Philosophical Aspects of Pragmatism Research Paper

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Pragmatism is a US philosophical movement which began in the late nineteenth century and exerted significant influence until around the time of John Dewey’s death in 1952. Pragmatism then fell from favor but began to enjoy a revival at the end of the twentieth century. The ‘classical’ pragmatists are C. S. Peirce, William James, and John Dewey. Their philosophies differed a good deal but all defended broadly empiricist views of knowledge which reject many traditional empiricist psychological views, and emphasize the role of thought in guiding action. Richard Rorty is the most influential contemporary figure who aligns himself with pragmatism.

1. ‘Classical’ Pragmatism

The most important pragmatist philosophers are C. S. Peirce, William James, and John Dewey. These three are often referred to as the ‘classical’ pragmatists. All three were born and worked in the USA. All were primarily philosophers but had strong interests in other disciplines. The views of the ‘classical pragmatists’ do have important common themes, but are also dissimilar in many ways.

Pragmatism is an empiricist view of thought and knowledge which rejects much of the psychological picture usually associated with empiricism. Pragmatists think traditional empiricism has had too passive a view of the mind, and pragmatists place great emphasis on the role played by thought in guiding action and solving practical problems. Pragmatism also rejects attempts to understand human knowledge by tracing its connections to some special set of ‘foundational’ beliefs. For pragmatism, both specific beliefs and methods of inquiry in general should be judged primarily by their consequences, by their usefulness in achieving human goals.

The nature of truth has been a central topic for pragmatists, and a source of much trouble for them. Pragmatists in general reject ‘correspondence’ theories of truth. Correspondence theories claim that a true belief or statement is one which represents the world as it really is. After rejecting correspondence, pragmatists have had a difficult time devising an alternative view of truth.

Pragmatism has an often complicated relationship with science, but it is fair to say that both Peirce and Dewey regarded science as a distinctive and superior way of acquiring knowledge. For both, the scientist is in some respects the model or ideal inquirer. Although pragmatists stress the role of knowledge in solving practical problems, it is definitely an error to see pragmatism as claiming that the direction of research in science, or choices between rival theories, should be guided solely by practical or commercial demands.

Pragmatists tend to argue that there is an important place in the universe for human choice and initiative; they oppose philosophical systems which regard the world as in some sense ‘finished,’ ‘complete,’ or impervious to the effects of human choice. This is a rather vague thing to oppose, but it is common for pragmatists to be constantly on the lookout for any hint of a denial of the significance of human choice. This concern pervades much pragmatist writing. Pragmatists also tend to hold generally ‘humanistic’ perspectives on matters involving morals and values, opposing both nihilistic views that reject all moral thinking as illusory, and views that locate moral and other evaluative facts outside the everyday world of human well-being.

2. Charles Sanders Peirce (1839–1914)

Peirce’s career began well but ended very badly, without his ever having held a long-term academic job. Peirce never set out his ideas in an organized and systematic way. It is difficult and probably fruitless to try to form these ideas into a single coherent system. Peirce’s most famous works are about the relations between doubt, inquiry, belief, and action. He also wrote a good deal about logic, the theory of signs (which he called ‘semiology’), some speculative cosmological ideas, probability, measurement, and other topics in the philosophy of science.

Peirce argued that inquiry always begins with ‘real and living doubt’ which he distinguished from the feigned doubt of Descartes. Doubt prompts inquiry, which aims at belief. Peirce claimed that the essence of belief is the establishment of a habit of action. Alexander Bain had made this suggestion in the mid-nineteenth century, within the framework of a more orthodox associationist psychology. Peirce and later pragmatists made this link between belief and action central to their theories of mind and knowledge.

Peirce believed that science is the most effective method for relieving doubt and acquiring useful habits of action. His defense of science stressed the social properties of scientific inquiry, especially the tendency scientific testing has to produce a ‘convergence’ of belief among people who start from different positions.

