Pragmatism: The Most Dominant Philosophy in the U.S.

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Introduction

The most dominant and distinctive school of philosophy in the United States is pragmatism. This philosophical tradition emerged from the late 1800s with inputs from Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914), William James (1842-1910) and John Dewey (1859-1952). Very broadly, pragmatism helps us comprehend that knowing is inseparable from the influences within it. That is, truth and meaning are not far off from our experiences and practical outcomes. Generally, pragmatism emphasizes trueness when an ideology or postulation works satisfactorily, that is, meaning is found when a proposition is practically accepted while unpractical inputs are rejected. Its use has been influential in several fields such as law, sociology, political science, and public administration. This paper’s aim will be to delve into its developmental stages and its influence on public policy.

Pragmatism

Shields (1998) defines it as a philosophy of common sense, meaning it pays attention to intentional human inquiry as its central point. What is seen is the use of actions that are assessed to understand the practical consequences of actions. Human experience leads to inquiry whereby problematic situations may emerge and then recognized. We recognize something when existing belief systems are questioned leading to doubt. Doubt is corrected when we critically evaluate issues, thereby testing our solution through action. Bartle & Shields (2013) defines pragmatism as one that “emphasizes learning through action and building a knowledge base from experience and action” (p. 175). It stresses on the priority of action and exposure. Ideas are mostly seen as the essential tools and plans of action. Hence, the applicability of pragmatism to public policymaking flows from these descriptions. To understand the various viewpoints and underlying premises of this knowledge framework means paying attention to the founding voices. Classical pragmatists credit Peirce, James and Dewey as those who were mostly focused on theorizing inquiry, truth, and meaning. To ascertain this, Pierce’s view on knowledge accumulation was that theorizing alone was not enough and that we should test the outcomes of belief in real life (Rumens & Kelemen 2013). In his view, concepts need to be clear. As a native of Massachusetts, Peirce attended and graduated from Harvard where he graduated with a Chemistry degree and met his long-time friend James Williams. His pragmatist interest was in logic, which started early in life. He also later taught logic to young minds.

Peirce is known as the founder of pragmatism and his main belief was that inquiry should concentrate on what is real; logic. In that way, our conceptions become concrete and fruitful. In his assertion of the pragmatic maxim, Peirce concentrates on the mind’s ability to imagine. What is experienced in practicality becomes the effects of our conception. Meaning, our mental reflection of an object which has seen practice allows us to understand the effects of it. Thus, Peirce talks about the generality of a conception, its meaning is only accepted as truth, if it has been subjected to continuous scientific inquiry by a community of research(ers). Hence, seeking truth is through logic and that, truth is not static or universal (Rumens & Kelemen 2013). He was more in tune with the search for meaning, through practical means. More to the point, while Peirce seemed more focused on meaning, his colleague and friend at Harvard was more concerned with the usefulness of an idea. In James’ view, the mind is purposive, in that what the mind does is to associate value, worth or satisfaction of an event. Thought is adaptive depending on emotions, conditions of work and practical interests, which in turn helps transform the world around us and create the future. As a trained medical doctor from Harvard, he was interested in the social sciences especially philosophy and grew up teaching and writing about the subject. He thought of all knowledge as pragmatic, in that what is generally accepted is considered true. We can address uncertainty in knowledge by ascertaining the relative effects made in everyone’s life by their choices. Nonpractical theories are distinguished by determining their success rates. Additionally, James adds that truth and meaning are subsets of value, that is what is true is whatever is shown to be good.

Another luminary worth noting is John Dewey. Dewey was a student of Peirce during his time at Johns Hopkins University. Rumens & Kelemen (2013) assert that Dewey’s writings were influential and progressive, touching various topics in philosophy, law, political science, policy, and education. Notably, Dewey presents his views on pragmatism as that of instrumentalism, where the efficacy of concepts and theories can be matched with their response to practical problems (Rumens & Kelemen 2013). Knowledge can only be added to by scientific means of inquiry, and that whatever type of inquiry that is engaged in, can self-correct over time due to the experience gained from using such knowledge. Hence, self-correction is achieved through a community of inquirers that evaluate an original proposition by either clarification, explanation or refutation.

