Differences reconciled?

In response to my post last week about the tension between Peircean and Jamesian pragmatism, Jay Odenbaugh and Dave Smith suggested that the tensions are resolved with Dewey. I’ve been rereading Dewey’s review of James for this week’s class, so let me take up their suggestion and tally the score.

On method

Dewey, like Peirce and James, sees inquiry as the activity prompted by doubt and concluding in belief. Real doubt is a genuine disturbance arising from a problem situation. Yet, Dewey notes, “situations and problems are diverse” and “the distinct type of consequence and hence the meaning of ‘practical’ appropriate to each has not been sufficiently emphasized.”1

This allows Dewey to give a nod to both Peircean and Jamesian conceptions of what’s practical, applying each in different ways.

On truth

For Dewey, “ideas are working hypotheses concerning the attaining of particular empirical results, and are tentative programs… for attaining them.” So the adequacy of an idea is its success in this. What’s true is what works.

Although he can accept this Jamesian formulation, he is quick to add that the truth is not just whatever offers any satisfaction. The working must be for the business intended by the idea. True ideas are ones that are “good for accomplishing what they intend.”

There’s no appearance here of Peirce’s concern with indefinite enquiry.2

On outlook

Dewey explicitly rejects the notion that personal factors might be “ultimate and unanalyzable.” Instead, he writes, “the personal is not ultimate, but is to be analyzed and defined, biologically on its genetic side, ethically on its prospective and functioning side.” This puts him (very roughly) on team Peirce, concerned about the collective and interacting elements.


  • On method: Dewey allows multiple conceptions of what’s practical by distinguishing different objects to which practicality can be applied. It’s a tie.
  • On truth: With an important caveat, Dewey is closer to James than Peirce.
  • On outlook: Dewey is closer to Peirce than James.

So the Peirce-James score is tied, and pragmatism goes into sudden death overtime.3

John Dewey, US 30c stamp
  1. All the quoted passages are from Dewey’s “What pragmatism means by practical” in the volume Essays in experimental logic.
  2. This could be because it’s a review of James. Perhaps more Peircean formulations can be found elsewhere in the Dewey corpus.
  3. I’m ending on a glib note because more I’m not entirely sure how to execute a more informative synthesis. It would be too easy to mash all of this into an ill-fitting jello mold, giving each figure a moment in one master narrative about pragmatism. Their multifarious disagreements, however, make me wonder whether the story couldn’t be told better without using the noun ‘pragmatism’ at all.

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