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Pragmatism is a philosophic school that originated in the late nineteenth century with Charles Sanders Peirce, who first stated the pragmatic maxim. It came to fruition in the early twentieth-century philosophies of William James and John Dewey. Most of the thinkers who describe themselves as pragmatists consider practical consequences or real effects to be vital components of both meaning and truth. Other important aspects of pragmatism include anti-Cartesianism, radical empiricism, instrumentalism, anti-realism, verificationism, conceptual relativity, a denial of the fact-value distinction, a high regard for science and evolution, and fallibilism.

Pragmatism began enjoying renewed attention from the 1950s on, because of a new school of philosophers who put forth a revised pragmatism that criticized the logical positivism that had dominated philosophy in the United States and Britain since the 1930s, notably in the work of analytic philosophers like W.V.O. Quine and Wilfrid Sellars. Their naturalized epistemology was further developed and widely publicized by Richard Rorty, whose later work grew closer to continental philosophy and is often considered relativistic. Contemporary pragmatism is still divided between those thinkers who work strictly within the analytic tradition, a more relativistic strand in the wake of Rorty and lastly neoclassical pragmatists like Susan Haack who stay closer to the work of Peirce, James and Dewey.


Charles Sanders Peirce: the American polymath who started it all.

As a philosophical movement, pragmatism originated in the United States in the late 1800s. The thought and works of Charles Sanders Peirce (IPA: /p?s/) and William James (both members of The Metaphysical Club) as well as John Dewey and George Herbert Mead figured most prominently in its overall direction. The term pragmatism was first used in print by James, who credited Peirce with coining the term during the early 1870s. Prompted by James’ use of the term and its attribution to him, Peirce began writing and lecturing on pragmatism to make clear his own interpretation. Peirce eventually coined the new name pragmaticism to mark what he regarded as the original idea, for clarity’s sake and possibly (but not certainly) because he disagreed with James (cf. Menand 2001 on the former interpretation; below on the latter).

James and Peirce were inspired by several earlier thinkers, notably Alexander Bain, who examined the crucial links among belief, conduct, and disposition by saying that a belief is a proposition on which a person is prepared to act. Earlier thinkers that inspired the pragmatists include Francis Bacon who coined the phrase "knowledge is power", David Hume for his naturalistic account of knowledge and action, Thomas Reid for his direct realism, Immanuel Kant for his idealism and from whom Peirce derives the name "pragmatism", Georg Hegel for his introduction of temporality into philosophy (Pinkard in Misak 2007), and J.S. Mill for his nominalism and empiricism.

Pragmatist epistemology

The epistemology of the early pragmatists was heavily influenced by Darwinian thinking. Pragmatists were not the first to see the relevance of evolution for theories of knowledge: the same rationale had e.g. convinced Schopenhauer that we should adopt biological idealism because what’s useful to an organism to believe might differ wildly from what is actually true. Pragmatism differs from this idealist account because it challenges the assumption that knowledge and action are two separate spheres, and that there exists an absolute or transcendental truth above and beyond the sort of inquiry that organisms use to cope with life. Pragmatism, in short, provides what might be termed an ecological account of knowledge: inquiry is construed as a means by which organisms can get a grip on their environment. ’Real’ and ’true’ are labels that have a function in inquiry and cannot be understood outside of that context. It is not realist in a traditional robust sense of realism (what Hilary Putnam would later call metaphysical realism), but it is realist in that it acknowledges an external world which must be dealt with.

John Dewey says something is "made true" when it is verified. Contrary to what some critics think, he does not mean that people are free to construct a worldview as they see fit.

A general tendency by philosophers to push all views into either the idealist or realist camp, as well as William James’ occasional penchant for eloquence at the expense of public understanding, resulted in the widespread but false characterization of pragmatism as a form of subjectivism or idealism. Many of James’ best-turned phrases - "truth’s cash value" (James 1907, p. 200) and "the true is only the expedient in our way of thinking" (James 1907, p. 222) - were taken out of context and caricatured in contemporary literature as representing the view that any idea that has practical utility is true.

