philosophical tradition
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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.

Intellect ... has sunk so low that it is dressed in livery and sent to live in the servant's quarters. ~ Ralph Barton Perry
The hierarchical subordination of the material to the spiritual is inverted. ~ Nikolai Berdyaev
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? ~ René Guénon
That which is desirable on its own account and for the sake of knowing it is more of the nature of Wisdom than that which is desirable on account of its results. ~ Aristotle

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  • Practical life is not necessarily directed toward other people, as some think; and it is not the case that practical thoughts are only those which result from action for the sake of what ensues. On the contrary, much more practical are those mental activities and reflections which have their goal in themselves and take place for their own sake.
  • That which is desirable on its own account and for the sake of knowing it is more of the nature of Wisdom than that which is desirable on account of its results.
  • That [philosophy] is not a science of production is clear even from the history of the earliest philosophers. For it is owing to their wonder that men both now begin and at first began to philosophize. ... They were pursuing science in order to know, and not for any utilitarian end. And this is confirmed by the facts; for it was when almost all the necessities of life and the things that make for comfort and recreation had been secured, that such knowledge began to be sought.
  • As the man is free, we say, who exists for his own sake and not for another's, so we pursue [philosophy] as the only free science, for it alone exists for its own sake.
  • And therefore it is not the pleasure of curiosity, nor the quiet of resolution, nor the raising of the spirit, nor victory of wit, nor faculty of speech, nor lucre of profession, nor ambition of honour or fame, or inablement for business, that are the true ends of knowledge; some of these being more worthy than other, though all inferior and degenerate: but it is a restitution and reinvesting, in great part, of man to the sovereignty and power, for whensoever he shall be able to call the creatures by their true names, he shall again command them, which he had in his first state of creation.
    • Francis Bacon, Valerius Terminus: Of the Interpretation of Nature, Works, vol. 1 (1842), p. 83
  • Knowledge, that tendeth but to satisfaction, is but as a courtesan, which is for pleasure, and not for fruit or generation.
    • Francis Bacon, Valerius Terminus: Of the Interpretation of Nature, Works, vol. 1 (1842), p. 83
  • For I find that even those that have sought knowledge for itself, and not for benefit, or ostentation, or any practicable enablement in the course of their life, have nevertheless propounded to themselves a wrong mark, namely, satisfaction, which men call truth, and not operation. For as in the courts and services of princes and states, it is a much easier matter to give satisfaction than to do the business; so in the inquiring of causes and reasons it is much easier to find out such causes as will satisfy the mind of man and quiet objections, than such causes as will direct him and give him light to new experiences and inventions.
    • Francis Bacon, Valerius Terminus: Of the Interpretation of Nature, Works, vol. 1 (1842), p. 87
  • The learning that now is hath the curse of barrenness, and is courtesan-like, for pleasure and not for fruit.
    • Francis Bacon, Valerius Terminus: Of the Interpretation of Nature, Works, vol. 1 (1842), p. 87
  • The true end, scope, or office of knowledge, which I have set down to consist not in any plausible, delectable, reverend, or admired discourse, or any satisfactory arguments, but in effecting and working, and in discovery of particulars not revealed before, for the better endowment and help of man's life.
    • Francis Bacon, Valerius Terminus: Of the Interpretation of Nature, Works, vol. 1 (1842), p. 88
  • 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
  • Since the Greeks the predominant attitude of thinkers towards intellectual activity was to glorify it insofar as (like aesthetic activity) it finds its satisfaction in itself, apart from any attention to the advantages it may procure. Most thinkers would have agreed with … Renan’s verdict that the man who loves science for its fruits commits the worst of blasphemies against that divinity. … The modern clercs have violently torn up this charter. They proclaim the intellectual functions are only respectable to the extent that they are bound up with the pursuit of concrete advantage.
  • The hierarchical subordination of the material to the spiritual is inverted.
    • Nikolai Berdyaev, The End of Our Time (1919), as translated by Donald Atwater (1933), p. 92
  • The typical reaction of liberal intellectuals is to seize on the contradiction here: How can something be both wrong and right, or at least both wrong and OK, at the same time? What liberal intellectuals fail to see is that this so-called contradiction expresses the quintessence of the Machiavellian and therefore the modern, a quintessence that has been thoroughly absorbed by the man in the street. The world is ruled by necessity, says the man in the street, not by some abstract moral code. We have to do what we have to do.
If you wish to counter the man in the street, it cannot be by appeal to moral principles, much less by demanding that people should run their lives in such a way that there are no contradictions between what they say and what they do. Ordinary life is full of contradictions; ordinary people are used to accommodating them. Rather, you must attack the metaphysical, supra-empirical status of necessità and show that to be fraudulent.
