Philosophy Pragmatism
Albert Atkin
  • LAST REVIEWED: 10 May 2010
  • LAST MODIFIED: 10 May 2010
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0093


Pragmatism is, broadly, an approach to philosophy that clusters loosely around a set of themes and a common tradition. The most clearly Pragmatist of these themes is what we might call a turn to practice. The idea is that in order to understand philosophical concepts fully, we must look to those ordinary practices that take such concepts as central. A famous example of this is the pragmatic account of truth, whereby our practices of inquiry are taken to suggest that truth is the set of beliefs that a sufficiently long and well-practiced investigation would leave intact. By the standards of philosophy, Pragmatism is still a relatively young tradition emerging from work by C. S. Peirce, William James, and John Dewey in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. While Pragmatism fell out of favor during the early part of the 20th century, it saw something of a revival from the late 1970s in the Neo-Pragmatist work of Richard Rorty and Hilary Putnam. Pragmatism is currently experiencing a third resurgence, christened New Pragmatism by Cheryl Misak, in which a general revisionist attitude to the tradition draws on Classical and Neo-Pragmatist work, and supplements this with what are seen as pragmatist insights from outside the core of the tradition. This entry focuses on these three waves of pragmatist philosophy, drawing particular attention to key figures, themes, and ideas indicative of Pragmatism.

General Overviews

Pragmatism is very difficult to characterize in a short, neat way, and overviews often focus on a few central pragmatist themes, or on the work of certain central figures of the tradition. This means that overviews are invariably colored quite heavily by the figures and themes most favored by the author, and none really reflect in any depth the most recent New Pragmatist work. Nonetheless, there are some interesting, useful, and accessible overviews available that are ideal for introducing students, or the merely interested, to Pragmatism. Hookway 2008 offers a very good account of Pragmatism via its central figures (but is heavily Peircean [see Charles S. Peirce]) and by identifying key unifying themes. McDermid 2006 offers a similar approach to Hookway but is shorter and thus slightly less detailed, and it identifies slightly different “unifying” themes. Rorty 1998 is a short, interesting, if somewhat partisan, account of Pragmatism’s development up to the Neo-Pragmatist revival. Goodman 1995 is an introductory essay to an edited collection but provides a useful overview with some emphasis on the Neo-Pragmatists’ broadening of Pragmatism beyond philosophy. Similarly, Margolis 2006 is an introduction to an extensive edited collection, and while it is more idiosyncratic and assumes more familiarity with the tradition than the other overviews mentioned here, it still offers an interesting take on the various incarnations of Pragmatism.

  • Goodman, Russell B. “Introduction.” In Pragmatism: A Contemporary Reader. Edited by Russell B. Goodman, 1–20. New York: Routledge, 1995.

    Overview focusing on the anti-representational theme in the Neo-Pragmatist revival and Rorty’s suggestion that philosophy take a literary, conversational turn. Suitable for a slightly more knowledgeable audience, but useful, especially in light of the readings it supports.

  • Hookway, Christopher. “Pragmatism [].” In Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by Edward N. Zalta. 2008.

    A thorough account that separates the historical issues of Pragmatism’s origins and classical accounts of meaning and truth from the more vexing questions of which tenets and philosophical attitudes are central to it. This approach is especially useful, since many Pragmatists do not endorse the classical accounts of truth and meaning. This would make a great first point of contact with the topic for an advanced undergraduate class.

  • Margolis, Joseph. “Introduction: Pragmatism, Retrospective, and Prospective.” In A Companion to Pragmatism. Edited by John R. Shook and Joseph Margolis, 1–10. Oxford: Blackwell, 2006.

    DOI: 10.1002/9780470997079

    Focuses heavily on Dewey as a central and connecting figure from the Classical phase to the Neo-Pragmatist revival of Putnam and Rorty. While the entry is a little idiosyncratic and assumes prior knowledge of Pragmatism, its sense that the tradition’s various waves, incarnations, and self-reflection each add something to a developing movement is useful for understanding the rather organic and open nature of pragmatist philosophy.

  • McDermid, Douglas. “Pragmatism[].” In Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by James Fieser and Bradley Dowden. 2006.

    An interesting and useful introductory overview of Pragmatism. In tracing the history of the tradition it mentions the developments that lead to the Neo-Pragmatist revival as well as the Classical Pragmatism of Peirce, James, and Dewey. As one might well expect, it is a little cursory in places, but is a good orientation piece, especially for undergraduates.

  • Rorty, Richard. “Pragmatism.” In Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by Edward Craig, 633–640. London: Routledge, 1998.

    Very short but nonetheless interesting account by probably the most well-known Neo-Pragmatist. The emphasis is very much geared to Rorty’s own view of Pragmatism’s revival as emerging from concerns about the misappropriation of empiricism during the linguistic turn in analytic philosophy, and it sustains his view of Pragmatism as dispensing with the traditional questions of philosophy.

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