Rumens & Kelemen (2013) acknowledge Dewey’s writings were tailored towards democratic values, weaving through issues that hinged on “humanism, equality and freedom” (p.8). Along with his friend Jane Addams, there was a pragmatist movement on social services; the Hull House in 1889, an experiment that was tailored towards the social and industrial issues that were rampant at the time, within the deprived and poor communities in Chicago. Jane Addams was a pragmatist herself, working through social problems using pragmatic means through engaging participative democracy, where people could voice their opinions as well as engage in joint inquiry. Notably, several other contemporary pragmatics have asserted their viewpoints on this framework. Notably, Rorty presents his points in a fashion that is normally tailored towards a certain subject matter. Rorty’s presentation on pragmaticism is that of ethics and individualism. He was also a firm opposer to abstractionism, lack of fixed truths and a world without foundations. In Rorty’s view, truth and meaning are innate, thereby truth is nonexistent of the world out there without the mind’s conception. Rorty’s writings were multifaceted, proving views on thinking, culture, and politics.

Theoretical Applications

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In each of their assertions, we can realize that the proponents of pragmatism were either humanists or logicians. What pragmatism epistemologically entails is justification and truth, where inquirers seek to provide a foundation to statements and beliefs by filling in holes of arguments. Knowledge according to Hollinger (1995) is dynamic and “transient” (p. 21), therefore we are bound to change our knowledge as we experience the universe. In addition, pragmatism is seen in many different forms including metaphysics as purported by Hollinger (1995) where pluralists perceive that there are multiple ways that the world and its contents are to be conceptualized.

Moreover, we see tenets of language, empiricism, fallibilism, instrumentalism, and behaviorism in pragmaticism (Hollinger 1995). Pragmatists attend to create meaning using semantics and statements of representations of the world out there as Rorty (1987) states. Additionally, there is the proposition of placing the value on the use of ideas as instruments, through which truth is acknowledged. As Hollinger (1995) explains, truth links things and experiences, in that through the course of events we experience truth which as human beings, we analyze, and reject what does not speak to us.

In its important ways, American pragmatism has informed several fields of study. While meaning and truth are central to pragmatism, it has seen it develop as an epistemological framework that has been used in a wide range of fields. Pragmatists have applied their work to many subjects including logic. As the hallmark pragmatic view of Peirce, pragmatism is infused in logic through the meaning associated with words. Rorty (1987) aligns with this notion by attending to logic through the lenses of language philosophy. As empirical thinkers who believed that knowledge emerges from sensory experience, James and Dewey both believed in explaining and testing experiences. Whilst most scientists disagreed with this, Hollinger (1995) presents the influence this has had on ethics and morality. Knowledge is what humans must believe in and hypotheses are value-infused in what is good in action. We see the humanist realm in pragmatist ethics since it attends to what matters to us as humans.

Further, pragmatism’s impact on public administration scholarship and the administrative state is profound. The birth of public administration coincides with the emergence and the influential periods of classical pragmatism. Looking at the basic demands of public administration as implementers and interpreters of policy in a pluralistic and problematic environment, Dewey and Jane Adams’ influential inputs have informed tradition tasks and thinking by public administrators, especially with their viewpoints on pragmatist democracy, and pluralistic inquiry. Notably, Shields work on the Community of Inquiry presents the administrative man a tool that “can help interpret and shape experience” (2003. p.530). In like manner, public administration has been influenced by writings from Dewey and James as well through what Shield calls participatory democracy. As public administrators experience problems in performing their duties, they are faced with certain policy and administrative problems. Participatory democracy can be used as a means to resolve such issues. In Ansell’s (2011) view, an emphasis on the problem will generate uncertainty, providing the opportunity for creativity in solving these situations. The idea was to “show how pragmatism as a public philosophy, provides an intellectual tradition of analyzing public affairs, a guide to tackling contemporary problems, and a framework for reimagining institutions, governance and democracy” (Ansell 2011. p. 184). Added, Dewey called for the systematic, practice-based and scientific study of public policy (Snider 2000).

Nonetheless, pragmatism as an epistemological framework is faced with certain criticisms especially among religion. What is seen is that pragmatism is somewhat short of the values and the ideals due to its insistence on placing “cash values” on ideas. If only truth is what works, then this can be detrimental and stifle creativity, as methods are emphasized over the body of knowledge (Hollinger 1995). Pragmatism renders all knowledge as temporary, hence the constant change in doubt is always pervasive among the few inquirers. Lastly, the less absolution nature of pragmatic theory offers either good or bad mediums for action. Giving leeway for performance and action as the pragmatist does can lead to different ontological contributions. As Miller (2004) puts it “all pragmatists would focus on what is useful and not what is true” (p.247), which leaves us in some confusion.

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