  • Surely at least some of our logical principles … are far more evident and obvious to us than are any of the empirical generalizations we find in psychology, or in any other of the empirical sciences. Thus, to attempt to explain logic in terms of psychology is to explain the more certain by the less certain. It is, in short, to commit the fallacy of obscurum per obscurius.
    • David Detmer, Challenging Postmodernism (New York: 2003), p. 24
  • 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 easier to know what our culture’s epistemic norms are in terms of which it is to be determined whether or not giraffes are taller than ants than it is to know that giraffes are taller than ants? Is our knowledge concerning the identity of those norms to be construed on a realist model, or must we rather consult our culture’s epistemic norms in order to use them to figure out the identity of those norms? If the former, why is it that we can have objective knowledge concerning the identity of our culture’s epistemic norms when we can’t have it with regard to the relative height of giraffes and ants? And if the latter, how is an infinite regress to be avoided?
    • David Detmer, Challenging Postmodernism (New York: 2003), p. 130
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames: for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.
    • David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Section 12, Part 3
  • The entire modern deification of survival per se, survival returning to itself, survival naked and abstract, with the denial of any substantive excellence in what survives, except the capacity for more survival still, is surely the strangest intellectual stopping-place ever proposed by one man to another.
    • William James, review of Clifford's Lectures and Essays, Collected Essays and Reviews (1920), p. 143 (1879)
  • 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.
  • The science, which teaches arts and handicrafts
    Is merely science for the gaining of a living;
    But the science which teaches deliverance from worldly existence,
    Is not that the true science?
  • Psychology, speaking for emotion and instinct, has reduced intellect to impotence over life. Metaphysics has subordinated it to will. Bergson and his followers have charged it with falsehood and issued a general warning against its misrepresentations; while with pragmatists and instrumentalists it has sunk so low that it is dressed in livery and sent to live in the servant's quarters. It is against this last indignity in particular that I wish to speak a word of protest, to the end that the intellect may be accorded full rights within the community of human activities and interests.
    • Ralph Barton Perry, "The Integrity of the Intellect," Harvard Theological Review, vol. 13, no. 3, July 1920, pp.220-221
  • 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
  • We declare pragmatism to be bad, not indeed in its moral consequences (which, as a matter of fact, ought not to count in philosophy), but because it introduces into our fashion of thinking a degrading sophistry. Pragmatism, in its modern systematized form, would scarcely have been possible in earlier times. It has, however, become so since erudite scholars and original thinkers have deemed it fit to cater to a public incapable of taking a genuine interest in their researches and their speculations, a public which in the last resort wishes simply to amuse itself with these as it amuses itself with everything else, — the public of our modern democracies. We feel flattered by the plaudits of the crowd, and to procure these we are satisfied to get down to the level of those whom as thinkers we should disdain. Popular science, popular art, popular theology — only one thing was lacking — popular philosophy.
    • Albert Schinz, Anti-Pragmatism; an Examination into the Respective Rights of Intellectual Aristocracy and Social Democracy (1909), p. xv
  • Pitiful, to be sure, is what the pragmatic philosophy of the French and English is. … They are considered to be so well versed in the knowledge of what man is, despite their failure to speculate on what he should be.
    • Friedrich Schleiermacher, in Friedrich Schlegel’s Lucinde and the Fragments, P. Firchow, trans. (1991), “Athenaeum Fragments,” § 355
  • 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"

See also

Philosophy of science
Concepts AnalysisA priori and a posterioriCausalityDemarcation problemFactInductive reasoningInquiryNatureObjectivityObservationParadigmProblem of inductionScientific methodScientific revolutionScientific theory
Related topics AlchemyEpistemologyHistory of scienceLogicMetaphysicsPseudoscienceRelationship between religion and scienceSociology of scientific knowledge
Philosophers of science PlatoAristotleStoicism
AverroesAvicennaRoger BaconWilliam of Ockham
Francis BaconThomas HobbesRené DescartesGalileo GalileiPierre GassendiIsaac NewtonDavid Hume
Immanuel KantFriedrich SchellingWilliam WhewellAuguste ComteJohn Stuart MillHerbert SpencerWilhelm WundtCharles Sanders PeirceHenri PoincaréPierre DuhemRudolf SteinerKarl Pearson
Alfred North WhiteheadBertrand RussellAlbert EinsteinOtto NeurathC. D. BroadMichael PolanyiHans ReichenbachRudolf CarnapKarl PopperW. V. O. QuineThomas KuhnImre LakatosPaul FeyerabendJürgen HabermasIan HackingBas van FraassenLarry LaudanDaniel Dennett

Wikipedia has an article about:
  • Pragmatism entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy