A rich history of pragmatic thought.


We all have our favorite examples of great ideas, inventions, artwork, movements that have changed history. Often we don’t know the thought process that went into these great ideas. Evidence for the thinking can be found in notebooks, sketchbooks, letters, doodles, lab journals etc.

There we can often see the creator working through the data and the tentative conclusions, interpretations, and artwork to answer some question or vision. These notebooks have been the inspiration for the Pathfinder pragmatic inquiry lab journals and field notebooks. It’s a way to bring the thought process of inquiry to life. Below are just a few examples of thinkers who exhibit and have led the way in pragmatic inquiry.

The Founders of Pragmatism– Classical American Philosophy .

While there are more members of the classic American philosophers, three of the best-known are Peirce, James, and Dewey.


Charles Sanders Peirce

1839 –1914

Peirce is credited with introducing the formulation of pragmatism as a philosophy, James popularized it, and Dewey wrote extensively about its application in education.  Personal 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 it.”


William James

1839 –1914

James famously said that you would know an idea by its “cash value.” What difference the idea made in practice.


John Dewey

1859 –1952

And John Dewey had the most impact in his writings on education with a specific reference to education in the book for school teachers how we think he attempted to bring together reflective thought with objective inquiry and noted the importance of the continuum of inquiry, “a principal whose importance, as far as I am aware, the only person 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.)

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Abraham Lincoln

1809 – 1865

What are 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 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.  If this is true then we would know what else is true.  It is instructive to see how we can use the same method of reflective thought and theory to craft his most famous and memorable statements such as his second inaugural address.  So when you’re pressed for time remember Lincoln’s words.

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