Pragmatism is a philosophical tradition that emphasizes practical consequences and real world applications as the criteria for determining truth and meaning.
This school of thought originated in the United States in the later part of the 19th century. Its proponents argue that an idea or proposition is true if it works satisfactorily or fulfills its purpose effectively (Talisse & Aikin, 2008).
Today, we tend to use the term more generally to refer to the act of making a decision based on practicality rather than idealism. For example:
- Buying the Affordable Home: A young couple would love to buy their dream home, but they’d be buried in debt. They decide that the pragmatic decision is to buy the more affordable starter home, and maybe one day, they could upgrade to that dream home.
- Political Compromise: A radical politician wants to achieve sweeping social change, but he has to negotiate with congress, so he settles for incremental change that he knows he can get written into law.
21. Pragmatic parenting
Parents often start off idealistic, setting clear boundaries and severe consequences for disobedience. However, when they start to realize this approach causes their child to become resentful and oppositionally defiant, parents start to become pragmatic. They may adopt flexible strategies by consistently reinforcing essential values but allowing leniency and adaptability in the day-to-day implementation, coming across more fair and open-minded to the child. Through this process, parents realize that – pragmatically – allowing the child some degree of agency helps them come to compromises and achieve their ultimate goals more effectively than strictly imposing rules.
2. Dream Job vs Reality
A person who is passionate about creative writing, aspires to be a novelist, but understands the volatility and uncertainty of such a career path. With the demands of everyday living and financial stability to consider, they opt to initially take a steady job as a content writer for a firm. This allows them to utilize their writing skills, earn a regular income, and also continue to work on their novel in their spare time. This decision indicates a pragmatist approach, where they manage to achieve their goal of writing for a living.
3. Environmental Sustainability vs Budget Constraints
A city government is deciding how to manage its waste disposal. They would prefer a zero-waste, completely green solution, but they understand the budgetary constraints and limitations of such an initiative in the short term. Instead, they implement a progressively increasing recycling program coupled with public education initiatives about waste reduction. This is a pragmatic decision that takes into account the ideal goal of zero waste, the current realities of the city, and the concrete steps towards gradual improvement.
4. Groundbreaking vs Feasible Start-up Business
An entrepreneur with a groundbreaking idea for a product has grand visions of an immediate large scale launch. However, he acknowledges the risks associated with such a large-scale investment without testing the market first. He decides to launch his product in a smaller local market first to observe the response and learn from the feedback. This reflects his pragmatic view of balancing his vision with the real-world business risks.
5. Overhaul vs Incrementalism in Education Policies
A school board aspires to radically overhaul its curriculum to better foster creativity and innovative thinking. While they understand the benefits of this complete transformation, they recognize the challenges – it would require enormous financial resources, and could potential disruption to the students’ education during the transition. Therefore, they decide to gradually introduce changes over several years, closely monitoring the impacts at each stage. This pragmatic approach allows them to work towards their ambitious goal while mitigating risks and managing their resources wisely.
6. Revamping a Website vs Maintaining User Experience
A web developer wants to completely overhaul a popular website to modernize its design. However, knowing that sudden drastic changes might alienate the site’s large user base and cause ranking drops in search engines, he opts to roll out changes incrementally while monitoring his analytics. This displays pragmatism in balancing the need for modernization with maintaining user experience and site popularity.
7. Idealistic Non-Profit Objectives vs Realistic Funding Needs
A non-profit organization has ambitious plans to help tackle homelessness in a city. While the founders are deeply committed to their cause, they understand they need funds to sustain their operations. They adopt a pragmatic approach by partnering with local businesses and running fund-raising campaigns, while simultaneously working towards their high ideals. They’re criticized for raising funds from the ‘capitalists’, but they know at least they’re making progress.
8. Full Restoration vs Partial Restoration of a Historical Monument
A city council favors a full restoration of a historical monument to its original splendor. However, budget constraints and time make it an unrealistic goal. Choosing a pragmatic approach, the council decides to fund a partial restoration that maintains the structural integrity and makes the monument safe and visible to the public.
9. Aggressive Expansion vs Sustainable Business Growth
A successful business owner aims to open numerous stores across the country in a single year. Despite the potential benefits, the owner realizes the risks and logistical challenges involved. Drawing upon a pragmatic mindset, the business owner decides on a more gradual expansion strategy that supports long-term sustainability and mitigates risk.
10. Comprehensive Legislation vs Incremental Law Change
A lawmaker pushes for a comprehensive bill addressing many aspects of healthcare reform. However, understanding the political climate and the various stakeholders involved, she recognizes the slim chances of its passing. Demonstrating pragmatism, she chooses to propose smaller, focused bills that could still collectively bring considerable change over time.
11. All-Out Marketing Blitz vs Targeted Marketing Approach
A company, eager to promote its new product, contemplates launching an ambitious all-out marketing blitz covering all channels. However, they weigh the huge cost of such a campaign against their limited marketing budget. Opting for pragmatism, they decide to focus their resources on specific channels where their target audience is most active, hence increasing efficiency while still reaching their potential clientele.
