the Southern states as fighting for liberty since their idea of liberty involved keeping slaves. But bear in mind that 5 slave states fought for the North! The reasons behind the conflict were far more complicated than just slavery vs. abolition.
Anyway, the point is that both Northerners and Southerners saw themselves as fighting for eternal ideas. The pragmatists, having lived through the war, saw it differently: to them, words like justice, order, and liberty had no eternal meaning, but were simply tools that different human communities used to suit their own needs. Essentially, they saw these ideas as mythic constructions — though by that they didn’t mean “untrue.” They just meant that they were products of a particular social/cultural process, and also the basis for further social/cultural processes. To think otherwise, they thought, could lead to disaster because people would go to any length in defending their own myths.
Today, pragmatism is popular in various fields around the edges of philosophy, like anthropology, religious studies, and linguistics. However, it’s a relatively small school of thought in modern philosophy, especially outside America. This may be due to a simple irony: pragmatism is an anti-philosophical philosophy! Richard Rorty, one of the most influential of all pragmatists, thought that pragmatism, taken to its logical conclusion, would show that the whole practice of philosophy (at least as we understand it in the modern world) was a waste of time, chasing ghosts of meaning that weren’t there. Rorty abandoned philosophy for literature, and many other pragmatists have similarly jumped ship once they realized that modern philosophy was incompatible with their idea of pragmatism!
V. Pragmatism in Popular Culture
This comic from Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal pokes fun at philosophy by saying that philosophy is all about taking stupid questions and adding the word “true” to them, so “is this a cheeseburger?” becomes “yes, but is it a true cheeseburger?” The pragmatists would agree with this accusation! To them, philosophy makes this mistake all the time, the mistake of assuming that there is such a thing as a “true” cheeseburger when in fact the word “cheeseburger” is just a vague term that people use to get the food they want in a restaurant. Is it still a cheeseburger if it comes on a bagel instead of a bun? It doesn’t matter! To pragmatists, such questions misunderstand the way words work.
“Truth doesn’t mean anything. All that means anything here is desire. It’s whatever you want. Desire is the only truth here, even if you desire the truth. And truth can be such a sweetly addictive obsession for those that desire it, almost as satisfying as power itself. I can tell you any truth you desire. Neat, isn’t it?”
“No, it’s really sick. That means nothing matters.”
“Yeah, well, unless you want it to.”
(D. F. Scovil, Trinity’s Children)
Pragmatists are often accused of living in a world where nothing matters. After all, if there are no eternal truths like justice, liberty, or truth, then how does life gain meaning? Doesn’t this leave us swamped in a purposeless existence? The pragmatists say no, because meaning and purpose are open to our own interpretation. Purpose isn’t imposed on us from above, but generated from within by our own struggles to imbue the world with meaning. This exchange from Scovil’s science fiction novel captures the idea pretty well.