Pragmatism Essay

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Pragmatism began in the USA in the 1870s, in the wake of the intellectual revolution touched off by Darwin, as a term for a method designed to clarify disputed, abstract intellectual concepts by defining them with reference to their concrete behavioral consequences. It later took on a broader meaning as the name for a comprehensive philosophical perspective which became widely known and influential from 1898 to its waning during the period of the cold war. Nevertheless, the perspective continued to influence sociology throughout the twentieth century and into the twenty-first, especially in the tradition of symbolic interaction. A resurgence of research and interest in pragmatism, beginning in the 1980s and accelerating since 1990, has been seen in general sociology in the work of such authors as Hans Joas, Mustafa Emirbayer, Dmitri Shalin, and David Maines.

Scottish psychologist Alexander Bain had defined a belief as that for which a person is willing and committed to act, even in the face of considerable risk. For Bain, the opposite of belief was doubt, a state of confusion, uncertainty, anxiety, or frustration about how to act next. Charles Peirce expanded on this theory of belief in his doubt-belief theory of inquiry. Peirce maintained that belief breaks down and doubt ensues when the requirements of human organisms and those of their environment fall out of step with each other. Human doubt triggers inquiry, the goal of which is the ”fixation of belief.” In Peirce’s hands, belief became defined as habit, or a disposition to act in a certain way under certain circumstances.

According to Peirce’s pragmatic maxim, as expressed in its 1906 revision, the best definition of a concept is ”a description of the habit it will produce” (quoted in Short 1981: 218). Concepts defined in this way are empirically testable, and a concept can be tentatively considered true so long as it passes all such testing. Hence, Peirce’s pragmatic maxim is a part of his theory of inquiry. The maxim is also part of his semeiotic or general theory of signs, which was Peirce’s crowning achievement and which became the linchpin of his entire philosophy.

Although Peirce was justified in calling himself the father of pragmatism, William James was the first to use the term publicly, in an 1898 lecture (published the same year) at the University of California. It would also be James whose lectures and publications would popularize pragmatism and cause its wide dissemination throughout the world. However, James had already made his greatest contribution to the perspective in his 1890 Principles of Psychology because of the major influence this work would have on John Dewey and George Herbert Mead. In his Principles, James replaced traditional introspective, faculty, and associationist psychologies with a functional and processual psychology, in which the self and consciousness are seen not as entities but as functions that are actively engaged with the world.


  1. Fisch, M. H. (1986) Peirce, Semeiotic, and Pragmatism: Essays by Max H. Fisch. Indiana University Press, Bloomington, IN.
  2. Short,    L.   (1981) Semiosis   and intentionality. Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society 17: 197—223.
  3. Sleeper, R. W. (2001) [1986] The Necessity of Pragmatism: John Dewey’s Conception of Philosophy. University of Illinois Press, Urbana, IL.

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