William James writes:

It is high time to urge the use of a little imagination in philosophy. The unwillingness of some of our critics to read any but the silliest of possible meanings into our statements is as discreditable to their imaginations as anything I know in recent philosophic history. Schiller says the truth is that which ’works.’ Thereupon he is treated as one who limits verification to the lowest material utilities. Dewey says truth is what gives ’satisfaction’! He is treated as one who believes in calling everything true which, if it were true, would be pleasant. (James 1907, p. 90)

In reality, James asserts, the theory is a great deal more subtle. (See Dewey 1910 for a ’FAQ’)

Pragmatists do disagree with the view that beliefs must represent reality to be true - "Copying is one [and only one] genuine mode of knowing" says James (James 1907, p. 91) - and argue that beliefs are dispositions which qualify as true or false depending on how helpful they prove in inquiry and in action. It is only in the struggle of intelligent organisms with the surrounding environment that theories acquire meaning, and only with a theory’s success in this struggle that it becomes true. However most pragmatists do not hold that anything that is practical or useful, or that anything that helps to survive merely in the short term, should be regarded as true. For example, to believe that my cheating spouse is faithful may help me feel better now, but it is certainly not useful from a more long-term perspective because it doesn’t accord with the facts (and is therefore not true).

Concept of truth

Going back to James, pragmatists have often spoken of how truth is not ready-made, but that jointly we and reality "make" truth. This idea has two senses, one which is often attributed to William James and F.C.S. Schiller, and another that is more widely accepted by pragmatists: (1) that truth is mutable, and (2) truth is relative to a conceptual scheme.

(1) Mutability of truth

One major difference among the pragmatists about the definition of ’truth’ is the question of whether beliefs can pass from being true to being untrue and back. For James, beliefs are not true until they have been made true by verification. James believed propositions become true over the long term through proving their utility in a person’s specific situation. The opposite of this process is not falsification, but rather a belief ceasing to be a "live option." F.C.S. Schiller, on the other hand, very clearly asserted that beliefs could pass into and out of truth situationally. Schiller held that truth was relative to specific problems. If I want to know how to return home safely, the true answer will be whatever is useful to solving that problem. Later on, when faced with a different problem, what I came to believe when faced with the earlier problem may now be false. As my problems change and as the most useful way to solve a problem shifts, so does the property of truth.

C.S. Peirce thought the idea that beliefs could be true at one time but false at another (or true for one person but false for another) was one of the "seeds of death" by which James allowed his pragmatism to become "infected." Peirce avoided this position because he took the pragmatic theory to imply that theoretical claims should be tied to verification practices (i.e. they should be subject to test), not that they should be tied to our specific problems or life needs. Truth is defined, for Peirce, as what would be the ultimate outcome (not any outcome in real time) of inquiry by a (usually scientific) community of investigators. John Dewey, while agreeing broadly with this definition, also characterized truthfulness as a species of the good: to state that something is true means stating that it is trustworthy or reliable and will remain so in every conceivable situation. Both Peirce and Dewey clearly connect the definitions of truth and warranted assertability. Hilary Putnam also developed his internal realism around the idea that a belief is true if it is ideally epistemically justified. About James’ and Schiller’s account, Putnam says this:

Truth cannot simply be rational acceptability for one fundamental reason; truth is supposed to be a property of a statement that cannot be lost, whereas justification can be lost. The statement ’The earth is flat’ was, very likely, rationally acceptable 3000 years ago; but it is not rationally acceptable today. Yet it would be wrong to say that ’the earth is flat’ was true 3,000 years ago; for that would mean that the earth has changed its shape. (Putnam 1981, p. 55)

Rorty has also weighed in against James and Schiller:

Truth is, to be sure, an absolute notion, in the following sense: "true for me but not for you" and "true in my culture but not in yours" are weird, pointless locutions. So is "true then, but not now." James would, indeed, have done better to say that phrases like "the good in the way of belief" and "what it is better for us to believe" are interchangeable with "justified" rather than with "true." (Rorty 1998, p. 2)

