Pragmatism – The Philosophy with Cash Value

Some people believe that philosophy is detached from the real world and has no practical application to our lives. That’s ignorance, but it’s understandable because of the long tradition of rationalist and now analytic philosophy that seems to be really spending a lot of time and energy on things that really don’t seem that important.

Philosophy is at its best when it does deal directly with issues that confront human beings in their everyday lives. Philosophy is also at its best when it acknowledges human free will and acknowledges human subjectivity. One school of philosophy that exemplifies these positive traits in philosophy is the very appropriately named school of pragmatism. As the name indicates, it is a philosophy of pragmatic import on our lives.

Pragmatism is a philosophical tradition that understands that our knowledge of the world is inseparable from our agency within it. We are in the world and we have a particular standpoint within that world, and we have free will to act within that world. All of our subjectivity and all of our practical desires within the world have to be included and factored into our doing philosophy.

That philosophical approach has been applied in three basic areas. One is in the philosophy of science. The idea that what is scientific truth is arrived at through a collective. The second application is to a philosophy of truth and meaning. Saying that a belief is true if and only if it is useful to us in our lives. The third application is to social and political philosophy that derives social and political truths from humans individual experiences.

There have been a number of pragmatist philosophers from the late 1800s to the present day, but in this short lecture I’m going to focus on five of the most important ones. I’ll say a little bit about each one.

Charles Sanders Peirce

The first is Charles Sanders Peirce, and that’s not “Pierce,” that’s “Peirce.” (pronounced “purs”) Peirce was a scientist, and he was wanting to improve the accuracy of science in its search for truth. Peirce realized that the meaning of any word comes from its social set of meanings. A word is a sign for something, and signs succeed when they stand for things because of the social set of interpretations that relate that word to things within an overall cultural system.

A sign itself is just a brute fact. It is the social system of meanings that makes any word or any sign meaningful. Our world is perfused with signs, Peirce says, and the elaborate system of signs make up the human world and makes up our personal individual consciousness and the collective consciousness of our society. Society itself is just a web of signs, words, symbols, meanings, significances, and the interpretations that combine and interact in our ongoing process of interpreting our world, the objects within it, and our own ideas.

Also crucial to Peirce’s account is how our language of signs, our interpretations and meanings, are constantly changing as we act in the world and reinterpret what is true. This is because when we talk about something being true, we are considering what practical effects that idea has for our lives. Peirce says that we define what we think an object is by what we believe an object does for us, or what we can do with it. In other words, our idea of an object is our idea of its effects that we can perceive and that we can practically use. That’s why for him, it’s all about pragmatism. It’s a pragmatic view of truth, meaning and objects in the world. Pragmatism, therefore, is a philosophy of our experience.

Whether we’re a philosopher or a scientist, or hopefully both, we need to focus on the practical, observable effects of objects. Anything other than that Peirce says, is meaningless. You can sit there and think about things. You can imagine things. What matters is the practical, pragmatic usefulness and meaning of objects and ideas.

Another very important aspect of Peirce’s thought is that he understood that what we call truths are really our beliefs. He says a list of what we think is true and a list of our beliefs are the same. Beliefs are something that we are aware of that mollifies, in his words, the irritation of doubt, and that produces habits in us.

What he means by that is we don’t like to not know, we don’t like to be in doubt. We like to be decisive… well, most of us do, I think … maybe. I don’t know… No, we like to be decisive. We like to know things. We like to be sure of things, because that’s what has practical value in our lives. So, we want to remove doubt and the way we remove doubt. Is to believe that something is true, our beliefs, our habits.

David Hume said this. Our habits are tied to our physical actions, our psychological expectations. Our habits predispose us to respond in certain ways to certain situations. And the essence of belief is the establishment of habits that assist us in our dealing with the external world. Our beliefs, then, are not exact representations of truth, and we are wrong to think otherwise.

Our beliefs, Peirce says, should be continually self-correcting in response to our experiences as we seek beliefs that have practical value per states that the most that can be maintained is that we seek for a belief that we shall think to be true. These ideas fit with Peirce’s rejection of the longstanding notion that the universe is stable and perfectly predictable. He’s saying all of this before Einstein, before quantum physics. But Peirce is realizing that the universe is constantly evolving. Though it mostly shows us indications of order, there is always an element of randomness in the universe.