In his most influential paper, ‘How to make our ideas clear,’ Peirce argued for a principle which later became famous as ‘the pragmatic maxim.’ This principle is often seen as the single idea most central to pragmatism. Peirce said that to work out what the meaning of a ‘conception’ is, we should work out ‘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 famous principle is quite obscure, and was later paraphrased by James, Peirce, and others in a number of conflicting ways. One reasonable view is to see the famous ‘maxim’ as expressing a fairly familiar empiricist view, that our concept of something is just our concept of its possible effects on our experience. Then the novelty in ‘How to make our ideas clear’ lies in Peirce’s attempt to derive this empiricist principle from an unusual starting point—a theory of the role of belief in action.

In ‘How to make our ideas clear’ Peirce also gave a famous definition of truth. Peirce said that what we mean by the truth is the opinion which is ‘ultimately fated to be agreed to by all who investigate,’ or in a more modern formulation, the opinion that will be held at the limit of scientific inquiry. This is usually taken to be a novel definition of truth, in conflict with more familiar views such as the correspondence theory. In fact it is difficult to work out how Peirce intended his theory of truth to be taken. In some places it looks more like an expression of faith in the power of science to find the truth than an unorthodox philosophical theory of what it is for an idea to be true.

3. William James (1842–1910)

James made pragmatism famous, especially in his 1907 book Pragmatism (repr. 1979), which is the most widely read of all pragmatist writings.

James had a brilliant and influential career based at Harvard, in both philosophy and psychology. He wrote many important works before he began calling himself a ‘pragmatist’ and aligning his views with Peirce, in 1898. In these earlier works James argued that we have the right actively to choose sides on momentous, unresolved philosophical issues that will affect how we live our lives. Choices made on these issues will inevitably be strongly affected by our individual temperaments; we should not expect all individuals to find the same philosophies appealing. Problems James applied this doctrine to include the existence of God, the freedom of the will, and the reality of moral facts. In this earlier period James also published a landmark work in psychology, his two-volume Principles of Psychology (1890, repr. 1950).

After 1898 James began to embed his characteristic themes within an overtly ‘pragmatist’ framework. Unlike Peirce, James took pragmatism to be continuous with the mainstream empiricist philosophies of English thinkers such as David Hume and J. S. Mill. James publicized pragmatism with great energy, and transformed it in ways that induced some distress in Peirce.

James presented pragmatism as a way to avoid the errors of the two key rival philosophies of his day—overly scientistic materialism and empiricism on the one hand, and sentimental, over-optimistic religious idealism on the other. He saw pragmatism as a way of distilling the genuine human significance from obscure philosophical theories and debates. James also argued that there is an inevitable and appropriate role for values in choices about theoretical issues, defended the role of human choice as a factor in determining the ultimate nature and significance of the universe, and defended the legitimacy of individual religious experience.

James made pragmatism more ‘practical’ than Peirce did, linking it to problems of everyday life. James was a less scientistic thinker than Peirce, and also more individualistic than Peirce or Dewey. James talked of assessing ideas in terms of their ‘cash value,’ an unfortunate phrase which led many to interpret pragmatism as vulgar and anti-intellectual. James also invited a stream of criticism through his tendency to discuss the nature of truth in a vague and simplistic way. He said at various times that true ideas are just those that can be verified, or those that are useful. Some of the criticisms of James rested on misinterpretations, but there is no question that he wrote in an imprecise way and was not the most consistent of philosophers. Despite this, James’s writings have endured. His discussions of the role of individual temperament in philosophical choices never seem dated, for example. Another reason for James’s continuing appeal is the way his attractive personality, imagination, and boundless energy seem to radiate from the pages of his work.

4. John Dewey (1859–1952)

Dewey’s work is the high point of the pragmatist tradition to date. In the course of a remarkably long and productive career, Dewey published in virtually all areas of philosophy and in psychology, education, and politics. He wrote both popular, accessible works and dense, uncompromising ones. Dewey spent his most important years at the University of Chicago, where he worked in philosophy, education, and psychology, and after that at Columbia, where he focused more on philosophy and was also active in politics.

Dewey’s work went through several phases. Early in his career he accepted an idealist philosophy of the type influenced by Hegel, and also had strong Christian interests. Around the turn of the century he turned toward a more scientific approach to philosophy, influenced by Darwin and by James’s Principles of Psychology. Around this time Dewey also dropped his commitment to Christianity, although his attitude to religious ideas and to the psychological and social role of religion remained complex.

