Geography Geographies of Pragmatism
Gary Bridge
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 November 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199874002-0250


Pragmatism is a philosophy that sees life as being defined by the relations of organisms and things in an environment that is ever changing and uncertain. The nature of these relationships (or transactions, as pragmatists call them) is such that they are persistently co-constitutive, with no rounded-out clearly defined objects or organisms. This relational, processual view of life embeds human organisms in an active environment such that their knowledge of it is primarily acquired through action, in situations, and is only provisional and not based on solid foundations. Situations are contextual, though not necessarily geographically and spatially so. Acquiring robust knowledge to operate in this environment involves persistent experimentation and the testing out of ideas through active intervention in the world. Active experimentation comes about when the habitual relations of organisms to their environment become obstructed or uncertain (in problematic situations), otherwise most organic activity (including that of humans) is noncognitive and based on habit that is embodied and involving affect. Humans’ problem-solving capacities have been expanded by language use, and thus communication takes on an important role as a collective problem-solving capacity (or mind), a type of rationality that exists beyond individual cognitive capacities. The effective functioning of these capacities is the pragmatist’s idea of democratic life. This normative aspiration acts as a critique of actually existing democratic systems, with all their institutional anachronisms, social divisions, and obstacles to the realization of individual and thus collective capacities. Pragmatism emerged in the United States in the second half of the 19th century, involving figures such as William James, Charles Sanders Peirce, George Herbert Mead, and John Dewey. It was a philosophy strongly influenced by Darwinian naturalism but also by the traumatic experience of civil war. From both these influences pragmatism has taken an assumption of the ineluctable nature of relations all things but also of the dangers of beliefs that separate or deny this interrelatedness. Despite its environmental sensibilities (and some early connections via urban sociology) there have been no consistent relations between geographical thinking and pragmatism. But as an antifoundational and process philosophy of material things and organisms pragmatism has stimulated a flurry of recent engagement through variants of poststructuralist thinking that have involved geographical enquiry and critique.

General Overviews and Reference Works

These general overviews and reference works establish the key characteristics of pragmatism: an antifoundational view of knowledge; an emphasis on an uncertain environment; a focus on the consequences of actions rather than prior abstractions; and a rejection of dualisms (between mind/body, culture/nature, and theory/practice). Because the uptake of pragmatism in geography has been patchy, this overview section combines key philosophical texts on pragmatism with some of the overviews of its application in geography, as well as some outlets that periodically carry pragmatist-informed articles.

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