DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-N046-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved May 23, 2019, from

1. Classical pragmatism

Charles Sanders Peirce, William James and John Dewey - often referred to as the three ‘classical pragmatists’ - had very different philosophical concerns. Except for their shared opposition to the correspondence theory of truth, and to ‘copy theories’ of knowledge, their doctrines do not overlap extensively (see Truth, pragmatic theory of). Although each knew and respected the other two, they did not think of themselves as belonging to an organized, disciplined philosophical movement. Peirce thought of himself as a disciple of Kant, improving on Kant’s doctrine of categories and his conception of logic. A practising mathematician and laboratory scientist, he was more interested in these areas of culture than were James or Dewey. James took neither Kant nor Hegel very seriously, but was far more interested in religion than either Peirce or Dewey. Dewey, deeply influenced by Hegel, was fiercely anti-Kantian. Education and politics, rather than science or religion, were at the centre of his thought.

Peirce was a brilliant, cryptic and prolific polymath, whose writings are very difficult to piece together into a coherent system. He is now best known as a pioneer in the theory of signs, and for work in logic and semantics contemporaneous with, and partially paralleling, that of Frege. Peirce’s account of inquiry as a matter of practical problem-solving was complemented by his criticisms of the Cartesian (and empiricist) idea of ‘immediate knowledge’, and of the project of building knowledge on self-evident foundations (of either a rationalist or empiricist kind).

Peirce protested against James’ appropriation of his ideas, for complex reasons to do with his obscure and idiosyncratic doctrine of ‘Scotistic realism’ - the reality of universals, considered as potentialities or dispositions. Peirce was more sympathetic to metaphysical idealism than James, and found James’ version of pragmatism simplistic and reductionist. James himself, however, thought of pragmatism as a way of avoiding reductionism of all kinds, and as a counsel of tolerance. Particularly in his famous essay ‘The Will to Believe’ (1896), he attempted to reconcile science and religion by viewing both as instruments useful for distinct, non-conflicting purposes.

Although he viewed many metaphysical and theological disputes as, at best, exhibitions of the diversity of human temperament, James hoped to construct an alternative to the anti-religious, science-worshipping positivism of his day. He approvingly cited Giovanni Papini’s description of pragmatism as ‘like a corridor in a hotel. Innumerable chambers open out of it. In one you may find a man writing an atheistic volume; in the next someone on his knees praying for faith; in a third a chemist investigating a body’s properties… they all own the corridor, and all must pass through it’. His point was that attention to the implications of beliefs for practice offered the only way to communicate across divisions between temperaments, academic disciplines and philosophical schools.

Dewey, in his early period, tried to bring Hegel together with evangelical Christianity. Although references to Christianity almost disappear from his writings around 1900, in a 1903 essay on Emerson he still looked forward to the development of ‘a philosophy which religion has no call to chide, and which knows its friendship with science and with art’. The anti-positivist strain in classical pragmatism was at least as strong as its anti-metaphysical strain, and so James and Dewey found themselves attacked simultaneously from the empiricist left and from the idealist right - by Bertrand Russell as well as by F.H. Bradley. Both critics thought of the pragmatists as fuzzy and jejune thinkers. This sort of criticism was repeated later in the century by the disciples of Carnap, most of whom dismissed the classical pragmatists as lacking in precision and argumentative rigour.

James wrote a few remarkable essays on ethics - notably ‘The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life’ (1891), in which, echoing Mill’s Utilitarianism, he says that every desire and need has a prima facie right to be fulfilled, and that only some competing desire or need can provide a reason to leave it unsatisfied. But neither James nor Peirce attempted any systematic discussion of moral or political philosophy. Dewey, however, wrote extensively in this area throughout his life - from Outlines of a Critical Theory of Ethics (1891) to Human Nature and Conduct (1922) and Theory of Valuation (1939).

Dewey urged that we make no sharp distinction between moral deliberation and proposals for change in sociopolitical institutions, or in education (the last being a topic on which he wrote extensively, in books which had considerable impact on educational practice in many countries). He saw changes in individual attitudes, in public policies and in strategies of acculturation as three interlinked aspects of the gradual development of freer and more democratic communities, and of the better sort of human being who would develop within such communities. All of Dewey’s books are permeated by the typically nineteenth-century conviction that human history is the story of expanding human freedom and by the hope of substituting a less professionalized, more politically-oriented conception of the philosopher’s task for the Platonic conception of the philosopher as ‘spectator of time and eternity’.

In Reconstruction in Philosophy (1920) he wrote that ‘under disguise of dealing with ultimate reality, philosophy has been occupied with the precious values embedded in social traditions…. has sprung from a clash of social ends and from a conflict of inherited institutions with incompatible contemporary tendencies’. For him, the task of future philosophy was not to achieve new solutions to traditional problems, but to clarify ‘men’s ideas as to the social and moral strifes of their own day’. This conception of philosophy, which developed out of Hegel’s and resembled Marx’s (see Hegel,G.W.F.; Marx, K.), isolated Dewey (particularly after the rise of analytic philosophy) from colleagues who thought of their discipline as the study of narrower and more precise questions - questions that had remained substantially unchanged throughout human history.

Citing this article:
Rorty, Richard. Classical pragmatism. Pragmatism, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-N046-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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