History Of Pragmatism Research Paper

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Pragmatism is the name usually given to the classical philosophical movement in the USA. It emerged in the last decades of the nineteenth century and achieved a certain hegemony in the country’s intellectual life during, and immediately after, the so-called Progressive Era (1896–1914). From the 1930s, and even more after 1945, it was largely displaced by other currents of thought in philosophy, the social sciences, and public political discourse. American pragmatism also attracted considerable attention in Europe, especially around 1910, though exposition and critical discussion of pragmatism displayed widespread misunderstandings and the tendency to depreciate it by reducing it to an expression of alleged American national characteristics.



1. Pragmatism Defined

The everyday sense of the term ‘pragmatic’ certainly contributed to these misunderstandings, connoting as it does a kind of ‘muddling through’ which is oriented to immediate requirements, disregards theoretical or moral principles, and treats the given features of the situation simply as part of a calculation. The term pragmatism has the same Greek roots as praxis, practical, etc. The founder of pragmatism, Charles Sanders Peirce (1839–1914), coined the term as a result of his reflections on Kant’s use of the terms ‘pragmatic’ and ‘practical.’ Peirce’s lectures and writings around 1878 are now regarded as the original documents of pragmatism. These first became known only to narrow circles of intellectuals in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and did not achieve wider notice until some 20 years later, when William James (1842–1910) referred to them in some lectures, but above all through his lectures on ‘Pragmatism’ published in 1907. Peirce came to distance himself from James’s pragmatism and to call his own philosophy ‘pragmaticism.’

Along with Peirce and James, the inner core of pragmatism is usually taken to include John Dewey (1859–1952) and George Herbert Mead (1863–1931). The differences between all these thinkers were so evident, not least to the ‘pragmatists’ themselves, that their subsumption into a single school or movement has constantly been questioned. The most widely accepted view, however, has been that despite the differences there is enough of a core of shared views to justify speaking of ‘pragmatism’ as a distinct philosophical orientation.

What are the basic themes of pragmatism? Peirce’s approach starts from his critique of Descartes’ methodological principle of radical doubt and the resultant program of making the thinking ego’s certainty of itself into the firm foundation of a new philosophy. The pragmatist questions the meaningfulness of Cartesian doubt, not in order to defend unquestionable authorities against the emancipatory claim of the thinking ego, but arguing for a more substantial doubt, that is, the grounding of cognition in real problem situations. In pragmatism, the guiding idea of the doubting ego is replaced by the idea of a cooperative search for truth in order to overcome real problems of action. Real doubt occurs in action, conceived as a cyclical succession of phases. Thus every perception of the world and every action in it are anchored in an unreflective belief in self-evident conditions and successful habits. But these habitual ways of acting constantly come up against the resistance of the world, which is seen to be the source of the destruction of unreflective expectations.

The resultant phase of real doubt leads to a reconstruction of the interrupted context. Perception must grasp new or different aspects of reality; action must attach itself to other elements of the world or reorganize its own structure. This reconstruction is a creative accomplishment by the actor. If he or she succeeds, via a change in perception, in acting differently and thus getting going again, then something new has come into the world: a new way of acting which can be institutionalized and itself become an unreflectively followed routine. Thus pragmatists see all human action in the opposition between un- reflective habit so faction and creative accomplishments. This also means that creativity is seen here as characterizing achievements in situations which demand a solution, rather than the unconstrained creation of something new without a constitutive background in unreflective habits.

From this basic model of pragmatism, in which action and cognition are combined in a particular way, we can derive the other central claims of pragmatism. In the metaphysics of pragmatism, reality is not deterministic: rather, it enables and demands creative action. In the epistemology of pragmatism, knowledge is not the reproduction of reality but an instrument for dealing with it successfully. The semantics of pragmatism locates the meaning of concepts in the practical consequences for action resulting from their use or their difference from other concepts. Thus in pragmatism’s theory of truth, the truth of sentences can only be determined by way of a process of agreement on the success of action based on them, and not on, say, their correspondence with an uninterpreted reality. The misunderstanding of pragmatism as principally a movement aiming at the destruction of the ideal of true knowledge resulted primarily from the isolation of individual sentences, such as some of William James’s statements about truth, from the whole complex of pragmatist thought.

2. Main Variants Of Historical Pragmatism

The leading representatives of pragmatism contributed to different fields of inquiry. Peirce was primarily interested in developing a general theory of scientific knowledge and a broadly conceived theory of signs of semiotics. His multifaceted work, which does not deal with questions of social theory, includes important thoughts on the intersubjective use of signs and on the creative production of hypotheses (‘abduction’). This theory of signs, particularly in its emphasis on the ‘discourse’ of scientists in an experimental community, has become very influential.

William James at first worked mainly in psychology, in which he saw the prospect of a way out of the dilemma between a religiously based belief in the free will of the moral agent and the scientific image of the world as a universe governed by causal processes. The solution, for James, lay in the functionality for the survival of the human organism in its environment which he saw in the human capacity to pay deliberate attention to perceptual impressions and to choose between alternative courses of action. A ‘functionalist’ psychology could proceed by understanding all mental achievements in terms of their function for the organism’s active mastery of its environment.