(2) Conceptual Relativity

Part of what James and Schiller mean by the phrase ’making truth’ is their idea that we make things true by verifying them. This sense of ’making truth’ has not been adopted by many other pragmatists. However, there is another sense to this phrase that nearly all pragmatists do adopt. It is the idea that there can be no truths without a conceptual scheme to express those truths. That is,

Unless we decide upon how we are going to use concepts like ’object’, ’existence’ etc., the question ’how many objects exist’ does not really make any sense. But once we decide the use of these concepts, the answer to the above-mentioned question within that use or ’version’, to put in Nelson Goodman’s phrase, is no more a matter of ’convention’. (Maitra 2003 p. 40)

F.C.S. Schiller used the analogy of a chair to make clear what he meant by the phrase that truth is made: just as a carpenter makes a chair out of existing materials and doesn’t create it out of nothing, truth is a transformation of our experience but that doesn’t imply reality is something we’re free to construct or imagine as we please.

Central pragmatist tenets

The primacy of practice

The pragmatist proceeds from the basic premise that the human capability of theorizing is integral to intelligent practice. Theory and practice are not separate spheres; rather, theories and distinctions are tools or maps for finding our way in the world. As John Dewey put it, there is no question of theory versus practice but rather of intelligent practice versus uninformed, stupid practice and noted in a conversation with William Pepperell Montague that "his effort had not been to practicalize intelligence but to intellectualize practice". (Quoted in Eldridge 1998, p. 5) Theory is an abstraction from direct experience and ultimately must return to inform experience in turn. Thus an organism navigating his or her environment is the grounds for pragmatist inquiry.

Anti-reification of concepts and theories

Dewey, in The Quest For Certainty, criticized what he called "the philosophical fallacy": philosophers often take categories (such as the mental and the physical) for granted because they don’t realize that these are merely nominal concepts that were invented to help solve specific problems. This causes metaphysical and conceptual confusion. Various examples are the "ultimate Being" of Hegelian philosophers, the belief in a "realm of value", the idea that logic, because it is an abstraction from concrete thought, has nothing to do with the act of concrete thinking, and so on. David L. Hildebrand sums up the problem: "Perceptual inattention to the specific functions comprising inquiry led realists and idealists alike to formulate accounts of knowledge that project the products of extensive abstraction back onto experience." (Hildebrand 2003)

Naturalism and anti-Cartesianism

From the outset, pragmatists wanted to reform philosophy and bring it more in line with the scientific method as they understood it. They argued that idealist and realist philosophy had a tendency to present human knowledge as something beyond what science could grasp. These philosophies then resorted either to a phenomenology inspired by Kant or to correspondence theories of knowledge and truth. Pragmatists criticized the former for its a priorism, and the latter because it it takes correspondence as an unanalyzable fact. Pragmatism instead tries to explain, psychologically and biologically, how the relation between knower and known ’works’ in the world.

In The Fixation of Belief, C.S. Peirce denied that introspection and intuition (staple philosophical tools at least since Descartes) were valid methods for philosophical investigation. He argued that intuition could lead to faulty reasoning, e.g. when we reason intuitively about infinity. Furthermore, introspection does not give priviledged access to knowledge about the mind - the self is a concept that is derived from our interaction with the external world and not the other way around. (De Waal 2005, pp. 7-10) By the time of his Harvard Lectures in 1903, however, he had become convinced that pragmatism and epistemology in general could not be derived from principles of psychology: what we do think is too different from what we should think. This is an important point of disagreement with most other pragmatists, who advocate a more thorough naturalism and psychologism.

Richard Rorty expanded on these and other arguments in Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature in which he criticized attempts by many philosophers of science to carve out a space for epistemology that is entirely unrelated to - and sometimes thought of as superior to - the empirical sciences. W.V. Quine, instrumental in bringing naturalized epistemology back into favor with his essay Epistemology Naturalized (Quine 1969), also criticized ’traditional’ epistemology and its "Cartesian dream" of absolute certainty. The dream, he argued, was impossible in practice as well as misguided in theory because it separates epistemology from scientific inquiry.

