Pragmatism: a History and Analysis

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Pragmatism James and Peirce

This essay discusses the philosophical construct known as “pragmatism,” an American school of thought of the 19th Century.


When we use the word “pragmatic” or “pragmatist” today, we generally mean someone who deals in facts, has a realistic grasp of them, and can employ them in rational arguments. By extension, then, “pragmatism” is a realistic way of viewing the world.

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However, there is a older definition, one that deals with a far more philosophical construct; “pragmatism” in the 19th Century was a way of thinking that gave meaning to words and ideas so that those debating these subjects had common ground; it was a way to strive to make sure that everyone understood everyone else’s terminology. Furthermore, pragmatism in the philosophical sense is regarded as a uniquely American way of thinking.

This paper examines three essays: “What Pragmatism Means” by William James; and “The Fixation of Belief” and “How to Make Our Ideas Clear” by Charles Sanders Peirce. It attempts to make the central ideas of the essays clear, respond to them, raise any objections to the thinking of these philosophers, and refute those objections.

We’ll start with William James, since a definition of pragmatism is necessary before we can discuss it further.

James: “What Pragmatism Means”

William James gave a series of lectures in 1904, of which “What Pragmatism Means” is the second. In it, he defines pragmatism, which he describes as a method or process, rather than a result: “The pragmatic method is primarily a method of settling metaphysical disputes that otherwise might be interminable. Is the world one or many? – fated or free? … The pragmatic method in such cases is to try to interpret each notion by tracing its respective practical consequences.” (James, PG). If, he goes on, it would make no practical difference to anyone whether this idea or that idea were true, then the dispute is idle, for the alternatives really do not offer a choice.

He introduces his lecture by giving a trivial example that might help us to understand the method. He relates that he and some friends were on a camping trip in the woods. He had gone for a solitary walk, and upon his return found his friends engaged in a heated debate. Suppose, they were arguing, that there was a squirrel on one side of a tree trunk and a man on the other. Further suppose that the man tried to catch a glimpse of the squirrel by circling around the tree, but the squirrel moved as well so as to keep the tree always between the two of them. The question under consideration was: Did the man go around the squirrel? James’s friends had argued themselves to a standstill by the time he returned, and asked him to solve the dispute. He did so by finding a new way to define the terms; in particular the words “go around.” If by “go around” they meant that the man had first been north of the squirrel, then east, then south, then west, then the answer was “yes,” the man had gone around the squirrel. Bit if by “go around” they meant was the man first in front of the animal, then to one side, then behind him, then to the other side, the answer was “no,” because the squirrel had always kept his belly to the man. When the question was framed in these terms, the debate dissolved; that, in essence, appears to be the methodology of pragmatism as understood in its connection to philosophy: it’s a way of understanding and defining the terms of the dispute.

James also said that pragmatism stood in opposition to other current schools of thought, particularly rationalism. Pragmatism, ultimately, is a way to discover new truths without having to discard the old ones completely; that is, it allows people to reach new conclusions without having to totally abandon the “comfort zone” they have reached with their old ideologies. For James, pragmatism is clearly exemplified in science.

Peirce: “The Fixation of Belief”

It’s helpful to keep James’s writings in mind when we discuss Peirce, since it was Peirce who first formulated some of the ideas James expounded. In this essay, Peirce discusses the ways in which we form our belief systems, and why we may continue to believe something when it seems illogical to do so.

I’m simplifying greatly, because philosophical pragmatism is a difficult concept to adequately explain. At any rate, Peirce says that, particularly in regard to religious concepts, we often cling to the beliefs that bring us the most comfort, because to believe anything else would make us feel wretched. We sometimes comes to these beliefs in an odd way—not by having them proved to us, and thus believing them because we have seen that they are true, or reasoned our way to the conclusion that they are true, but because we have decided that is what we’re going to believe:

“… if belief is of the nature of a habit, why should we not attain the desired end, by taking any answer to a questions, which we may fancy, and constantly reiterating it to ourselves, dwelling on all which may conduce to that belief, and learning to turn with contempt and hatred from anything which might disturb it?” (Peirce, p. 68).

This is the old “my mind’s made up, don’t confuse me with the facts” joke. Peirce, however, doesn’t see anything wrong with this method: “A man may go through life, systematically keeping out of view all that might cause a change in his opinions, and … I do not see what can be said against his doing so.” (P. 69). Indeed, telling someone what to believe is impossible, thus, Peirce is correct when he says that we cannot logically fault the man who comes to his beliefs in this way. He calls this the “method of tenacity.”

However, this method runs into difficulties because we are not hermits, and any time we interact with others we run the risk of having to reevaluate our beliefs; others may say things that might conceivably cause us to change our mind. We have a new problem, then: how to fix belief in the community, as opposed to just the individual.

