Pragmatic Philosophy


Pragmatic is a broad philosophical attitude toward the formation of concepts, hypotheses and theories and their justification. Its proponents-Peirce, James and later Sellars, Davidson, Putnam and Rorty-ferociously repudiated the Lockean idea that the mind is either a blank slate on which Nature impresses itself or a dark chamber into which the light of experience streams. They also criticized 18th-century empirical idealists like Berkeley for analyzing sensations as a sort of pre-inferential or immediate, non-inferential knowledge and for their theory that truth is the ultimate criterion for justification.

They rejected Kant’s dictum that intuitions without concepts are blind, and they denied the existence of a “Given World” whose raw, unsullied sense experiences would provide any epistemic access to reality. If observation is theory-laden–if, for example, perceptions are always interpreted and classified–then knowledge can’t be verified by invoking perceptual experience because the theory is never transparent to what is experienced.

As the generation of self-consciously pragmatic philosophers faded from prominence in American philosophy, and as a new breed of analytic philosophers read Moore, Russell, Wittgenstein, and the Vienna Circle–the once provocative pragmatist dicta came to seem vague and hazy at best. Quine praised Peirce’s legacy but qualified his enthusiasm, and his successors in analytic philosophy–Carnap, Lewis, Davidson and Goodman–never regarded pragmatism as the center of their own thought. This is not to say that pragmatism never had a following among those who embraced its principles, but it did lose ground to positivist orthodoxy and the rising tide of analytic philosophizing.