Peirce dealt with the difficulties of human subjectivity in addressing the other end of the problem of knowledge, how to deal with a chance-laden universe. We do that through a continual effort to, as a community of scientists, of observers, of humans in the world, collectively determine what is true, what our beliefs should be in terms of them, and always what is valuable to us.

Peirce declares that the opinion, the belief which is fated to be ultimately agreed to by all who investigate, is what we mean by the truth. The object represented in this belief is what is real. That is how I would explain reality, he says. In other words, we decide what is real. We decide what is true based upon consistent rational observation and testing of the world and the objects in it and then we come to a collective consensus on what is working; what beliefs work for us? That is what we call true.

William James

Peirce’s ideas were picked up and trumpeted, literally, by William James. Peirce was only an adjunct professor, and as such he was often disregarded, shall we say, by the establishment in philosophy and science. William James was a full professor, and he was well known and well connected.

When William James read Peirce’s works, James realized how true they were, how, well … how valuable they were. That’s where James came up with his idea of the cash value of beliefs like Peirce, James realizes that all we have are beliefs. That’s all we have are beliefs about what is the case in the world. A belief becomes true, he says, when it has cash value for us. How American is that? The cash value.

Like Peirce, James says that what is true is an issue of whether a belief is useful to us. Truth happens to an idea, James famously said, when it succeeds in predicting new sense experiences.

In other words, James is extending the ideas of Kant and Hegel. James says that we are active participants in what becomes true. Kant had his Copernican revolution of realizing that objects in the world conform to our mental structures. The mind is active in our experience. Hegel took that one step further in realizing that we are both the subjects and objects of history—that our experiences of a world that is external to us affects how we view them, but how we view them also affects our world.

Remember that comment I made early on? That pragmatism is a philosophical tradition that understands how our knowledge of the world is inseparable from our agency within it? We are active in the creation of our beliefs, and our beliefs are active in the creation of what is objectively real.

James understood that the notion of truth as a detached, objective reality was nonsense. Truth is a tool by which we do things. Or again, to use James’s bold analogy, truth has a practical cash value. If a belief does good things for us, we can do something with it, then it’s true. It’s valuable for us. If a belief does not do anything for us, we discard it.

A lot of people would say, “oh, that’s not the meaning of truth. That’s not what truth is.” No, look at how you actually live your life. Only the insane person believes something and defends an idea that has no use, no value, no connection to the real world, no connection to their lives.

It is important to point out right here that James is not saying that we just make up stuff. We don’t just make up beliefs and then make them to be true. Beliefs always are connected to a real world and to our experiences in that real world. Pragmatism for James is subjective, undeniably subjective, but grounded in objective human experience. This is similar to Peirce’s notion that truth is a collective endeavor—the process by which we collectively come to it. though James was much more personal than Peirce was.

James did adamantly defend the notion that an individual can come to his or her own beliefs through their own thought, feeling and effort. But it is not the case that James was saying that it’s just a willful belief alone that makes something true. Again, it’s a belief that works for us. We don’t mean by truth that it simply feels good to us. We mean that we have tangible experience that a belief works.

Experience, James says, has ways of boiling over and making us correct our present formula. You can, if you think about this just a little bit, see how true this is. If you have an idea about something, a belief, “I think I can do this on the computer this way,” and you act on that belief and reality boils over and makes you realize, “oh, gee, this isn’t working.” If it doesn’t work, again, only the insane person keeps trying something that doesn’t work, keeps believing in something that has no connection with reality. No. When you see that your belief doesn’t work, you change your belief. Unless you’re insane or an idiot. That is the definition of belief. That is the definition of truth.

James recognizes that we are all individuals who engage with the world in our free will choices according to our personal subjective situation. We are beings who must choose and act. To act, we create beliefs that have value to us. Each one of us maintains our beliefs as long as they work for us. That pragmatic worldview has value for science, philosophy, and our personal lives.

Jane Addams

So if Peirce was the example of applying pragmatism principles to science and James is the best example of applying pragmatism’s principles to truth and meaning, it is the combination of Jane Addams and John Dewey who exemplify applying pragmatism’s principles to social and political philosophy.

Jane Addams, is very unfortunately, regrettably largely unknown as a philosopher. Those who know about her at all, know her as a social activist who founded Hull House in Chicago in 1889. What most people don’t realize is that Jane Addams actions in helping the poor and marginalized people within urban Chicago were actions informed by and inspired by pragmatist philosophy as a scholar. Addams was active in the philosophical school of pragmatism and was a close friend and associate of John Dewey, who was a professor at the University of Chicago. John Dewey is so much better known, but Dewey was in regular contact with Addams, and Dewey openly credited Jane Addams for inspiring many of his ideas.

