Pragmatism According to Peirce, James & Dewey

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  • 0:00 Philosophy's Practical…
  • 1:06 William James
  • 2:34 John Dewey
  • 3:49 C.S. Peirce
  • 5:09 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christine Serva

Christine has an M.A. in American Studies. She is an instructional designer, educator, and writer with a particular interest in the social sciences and American studies.

This lesson explains the approach of three philosophers who took a pragmatic approach to the search for truth. You'll learn how they sought to make philosophy more productive and why action was so important to their views.

Philosophy's Practical Application

Meet Anton. Anton is a student that likes learning about philosophy, but sometimes he wonders whether it's worth investigating certain topics. He likes to see the practical application to thinking about questions such as what is real, what is true, and what is good.

As he researches thinkers William James, John Dewey, and C.S. Peirce, he's intrigued to learn that more than a century ago, they had similar concerns about focusing on what is useful. As a result, they aimed to take an approach of pragmatism.

Generally speaking, the pragmatism of these classical thinkers is a philosophical perspective that claims that the truth is what works on a practical level. You can remember the term 'pragmatism' by thinking of the word 'practical'. Rather than simply focusing on the theories, pragmatists wanted to see belief in action.

William James

Let's consider an example, one used by William James, an American psychologist and philosopher of the late 19th century. James talks about a squirrel clinging to a tree and a man who attempts to view the squirrel. The squirrel starts running around the tree, and to try to keep the squirrel in sight, the man also goes around the tree, too, keeping pace with the squirrel.

James says this could pose the question of whether the man goes round the squirrel or not. One person might say that the man does go round the squirrel, while another person might say, no, he doesn't. Who is right?

James points out that this depends largely on what you mean by going round the squirrel. So, first, an important aspect of the pragmatic method is to clarify what terms mean in disputes like these and also in bigger questions in philosophy.

Another important aspect of a pragmatic approach is to ask the question, what difference would it make to anyone if one notion rather than another notion were true? Here's where Anton the philosophy student would be particularly appreciative of James. James is saying that philosophy should not just concern itself with considering possible answers to challenging disputes. He promotes thinking about what practical difference the answers would make in people's lives.

John Dewey

Another American philosopher of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, John Dewey, also wrote and spoke about these topics. Like others who took a pragmatic approach, he did not view people as passive observers of their environment, but instead viewed people as active, social participants.

He thought it was important to look at things in relationship to what they mean to human beings. For example, let's imagine Anton finds himself in lectures that seem of little relevance to the world in which he lives and unrelated to his life and the lives of those around him.

Dewey would acknowledge that this is not the ideal way to learn at all. Students learn by testing their thoughts through action. For instance, rather than solely learning history from a lecture, Anton could consider how historical events have affected those who lived through that era.

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