Pragmatism as the Philosophy of modern times?

Pragmatism is a philosophical movement that happened to begin in the 1870s in the United States of America, particularly through the works of Charles Sanders Peirce, William James, and John Dewey. It focuses on language, thought and meaning-making as a device for problem-solving, decision-making, prediction and action. It holds that philosophical thought that knowledge, language, concepts, meaning, belief, and science should and must be viewed through their practical uses and successes and not quite on optimist/pessimist or societal determined rights/wrongs but on a realistic perspective that is functional and applicable.

It opposes the notion of abstract theories which focuses on the theoretical or abstract aspects of an idea or a concept. They believe that truth is determined and contingent by its functionality and practical usefulness rather than abstraction. The two terms that are often confused and used interchangeably are Pragmatism and pragmatics. The term pragmatics was pioneered by Charles Morris in the 1930s, he then connected it to pragmatism.

Both pragmatism and pragmatics focus on the practical aspects of language and meaning. Even though being interlinked they are different from each other. Pragmatics is the study of language in a particular context, it is a field of linguistics that focuses on the meaning beyond its literal translation or interpretation. It tries to capture how the meaning of a sentence is influenced by various complex interplay of factors including one’s social and cultural context, the situation itself, norms prevailing in the society and of course the attitude of the person.

Key Principles

One of the most important features of pragmatism is the methodological prioritization of practical consequences over everything else. This involves tracing the implications of a concept or idea for practical experience in specific situations. It also recognises that all knowledge is conditional and is subjected to revision or change based on new evidence or experiences as human beings are dynamic and change is the only constant.

It also rejects the Cartesian view that knowledge can be derived solely through reason or innate ideas, instead emphasising on rich human experience and its practical implications. There is another notion named Pragmatic Maxim which elaborates on how one understands the meaning and significance of an idea or concept due to practical applicability. Lastly, its inclination towards practicality. To quote Albert Einstein, “In theory, theory and practice are the same. In practice, they are not. Thus, the idea of practicality here focuses on what works in practice rather than on theoretical levels.

Features & Applications

Pragmatism encourages a problem-solving approach to life, focusing on finding practical solutions to real-world problems. It can also contribute on community and social levels by encouraging the application of practical solutions to societal issues and community well-being, even when widely used in therapy settings. Dewey’s work on pragmatism focused on the role of education and the importance of practical problem-solving in understanding the world with an emphasis on the importance of hands-on activities, rather than solely through theoretical instruction. It also initiates inquiry and curiosity.

Comparisons with Other Philosophical Movements

  • Idealism: It differs from idealism by focusing on practical consequences rather than on abstract ideas or concepts.
  • Rationalism: It contrasts with rationalism by emphasizing the importance of experience and practical application over theoretical reasoning.
  • Empiricism: It shares some similarities with empiricism, but it goes beyond mere observation by emphasizing the importance of practical application.
  • Positivism: It differs from positivism by focusing on practical consequences rather than on the verification of scientific theories through empirical data.

Pragmatism and Psychology

Even having its routes in philosophy, it has had interdisciplinary influences with many connections to the field of psychology. William James as one of the key contributors, was also a prominent psychologist who was a pioneer of the school of thought in psychology named functionalism. His work in psychology, particularly has been in the areas of consciousness and the role of practical experiences as opposed to the studying of the structure of the mind which significantly influenced the development of pragmatism. He believed that only practical aspects of life that are beneficial and healthy are truly meaningful.

Functionalism shares similarities with pragmatism. Both emphasize the practical consequences of ideas and actions. Functionalism, which emerged in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, focused on the practical uses of psychological concepts and their applications in real-life situations. This approach is closely aligned with the pragmatist method, which prioritizes practical consequences over theoretical or abstract considerations. Further, in modern times contextual behavioural science, a field pioneered by Steven C. Hayes combines behavioural science with pragmatic principles.

It emphasizes the importance of understanding behaviour within the contexts and the practical applications of theoretical concepts. This approach is deeply rooted in pragmatist thought. Pragmatism continues to influence modern psychology, especially in areas such as behavioural therapy and cognitive psychology. The emphasis on practical problem-solving and the focus on what works in practice are key aspects of pragmatism that are applied in these fields. Pragmatism’s rejection of abstract theories in favour of practical solutions resonates with the empirical and experimental nature of modern psychology. However, with the rise in critical theory, constructionism and participatory inquiry as a paradigm abstraction have taken up more appreciation in the field as they capture the diverse and nuanced stances of complex human behaviour.

