1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Pragmatism

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PRAGMATISM, in philosophy, etymologically a theory or method of dealing with real things (Gr. πράγματα: cf. πραγματικός, versed in affairs). "Pragmatic," as here employed. is not used in the common colloquial sense of "pragmatical," i.e. " fussy and positive," nor in the historical sense, as in "Pragmatic Sanction," of "relating to affairs of state," but in the sense of practical or efficient.[1] Pragmatism, as a general philosophic doctrine or mental attitude, can only be understood as part of a reaction against the intellectualistic speculation which has characterized most of modern metaphysics. It arises from a general awakening to the fact that the growth of our psychological and biological knowledge must profoundly transform the traditional epistemology. It follows that "pragmatic" lines of thought may originate from a multiplicity of considerations and in a variety of contexts. These, however, may be conveniently classified under four main heads - psychological, logical, ethical and religious - and the history of the subject shows that all these have contributed to the development of pragmatism.

1. Psychologically, pragmatism starts from the efficacy and allpervasiveness of mental activity, and points out that interest, attention, selection, purpose, bias, desire, emotion, satisfaction, &c., colour and control all our cognitive processes. It insists that all thought is personal and purposive and that "pure"' thought is a figment. A judgment which is not prompted by motives and inspired by interest, which has not for its aim the satisfaction of a cognitive purpose, is psychologically impossible, and it is, therefore, mistaken to construct a logic which abstracts from all these facts. Nor is the presence of such non-intellectual factors in thinking necessarily deleterious: at any rate they are ineradicable. Truths are always on one side matters of belief, and beliefs are ultimately rules for action. The whole functioning of our mental apparatus is directed upon yielding the right response to the stimulations of the environment, and is valuable if and in so far as it does this. The "psychologicm" thus introduced into logic amounts to a systematic protest against the notion of a dehumanized thought and the study of logic in abstraction from actual psychic process.

2. In its logical aspect pragmatism originates in a criticism of fundamental conceptions like "truth," "error," "fact" and "reality," the current accounts of which it finds untenable or unmeaning. "Truth," for example, cannot be defined as the agreement or correspondence of thought with "reality," for how can thought determine whether it correctly "copies" what transcends it ? Nor can our truth be a copy of a transcendent and absolute truth (Dewey). If it be asked, therefore, what such phrases mean, it is found that their meaning is really defined by their use. The real difference between two conceptions lies in their application, in the different consequences for the purposes of life which their acceptance carries. When no such "practical" difference can be found, conceptions are identical; when they will not "work," i.e. when they thwart the purpose which demanded them, they are false; when they are inapplicable they are unmeaning (A. Sidgwick). Hence the "principle of Peirce" may be formulated as being that "every truth has practical consequences, and these are the test of its truth." It is clear that this (z) implicitly considers truth as a value, and so connects it with the conception of good, and (2) openly raises the question - What is truth, and how is it to be distinguished from error ? This accordingly becomes the central problem of pragmatism. This same issue also arises independently out of the breakdown or rationalistic theories of knowledge (F. H. Bradley, H. H. Joachim). Logical analysis, after assuming that truth is independent and not of our making, has to confess that all logical operations involve an apparently arbitrary interference with their data (Bradley). Again, it assumes an ideal of truth which turns out to be humanly unattainable and incompatible with the existence of error, an d an ideal of science which no human science can be conceived as attaining. The obvious way of avoiding the scepticism into which rationalism is thus driven is to revise the assumptions about the nature and postulates of truth which lead to it.

