Which Pragmatism?

“Pragmatism” is said in many ways. There is the crude, morally disreputable sort that means pursuit of narrow self-interest. There is the broad sort associated with a kind of flexible adaptation, which could be viewed either positively or negatively. There are several philosophical pragmatisms, none of which should be understood in terms of either of these.

Philosophical pragmatisms usually avow a deflationary, coherentist theory of truth, and stand in contrast to Cartesian, representationalist, and foundationalist views. They also tend to be associated with an instrumentalist rather than realist view of scientific explanation. I’m not in the habit of calling myself a pragmatist, but am sympathetic to all of this.

Charles Pierce (1839-1914) is generally regarded as the founder of philosophical pragmatism, and it was he who invented the word. The quite different version promulgated by William James (1842-1910), however, was initially far better known. At a very broad level it could be said that where Pierce was more Kantian, James was closer in spirit to the British utilitarians and the British empiricist tradition. Pierce apparently had severe misgivings about the work of James, and resented James’ takeover of his term. In later works, he ceded the name “pragmatism” to James and adopted the new term “pragmaticism”, in an attempt to separate their views.

Pierce’s pragmatism, I’d like to think, references the Kantian primacy of practical reason. He broadens the sense of “practical” far beyond Kant’s initial ethical focus, but without losing touch with its Kantian basis. He treats Kant’s rejection of “intellectual intuition” as decisive and deeply related to this, preferring to develop meanings through a kind of practical inference. His original “pragmatic maxim” is as follows: “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” (“How to Make Our Ideas Clear”). I’m no Pierce scholar, but I think that Pierce’s uses of “practical” are meant to apply in both Kantian and utilitarian/empiricist senses, whereas it seems James lost the Kantian aspect.

Though his interests were wide-ranging, Pierce was initially known for his work in mathematical logic and semiotics, and a few seminal essays. He made pioneering contributions to the mathematics of relations, and is widely regarded as the founder of modern semiotics, or the general study of signs.

Like Leibniz, Pierce left a huge mass of unpublished manuscripts, editing of which will continue for many decades to come. According to my late father, who wrote his dissertation on Pierce in the late 1950s, Pierce’s executors deliberately impeded research into Pierce’s significant engagement with Kant and Hegel and his correspondence with Husserl, in order make Pierce fit better into the American philosophical mainstream of the day, which was a much narrower, more intolerant, and more anti-historical kind of analytic philosophy than prevails among English-speaking professional philosophers today.

John Dewey (1859-1952) was another better known American figure with whose name the term “pragmatism” also became more closely linked than that of Pierce. Like James, he was a psychologist as well as a philosopher. He is known for his writings on education and democracy.

Philosopher, sociologist, and social psychologist George Herbert Mead (1863-1931) developed a pragmatist theory of social life known as symbolic interactionism. John Herman Randall, Jr. (1899-1980) developed a pragmatist reading of Aristotle, and also argued that Italian Renaissance Aristotelianism played a larger and far more positive role in the development of modern science than is commonly recognized.

In the mid-20th century, analytic philosophers W.V.O. Quine and Wilfrid Sellars used pragmatist arguments to criticize logical positivism, initiating a gradual sea change in Anglo-American philosophy over the next several decades. Hilary Putnam, Donald Davidson, Richard Rorty, and Robert Brandom are also known as analytic pragmatists.

(“Pragmatics” in the study of natural and artificial languages — a discipline concerned with questions of use — comes from the same Greek root, but is otherwise independent of the “pragmatisms” delimited here.)