The American Pragmatists

The term “pragmatism” is arguably one of the most misunderstood terms/ideas today. The street meaning is “do whatever works – whatever it takes.” Or a more precise version: “action unencumbered by principle.” When we approach a decision we often say things like: “don’t overthink it; keep it simple; this isn’t brain surgery; ready-shoot-aim; if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it; if it ain’t broke, break it; etc. etc.” We are all practical which we equate with pragmatic. Many business people see being “pragmatic” as the antithesis of being “philosophical”. Just the opposite!

Since Pragmatism, America’s only unique contribution to the long history of Philosophy in the West, and, while a true innovation, it is well to remember James’s titled his 1906 Lowell Lectures: “Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking.” Peirce in his 1903 Harvard Lecture proclaimed: “Pragmatism as a Principle and Method for Right Thinking.”

Here are some of the leading Classical American Pragmatists, the subject of Nahser’s dissertation in moral philosophy – relevant chapters: “Learning to Read the Signs: Reclaiming Pragmatism for the Practice of Sustainable Management.”

The Founders of Pragmatism– Classical American Philosophy .

While there are more members of the so-called Classical American Philosophers, four of the best-known are Charles Sanders Peirce, Josiah Royce, William James, and John Dewey. They all knew each other. Peirce and James grew up and studied together at Harvard. James and Royce were on the Harvard Philosophy faculty together for several decades. And Dewey had studied with Peirce during his brief academic teaching at Johns Hopkins.


Charles Sanders Peirce

1839 –1914

Charles Sanders Peirce today is viewed as the most profound and original philosopher America has produced. He is credited with introducing the formulation of pragmatism as a philosophy. James popularized it, and Dewey wrote extensively about its application in education.  Peirce stated that every inquiry must begin with a doubt (what he called a stance of “fallibilism”) and that the meaning of an idea is expressed in the consequences of that idea – quoting the biblical “by their fruits you shall know them.”


William James

1842 –1910

It has been said that Peirce has the distinction of having fewer disciples at death than any other world class philosopher in history – 4 by actual count. Luckily for Peirce, one of them was William James ( John Dewey was the other, mentioned below.)

James Introduced the term “pragmatism” to the world in a lecture at UC Berkeley in 1898 entitled, fittingly “Philosophical Conceptions and Practical Results.” that is when he stated the much misunderstood definition of Pragmatism: you know an idea by its “cash value.” ” The Ultimate Test for Us Is of What The Truth Means Is Indeed the Conduct Dictates or Inspires.” True, but it too often has come to mean: “Do whatever works.” A far cry from the original intent of testing/putting values in action.


Josiah Royce

1855-1916

William James and Josiah Royce

Josiah Royce was one of the few people in Peirce’s lifetime whom he felt really understood what he meant by pragmatism. Indeed Peirce went so far as to call Royce the only true American pragmatist. Like James, Royce was interested in the pursuit of truth but unlike James he did not just look at what “worked” but how we formed our ideas to begin with. Royce wanted answered questions about purpose, duty, and goals so reposed questions like: what do we live for? What is the ideal of life? His focus on duty led him to thinking about the virtue of loyalty and this led into the central question of the formation of the Christian community which he called the “Beloved Community”. Since he saw all philosophy as the process of interpretation, he used the example of the early Christian community attempting to interpret the meaning Jesus’s life, which led to the formation of the “Beloved Community.”

Royce believed that “Every proposed reform, every moral deed, is to be tested by whether and to what extent it contributes to the realization of the Beloved Community…When one cannot find the ‘beloved community,’ she needs to take steps to create it and if there is not evidence of the existence of such a community then the rule to live by is To Act So As To Hasten Its Coming.”


John Dewey

1859 –1952

John Dewey had the most impact in his writings on education. In the book for school teachers “How we think” he attempted to bring together reflective thought with objective inquiry. (It was the only book he revised – 15 years later after thousands of teachers had tested his educational philosophy.) He noted the importance of the continuum of inquiry: “…a principle whose importance, as far as I am aware, only Peirce had previously noted.”

When asked what thinkers had an influence on him he replied: “I should state explicitly that, with the outstanding exception of Peirce, I’ve learned most from writers with this position I have in the end been compelled to disagree.”

The rich story of the development of pragmatic inquiry goes on today
where of particular note are feminist philosophers who are embracing
the collective/community nature of inquiry stressed by the early
pragmatists.  (See bibliography for further readings.) We turn now to the predecessors, since ideas, as Dewey stated, come from a continuum of inquiry. What Jefferson called “the expression of the American mind.”

The Predecessors of the American Pragmatists

Note: This section is a work in progress to show the unique American Experience with Pragmatic Practice; demonstrations of the American “Arc of Pragmatic Inquiry” at work at key moments in our history: Although not named as pragmatists, Thomas Jefferson, Alexis de Tocqueville, Abraham Lincoln, Frances E. Willard, Jane Addams and Ralph Waldo Emerson and the Transcendentalists show the practice of pragmatism leading to Peirce, et.al. to articulate it.

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Thomas Jefferson

1743-1826 (July 4)

Imagined signing of the Declaration of Independence and presentation. July 4, 1776. Jefferson in red vest.