Pragmatism and its day-to-day life Application


Parents often start off idealistic, they have the desire to be the perfect ones and deliver the best they know to the child. They do that by setting clear boundaries and severe consequences for disobedience. However, when they start to realize this approach causes their child to become resentful and parents start to become pragmatic. They may adopt flexible strategies and learn through their practical experience what is the most functional, as each individual is different and the generalised approach may not work for everyone. Through this process, parents realize that allowing the children some degree of agency helps them come to compromises and achieve their ultimate goals more effectively than strictly imposing rules.

A good plan violently executed now is better than a perfect plan executed next week.

George S. Patton
Job Anticipation vs Reality

For instance, a person who is passionate about creative writing aspires to be a novelist but understands the volatility and uncertainty of such a career path. With the demands of everyday living and financial stability to consider, they opt to initially take a steady job as a content writer for a firm. This allows them to utilize their writing skills, earn a regular income, and also continue to work on their novel in their spare time. This decision indicates a pragmatist approach, being a realist.

Environmental Sustainability vs Budget Constraints

The whole world has been trying to manage global warming and adapt to more renewable sources of energy. Countries globally have been involved in conferences and protocols towards zero-waste, completely green solutions, but they understand the budgetary constraints and limitations of such an initiative in the short term, especially the developing countries. Instead, of investing in expensive high cost and high-maintenance projects like having solely solar panels for electricity, implementing a progressively cost-efficient program like initiating the purchase of electric vehicles along with public education initiatives about global warming, climate change and the consequences of using excess renewable resources reflects a pragmatic decision that takes into account the ideal goal of reducing global warming, and is the concrete steps towards gradual improvement.


Pragmatism is often used as a convenient approach to mixed research, prioritizing flexibility and practicality over principles. Such a combination of different research paradigms, such as positivism and constructivism, can result in theoretical incompatibility and a lack of clear guidance for researchers. It also emphasizes practical consequences and empirical evidence, which can lead to a focus on what works rather than what is theoretically sound.

The perception of truth here is determined by practical consequences as opposed to empirical or scientific approaches, which can lead to a subjective understanding of truth. Critics argue that these assumptions can lead to a lack of objectivity and reliability in research findings making it challenging to generalize findings to larger populations or other contexts. It can also lead to a lack of clear definitions of truth and a lack of consensus among researchers.


Pragmatism, a philosophical tradition that emphasizes practical consequences and real-world applications, has significant implications for day-to-day life. It encourages problem-solving approaches, focusing on finding practical solutions to real-world problems. By prioritizing practicality and flexibility, pragmatism helps individuals adapt to changing circumstances and achieve their goals effectively.

Researches that can be further looked up

“Pragmatism as a Supportive Paradigm for the Mixed Research Approach: Conceptualizing the Ontological, Epistemological, and Axiological Stances of Pragmatism” by Heba Maarouf.

“Pragmatism Research Philosophy” by John Dudovskiy.

“Pragmatism: A Methodological Approach to Research” by Saunders, Lewis, and Thornhill.

“Business Research: A Practical Guide for Undergraduate and Postgraduate Students” by Collis and Hussey.

“Essentials of Business Research: A Guide to Doing Your Research Project” by Wilson.

References +
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  • BetterHelp Editorial Team. (2024, May 9). Pragmatism, functionalism, and William James Psychology | BetterHelp.
  • Wikipedia contributors. (2024, May 11). Pragmatism. Wikipedia.
  • Barbalet, J. (2004). William James: Pragmatism, Social Psychology and Emotions. European Journal of Social Theory, 7(3), 337–353.
  • Hampson, T., & McKinley, J. (2023). Problems posing as solutions: Criticising pragmatism as a paradigm for mixed research. Research in Education, 116(1), 124–138.
  • Morgan, D. L. (2014). Pragmatism as a paradigm for social research. Qualitative Inquiry, 20(8), 1045–1053.
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