Basic Facts About Pragmatism

Instructor: Dr. Jan Garrett

Last minor revision: April 1, 2008.

1) A recent philosophical view-19th and early 20th century

2) Arose in the United States among thinkers familiar with but also dissatisfied with much of the philosophical tradition inherited from Europe. We could not make sense out of pragmatism if we hadn't discussed the earlier philosophies such as Plato, Descartes, Hobbes, and Berkeley.

3) Influenced by modern science (what was happening in physics and chemistry, biology-including Darwin)

4) Very much engaged with the larger society on numerous fronts

  • William James was not only a pragmatist philosopher but also a key figure in the founding of modern psychology.

  • John Dewey is not only a philosopher who wrote on a wide range of philosophical topics (including social and political issues, religion, art) but also a major player in the reform of public education during his lifetime.
  • 5) Challenges the ahistorical view of philosophy as a discussion of timeless problems (that never seem to get resolved)

    6) Highly critical of TRV philosophies, especially Platonistic ones and theological philosophies highly similar to Platonism on metaphysical matters (Augustine, for instance)

    7) Opposes the dichotomies ("overly sharp" distinctions) familiar to beginning students in philosophy:

  • mind/matter

  • experience/reason

  • popular art/ fine art

  • reason/emotion

  • science / morality

  • epistemology/metaphysics

  • theory/action

  • means / end
  • 8) Opposes the focus on substances, individual things with essences that stay the same no matter whether you interact with them or not; focuses instead on interaction between organism and environment.
  • John Dewey, who began in philosophy after Darwin's views in natural history were on the scene, says that the basic category is interaction between an organism and its environment.

  • William James' psychology discussed the feedback loop between trying some out an idea, experiences the results (often contrary to what you wish or expect), and then making mental adjustments, modifying ideas.
  • 9) Ideas and ideals (philosophical positions, too) are best understood as instruments for solving problems (but not only survival problems). They may be evaluated in terms of whether they help us solve problems.