The reconciliation of anti-skepticism and fallibilism

Hilary Putnam suggests that the reconciliation of antiskepticism and fallibilism is the central goal of American pragmatism. Although all human knowledge is partial, with no ability to take a ’God’s-eye-view,’ this does not necessitate a globalized skeptical attitude. Peirce insisted that contrary to Descartes’ famous and influential methodology in the Meditations on First Philosophy, doubt cannot be feigned or created for the purpose of conducting philosophical inquiry. Doubt, like belief, requires justification. It arises from confrontation with some specific recalcitrant matter of fact (which Dewey called a ’situation’), which unsettles our belief in some specific proposition. Inquiry is then the rationally self-controlled process of attempting to return to a settled state of belief about the matter. Note that anti-skepticism is a reaction to modern academic skepticism in the wake of Descartes. The pragmatist insistence that all knowledge is tentative is actually quite congenial to the older skeptical tradition.

Pragmatism in other fields of philosophy

While pragmatism started out simply as a criterion of meaning, it quickly expanded to become a full-fledged epistemology with wide-ranging implications for the entire philosophical field. Pragmatists who work in these fields share a common inspiration, but their work is diverse and there are no received views.

Philosophy of science

In the philosophy of science, instrumentalism is the view that concepts and theories are merely useful instruments whose worth is measured not by whether the concepts and theories somehow mirror reality, but by how effective they are in explaining and predicting phenomena. Instrumentalism does not state that truth doesn’t matter, but rather provides a specific answer to the question of what truth and falsity mean and how they function in science.

One of C.I. Lewis’ main arguments in Mind and the World Order: Outline of a Theory of Knowledge was that science does not merely provide a copy of reality but must work with conceptual systems and that those are chosen for pragmatic reasons, that is, because they aid inquiry. Lewis’ own development of multiple modal logics is a case in point. Lewis is sometimes called a ’conceptual pragmatist’ because of this. (Lewis 1929)

Another development is the cooperation of logical positivism and pragmatism in the works of Charles W. Morris and Rudolph Carnap. The influence of pragmatism on these writers is mostly limited to the incorporation of the pragmatic maxim into their epistemology. Pragmatists with a broader conception of the movement don’t often refer to them.

W. V. Quine’s paper "Two Dogmas of Empiricism," published 1951, is one of the most celebrated papers of twentieth-century philosophy in the analytic tradition. The paper is an attack on two central tenets of the logical positivists’ philosophy. One is the distinction between analytic truths, statements which are true simply in value of the meanings of their words (’all bachelors are unmarried’), and synthetic truths, which are grounded in empirical fact. The other is reductionism, the theory that each meaningful statement gets its meaning from some logical construction of terms which refers exclusively to immediate experience. Quine’s argument brings to mind Peirce’s insistence that axioms aren’t a priori truths but synthetic statements.


Later in his life Schiller became famous for his attacks on logic in his textbook "Formal Logic." By then, Schiller’s pragmatism had become the nearest of any of the classical pragmatists to an ordinary language philosophy. Schiller sought to undermine the very possibility of formal logic, by showing that words only had meaning when used in an actual context. The least famous of Schiller’s main works was the constructive sequel to his destructive book "Formal Logic." In this sequel, "Logic for Use," Schiller attempted to construct a new logic to replace the formal logic he had just decimated in "Formal Logic." What he offers is something philosophers would recognize today as a logic covering the context of discovery and the hypothetico-deductive method.

Whereas F.C.S. Schiller actually dismissed the possibility of formal logic, most pragmatists are critical rather of its pretension to ultimate validity and see logic as one logical tool among others - or perhaps, considering the multitude of formal logics, one set of tools among others. This is the view of C.I. Lewis. C.S. Peirce developed multiple methods for doing formal logic.

Stephen Toulmin’s The Uses of Argument inspired scholars in informal logic and rhetoric studies (although it is actually an epistemological work).


