Pragmatism, as a philosophical movement, was founded in the United States during the second half of 1800s as the post-civil war nation embarked on expanded capitalist ventures and away from traditional European thought. The most well-known in the movement, William James, describes a pragmatist as someone who looks to “concreteness and adequacy, towards facts, towards action” and away from “fixed principles, closed systems, pretended absolutes and origins”. (Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking) Truth for the pragmatist was that which was useful, had a “cash value”, what actually creates meaningful production in application.

The primary founders of the pragmatist school of thought are Charles Sanders Peirce, William James, and John Dewey. While all three generally agree that “truth is what is useful”, each has a different view on what useful means.

For Peirce, the earliest of the three and who James calls the founder of pragmatism, truth is discovered through application of the scientific method to our experience to derive knowledge and form useful beliefs. The truth for Peirce is ultimately something that all reasonable inquiries would agree upon. Peirce regarded himself primarily as a student of semiotics and is regarded as an early adherent to the philosophy of science.

The next and most famous pragmatist was William James who held that truth is what works, but it is not necessarily agreed upon or believed by all as Peirce claims. For James, experience is personal and intertwined with individual emotions and perspectives.

A good example of this distinction from Peirce is in his approach to religion where he suggests that each must decide for themselves what the truth is. Peirce would subject this claim to the scientific method finding a paucity of actual evidence upon which to form a belief. James would go on to form more extreme versions of the original pragmaticism in his Radical Empiricism which proclaims that traditional consciousness does not exist and blurs the lines between external objects and their representation in the mind.

John Dewey, the most recent pragmatist, believed in a truth as what is useful for society. He thought that philosophy had become too academic and unapproachable to the public at large. Philosophy should not only be widely available, but society itself should inform the beliefs of philosophy. Truth for Dewey was not a static idea, something settled once and for all, but rather an evolving idea subject to change as evidence changes.

Pursuit of belief and truth should be a social activity of answering meaningful questions with the output being the knowledge jointly derived.

The pragmatist movement influenced American thought into the 20th century as well as spreading overseas to Britain and Germany, partly in the form of logical positivism. It took upon itself a role in interpreting Einstein’s theory of relativity and in more recent times pragmatism’s abductive reasoning has emerged as a area of interest for computer science, particularly in the realm of big data and heuristics. It may be an interesting exercise to apply James’ theory of consciousness with virtual reality development. Finally, some marketers are said to be embracing Peirce’s Theory of Signs

Additional Resources:


BBC: In Our Time Pragmaticism

Episode 20: Pragmatism – Peirce and James

June 9, 2010 by Mark Linsenmayer


Essays in Radical Empiricism (FULL Audiobook)

William James


The Metaphysical Club

Formed in 1872 by William James and Charles Sanders Peirce along with others such as Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr and influential thinker Chauncey Wright. It was also the basis for the book by the same name, The Metaphysical Club

Peirce’s Theory of Signs