3. The ethical affinities of pragmatism spring from the perception that all knowing is referred to a purpose. This at once renders it "useful," i.e. a means to an end or "good." Completely "useless" knowledge becomes impossible, though the uses of knowledge may still vary greatly in character, in directness, and in the extent and force of their appeal to different minds. This relation to a "good" must not, however, be construed as a doctrine of ethics in the narrower sense; nor is its "utilitarianism" to be confused with the hedonism of the British associationists. "Useful" means "good for an (any) end," and the "good" which the "true" claims must be understood as cognitive. But cognitive "good" and moral "good" are brought into close connexion, as species of teleological "good" and contributory to "the Good." Thus only the generic, not the specific, difference between them is abolished. The "true" becomes a sort of value, like the beautiful and the (moral) good. Moreover, since the "real" is the object of the "true," and can be distinguished from the "unreal" only by developing superior value in the process of cognition which arrives at it, the notions of "reality" and "fact" also turn out to be disguised forms of value. Thus the dualism between judgments of fact and judgments of value disappears: whatever "facts" we recognize are seen to be relative to the complex of human purposes to which they are revealed. It should further be noted that pragmatism conceives "practice" very widely: it includes everything related to the control of experience. The dualism, therefore, between "practice" and "theory" also vanishes; a "theory" unrelated to practice (however indirectly) is simply an illusion. Lastly it may be pointed out that, as asserting the efficacy of thought and the reality of choice, pragmatism involves a real, though determinable, indetermination in the course of events.

4. Pragmatism has very distinctly a connexion with religion, because it explains, and to some extent justifies, the faithattitude or will to believe, and those who study the psychology of religion cannot but be impressed with the pragmatic nature of this attitude. If the whole of a man's personality goes to the making of the truth he accepts, it is clear that his beliefs are not matters of "pure reason," and that his passional and volitional nature must contribute to them and cannot validly be excluded. His religion also is ultimately a vital attitude which rests on his interests and on his choices between alternatives which are real for him. It is not however asserted that his mere willing to believe is a proof of the truth of what he wishes to believe, any more than a will to disbelieve justifies disbelief. His will to believe merely recognizes that choice is necessary and implies risk, and puts him in a position to obtain verification (or disproof). The pragmatic claim for religion, therefore, is that to those who will take the first step and will to believe an encouraging amount of the appropriate verifications accrues. It is further pointed out that this procedure is quite consonant with the practice of science with regard to its axioms. Originally these are always postulates which have to be assumed before they can be proved, and thus in a way "make" the evidence which confirms them. Scientific and religious verification therefore, though superficially distinct, are alike in kind.

The pragmatic doctrine of truth, which it is now possible to outline, results from a convergence of the above lines of argument. Because truth is a value and vitally valuable, and all meaning depends on its context and its relation to us, there cannot be any abstract "absolute" truth disconnected from all human purposes. Because all truth is primarily a claim which may turn out to be false, it has to be tested. To test it is to try to distinguish between truth and falsity, and to answer the question - What renders the claim of a judgment to be true, really true? Now such testing, though it varies greatly in different departments of knowledge, is always effected by the consequences to which the claim leads when acted on. Only if they are "good" is the claim validated and the reasoning judged to be "right": only if they are tested does the theory of truth become intelligible and that of error explicable. If, therefore, a logic fails to employ the pragmatic test, it is doomed to remain purely formal, and the possibility of applying its doctrines to actual knowing, and their real validity, remain in doubt. By applying the pragmatic test on the other hand, it is possible to describe how truths are developed and errors corrected, and how in general old truths are adjusted to new situations. This "making of truth" is conceived as making for greater satisfaction and greater control of experience. It renders the truth of any time relative to the knowledge of the time, and precludes the notion of any rigid, static or incorrigible truth. Thus truth is continually being made and re-made. If the new truth seems to be such that our cognitive purposes would have been better served by it than they were by the truth we had at the time, it is antedated and said to have been "true all along." If an old truth is improved upon, it is revalued as "false." To this double process there is no actual end, but ideally an "absolute" truth (or system of truths) would be a truth which would be adequate to every purpose.