12. Full Home Renovation vs Room by Room Adjustment
A homeowner dreams of transforming her house completely to emulate the homes seen on design shows. Yet, considering the financial burden of full-scale renovation and the potential disruption to daily life, she settles for a more pragmatic approach. She decides to make over one room at a time, thereby spreading the costs over time, and experiencing less disruption in their day-to-day life while still achieving the overarching goal of a stylish, comfortable home.
13. Cultural Assimilation vs Cultural Adaptation
In a multicultural environment, the traditional approach would encourage complete assimilation, where newcomers are expected to wholly adopt the host culture. While this might seem ideal for creating a homogenous society, in the pragmatist’s view, this ignores the value and richness of cultural diversity. Therefore, the pragmatist promotes cultural adaptation, where newcomers maintain aspects of their original cultures while also adopting aspects of the host culture. This pragmatic approach fosters a more inclusive, diverse society and promotes mutual understanding and respect.
14. Tradition vs Progress
In many cultures, there’s a tug of war between preserving traditional practices and embracing modernity. While some argue for preserving tradition unaltered, the pragmatists would point out that cultures must also evolve and adapt to continue to remain relevant in a changing world. So, the pragmatic cultural leaders might preserve the key values and practices that define their culture but also encourage adaptation of progressive elements that promote societal development. For instance, while preserving a community’s traditional music form, they might also incorporate modern instruments or use modern platforms for its dissemination, thus keeping the tradition alive and attractive for younger generations.
15. Resilience vs Adaptation in Negotiation
In stressful negotiation scenarios, the classic assertive approach would encourage sticking firmly to your demands, pushing through until the other party concedes. However, for a pragmatist negotiator, the focus is on flexibility and adaptation. They would maintain resilience on their core interests but show flexibility on less critical aspects. This could involve offering alternatives, suggesting compromises, or showcasing creativity in problem-solving. This pragmatic approach not only increases the chances of reaching an agreement, it also builds a conducive atmosphere for future negotiation and collaboration.
16. Ideal Outcome vs Win-Win Negotiation
A negotiator enters the discussion aiming to achieve their pre-set ideal outcome, which includes getting maximum concessions from the other party. However, a pragmatist negotiator recognizes that the key to a successful long-term relationship is mutual satisfaction. Instead of gunning for maximum gain, the pragmatist negotiator strives for a win-win solution, ensuring that both parties leave the negotiation table feeling satisfied with the outcome. They may concede on some points to ensure the other party also sees benefits, creating a climate of mutual respect and trust.
17. Military Intervention vs Diplomacy
A geopolitical crisis erupts, raising tensions between two nations. The traditional approach might suggest a strong military response to such provocations. However, a pragmatist approach would favor diplomacy before military engagement. The pragmatist would resort to discussion, negotiation, or international mediation to resolve the crisis, seeing military intervention as the last resort. This approach aims to prevent unnecessary loss and maintain regional stability, despite the pressures to respond with force.
18. Isolationist Policy vs Cooperative Global Engagement
In geopolitics, isolationism is a policy that a nation may take to focus exclusively on its own interests, refraining from involvement in international affairs. Although this has its pros, a pragmatist would consider a more globally cooperative approach. Instead of closing off, the pragmatist suggests constructive engagement with the international community, recognizing the interconnectedness in today’s global landscape. The pragmatist acknowledges that national progress can often be enhanced by cooperating symbiotically with other nations—be it in areas of shared security interests, trade and economic development, or environmental commitments.
19. Cutting Edge Technology vs Operational Continuity
A IT department at a large corporation is keen on implementing an advanced, cutting-edge technology system. They understand that this new system could significantly boost productivity in the long term. However, they also recognize the steep learning curve, potential system downtime and disruption it could bring in the short term. Being pragmatic, they decide to implement the new system gradually while concurrently running the old system to ensure operational continuity.
Some Examples from Philosophy
20. Metaphysical vs Pragmatic View on Existence
In the realm of philosophy, a metaphysical philosopher might spend a considerable amount of time pondering over the concept of existence itself, attempting to grasp its meaning via abstract theorizations (Burke, 2013; Talisse & Aikin, 2008). However, a pragmatist philosopher, instead of delving into abstract existential issues, would approach it from a practical perspective. They might assert that existence is best defined and understood through our tangible interactions with the world around us and the concrete experiences that make up our lives. The pragmatist places the understanding of existence within the practical context of human experience.
21. Epistemological Pragmatism vs Rationalism
Another philosophical illustration of pragmatism comes into play within the domain of epistemology, which deals with the theory of knowledge. A rationalist philosopher might insist on the idea that knowledge is primarily or even all derived from reason and logical inference. On the other hand, a pragmatist would argue that the best way to attain knowledge is not only through logical deduction but by employing practical methods such as observation, experience, and scientific experimentation, thus favorably tilting towards empirical evidence (Bacon, 2012). Such a pragmatist stance emphasizes the importance of practical application in the process of knowledge acquisition.