James and Dewey were empirical thinkers in the most straightforward fashion: experience is the ultimate test and experience is what needs to be explained. They were dissatisfied with ordinary empiricism because in the tradition dating from Hume, empiricists had a tendency to think of experience as nothing more than individual sensations. To the pragmatists, this went against the spirit of empiricism: we should try to explain all that is given in experience including connections and meaning, instead of explaining them away and positing sense data as the ultimate reality. Radical empiricism, or Immediate Empiricism in Dewey’s words, wants to give a place to meaning and value instead of explaining them away as subjective additions to a world of whizzing atoms.

The "Chicago Club" including Whitehead, Mead and Dewey. Pragmatism is sometimes called American Pragmatism because so many of its proponents were and are Americans - a fact some think is significant.

William James gives an interesting example of this philosophical shortcoming:

[A young graduate] began by saying that he had always taken for granted that when you entered a philosophic classroom you had to open relations with a universe entirely distinct from the one you left behind you in the street. The two were supposed, he said, to have so little to do with each other, that you could not possibly occupy your mind with them at the same time. The world of concrete personal experiences to which the street belongs is multitudinous beyond imagination, tangled, muddy, painful and perplexed. The world to which your philosophy-professor introduces you is simple, clean and noble. The contradictions of real life are absent from it. [...] In point of fact it is far less an account of this actual world than a clear addition built upon it [...] It is no explanation of our concrete universe (James 1907, pp. 8-9)

F.C.S. Schiller’s first book, "Riddles of the Sphinx", was published before he became aware of the growing pragmatist movement taking place in America. In it, Schiller argues for a middle ground between materialism and absolute metaphysics. The result of the split between these two explanatory schemes that are comparable to what William James called tough-minded empiricism and tender-minded rationalism, Schiller contends, is that mechanicistic naturalism cannot make sense of the "higher" aspects of our world (freewill, consciousness, purpose, universals and some would add God), while abstract metaphysics cannot make sense of the "lower" aspects of our world (the imperfect, change, physicality). While Schiller is vague about the exact sort of middle ground he is trying to establish, he suggests metaphysics as a tool that can aid inquiry and is only valuable insofar as it actually does help in explanation.

In the second half of the twentieth century, Stephen Toulmin argued that the need to distinguish between reality and appearance only arises within an explanatory scheme and therefore that there is no point in asking what ’ultimate reality’ consists of. More recently, a similar idea has been suggested by the postanalytical philosopher Daniel Dennett, who argues that anyone who wants to understand the world has to adopt the intentional stance and acknowledge both the ’syntactical’ aspects of reality (i.e. whizzing atoms) and its emergent or ’semantic’ properties (i.e. meaning and value).

Radical Empiricism gives interesting answers to questions about the limits of science if there are any, the nature of meaning and value and the workability of reductionism. These questions feature prominently in current debates about the relationship between science and religion, where it is often assumed - most pragmatists would disagree - that science degrades everything that is meaningful into ’merely’ physical phenomena.

Philosophy of mind

Both John Dewey in Nature and Experience (1929) and half a century later Richard Rorty in his monumental Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (1979) argued that much of the debate about the relation of the mind to the body results from conceptual confusions. They argue instead that there is no need to posit the mind or mindstuff as an ontological category.

Pragmatists disagree over whether philosophers ought to adopt a quietist or a naturalist stance toward the mind-body problem. The former (Rorty among them) want to do away with the problem because they believe it’s a pseudo-problem, whereas the latter believe that it is a meaningful empirical question.


Pragmatism sees no fundamental difference between practical and theoretical reason, nor any ontological difference between facts and values. Both facts and values have cognitive content: knowledge is what we should believe; values are hypotheses about what is good in action. Pragmatist ethics is broadly humanist because it sees no ultimate test of morality beyond what matters for us as humans. Good values are those for which we have good reasons, viz. the Good Reasons approach. The pragmatist formulation predates those of other philosophers who have stressed important similarities between values and facts such as Jerome Schneewind and John Searle.