Extensions of pragmatism in a variety of directions readily suggest themselves, and indeed only the doctrine of truth in the above sketch can be treated as strictly indispensable. If however the logical method of pragmatism is critically applied to all the sciences, many doctrines will be cut out which have little or no "pragmatic value." This all-round application of the pragmatic method has received the name of "humanism." It expressly refers itself to the maxim of Protagoras that "man is the measure of all things," and is best conceived as a protest against the assumption that logic can treat thought in abstraction from its psychological context and the personality of the knower, i.e. that knowledge can be dehumanized. To arbitrary and unverifiable metaphysical speculation, and to forms of "absolutism" which have lost touch with human interests, this humanism is particularly destructive. It emphasizes still more than pragmatism the personal aspect of all knowing and its contribution to the "making of reality" which necessarily accompanies the making of truth. But it also goes on to raise the question whether the making of reality for our knowledge does not, in view of the essentially practical nature of knowledge, imply also a real making of reality by us, and so throw light upon the whole genesis of reality. In this direction pragmatism may ultimately lead to a number of metaphysics, each of which will represent a personal guess at a final synthesis of experience, while remaining essentially undogmatic and improvable. The great variety and impermanence of metaphysical systems in the past thus find their explanation: they were all along what they are now recognized as being, viz. personal efflorescences provoked by a totality of experiences which differed in each case.

As regards the history and bibliography of pragmatism, the term was first invented by C. S. Peirce in discussions with William James at Harvard University, and its meaning was expounded by him in an article on "How to make our Ideas clear" in the Popular Science Monthly for January 1878. The pragmatic test of truth was referred to by James in his Will to Believe (1896, p. 124, in a paper first published in 1881). The validity of the argument from consequences and the connexion of truth with what "works" was asserted a propos of A. J. Balfour's Foundations of Belief by A. Seth Pringle-Pattison in his Man's Place in Cosmos (1897, p. 307). But the word "pragmatism" itself first occurs in print in 1898, in James's pamphlet on Theoretical Conceptions and Practical Results, and again in his Varieties of Religious Experience (1902, P. 444). It was rapidly taken up, first by W. Caldwell in Mind (1900, new series, No. 36), and by F. C. S. Schiller in Personal Idealism (1902). James himself at first developed chiefly the psychological and ethical aspect.: of the doctrine in his epoch-making Principles of Psychology (1890) and his Will to Believe. The application to logic, therefore, was mainly made by his followers, John Dewey and his pupils, in the Chicago Decennial Publications and especially in their Studies in Logical Theory (1903), where, however, the term used is "instrumentalism," and by F. C. S. Schiller, in "Axioms as Postulates" (in Personal Idealism, ed. H. Sturt, 1902), in Humanism (1903), in which that term was proposed for the extensions of pragmatism, in Studies in Humanism (1907), and in Plato or Protagoras (1908). All these logical and philosophic developments were popularly expounded by James in his Pragmatism (1907), followed by A Pluralistic Universe (1908) and The Meaning of Truth (1909). H. H. Bawden's The Principles of Pragmatism (1910) is a popular sketch. Alfred Sidgwick's logical writings, especially his Distinction (1892) and The Use of Words in Argument (1901), represent an independent development. For the religious applications see G. Tyrrell (Lex orandi, 1903, Lex credendi, 1906). Among critical writers on the pragmatic side may be mentioned H. Sturt (Idola theatri, 1906), and H. V. Knox (Mind, new series, No. 54). There is already a large controversial literature in the philosophic journals, and two critical works appeared in 1909: J. B. Pratt, What is Pragmatism? (1909), and A. Schinz, Anti-Pragmatism(1909). Outside the English-writing world, identical or kindred tendencies are represented in France by Leroy, Poincare, Bergson, Milhaud, Blondel, Duhem, Wilbois, Pradines; in Germany by Mach, Ostwald, Simmel, Jerusalem, Goldscheid, Jacoby; in Italy by Papini, Prezzolini, Vailati, Troiano. In addition there are numbers of partial pragmatists, e.g. G. Santayana (The Life of Reason, 1905). Various anticipations of pragmatism in the history of philosophy are noted in Schiller's Plato or Protagoras ? (1908). (F. C. S. S.)

  1. The New English Dictionary quotes for nine distinct senses of the word, of which the philosophic is the eighth. The seven earlier ones are all more or less obsolescent, and their very number shows that the meaning of the word was very vague.