The scientifically oriented philosophy Dewey developed was initially reminiscent of James’s pragmatism. Later Dewey began to recast some pragmatist themes within a more ‘naturalistic’ framework—a framework which sets out from a biological description of living organisms and their relations to their environments. Dewey argued that intelligence is a means for humans to transform their environments, in order to deal with the problems posed by uncertainty and change in natural events.

In Experience and Nature, perhaps his greatest work, Dewey both defended this naturalistic view of mind and knowledge, and criticized the philosophical tradition for its postulation of false divides or ‘gulfs’ between mind and matter, thought and object, and so on. Dewey thought that the philosophical tradition is plagued by ‘dualisms’ which lead to pseudoproblems. The source of these dualisms is a ‘split in being’ established by the ancient Greeks, a split between the ‘perfect, permanent, self-possessed’ and the ‘defective, changing, relational.’ Dewey sought to replace these dualisms with a view based on various kinds of ‘continuity,’ between mind and nature, between organism and environment, and between cognition and simpler biological capacities. For Dewey, these natural continuities also provide the material needed to resolve other traditional oppositions such as that between the theoretical and practical, and between fact and value. Much of Dewey’s later work is an unusual mixture of scrupulously careful system building based on assertions of ‘continuity,’ and sweeping historical surveys, tracing the histories of key philosophical errors back and forward through thousands of years.

Dewey also defended a social theory of mind, claiming that because thought is symbolic and symbolism is social, thought only exists within a languageusing community. He argued that the primary role of science is to help human societies deal with problems and control their environments. But, like Peirce, Dewey thought that it was unscientific for scientists to direct their work according to specific practical problems. Rather, science is the study of a special class of properties of natural processes—relations and connections between things, which Dewey called ‘instrumental’ properties. Science is most successful in expanding our capacities for problem solving when it is directed on the study of the instrumental properties of things in an open-ended way unconstrained by immediate practical applications.

Dewey thought that the proper role of knowledge is to enable humans to transform their situations in beneficial ways. This led Dewey to reject what he called the ‘spectator theory of knowledge,’ the view that the ideal knower is someone who registers what is going on but does not intervene. This also led Dewey into some of the same arguments James had with defenders of correspondence theories of truth. Dewey thought that theories of truth as correspondence were aimed at inventing magical relations between thought and the world in order to overcome what he saw as a nonexistent problem—the problem of how the mind and the external world could have any contact with each other. He also thought correspondence theories belong with a spectator theory of the role of knowledge.

Dewey wrote often of the role played by knowledge in ‘transforming’ or ‘reconstructing’ the world. This ‘transformation’ should not be understood as implying an idealist metaphysical view. Dewey thought that knowledge is a factor in changing things in the world because knowledge has a role in guiding action, which transforms things by means of ordinary physical relationships.

Dewey was a significant figure in US political and social thought. Here he defended a version of liberalism, and he wrote extensively about the proper structure of a democratic society. At various times he was attacked by both the right and the left. He hoped for a more ‘democratic’ economic order, but always kept Marxism and communism at arm’s length. Dewey’s best known political activity was his chairing of an international inquiry into Stalin’s trial of Trotsky. The inquiry entitled its report ‘Not guilty.’

At Chicago Dewey worked closely with George Herbert Mead, who became one of the founders of social psychology in the USA. Mead is sometimes grouped as a major pragmatist thinker (see, for example, Scheffler 1986, Joas 1993). Mead argued that human individuality is a product of social embedding; that cognition in general and specific mental developments such as a sense of self emerge as products of various kinds of symbolic behavior within a community. Dewey also wrote about art and took a lifelong interest in education. When he was at Chicago he established an experimental school. Dewey favored problem solving as an approach to all types of learning. His ideas remained influential in education for many years while his name had almost dropped out of mainstream English-speaking philosophy.