Addams’s central idea was that if we are going to do philosophy, sociology, or social and political activism. We need to include and learn from the perspectives and experiences of people, in particular underprivileged people, she pointed out. Not in a weird Marxist revolutionary way, but simply a very pragmatic way, dare I say, that academia and politics had a very serious blindness in that they only take in the perspectives of wealthy and privileged people who are almost always all men. Atoms therefore sought not to look at what universal objective theories people of privileged had come up with, but instead first-hand accounts of the lived experiences of people. Many of whom are marginalized by society. Theory had to follow experience, Addams says, and we learn how humans act and think by listening to them.

Addams’s scholarly work was in keeping with her ethical conviction that society cannot claim progress unless all social classes are benefiting. A society works best, she says, when social gains are held in common by society, not simply because the rich and famous are getting more rich and more famous, and thinking, believing that the large successes of a few proves that society is progressing.

A good political leader, Addams says, discovers what people really want and provides for them the channels through which their moral force, the people’s moral force, can flow. In so doing, the leader attains progress, not for a few, but for the many. She gives a wonderful example of how it is better for the multitude to move up a few feet higher than for a select few to climb a mountain.

She wrote a book Democracy and Social Ethics in 1902, in which she applies this idea of progress for the multitude to numerous aspects of society. This is where pragmatism comes in for her, because we are obliged not just to speculate on what is good and ethical, but to find what’s actually working in the world and act on it in concrete ways that care for other people. She advocated for a social democracy in which people are continually looking out for each other, and for ways to improve the good of the community.

Society will work best when it creates a situation in which the social institutions that cause economic inequality are changed so that people have equal economic opportunity, not just a select few. This includes, in her mind, a full social democracy. People need not only to be fully represented in government, but fully involved and have an active stake in social progress.

Democracy, for Addams, is based not on theory or principles, but on mutual sympathy and regard for the well-being of other people. Unless all people in all classes contribute to the good of society, then we cannot be sure that society is worth having. It would, in James’s terms, not have very much cash value. When we include all people and when all people contribute, that’s a more valuable society. It’s very pragmatic. For Addams, that view of progress is better than capitalism and also better than Marx’s violent revolution. She rejects both.

John Dewey

John Dewey combined the scientific orientation of Peirce, the pragmatic view of belief and truth of James, and the emphasis on individual development and experience and the need for social reconstruction of Addams. Dewey starts from the fact that people exist within a biological. Environment. We create beliefs to adapt to our environment. Like James, Dewey sees all of human activity as developing beliefs, as tools or instruments for solving problems. Like James, Dewey says we keep those instruments that have value to us, that are useful to us.

One of Dewey’s primary aims, in part inspired by Addams, was to reform education to help children develop problem solving skills—instruments to solve problems. Dewey’s instrumental pragmatism is very straightforward. We exist in a world and we must react to it and try to navigate within it to accomplish our goals. Our intellectual abilities, Dewey said, are developed in response to our world. The world places demands on us. We are beings who must make choices and act. We develop instruments by which we can act and do what we want to do in the world.

Dewey rejects the common idea that the human mind is a mere passive observer and reactor to things in the world. Instead, Dewey says that our thinking is constant and active, and we think about how to interact with and better use objects in the world. He speaks of intelligence rather than mind. We are intelligent, free will people who are constantly seeking better, more valuable ways to do things in the world. He of course famously applied this to a philosophy of education.

Central to Dewey’s educational reforms is the need to get away from rote memorization of facts and instead adopt processes of open inquiry. Our experience in life is a continually developing circuit of activities, and learning needs to be presented similarly. Good education, Dewey thought, teaches individuals how to solve problems and engage better with their society. He thinks students should be presented with a problem that they need to work through for themselves or collectively moving through potential solutions until they find one that works. Again, pragmatism. Again, always about what works, what beliefs work, and that way students need to become active questioners. Dewey’s ideas called for a complete rethink of curriculum, the role of the teacher and the teacher-student relationship.