James elaborated his antideterminist stance in an influential article on The Will to Belie e, in which he defended the legitimacy of religious experience against scientistic skepticism. This essay also became the point of departure for his wide-ranging study of the varieties of religious experience, in which he founded the empirical study of religion not on religious institutions or theological doctrines, but on the phenomenology of religious experience. In his last years, he began to use the phenomenology of experience as a guideline for the elaboration of a pluralist, nondeterminist metaphysics.

John Dewey, whose thought at first developed rather independently of the first pragmatists, abandoned his earlier neo-Hegelian approach during the 1890s and linked up with the logical and psychological aspects of pragmatism as developed by Peirce and James. He constructed a philosophy which extended the core ideas of pragmatism into all the traditional domains of philosophy (metaphysics, logic, ethics, aesthetics), but also and in particular the fields of educational theory, social and political philosophy. He gave more explicit emphasis than the others to a radical version of democracy as the normative core of pragmatism. Taking part in a great number of political controversies, he became one of the most influential American intellectuals ever and the representative thinker of the United States.

George Herbert Mead, a friend of Dewey, did most to develop James’s strategy of the translation of pragmatist themes into the program of a biologically based empirical social science. His decisive contribution to social theory consists of his theory of the specific features of human communication and hence the attempt to thematize the constitution of personality structures in the dynamics of interpersonal relationships. Mead attacked the assumption of a presocial substantial self and replaced it by a theory of the genesis of the self in which even the interaction of a person with himself or herself is conceptualized as the result of social structures. Mead also pursued this line of thought in the direction of problems of cognitive development, such as the constitution of permanent objects in experience and the constitution of structures of time. His ethical theory and antideterminist philosophy of history remain rather neglected.

Thus it can be said that pragmatism has never been a clearly delimited school of thought with a fixed research program; it shows, however, the characteristics of an intellectual movement or, at least, constellation with the common elements of antifoundationalism, the fallible nature of truth, the social nature of the self, the importance of inquiry in all fields of human life, and (metaphysical) pluralism (see Bernstein 1992). During the first decades, pragmatism exerted a considerable influence on a variety of disciplines in the United States (functionalist psychology; institutionalist economics; educational reform; law; theology; political theory; the Chicago school of sociology). After the 1930s this influence clearly waned, reaching a nadir in the 1950s and 1960s. One of the few currents which kept the heritage of pragmatist social thought alive was the school of symbolic interactionism in sociology, which produced a rich amount of empirical work mostly on interpersonal relationships, processes of emergence and definition of deviant and subcultural behavior, social movements, and the division of labor in professional organizations. There are other main figures of American sociology at that time in whose work pragmatist orientations can easily be detected (C. Wright Mills, Philip Selznick).

3. Contemporary Pragmatist Thinking

Since the late 1970s a renaissance of pragmatist philosophy has been underway. Apart from thinkers like Richard Bernstein and John Smith, who had continuously pursued a pragmatist agenda, two thinkers have probably contributed most to this renaissance. One is Richard Rorty who had for a long time tried to articulate pragmatist motifs within the tradition of analytical philosophy before breaking (more or less) with it and proposing a variant of postmodern thinking he calls pragmatism. Though Rorty is a perceptive social critic, he has no social theory and actively repudiates the need for it. His philosophy has sparked a vast critical literature and reappropriation of the historical pragmatists; his main rival in these debates is Hilary Putnam in whose work one can find a thorough and significant restatement of pragmatist philosophy.

The other main originator of this renaissance is Jurgen Habermas. Together with Karl-Otto Apel, these two German thinkers gave a new twist to the winded history of the European reception of pragmatism. From the beginnings of the twentieth century on, very diverse schools of European thinking had used elements from American pragmatism for their own purposes (e.g., French Catholic Modernism; Italian proto-Fascism; German Philosophical Anthropology; and others). Other European thinkers came close to pragmatism in some aspects of their work (e.g., Max Scheler, Arnold Gehlen, Martin Heidegger, Ludwig Wittgenstein) without spelling out their relationship with it. Peirce’s ideas about the ‘discourse’ of scientists has been of decisive importance for the ‘discourse ethics’ developed by Apel and Habermas. Mead’s understanding of symbolically mediated interaction has been crucial for the ‘Theory of Communicative Action’ by Habermas; he declares Mead the main inspiration for ‘the paradigm shift from purposive to communicative action’ which he proposes in sociological theory.

Habermas’ faithfulness to the pragmatist heritage has been disputed almost as much as Rorty’s. There are obviously other possibilities for pragmatist social thought than his combination of a theory of communication with systems theory or than his restriction of the tasks of moral theory to the program of discourse ethics. One can claim (Joas 1996, 2000) that the most fundamental contribution of pragmatist social thought lies not in its emphasis on communication, but in its specific understanding of the creativity of human action. This understanding distinguishes pragmatist social thought from approaches focusing on either rational action or normatively oriented action, or from a systems theory or structuralism which disconnect the dynamics of human action from the development of social wholes. On the basis of pragmatism understood as a theory of the ‘situated creativity’ of human action, it becomes possible to reconceptualize rationality and normativity and to develop a theory of macrosocial processes and social change prepared by the political theory and philosophy of history in the works of the classical pragmatists.


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