What pragmatism is today

Every time I teach pragmatism, I reread some of the canonical sources and rethink what “pragmatism” means. Several years ago, I suggested that the term might just be a mistake— that there is too much difference between the so-called pragmatists, making the word more confusing than helpful. Some years later, I softened this view. Now I find myself thinking that there are a few core commitments which can be definitive of pragmatism.1

These two core commitments are shared by genre-defining pragmatists Charles Sanders Peirce, William James, and John Dewey as well as by many other philosophers that one might call pragmatists.

First: Pragmatists reject the knowing/doing dichotomy.

This typically leads to something like the pragmatic maxim.2 Here’s how Peirce formulated it:

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 turns the commitment into a tool for dissolving philosophical disputes. Some disputes, despite their appearance of depth, turn out to be merely verbal. Where there is no possible practical difference, there is no difference but stamping and shouting.

This makes pragmatism forward-looking, which distinguishes it from mere empiricism. Rather than looking for the origins of ideas in past experience, as earlier empiricists had done, pragmatists look toward the consequences of ideas in future experience.3

This can— but need not— motivate the rejection of the fact/value dichotomy. That further move is explicit in Dewey and, much later, Putnam. It is implicit in James.4 It is absent perhaps from Peirce.

Second: Pragmatists insist that real enquiry must be driven by genuine indeterminate situations.

They are committed to some version of the belief-doubt model of enquiry, according to which we necessarily start out with some stock of old beliefs until disruptive experience leads us to reconsider some of them.5 We can’t call everything into question at once. Answers are partial, local, and not final.

So pragmatism requires anti-foundationalism and fallibilism.

Relatedly: Historical pragmatists were naturalistic, in the sense that they were trying to make sense of the world as revealed to us by science. In particular, they were concerned with making sense of humans in light of Darwinian evolution— reconciling us as thinkers with us as creatures. This is arguably a third defining commitment, but in any case is a motive for both of the commitments I’ve outlined above.

  1. The title of the post is misleading, because I’m not talking about contemporary pragmatists but instead about how I today am thinking about the tradition.
  2. Everyone cites Peirce’s “How to Make Our Ideas Clear” (1878), although what he writes was only later called the pragmatic maxim.
  3. This has consequences for thinking about the theory of reference, too, putting Boyd and Putnam on the side of the pragmatists.
  4. And possibly explicit in passages that don’t come to mind at the moment.
  5. The model was posed by Peirce in “The Fixation of Belief” (1877). I think the label “belief-doubt model” is due to Isaac Levi, but it may have earlier sources.

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