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American philosophy

Pragmatism originated in the United States in the late 1800s.

Like any philosophical movement, the nature and content of pragmatism is a subject of considerable debate, whether it is one of exegesis (determining what the original pragmatists thought it was) or subtantive philosophical theory (what is the most defensible theory that satisfies certain goals). The term pragmatism was first used by William James, who attributed the doctrine to Charles Sanders Peirce. Peirce later went on to disavow the term in favour of pragmaticism, in order to distinguish his views from those of James and the other major pragmatist thinker, John Dewey. Peirce and James were colleagues at Harvard in the 1870s, and were members of the same 'metaphysical club' or philosophical discussion group (for an excellent account of which, see the Pulitzer Prize-winning book by Louis Menand). Dewey was educated in Vermont but is most commonly associated with the University of Chicago, though he also taught at Michigan and Columbia, and briefly at the University of Minnesota.

What is common to all three thinkers' philosophy - and with other loosely affiliated thinkers such as Oliver Wendell Holmes - is a broad emphasis on the primacy of the practical over the theoretical in inquiry in general (particularly philosophical inquiry). One famous aspect of this view is Peirce's insistence that contrary to Descartes' famous and influential method in the Meditations on First Philosophy, doubt cannot be feigned or created for the purpose of conducting philosophical inquiry. Doubt, like belief, requires justification, that is, it arises from confrontation with some specific recalcitrant matter of fact (from what Dewey called a 'situation'), which unsettles our belief in some specific proposition. Inquiry is then the rationally self-controlled process of attempting to return to a settled state of belief about that proposition.

Hilary Putnam (a contemporary or 'neo' pragmatist) has characterised pragmatism in terms of these and other themes: (1) the primacy of practice, (2) the collapse of any broad-ranging fact/value dichotomy, (3) antiscepticism (or the view that sceptical doubt, like any doubt, requires justification in order to be genuine) and (4) fallibilism: there is never an absolute or metaphysical guarantee that a given belief is true and will never, therefore, be revised. Indeed Putnam goes on to suggest that the reconciliation of (3) and (4) is the central claim of American pragmatism.

Perhaps the most notorious pragmatist view - its theory of truth - appears frequently in James' work, but occupies a much smaller portion of the work of Peirce and Dewey. This theory is often caricatured in contemporary literature as the view that 'truth is what works', or that any idea that has practical utility is true. In reality the theory is a great deal more subtle, and bears a striking resemblance to better-respected contemporary views, particularly Crispin Wright's 'superassertibility' (see his book 'Truth & Objectivity').


Date: 2015-01-02; view: 191

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