5. After Dewey

Dewey’s ideas, and pragmatism in general, subsided from philosophical discussion for several decades after Dewey’s death in 1952. A primary reason for this was the growing focus on formal logic and the philosophy of language in US philosophy after World War II, prompted especially by the immigration of European philosophers and logicians who defended a rigorous ‘analytic’ style of philosophy. After Peirce, the pragmatists had not taken an interest in formal logic. Dewey also had idiosyncratic and rather opaque ideas on the philosophy of language, which rapidly came to seem dated.

More recently, interest in pragmatism has revived. In part, this has been due to the influence of Richard Rorty, who has both revived some of Dewey’s ideas and become a significant pragmatist thinker in his own right. But aside from Rorty’s explicit advocacy, quite a number of the key figures in mid-to late twentieth century English-speaking philosophy have some connection with pragmatism. W. V. O. Quine is sometimes seen as a pragmatist, because of his opposition to foundationalist projects in epistemology, and his view of rational thought as a matter of making adjustments to a ‘web of belief.’ For Quine, these adjustments to the web are made in whatever ways seem to work best in dealing with experience; no beliefs are in principle immune to revision. In the closing sentences of his immensely influential paper ‘Two dogmas of empiricism’ (1953), Quine refers to these adjustments made to beliefs in the face of evidence as ‘pragmatic.’ But Quine’s theory focuses on the role of beliefs in prediction, and does not discuss the link between thought and action in the detail associated with classical pragmatism.

Hilary Putnam is another influential defender of some broadly pragmatist ideas. Putnam’s early work defended a strongly ‘realist’ set of views about the relation between thought and the external world. But Putnam changed his mind, and defends a position he calls ‘internal realism,’ which rejects the correspondence theory of truth and which Putnam sees as continuous with the pragmatist tradition. Putnam has defended views about truth which resemble (one reading of) Peirce’s view, for example. Donald Davidson, another giant figure in late twentiethcentury philosophy, is occasionally classified as a pragmatist, largely because of his opposition to some standard doctrines about the representational properties of language and thought, and his opposition to some versions of the correspondence theory of truth. But Davidson’s connection to classical pragmatism is tenuous.

Rorty’s work has carried the influence of pragmatism outside of philosophy into neighboring humanistic disciplines. Rorty views himself as carrying on the tradition of Dewey, and to a lesser extent James. Rorty is an ‘antiessentialist’ about traditional philosophical concepts such as truth, knowledge and justice. Antiessentialism in this sense holds that the only theory there can be of truth (etc.) is a theory of how the term ‘true’ functions in ordinary discourse; it is an error to give a philosophical analysis of truth that goes beyond this. The degree of continuity between Rorty’s ideas and Dewey’s is a matter of controversy. As outlined above, Dewey’s mature work includes a mixture of sweeping historical stories aimed at dissolving philosophical problems, and careful system building of his own. Rorty endorses the historical dissolving but not the system building. However, it can be argued that Dewey’s critical points and his attempts to ‘get over’ standard debates tend to depend on his positive philosophical theories. And James used pragmatism to breathe new life into metaphysical problems, not to deflate them. As Rorty’s views on traditional philosophical questions are so focused on dissolving and deflating, it is in some ways more appropriate to associate Rorty with the later work of Ludwig Wittgenstein rather than with pragmatism.

In recent discussion, the term ‘pragmatist’ has come to be used in a very loose way, to signify endorsement of any one of a wide range of ideas that are taken to have a connection with Peirce, James, or Dewey. These ideas include holism about justification, opposition to correspondence theories of truth, opposition to representationalist theories of thought and language, opposition to traditional views about logic and rationality, and almost any kind of emphasis on the practical, action-guiding side of reasoning and belief. Contemporary writers who identify themselves with ‘pragmatism’ often have very little in common. These loose uses of the term have lead to confusion. Perhaps any contemporary ‘pragmatism’ should hold, at a minimum, that the role of thought in guiding action is of central importance to the philosophy of mind and epistemology, and as a consequence of this there is a need to rework standard views about knowledge and inquiry. But any summary one might give runs into the problem that even ‘classical’ pragmatism was a diverse and shifting collection of ideas.


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