William James tried to show the meaningfulness of (some kinds of) spirituality but, like other pragmatists, refused to see religion as the basis of meaning or morality.

William James’ contribution to ethics, as laid out in his essay The Will to Believe has often been misunderstood as a plea for relativism or irrationality. On its own terms it argues that ethics always involves a certain degree of trust or faith and that we cannot always wait for adequate proof when making moral decisions.

Moral questions immediately present themselves as questions whose solution cannot wait for sensible proof. A moral question is a question not of what sensibly exists, but of what is good, or would be good if it did exist. [...] A social organism of any sort whatever, large or small, is what it is because each member proceeds to his own duty with a trust that the other members will simultaneously do theirs. Wherever a desired result is achieved by the co-operation of many independent persons, its existence as a fact is a pure consequence of the precursive faith in one another of those immediately concerned. A government, an army, a commercial system, a ship, a college, an athletic team, all exist on this condition, without which not only is nothing achieved, but nothing is even attempted. (James 1896)

Of the classical pragmatists, John Dewey wrote most extensively about morality and democracy. (Edel 1993) In his classic article Three Independent Factors in Morals (Dewey 1930), he tried to integrate three basic philosophical perspectives on morality: the right, the virtuous and the good. He held that while all three provide meaningful ways to think about moral questions, the possibility of conflict among the three elements cannot always be easily solved. (Anderson, SEP)

Dewey also criticized the dichotomy between means and ends which he saw as responsible for the degradation of our everyday working lives and education, both conceived as merely a means to an end. He stressed the need for meaningful labor and a conception of education that viewed it not as a preparation for life but as life itself. (Dewey 2004 [1910] ch. 7; Dewey 1997 [1938], p. 47)

Dewey was opposed to other ethical philosophies of his time, notably the emotivism of Alfred Ayer. Dewey envisioned the possibility of ethics as an experimental discipline, and thought values could best be characterized not as feelings or imperatives, but as hypotheses about what actions will lead to satisfactory results or what he termed consummatory experience. A further implication of this view is that ethics is a fallible undertaking, since human beings are frequently unable to know what would satisfy them.

A recent pragmatist contribution to meta-ethics is Todd Lekan’s "Making Morality" (Lekan 2003). Lekan argues that morality is a fallible but rational practice and that it has traditionally been misconceived as based on theory or principles. Instead, he argues, theory and rules arise as tools to make practice more intelligent.


John Dewey’s Art as Experience, based on the William James lectures he delivered at Harvard, was an attempt to show the integrity of art, culture and everyday experience. (Field, IEP) Art, for Dewey, is or should be a part of everyone’s creative lives and not just the privilege of a select group of artists. He also emphasizes that the audience is more than a passive recipient. Dewey’s treatment of art was a move away from the transcendental approach to aesthetics in the wake of Immanuel Kant who emphasized the unique character of art and the disinterested nature of aesthetic appreciation.

A notable contemporary pragmatist aesthetician is Joseph Margolis. He defines a work of art as "a physically embodied, culturally emergent entity", a human "utterance" that isn’t an ontological quirck but in line with other human activity and culture in general. He emphasizes that works of art are complex and difficult to fathom, and that no determinate interpretation can be given.

Philosophy of religion

Both Dewey and James have investigated the role that religion can still play in contemporary society, the former in A Common Faith and the latter in The Varieties of Religious Experience.

It should be noted, from a general point of view, that for William James, something is true only insofar as it works. Thus, the statement, for example, that prayer is heard may work on a psychological level but (a) will not actually help to bring about the things you pray for (b) may be better explained by referring to its soothing effect than by claiming prayers are actually heard. As such, pragmatism isn’t antithetical to religion but it isn’t an apologetic for faith either.