The Philosophy of Pragmatism
The philosophy of pragmatism originated in the United States around the late 19th century. Its birth is closely tied to the philosophical metropolis of the time – Cambridge, Massachusetts, where a range of intellectuals regularly gathered for discussions (de Waal, 2021; Talisse & Aikin, 2008).
Two eminent philosophers credited as the founders of pragmatism are Charles Sanders Peirce and William James. Peirce initially introduced the fundamental principles of pragmatism during these philosophical gatherings, known as the Metaphysical Club meetings, around 1872 (Bacon, 2012).
Pragmatism developed as an alternative to the prevailing philosophical perspectives of the time – idealism, materialism, and dualism, offering a more practical and utilitarian view of truth and reality.
Key pragmatic philosophers and their contributions are presented below:
1. Charles Sanders Peirce (1839–1914)
Charles Sanders Peirce, often considered the father of pragmatism, was a polymath whose contributions spanned various disciplines, including mathematics, logic, and semiotics (Burke, 2013).
Peirce introduced the pragmatic maxim, which proposes that the meaning of a concept lies in its practical bearings or the consequences of its use. In other words, our understanding of a concept is derived from its practical applications, and the consequences that follow.
Peirce stressed the scientific and experimental nature of philosophical inquiry and saw pragmatism as a method for clarifying our ideas and concepts (Shusterman, 2016; Talisse & Aikin, 2008). He rebutted absolute certainty and instead vouched for provisional truths that can always be open to revision and development, as per the scientific method.
2. William James (1842–1910)
William James, sometimes referred to as the ‘popularizer’ of pragmatism, applied pragmatism more broadly, extending its principles to psychology, religion, and morality.
James introduced pragmatism to the general public through his series of lectures.
James’s pragmatist approach was explicitly action-driven. He proposed that beliefs are rules for actions and that the truth of these beliefs is dependent on their efficacy when applied (Bacon, 2012; Burke, 2013).
His famous statement, “the ‘true’ is only the expedient in our way of thinking,” encapsulates his views on truth as something functional and practical.
3. John Dewey (1859–1952)
John Dewey, one of the most prominent pragmatists, combined pragmatism with progressive educational theory (Sharma et al., 2018).
Dewey argued that learning is a social, interactive process, and the school itself is a social institution where children learn through practical activities and experience.
Known as the father of experiential education, Dewey proposed that education should not be about feeding students with information but about providing them with experiences that help them to develop problem-solving and critical-thinking skills (Sharma et al., 2018).
His philosophy underpins many modern educational practices and continues to influence the field of education and learning theory.
Cheat Sheet Summary
Below is a ‘cheat sheet’ summary of pragmatic philosophy to leave you with:
|Origin||Late 19th century, United States (de Waal, 2021)|
|Key Figures||– Charles Sanders Peirce|
– William James
– John Dewey
– Richard Rorty (neo-pragmatism)
– Hilary Putnam (Talisse & Aikin, 2008)
|Central Tenets||– Truth is what works in practice.|
– Ideas are tools for action.
– Knowledge is a product of experience (Bacon, 2012; de Waal, 2021).
|View of Truth||Truth is not an absolute or static concept. It evolves over time and is judged based on its practical consequences (Shusterman, 2016).|
|Perspective on Ethics||Moral values are determined by their practical implications and consequences in real-world situations (Bacon, 2012; Burke, 2013). Moral behavior is judged by its consequences (this perspective, in part, intersects with utilitarianism).|
|Influence on Education||Pragmatist John Dewey was also a key education theories. He applied pragmatism to education, emphasizing the importance of experiential learning, experimentation, and taking action to see “what are the consequences of certain actions?”. We still see the effects of his influence in today’s education system through models such as inquiry-based learning (Sharma et al., 2018).|
|Critiques||– Accused of being relativistic and lacking a moral core.|
– Overemphasis on the practical can neglect deeper, theoretical concerns (Talisse & Aikin, 2008).
|Influence||– American education system|
– Social sciences
– Modern epistemology
Bacon, M. (2012). Pragmatism: An Introduction. Wiley.
Burke, F. T. (2013). What Pragmatism Was. Indiana University Press.
de Waal, C. (2021). Introducing Pragmatism: A Tool for Rethinking Philosophy. Taylor & Francis.
Sharma, S., Devi, R., & Kumari, J. (2018). Pragmatism in education. International Journal of Engineering Technology Science and Research, 5(1), 1549-1554.
Shusterman, R. (2016). Practicing philosophy: Pragmatism and the philosophical life. Routledge.
Talisse, R. B., & Aikin, S. (2008). Pragmatism: A Guide for the Perplexed. Bloomsbury Academic.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]