Pragmatism: What’s the Use?   /   Fall 2001   /    Interview

The Possibilities of Pragmatism

An Interview with Giles Gunn

Jennifer L. Geddes and Giles Gunn

Drilling horizontal stabilizers: operating a hand drill, this woman worker at Vultee-Nashville is shown working on the horizontal stabilizer for a Vultee "Vengeance" dive bomber, Tennessee (1943).

What Is Pragmatism and What’s Its Use?


For some, pragmatism conjures up a blank; we know little about it and certainly not enough to see why it would be relevant to thinking about the world today. Can you give us a working definition of pragmatism and a sense of what resources it offers?

Pragmatism is probably most easily understood as a theory of intellectual inquiry. Charles Sanders Peirce first used the term “pragmatism” in an essay entitled “How to Make Our Ideas Clear” and associated it with a procedure for determining the rational meaning of an idea or concept. For Peirce that meaning could only be established by relating it to its implications for human conduct on the grounds that all distinctions in kind, no matter how fine, are nothing more than possible differences in practice. William James then took Peirce’s insistence on the connection between ideas and their possible consequences and turned pragmatism into both a critical method and a theory of truth.

As a critical method, for which James could find precedents in the work of everyone from Plato and Aristotle to Spinoza, Hume, Kant, and Mill, pragmatism expanded into a belief that the full meaning of any proposition is to be found, if not in some particular to which it points, then in the particular difference it would make to the course of human experience if it were true. This gave pragmatism as a method a good deal more latitude than Peirce intended for it, but this latitude was eventually reinforced by Dewey when he further revised the pragmatic test or rule as the attempt to determine the meaning of anything in terms of both the probable, as opposed to merely verifiable, causes from which it emerged and the potential, as opposed to inevitable or predictable, consequences in which it may result.

As a theory of truth, on the other hand, pragmatism was identified by James with the view that the true is less an inherent property of ideas than a property of their working relationship with those things which we already hold to be true. By truth, then, James referred to something that helps us get in better touch with other parts of our experience. What James meant by this was simply that truth is cumulative and also conservative. We can only accept as new truths those ideas that are somehow understood to extend or complement, even as they also modify, what we had already accepted as true.

Since these convictions about truth and the procedures for ascertaining it carried with them a number of implications for understanding experience in general, pragmatism quickly developed for James and also for Dewey (and later for many others both in this country and abroad) into a more generalized perspective on life itself. Nor was this all. As pragmatism acquired this larger sense of itself as a general perspective, it also became in time, and especially as a result of transnational, really international, re-expressions, more pluralized, such that it would now be more accurate to speak of pragmatisms rather than pragmatism.

To read the full article online, please login to your account or subscribe to our digital edition ($25 yearly). Prefer print? Order back issues or subscribe to our print edition ($30 yearly).