Being Pragmatic: Gareth Fuller on Pragmatism


One topic we have not touched on a great deal is the relationship truth can have to our lives and behavior. To begin this discussion, we reached out to University of Kansas graduate student in philosophy Gareth Fuller to talk to us about pragmatism. Pragmatism, as Mr. Fuller notes, takes seriously the connection between truth and a person’s well-being and role as a decision-maker in the world. With that, let’s talk about pragmatism.

Gareth Fuller

University of Kansas

Department of Philosophy

Pragmatism is a school of philosophy subject to several misunderstandings, a lineage that is not always clear, and yet still very influential. Part of this stems from the diverse views of those who have been named pragmatists. Some of this stems from particular historical circumstances that have made only certain pragmatist views unknown, even among other philosophers and making the influences of pragmatism unclear (see Misak 2016). Pragmatism is, as its name suggests, a school of philosophy that focuses on how questions and concepts effect our lives. In particular, a key component of pragmatism is considering that our understanding of the world must take into consideration our agency within the world.

Pragmatism is most closely associated with a group of American philosophers working in the late nineteenth and earl twentieth centuries. The most well-known of these, particularly in their time, were William James and John Dewey, although Charles Peirce (read as ‘purse’) has gained recognition for his work more recently. There are some among the next couple generations of American philosophers who took some influence and recognized the importance of these earlier pragmatists, W.V.O Quine recognizing the importance of Dewey when Quine was presenting the Dewey lectures. Richard Rorty has a book titled The Consequences of Pragmatism. Pragmatism is not limited to Americans, however, as the influence of pragmatists can be seen across the pond in England, with Frank Ramsey citing the influence of pragmatism on his own thought, and Wittgenstein reading and discussing William James’ Principles of Psychology in his later work. There have been many other pragmatists, and there are still plenty of pragmatists working today, but these are some of the highlights.

So what is it that makes someone a pragmatist? Put rather generally, pragmatism wants to take our place in the world seriously-our agency in the world seriously- and that this needs to be made clear in our philosophical tasks, among other things. This view has led to various claims about the nature of truth, education, social interactions, and belief among other things.

As an example, let us look at an understanding of truth. Many theories of truth hold that there is an important distinction between what is true, and what we can know to be true. This is rather uncontentious in most cases, as there are many things about the universe that we do not know, but there is still some truth about them. Pragmatists have vary wildly on their views on truth, although all of them manage to capture the basic focus on our position in the world. So, Charles Peirce, for instance, held a view of truth that is often sloganized as truth is the end of inquiry. Peirce took truth to be closely connected to scientific practice, although Peirce had his own religious leanings. The end of inquiry is not to be taken to mean ‘whenever we stop asking questions’ or pick out a certain point in time, but “the opinion which is fated to be ultimately agreed to by all who investigate.” Peirce understood that each of us is rather limited in our own understanding and abilities of understanding the world, but felt that communal inquiry was boundless, and could produce beliefs about that world that no further information would change. He certainly did not think it was an inevitability or that it already happened, but that inquiry could lead us there.

Williams James presented a very different view of truth from Peirce, and the classic approach. James’ view is often summed up as truth is what works. James held that what is true is simply what is whatever is “expedient in the way of thinking.” James felt that truth is simply what we apply to beliefs that help us cohere the rest of our beliefs and experience. James also made various statements linking truth to improving or providing happiness in our lives. James argued that belief in God, for instance, was true in so far as it improved the lives of the believers. So, for James, the impact of the belief on our lives is truth relevant, and how well the belief coheres with the rest of our beliefs rounds out his understanding of truth. Just as a note, although Peirce and James were friends, Peirce disliked this understanding of truth so much that he wanted to change the name of his own view so as to distance his philosophy from James’.

Both of these understandings of truth, as different as they are, take into consideration the impact beliefs have on our lives and behavior. James’ is rather obvious, as part of the truth of a belief is how it improves our lives, but Peirce’s has a similar consideration. A belief that is true by his definition is one where pressing our certainty further and further becomes an idle question. Pressing this issue is idle because nothing will make a difference. If we have reached the end of inquiry, questioning whether a belief is really true means nothing to our lives or our understanding of the world.

This has important implications on various skeptical positions. Descartes famously introduced a line of reasoning where he questioned more and more of his beliefs until he came to a basic assumption that he could not doubt. While Descartes was not a skeptic himself, this line of skeptical reasoning is well-known and the classic understanding of truth is susceptible to it. However, James, with his wild view on truth, is not. What is true is what improves our lives and coheres with the rest of our beliefs. So whether or not it is true that a daemon is feeding us false perceptions, or whether we are in the matrix, depends. Peirce can similarly avoid this skepticism. If we are concerned with being in the matrix, but we have reached the end of inquiry, then whatever the belief we hold then is true. Since questioning it further produces no difference, we have reached a resolution. The skeptic is rebuked at that point, and is wasting time.

Pragmatists have varied views on many subjects, and I have only presented the views of two pragmatists on one subject. The influences of pragmatism can be found in philosophy of religion, education, and many varied subjects. It is a view that does have much to offer, particularly since it takes our own position seriously.