Quite simply put, pragmatism would hold something is true if when put into practice it works, that its practical consequences give it meaning and that unpractical ideas should be rejected. A philosophical tradition that focuses on connecting practice and theory. It tries to extract theory from practice, after which the theory is applied to practice to form what is called Intelligent Practice.
Pragmatism started in the United States in the very early 1800s, continuing through 1950s and recently having seen a resurgence of interest. Pragmatism was written about particularly by Charles Sanders Pierce, William James, John Dewey, Chauncey Wright and George Herbert Mead. Calling themselves "The Metaphysical Club," in the 1870s a group of twelve men educated at Harvard began to meet for informal discussions of philosophy, including two who went on to call themselves pragmatists: Wright, who was a logician, mathematician and scientist, and James, a psychologist and moralist who held a medical degree.
In 1898, William James was the first member to use the word in print when he credited Pierce for coining the term in the 1870s. Pierce's 1878 work, Illustrations of the Logic of Science series, is considered one of the foundations of pragmatism. Pierce had developed the idea that inquisitiveness depends on real doubt not just verbal or hyperbolic doubt. The second such document was Pierce's How To Make Our Ideas Clear.
It was Pierce and his pragmatic maxim that gave the practice real meaning. The maxim states, "in order to understand a conception in a fruitful way we must consider the practical effects of the objects on our conception. Then, our conception of those effects is the whole of our conception of the object."
Pierce goes on to say, "the maxim equates any conception of an object to the conception of the object's effects to a general extent of the effects' conceivable implications for informed practice." That is a longer way of saying that the human capability to theorize is absolutely necessary for intelligent practice.
Theory and practice are not separate entities; they are tools for finding our way in the world. Pragmatic practice is intelligent practice rather than uninformed practice. The early pragmatic followers wanted to reform philosophy and bring it more in line with the scientific method as it was understood in the 19th century.
The reform was based on the idea that idealist and realist philosophy presented human knowledge as something that was beyond the understanding of science. Pragmatism tries to explain the relationship between knower and the known in the world from a biological as well psychological perspective.
The epistemology of the early pragmatism movement was influenced by Charles Darwin, and as the movement expanded it became a full-fledged epistemology that impacted the entire philosophical field. The important characteristics of pragmatism today are conceptual relativity, instrumentalism, verificationism, radical empiricism, a high regard for science, fallibilism and a denial of the fact-value distinction.
There is no fundamental difference between theoretical and practical reason, nor any difference between value and facts in pragmatism. Both facts and values have aware content, which means knowledge should be believed and values are judgments about what is good in practice.
Pragmatists see no test of morality other than what matters for us as humans. Good values are a product of good reason. Religion is not the basis for meaning or reality according to pragmatic principles.
William James, in his 1904 work, A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking, talks about the pragmatic method and how it is primarily a method of solving metaphysical disputes that might otherwise be interminable. Pragmatism tries to interpret an idea by tracing its practical consequences.
What difference does it make if one idea rather than another idea were true? If no practical difference can be traced then the alternatives mean the same thing and the dispute is idle. But when a dispute is serious we must be able to show some practical difference from one idea or the other in order to judge what is right.
James tells the tale of a man chasing a squirrel around a tree to prove his point: "A live squirrel supposed to be clinging to one side of a tree-trunk; while over against the tree's opposite side a human being was imagined to stand. This human witness tries to get sight of the squirrel by moving rapidly round the tree, but no matter how fast he goes, the squirrel moves as fast in the opposite direction, and always keeps the tree between himself and the man, so that never a glimpse of him is caught."
"The resultant metaphysical problem now is this: Does the man go round the squirrel or not? He goes round the tree, sure enough, and the squirrel is on the tree; but does he go round the squirrel? In the unlimited leisure of the wilderness, discussion had been worn threadbare. Every one had taken sides, and was obstinate; and the numbers on both sides were even. Each side, when I appeared therefore appealed to me to make it a majority."
James solves the dispute this way: "Which party is right," I said, "depends on what you practically mean by 'going round' the squirrel. If you mean passing from the north of him to the east, then to the south, then to the west, and then to the north of him again, obviously the man does go round him, for he occupies these successive positions. But if on the contrary you mean being first in front of him, then on the right of him, then behind him, then on his left, and finally in front again, it is quite as obvious that the man fails to go round him, for by the compensating movements the squirrel makes, he keeps his belly turned towards the man all the time, and his back turned away. Make the distinction, and there is no occasion for any farther dispute. You are both right and both wrong according as you conceive the verb 'to go round' in one practical fashion or the other."
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