The Grapes of Wrath: Pragmatism, Rationalism & Empiricism

Instructor: Rachel Hanson
In this lesson we learn how John Steinbeck weaves pragmatism, rationalism, and empiricism throughout ''The Grapes of Wrath'', and how his characters represent these philosophical ways of seeing the world.

Terminology Refresher

As we make our way through life, we sometimes go with our gut. But a lot of the time, we use the information around us to make informed decisions, or logic to reason out a situation. Let's refresh ourselves on some of these ways of thinking:

  • Empiricism is the idea that knowledge is acquired through observation and perception.
  • Rationalism is the idea that using logic and reason is knowledge in and of itself.
  • Pragmatism is a logical and practical way of getting things accomplished.

In The Grapes of Wrath Steinbeck incorporates each of these philosophical ways of viewing the world, especially highlighting them through his characters.

Empiricism in The Grapes of Wrath

A nicer version of the kind of grocery store Ma visited at the Hooper ranch
Store a

We see empiricism taking shape in The Grapes of Wrath by examining characters that represent empiricism in the novel, in this case, Ma.

At one point, Ma goes to buy groceries from the ranch store. The owners of the store have raised the prices, knowing that the workers can't afford to go into town to buy food for cheaper. The grocery clerk is also poor, but he nevertheless gives Ma a hard time, making fun of her for wanting fair prices. But she gently calls him out on it saying, ''Doin' a dirty thing like this. Shames ya, don't it? Got to act flip, huh?''

The clerk is visibly affected, and ends up lending her ten cents to buy sugar. As Ma walk out, she turns around and says, ''I'm learnin' one thing good...Learnin' it all the time, ever' day. If you're in trouble or hurt or need--go to poor people. They're the only one that'll help--the only ones.''

Here we see how Ma's observation and perception of people has evolved over the course of the Joad's travels. The family has been met with hardship after hardship, but every time someone just as impoverished helps them out, she understands they are the most kind. In the poor there is a generosity and kindness that does not exist in the land owners. Because this is knowledge she learns over time through experience, we can see empiricism at play in The Grapes of Wrath.

Rationalism in The Grapes of Wrath

Rationalism doesn't demand a person experience something to have knowledge about it, just to use logic. Tom's tells Ma that Casy was right, people don't have individual souls but are a part of a larger soul: ''Says he foun' he jus' got a little piece of a great big soul. Says a wilderness ain't no good, 'cause his little piece of a soul wasn't no good 'less it was with the rest, an' was whole. ...I know now a fella ain't no good alone.''

As such, Tom believes that ''Wherever they's a fight so hungry people can eat, I'll be there. Wherever they's a cop beatin' up a guy, I'll be there.'' Wherever there are poor people being ill treated, he'll be there. Tom isn't literally saying that he will be everywhere at once. He's saying that his soul is attached to other poor souls, so their suffering is like his, and his suffering is the same as theirs. In that sense, he is everywhere they are. Though a somewhat abstract concept, Tom is using rationale to work it out.

Pragmatism in The Grapes of Wrath

Even though we have considered Ma through the lens of an empiricist, she often functions as a pragmatist. Ma is really the leader or head of the family, always thinking ahead and considering the needs of each member.

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