Last modified on 28 July 2014, at 20:49


Pragmatism is a philosophical tradition centered on the linking of practice and theory. It describes a process where theory is extracted from practice, and applied back to practice to form what is called intelligent practice. Charles Sanders Peirce initiated and developed modern forms of pragmatism, along with later twentieth century contributors, William James and John Dewey.


  • Human knowledge and human power meet in one; for where the cause is not known the effect cannot be produced. Nature to be commanded must be obeyed; and that which in contemplation is as the cause is in operation as the rule.
    • Francis Bacon (1561–1626) quoted in: Reinhard Bendix (1989) Embattled Reason: Essays on Social Knowledge. Vol 1, p.27
  • There is an obscurum per obscurius problem as well. In order to know whether or not giraffes are taller than ants we must first know (a) whether or not there is a consensus that giraffes are taller than ants, and (b) if there is, whether or not the communication that produces that consensus was free, open, and undistorted. But isn’t it obvious that it is easier to determine whether or not giraffes are taller than ants than it is to determine either (a) or (b)? Or, to put it another way, wouldn’t any skeptical doubts about our ability to determine even something so obvious as that giraffes are taller than ants also be more than sufficient to wipe out any hope of being able to know about the outcome, and degree of openness, of any process of public communication?
    • David Detmer, Challenging Postmodernism (New York: 2003), pp. 128-129
  • Is it because Westerners have come to lose their intellectuality through over-developing their capacity for action that they console themselves by inventing theories which set action above everything, and even go so far, as in the case of pragmatism, as to deny that there exists anything of value beyond action; or is the contrary true, that it is the acceptance of this point of view that has led to the intellectual atrophy we see today?
  • Thought's a luxury. Do you think the peasant sits and thinks of God and democracy when he gets inside his mud hut at night?
The task of universal pragmatics is to identify and reconstruct universal conditions of possible mutual understanding.
- Jürgen Habermas, 2000
  • The task of universal pragmatics is to identify and reconstruct universal conditions of possible mutual understanding.
  • If it were not for the founder of the school, Charles S. Pierce, who has told us that he ‘learned philosophy out of Kant,’ one might be tempted to deny any philosophical pedigree to a doctrine that holds not that our expectations are fulfilled and our actions successful because our ideas are true, but rather that our ideas are true because our expectations are fulfilled and our actions successful.
    • Max Horkheimer, describing the pragmatist view, Eclipse of Reason (1947), p. 42
  • The significance of God, cause, number, substance or soul consists, as James asserts, in nothing but the tendency of the given concept to make us act or think. If the world should reach a point at which it ceases to care not only about such metaphysical entities but also about murders perpetrated behind closed frontiers or simply in the dark, one would have to conclude that the concepts of such murders have no meaning, that they represent no ‘distinct ideas’ or truths, since they do not make any ‘sensible difference to anybody.’
  • All things in nature become identical with the phenomena they present when submitted to the practices of our laboratories, whose problems no less than their apparatus express in turn the problems and interests of society as it is. This view may be compared with that of a criminologist maintaining that trustworthy knowledge of a human being can be obtained only by the well-tested and streamlined examining methods applied to a suspect in the hands of the metropolitan police.
    • Max Horkheimer, describing the pragmatist view, Eclipse of Reason (1947), p. 49
  • Pragmatism, in trying to turn experimental physics into a prototype of all science and to model all spheres of intellectual life after the techniques of the laboratory, is the counterpart of modern industrialism, for which the factory is the prototype of human existence, and which models all branches of culture after production on the conveyor belt.
  • Thought must be judged by something that is not thought, by its effect on production or its impact on social conduct, as art today is being ultimately gauged in every detail by something that is not art, be it box-office or propaganda value.
    • Max Horkheimer, describing the pragmatist view, Eclipse of Reason (1947), p. 51
  • In the face of the idea that truth might afford the opposite of satisfaction and turn out to be completely shocking to humanity at any given historical moment, … the fathers of pragmatism made the satisfaction of the subject the criterion of truth. For such a doctrine there is no possibility of rejecting or even criticizing any species of belief that is enjoyed by its adherents.