The influence of Jane Addams is clearly evident in how Dewey saw education as the means of increasing democracy and democratic participation in society. Dewey said that democracy is the idea of community life itself and that democracy should be understood as more than voting in elections, but as how the community deals with the problems it faces. Dewey’s idea of instrumentalism—beliefs as instruments to do things—also works at the community level. Education, then, not only teaches individuals how to solve problems, but teaches them how to be fully participating citizens in the community.

Dewey is not, of course, advocating indoctrination of students into being a particular type of citizen. He wants education to incorporate students and their freedom, recognizing them as unique, contributing individuals who participate in changing the Society of which they are a part. Working as he did with Addams, Dewey understood every child as a self who emerges from and is constructed through the child’s social and personal experiences. A school, Dewey says, must be a micro community that mirrors social life and prepares students for. Democratic participation in society.

Dewey wrote that there will be almost a revolution in school education when study and learning are treated not as acquisition of what others know but as development of capital, to be invested in eager alertness, in observing and judging the conditions under which one lives. Yet until this happens, we shall be ill prepared to deal with a world whose outstanding trait is change. Again, cash value. Real world value.

Richard Rorty

Finally, I want to briefly touch on a more recent pragmatist philosopher, Richard Rorty. He was originally an analytic philosopher, but he found analytic philosophy’s pursuit of finding universal foundations of knowledge to be, well, not valuable, and he adopted pragmatism instead. John Dewey is Rorty’s main influence, but he also takes seriously Wittgenstein’s later philosophy as well as Heidegger.

We’re already said that the main problem of modern and analytic epistemology was the assumption that the mind is trying to mirror external reality faithfully. A second related problem Rorty says is the attempt to find a foundation of all knowledge—beliefs that are not justified by other beliefs but are self-justifying. Rorty rejects this idea, rejects the idea of the passive mind, rejects the idea of foundational beliefs that do not do not need justification.

Rorty says that we will understand knowledge when we understand the social justification of belief. Accepting the social justification of our beliefs allows us to see knowledge as a product of conversational social practice rather than as attempts to mirror nature. We see how this is an extension of the earlier pragmatists that I’ve discussed. We develop beliefs by our experience in the world.

Rorty applied his pragmatic ideas by dismissing science as being the business of controlling and predicting objects, and thus science is largely useless for philosophy. Rorty instead said that philosophers have made a mistake in trying to imitate scientific methods. Rorty also claimed that there is no worthwhile theory of truth aside from a narrow formal logic unconnected to epistemology.

Rorty says we developed a vision of human community bound together not by abstract foundational ideas like the justice of a common humanity, but by a shared opposition to cruelty. He doesn’t offer the belief that cruelty is horrible as a foundational belief, but as a behavior justified by our social experience. We cannot Rorty says, give a clear reason why cruelty is wrong, but we don’t need one. It is what we feel, and we find that feeling useful in our lives.

Rudy’s idea of the proper political mindset is what he calls “ironism,” from the word irony. He says the ironist, the person who practices ironism, fully understands that she has been socialized into certain understandings, but society may have given her the wrong understandings and the wrong language to discuss them. Nevertheless, the ironist combines the contingency of her beliefs with a commitment to reduce cruelty and suffering.

The ironist mindset is consistent with Rorty’s beliefs about truth in that it rejects the rationalist, foundationalist mindset of conservatism and radicalism. Rorty advocates incremental reforms, not the extreme conflict and sweeping changes demanded by radicalism. Rorty also rejects totalitarianism as the extremist mindset of conservatism. At the core of Rorty’s political ironism is the acceptance that one’s own perspective has no universality. Therefore, one must persuade others not by arguments, but by conversations that expand the vocabularies of all participants. How we do that, of course, is by appealing to their experiences and appealing to beliefs that work.


The philosophical approach of pragmatism is again grounded in everyday experience. Pragmatist philosophers insist that all human experience needs to be understood as an interaction between people and their environment. These philosophers take into account individual perspectives, but doesn’t discount environmental factors on beliefs, as existentialists sometimes do. The pragmatist approach has had particular influence on philosophies of language, education, feminism, the hard sciences, and the social sciences.

Dewey’s thinking on education in particular has been highly influential in educational reform and the development of pedagogy. Some analytic philosophers have drawn from the pragmatists, but by and large it has been continental philosophy that has been more open to pragmatism’s recognition that human perception and reason are inherently relative, contingent, and imperfect. Above all, the influence of pragmatism on philosophy and society has been that idea that our beliefs are kept when they are useful to us, and that we do indeed as an individual and as a society, create truths.

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