The Declaration of Independence of course is famous as the statement of modern democracy. It is also important to us as a statement of American thinking. Jefferson stated later in life: “Neither aiming at originality of principle or sentiment, not yet copied from any particular and previous writing, it was intended to be an expression of the American mind,”

And we are claiming that mind at its best thinks pragmatically. Specifically, the meaning of “pursuit of happiness” which is often overlooked as idealistic, but had precise meaning for Jefferson: happiness serving others, drawn from the Scottish Enlightenment and his teacher at William & Mary, William Small. See: Declaration of Independence as a Pragmatic Statement. And a longer story: Thomas Jefferson’s Education as a Pragmatist.

Alexis de Tocqueville

1805-1859

de Tocqueville’s visit to America was published as the landmark Democracy in America in 1835, after extensive travels throughout the eastern United States. He observed what he called our “habits of the heart” and was one of the first to bring idea and language of “individualism” to this country.

He begins Part II chapter 1 entitled “Concerning the Philosophical Approach of the Americans” with this opening sentence: “Less attention, I suppose, is paid to philosophy in the United States and in any other country in the civilized world… I should say that in most mental operations, each American relies on individual effort and judgment. So in all the countries of the world, America is the one which the precepts of Descartes least studied and best applied.” this is referencing Descartes’s famous internal mental quest for certainty.

Abraham Lincoln

1809-1865

“If we could first know where we are and whither we are tending, we could then better judge what to do, and how to do it. “A House Divided” June 16, 1858.

One of the major challenges in reflective thought and pragmatic inquiry is to encourage and motivate busy people to stop and reflect. That’s because most people are least interested in engaged in pragmatic inquiry when there is a real pressing doubt which requires immediate
action.  And usually the larger the problem, the louder the demand for action. That’s why the quote from Abraham Lincoln’s acceptance speech to be the party candidate for Senate from Illinois, delivered at the Republican state convention, is such compelling statement.  Everyone
knew that the country was in danger of being torn apart by civil war, and what is the first thing that Lincoln says: stop and reflect.

The first sentence is also a statement of logic based on his study
of Euclid: e.g.  If this is true, then we would know what else is true.  It is
instructive to see how he uses the same method of reflective thought
and theory to craft his most famous and memorable statements such as “House Divided” and his second inaugural address.  So when you’re pressed for time, remember Lincoln’s words and engage in inquiry.

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Ralph Waldo Emerson

1803-1882

Ralph Waldo Emerson statue in Houghton Library, next to Emerson Hall (Philosophy Department) in Harvard Yard.

Emerson was a major voice of the Transendenctalists, that amazing group of philosophers, writers and political activists including Henry David Thoreau, Walt Whitman and Margaret Fuller. He was also William James’s godfather.

As a wildly popular lecturer and essayist, most collections of his essay start out with that most individualistic essay “Self-reliance: Ne te quaesiveris extra.” (Do not seek for things outside of yourself)”

Well, not quite because, while still focusing on ourselves and “the essence of genius, the essence of virtue, the essence of life, which we call Spontaneity or Intuition”, he famously said: “We lie in the lap of immense intelligence, which makes us organs of its activity and receivers of its truth. When we discern justice, discern truth, we do nothing of ourselves, but allow a passage to its beams.”

Quite a difference from the individualistic “habits of the heart” which Tocqueville saw. And to see how ideas do develop in strange ways, consider that Nietzsche was taken by this philosophy, which led to a more radical individualistic direction, the ubermensch.

Frances E. Willard

1839-1898

Frances E. Willard statue in the Capital Statuary Hall, chosen by the Illinois legislature in 1905. She was the first and only woman in the Hall until Rosa Parks statue – seated on a bus – was added in 2013.

Frances E Willard may not be well known today, but in her time, she was widely heralded as the second-best known woman in the world, after Queen Victoria of England. She has unfortunately been too closely tied to the ultimately failed alcohol prohibition movement and her leadership of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. However, she was early awakened to the rights of women – first woman president of a US college, Evanston College for Ladies – and that was her cause: “By nature I am progressive in my thought. Dedicating my life to the uplift of humanity, I have entered the lists at the first open place I found and have fought on as best I could…”

Later in life she called for work guided by “Scientific Philanthropy: we are learning that this is not a cold and heartless phrase, but one warmed and vivified by the very breath of God… We are all by nature narrow… But the modern scientific method is to study the correlations of each subject taken up, and it is of equal importance in the scientific study of reforms as opposed to the helter-skelter method which they have been too often pursued.” One of her most influential works was entitled: “Do Everything”, stating her interdisciplinary/holistic approach to social reform. Couldn’t be a better statement of Pragmatic Inquiry involving all stakeholders, the “Beloved Community” of Royce.

While she never used the term pragmatism, she was prophetic in announcing that reflecting on her lifetime of work had made her a “Gospel Socialist”, a perfect statement of reflecting on the evidence of values in action. She went on to say that: “It will take several generations to change the set of brain and trend of thought so that in place of an individual we shall have a corporate conscience.” Think about the debate we are having today about “socialism.” Her definition is still instructive: “The world owes no man a living, But it does hold him the work by which she may live in a helpful and honorable fashion.” How much pragmatic work our generation and future ones still have to do.