Joseph Margolis, in Historied Thought, Constructed World (California, 1995), makes a distinction between "existence" and "reality". He suggests using the term "exists" only for those things which adequately exhibit Pierce’s Secondness: things which offer brute physical resistance to our movements. In this way, such things which affect us, like numbers, may be said to be "real", though they do not "exist". Margolis suggests that God, in such a linguistic usage, might very well be "real", causing believers to act in such and such a way, but might not "exist"


Analytical, neoclassical and neopragmatism

Neopragmatism is a broad contemporary category used for various thinkers, some of them radically opposed to one another. The name neopragmatist signifies that the thinkers in question incorporate important insights of, and yet significantly diverge from, the classical pragmatists. This divergence may occur either in their philosophical methodology (many of them are loyal to the analytic tradition) or in actual conceptual formation (C.I. Lewis was very critical of Dewey; Richard Rorty dislikes Peirce). Important analytical neopragmatists include the aforementioned Lewis, W.V.O. Quine, Donald Davidson, Hilary Putnam and the early Richard Rorty. Stanley Fish, the later Rorty and Jürgen Habermas are closer to continental thought.

Neoclassical pragmatism denotes those thinkers who consider themselves inheritors of the project of the classical pragmatists. Sidney Hook and Susan Haack (known for the theory of foundherentism) are well-known examples.

Not all pragmatists are easily characterized. It is probable, considering the advent of postanalytic philosophy and the diversification of Anglo-American philosophy, that more philosophers will be influenced by pragmatist thought without necessarily publicly committing themselves to that philosophical school. Daniel Dennett, a student of Quine’s, falls into this category, as does Stephen Toulmin, who arrived at his philosophical position via Wittgenstein, whom he calls "a pragmatist of a sophisticated kind" (foreword for Dewey 1929 in the 1988 edition, p. xiii). Another example is Mark Johnson whose embodied philosophy (Lakoff and Johnson 1999) shares its psychologism, direct realism and anti-cartesianism with pragmatism.

Contemporary echoes and ties

In the twentieth century, the movements of logical positivism and ordinary language philosophy have similarities with pragmatism. Like pragmatism, logical positivism provides a verification criterion of meaning that is supposed to rid us of nonsense metaphysics. However, logical positivism doesn’t stress action like pragmatism does. Furthermore, the pragmatists rarely used their maxim of meaning to rule out all metaphysics as nonsense. Usually, pragmatism was put forth to correct metaphysical doctrines or to construct empirically verifiable ones rather than to provide a wholesale rejection.

Ordinary language philosophy is closer to pragmatism than other philosophy of language because of its nominalist character and because it takes the broader functioning of language in an environment as its focus instead of investigating abstract relations between language and world.

Pragmatism has ties to process philosophy. Much of their work developed in dialogue with process philosophers like Henri Bergson and Alfred North Whitehead, who aren’t usually considered pragmatists because they differ so much on other points. (Douglas Browning et al. 1998; Rescher, SEP)

Behaviorism and functionalism in psychology and sociology also have ties to pragmatism, which is not surprising considering that James and Dewey were both scholars of psychology and that Mead became a sociologist. Utilitarianism has some significant parallels to Pragmatism and John Stuart Mill espoused similar values.


Although many later pragmatists such as W.V.O. Quine were actually analytic philosophers, the most vehement criticisms of classical pragmatism came from within the analytic school. Bertrand Russell was especially known for his vituperative attacks on what he considered little more than epistemological relativism and short-sighted practicalism. Realists in general often could not fathom how pragmatists could seriously call themselves empirical or realist thinkers and thought pragmatist epistemology was only a disguised manifestation of idealism. (Hildebrand 2003) Louis Menand argues that during the Cold War, the intellectual life of the United States became dominated by ideologies. Since pragmatism seeks "to avoid the violence inherent in abstraction," it was not very popular at the time.

Neopragmatism as represented by Richard Rorty has been criticized as relativistic both by neoclassical pragmatists such as Susan Haack (Haack 1997) and by many analytic philosophers (Dennett 1998). Rorty’s early analytical work, however, differs notably from his later work which some, including Rorty himself, consider to be closer to literary criticism than to philosophy - most criticism is aimed at this latter phase of Rorty’s thought.