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Working on a research paper on pragmatism? Here is an example of an introduction.

Pragmatism is an American school of philosophy which emerged in the second half of the 19th century. When writing a research paper on pragmatism, you can cover the philosophy itself or examine the key philosophers that espoused the pragmatic point of view in the 19th Century. Key philosophers of pragmatism include the following:

  • William James
  • John Dewey
  • W.V.O. Quine
  • Wilfred Sellars
  • Richard Rorty

Originally developed by Charles Sanders Peirce, pragmatism was expanded upon and spread by the writings of William James and John Dewey. As a philosophy, pragmatism holds that the function of human thought can be used for prediction, action, creativity and problem solving, rather than just mirroring reality.

Pragmatism, the philosophy, deals with the ultimate connection between reality and the individual self; to be “pragmatic” in the sense of participating in the benefits of society is not on that plane.  The later sense of the term demands an objective (social) reality to which one must adapt oneself.  And the fact that everyone who is not a schizophrenic does make such an adaptation may indicate not that such an objective reality is logically provable, but that it is necessary for a reasonably happy existence.  To say this is to say that the necessities of human life may be such as to make a human being’s relationship with ultimate reality irrelevant.  If there is no ultimate objective reality, then we have to invent one. This is highly American and can be witnessed in our political policies and social philosophy.

Charles Sanders Pierce and Pragmatism

PragmatismIn 1878, Charles Sanders Peirce came up with the “pragmatic maxim,” which asks the individual to consider the effects that might have practical bearing on how the individual conceives an object. The conception of the effects is the same as the conception of the object. Peirce held that inquiry began with real doubt, becoming a method of experimental mental reflection.

The first printed use of the word “pragmatism” came twenty years later, in the work of William James. Pragmatists believed that philosophy had degenerated and needed to be more aligned with the modern scientific method of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Well known rationalist Immanuel Kant, for example, was criticized by pragmatists, whose ideas were postulating that human knowledge was somehow beyond what science could explain. John Dewey applied pragmatism to educational theory, which he argued was a social and interactive process where societal reform can take place. John Dewey was highly influential in directing the course of American education in the 20th century.

Origins of Pragmatism


Pragmatism has always had a large degree of utilitarianism in it.  August notes that Mill had, before embarking on Utilitarianism, completed his System of Logic.  As a logician well acquainted with modes of verification, Mill was acutely aware of the narrow range of things that can be “proved” in a strict sense, and aware also that the ultimate end of morality is not one of those things. Utilitarianism’s essential, naturalistic goal is for an ethics that “works” for human beings.  It is not transcendental and it is highly pragmatic.

America has always been noted as the home of the pragmatic spirit. There has always been in our national character an emphasis on what was once called the “shrewd Yankee mentality”, a spirit of the effective matching of means with ends.  This part of our national psychology is often in conflict with other aspects of our makeup.  One of the most interesting examples of this is our foreign policy with respect to oil.  Somewhat nakedly, we do what we have to do with respect to maintaining the flow of oil from the Middle East.  We are imminently “practical” in our dealings with the regimes of the Persian Gulf. But in taking a common sense approach to our oil needs, we do a certain violence to our sense of ourselves as having a special idealism with respect to our dealings with other nations, our sense that we are the upholders of certain values and morals.

Kissinger has noted that American diplomacy has always embodied the pretension of representing something higher than naked self-interest. Liberal, “Wilsonian” foreign policy would have relations between nations governed by ethical standards similar in nature to the ethical standards which should or ought to prevail between individual human beings. Such a point of view is contrary to the traditional, “realist”, European point of view vis a vis diplomacy, a point of view emphasizing “reasons of state”, balance of power considerations, and the notion of great power “spheres of interest”.  Often the United States has had to overcome its own liberal ideology and adapt a common sense, practical approach based more on “realist” techniques of diplomacy than a diplomacy based on Wilson’s Fourteen Points.  When it has done so it has opened itself up to the charge of hypocrisy.  Its dealings with the oil states of the Persian Gulf are an instance of this. The pragmatic has triumphed over the ideal. It has had to.

Pragmatism was a response to the idealism of the 19th Century. The transcendentalists were far to idealistic to continue in popularity during the changes of the early 20th Century. Rather, America needed to adjust to the realities of industrialism and the first World War with logic and an eye on what is the truth in diplomacy. However, pragmatic thought has combined with liberal utilitarianism in many philosophies of American thought. American presence in Iraq illustrates how pragmatic thought overtakes more idealistic ideology in the world. America, particularly in political goals, has always relied on justifying actions and by their utility at the time.

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