Here, Peirce says that the answer is to create an institution that will “… keep correct doctrines before the attention of the people … reiterate them perpetually, and … teach them to the young…” (P. 70). This institution will also have the power to “terrify” those who disagree into silence; if necessary, dissidents can be jailed or executed. Of course Peirce is describing a dictatorship, which he says has been far more successful, over time, in fixing beliefs than has the method of tenacity.

He then goes on to say that of course neither tenacity nor the terror of a police state are desirable; that men should follow “natural preferences… conversing together and regarding matters in different lights…” and thus gradually develop their beliefs. This system, he says, seems the best of all, but in fact has been tried and been a dismal failure, because it depends to a large extent on “taste” or the popular fad of the moment, and such things are unreliable guides to forming a coherent belief structure. When this reasoning falls, we are left with the true inductive method.

We are looking for a method of forming beliefs that affects every man, and to which every man will respond in the same way, in spite of his individuality and what other beliefs he may hold. The answer here is science. This takes us right back to James, and the idea that if two alternatives, when tried, yield virtually identical results, there is no real conflict.

I see few objections to Peirce’s reasoning in this essay, though there are two instances arise where a reader might pause; one is in form, the other in content. In the first instance, Peirce’s comments about devising a way for belief to become general in the community, rather than individual, (i.e., his terrorist police state), has a very Swiftian quality about it. A casual reader might think that he was in fact proposing dictatorship as a good thing; it takes some additional reading to realize that he is holding both it and tenacity up as examples of what not to do.

The other objection is to his assertion that taste is an unreliable guide for belief. I’m not sure that it’s fair to apply that comment in every circumstance; there must be times when “taste” (which I believe can be construed as an emotional response) is an accurate barometer of what is true and what is false, and in some cases can be followed. I suspect the rebuttal to that would be that “taste” is so subjective a concept as to be meaningless, and therefore we should disregard it, as Peirce did.

Peirce: “How to Make Our Ideas Clear”

For Peirce, clarity and reason are intertwined. In order to make our ideas clear, we have to understand the reasoning behind them; we must also develop them with logical consistency. He refers back to a point in his essay “The Fixation of Belief” which I didn’t mention, and that is the role of doubt in creating belief. Belief, he says, is the direct result of doubt; when we doubt something or someone, we are in agony until we form a belief that will enable us to overcome the doubt, or deal with it in a such a way that it no longer disturbs us. Doubt then has its place in helping us form our beliefs. Even our smallest actions can be accounted for in this way, although the words “doubt” and “belief” may be too grand for the occasion. He uses the example of needing to pay the fare for a ride on the horsecar, and finding he has both a nickel and five pennies. He can use either one to pay, but he experiences a moment of indecision—doubt, in other words—as to which currency he will use for the payment. He continues that of course in this case doubt and belief are not appropriate; the occasion is to small for their use: “To speak of such a doubt as causing an irritation which needs to be appeased, suggests a temper which is uncomfortable to the verge of insanity.” (Peirce, p. 83). But this is a clear example of the way in which the cycle begins: doubt, no matter how small, requires that we resolve it. Whether we simply pay our fare or decide that we believe in God is irrelevant at this point; it is the process that’s important. Once doubt has been resolved, whether it takes seconds, hours, or years, we have the foundation for a belief. At that point, a habit or action will come into being, based on the belief; furthermore, different beliefs give rise to different actions. It is this “rule of action” that Peirce says gives us the ability to make our ideas clear.

His essay is very intriguing and contains my other stimulating ideas, but one in particular, I think, should be mentioned. He says that we sometimes mistake our own

“…unclearness of thought for a character of the object we are thinking. Instead of perceiving that the obscurity is purely subjective, we fancy that we contemplate a quality of the object which is essentially mysterious…” (Peirce, p. 86).

This is of particular interest when we contemplate metaphysics, and may account for the huge number of conflicting ideas that mankind has espoused when thinking about God and the Universe.

This essay seems fairly straightforward to me, but I can see that devoutly religious people would have a difficult time, and would seek to challenge it, possibly asking him to clarify his thinking on the existence of God. Certainly, he would offend Catholics because of his examination of the doctrine of transubstantiation, which he describes in part as “senseless jargon.” (P. 88).

I think his reply would have to be that in replying his “rule” of doubt, belief and action, he has drawn his own conclusions. That they do not confirm those of the Church merely point to the fact that he is an individual free to follow his own thoughts.


Pragmatism, in the sense that we’re examining it here, is a philosophical theory that describes a process. It is a way of looking at the world that allows us to come to terms with it in a way that harmonizes with our own beliefs. And yet at the same time, it gives us a mechanism to explore further and, perhaps, change those beliefs.

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