There’s not a lot of modern Pragmatism examples, at least none that are that interesting. So we thought you should know about the history. Pragmatism is a philosophical tradition that began in the United States around 1870. It has been described as “a perspective that includes pragmatism, naturalism and relativism.” This blog post looks at pragmatist philosophers such as William James and Charles Sanders Peirce to see how they draw on pragmatist concepts of meaning-making, truth-seeking, and changeability.
We will also explore pragmatist philosophy’s convergence with philosophy itself by examining how pragmatists have sought to connect pragmatism’s own insights about experience and knowledge; subjectivity, objectivity, normativity; an inquiry into language; epistemology; metaphysics; ethics (including social justice), and aesthetics.
In 1868, William James was a philosophy instructor at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He frequently lectured on and formulated pragmatic concepts including “truth’s cash value,” the idea that ideas are to be judged by their practical consequences; the “genetic” conception of ‘truth,’ whereby truth is seen as something generated through intellectual development; and his famous concept of “the will to believe.”
James’ essay “The Will to Believe” (1897) discusses how belief decides action: believing certain things motivates us to act in specific ways – acting free from doubt can involve risks since we might end up with beliefs that lead us down wrong or misguided paths. But it’s also possible that we try not to believe anything at all and end up a nihilist or skeptic. We have to assume that we can learn from experience by taking action.
James’ pragmatic concept of free will in The Will to Believe is discussed in this 2006 article by American pragmatist philosopher Richard Shusterman. “In the following essay, I argue that James offers not merely one but many variations on the theme of free will.” Shusterman argues for possibilities like “The Freedom to Believe” – where belief is a capacity for experiencing life as worthwhile; “The Freedom To Act” – where choosing to act involves risk-taking, which also includes choosing not to act; and “The Freedom From the Consequences of Beliefs.”
But there’s also more radical freedom, Shusterman argues: “The radical Will to Believe is a post-metaphysical proposition that affirms the unqualified wholeness of Reality (or Being) and declares its ethical indeterminacy about human subjectivity” (p.2).
James’ essay “Pragmatism and Religion” (1907) also explores how one’s beliefs can affect one’s life choices, particularly in terms of religious faith. In this excerpt from James’ essay, he writes about belief influencing our motivations for acting on certain desires or goals:
“When we look around us for the acquisitions that have remained steadfastly valuable amid all the shifting fashions of dogma through which we have lived…we find that they are all of a religious complexion; and that the most living parts of our experience – our ‘vital’ beliefs, as William James calls them – are thus also the [most] religious. Meanwhile, however much we may hear nowadays of an antithesis between religion and science, it remains true that religions have thriven by appeal to scientific facts.”
James writes further on this idea in The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902) about how psychological health is cultivated through “serenity” – a mental state resulting from being able to accept life’s uncertainties:
“[When experiencing serenity], one comes to feel that it is just as great a mistake to deny the disquietudes of life as to exaggerate them. Accordingly, serenity is not a negative state, but rather one charged with eager energies and occupied with an intelligently planned program of conduct.”
James writes about how people experience life as meaningful when they have “a faith that the universe is a kind of spiritual enterprise–something which secures our interests and demands our allegiance” (1955: p102).
Pragmatism examples in practice
For American pragmatist philosopher John Dewey (1859-1952), ideas or concepts were understood as tools for solving problems – sometimes called ‘instruments’ or ‘inventive concepts.’ In Art as Experience (1934), he writes about how ideas have consequences, particularly for the way people act in their lives and understand themselves:
“The consequences, once an idea has been launched, are its working-out into detail. This third stage is what constitutes definitive action. Then, resultants appear which either abide or change because of further ideas that act upon them.”
He writes elsewhere about how a belief influences our actions:
“[A]nything becomes an instrument if it is cultivated so as to give it a more secure place in a person’s habits. What makes it truly his [or hers] is not just the original acquisition but the way that thing enters into his (or her) life. It ceases to be something alien; it becomes an integral part of his (or her) behavior, of his (or her) meanings and purposes” (Experience & Education, 1938: p.138).
For pragmatist philosopher George Herbert Mead (1863-1931), ideas are understood relative to how they affect our relationships with other people – what he calls ‘social interactions.’ One reason we have beliefs is that others around us believe them, and this affects how we interact with them in a variety of ways:
“Beliefs not only guide action toward objects but also determine who he [or she] will associate with; beliefs thus limit the social environment.” (“The Genesis Of The Self And Social Control,” 1934: p.38).
This idea that one’s identity or self is shaped by social interaction, particularly through language, is a key theme in Mead’s work. In Mind, Self & Society (1934), he writes about how we construct ourselves through communication with others:
“The self arises out of the social process; it is not merely resultant from this association and subjectively constitutes that aspect which the individual ‘views’ himself [or herself] to be.”
What does all this mean?
Several key ideas can be drawn out from James’ and Dewey’s thoughts on belief. One idea is that our beliefs influence what we make of our lives – it has consequences for how we live them. Another idea is that these consequences often come indirectly – they cannot simply be traced back directly to one’s belief. The third idea is that this way of understanding belief in how it affects our lives works equally for religious beliefs and non-religious ones.
For example, if you hold the belief that ‘the universe was created by a God who loves humanity (as I do), both your life and the lives of others could be affected positively or negatively depending on how you act with that particular belief. If you have this belief but don’t act upon it in any way (positively or negatively), then its consequences will be limited at best. Acting upon a set of beliefs involves doing things like talking about them with other people, putting yourself out there in ways that could change the shape of your life, learning more about what they mean and how they could be put into action, etc.
Some beliefs affect our lives directly – e.g., ‘the world is round’ or ‘I live in New Zealand.’ These beliefs are significant because there is no need to do anything with them; it would not make sense to say that you believe about the shape of the earth but then remain indifferent to its truth or falsehood (or actively argue against it). Other beliefs come from imagining alternate possible realities or examining ideas for their implications on one’s own life – e.g., what if God doesn’t exist? How would my life be different? What does believing in God do for me as a person? In this, beliefs can become very personal — not only in terms of how they affect one’s life but also in the sense that they can be difficult to understand or make sense of for other people.
A belief about a particular kind of God, for example, is much more than just an idea or a theory. It becomes personally significant because it affects how you relate to others and ultimately shapes what you think humanity should strive for as a whole (e.g., peace, justice, love, etc.). By extension, religious beliefs are often tied up with wider social movements which combine individual and group interests (as we see when people talk about ‘my country’ or ‘my city’). This means that religious ideas rarely exist in isolation from each other or from outside influences (including power structures that benefit or disadvantage particular groups).