  • Pragmatism … reflects with almost disarming candor the spirit of the prevailing business culture, the very same attitude of ‘being practical’ as counter to which philosophical meditation as such was conceived.
  • Plato and his objectivistic successors … preserved the awareness of differences that pragmatism has been invented to deny—the difference between thinking in the laboratory and in philosophy, and consequently the difference between the destination of mankind and its present course.
  • The most violent revolutions in an individual’s beliefs leave most of his old order standing. Time and space, cause and effect, nature and history, and one’s own biography remain untouched. New truth is always a go-between, a smoother-over of transitions. It marries old opinion to new fact so as ever to show a minimum of jolt, a maximum of continuity.
    • William James (1906) “What Pragmatism Means,” Pragmatism, pp. 60–61 (1931). Lectures delivered at the Lowell Institute, Boston, Massachusetts, December 1906, and at Columbia University, New York City, January 1907.
  • “Pragmatism... asks its usual question. "Grant an idea or belief to be true," it says, "what concrete difference will its being true make in anyone's actual life? How will the truth be realized? What experiences will be different from those which would obtain if the belief were false? What, in short, is the truth's cash-value in experiential terms?”
    • William James (1906-07) Pragmatism: A Series of Lectures by William James, 1906-1907 (2008). p.86
  • No particular results then, so far, but only an attitude of orientation, is what the pragmatic method means. The attitude of looking away from first things, principles, 'categories,' supposed necessities; and of looking towards last things, fruits, consequences, facts.
    • William James (1907) Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking Lecture II, What Pragmatism Means
  • Too much faith is the worst ally... When you believe in something literally, through your faith you'll turn it into something absurd. One who is a genuine adherent, if you like, of some political outlook, never takes its sophistries seriously, but only its practical aims, which are concealed beneath these sophistries. Political rhetoric and sophistries do not exist, after all, in order that they be believed; rather, they have to serve as a common and agreed upon alibi. Foolish people who take them in earnest sooner or later discover inconsistencies in them, begin to protest, and finish finally and infamously as heretics and apostates. No, too much faith never brings anything good.
  • You are of all my friends the one who illustrates pragmatism in its most needful forms. You are a jewel of pragmatism.
    • Charles Sanders Peirce in letter to William James (16 March 1903), published in The thought and character of William James, as revealed in unpublished correspondence and notes (1935) by Ralph Barton Perry, Vol. 2, p. 427
  • A certain maxim of Logic which I have called Pragmatism has recommended itself to me for diverse reasons and on sundry considerations. Having taken it as my guide for most of my thought, I find that as the years of my knowledge of it lengthen, my sense of the importance of it presses upon me more and more. If it is only true, it is certainly a wonderfully efficient instrument. It is not to philosophy only that it is applicable. I have found it of signal service in every branch of science that I have studied. My want of skill in practical affairs does not prevent me from perceiving the advantage of being well imbued with pragmatism in the conduct of life.
    • Charles Sanders Peirce (1903) Pragmatism and Pragmaticism. Lecture I : Pragmatism : The Normative Sciences, CP 5.14
  • The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.
  • Modern experimentation is often like driving an automobile. The details and theory of the instruments being used in the experiment are not known to the experimenter except in a very general way. (...) Experimenters are taught in an explicit way, often, how to write up reports of their experiments. But the tradition here is like sports reporting. Only the results of the experiment are reported in any serious detail. The procedures are not.
    • Patrick Suppes (1998) "Pragmatism in Physics", in P. Weingartner, G. Schurz & G. Dorn (Eds.), The Role of Pragmatics in Contemporary Philosophy. Vienna: Holder-Pichler-Tempsky , p. 245, ISSN=1026-9347.


  • Le plus grand ennemi du bon, c'est le mieux.
    • The better is the greatest enemy of the good.
    • French proverb, as cited in Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Elements of the Philosophy of Right (1820), §216.
    • Variant: Dit que le mieux est l'ennemi du bien.
      • The better is the enemy of the good.
      • Voltaire, La Bégueule (The Prude) (1772), attributed to "a wise Italian"

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  • Pragmatism entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy