Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking

by William James

Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking Research Paper Starter

Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking

Pragmatism is a philosophy of personal experience that encourages people "to seek out the processes and do the things that work best to help us achieve desirable ends" (Ozmon & Craver, 2008, p. 119). The roots of pragmatism are traced as far back as the classical period, where the Academic Sceptics rejected the idea that there was an absolute truth that could be achieved (Rescher, 2000). The name pragmatism (the Greek word for work) was coined by Charles Peirce in the 1870's. In education, pragmatism has evolved into "a multi-faceted movement aimed at changing school practice" (Englund, 2000, p. 306). To pragmatists, the direction of formal education is to develop a progressive pattern of growth and learning. Pragmatism is basically about the experiential, as opposed to gaining truth through ideas. Instead of relating to the abstract, people relate to the concrete; an empiricism that has a physical character (Moore, 1961). Famous pragmatists include Francis Bacon, John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Charles Darwin, Charles Peirce, William James, and John Dewey.

Keywords: Complete Act of Thought; Dewey, John; Empiricism; Growth; Pragmatism; Progressivism; Problem-solving; Social Intelligence

Overview

Truth, Reality

Pragmatism is a philosophy that encourages people "to seek out the processes and do the things that work best to help them achieve desirable ends" (Ozmon & Craver, 2008, p. 119). The roots of pragmatism are traced as far back as the classical period, where the Academic Sceptics rejected the idea that there was an absolute truth that could be achieved (Rescher, 2000). The name pragmatism (the Greek word for work) was coined by Charles Peirce in the 1870's. To Peirce, "truth simply is," as "all understanding must itself be the product of doing; whatever we know is the product of inquiry, an activity of ours" (Rescher, 2000, p. 13). William James continued the evolution of pragmatic thought (1842-1910). To James, "truth pivots on the successful guidance of experience" (p. 18). Both saw truth to be grounded in experience.

John Dewey systemized and grounded his pragmatism in the social. Truth is not static, but it is "what gets endorsed and accepted in the community" (Rescher, 2000, p. 24). Truth is validated through social acceptance and custom; when truths "no longer satisfy social needs, other…truths are found to replace them" (p. 25). Inherent in the framework of pragmatism is that ideas are true insofar as they are useful in a specific situation, "what works today in one case may not work tomorrow in another case" (Younkins, 2009, p. 1). There is no reality that is constant or absolute; reality occurs when people interact with their environment, shaping it to their wills. People are "free to choose their own way of thinking and to create whatever reality they want to embrace" (Younkins, 2009, p. 1). In other words, ideas evolve from experience in relation to a particular problem, rather than "as a mere mental construct" (Ozmon & Craver, 2008, p. 122).

Pragmatism is a philosophy of personal experience. Shusterman (1997) explains that the self is "an individual, …a changing creation" (p. 19). To Dewey, every self produces actions but is also the product of its acts and choices; no person is "a fixed, ready-made, finished self" (p. 75). One's aim is to continually grow, with growth as "the highest moral ideal" (p. 76). Life is growth itself and that "growth is not something done to the young, but instead is something they do" (Thayer, 1968, p. 176). Children experience social and intellectual growth; growth cannot be imposed upon them.

Growth expands one's thinking. The main goal of thought is to reconstruct a situation in order to solve a problem. Younkins (2009) states that truth cannot be known in advance of action. One must first act and then think; only then can reality be determined. To Thayer (1968), pragmatists define the process of thinking (the activity of inquiry) as "a process having certain phases occurring within certain limits." Thinking "starts as a perplexed, troubled or confused situation at the beginning, and becomes cleared up, unified, resolved situation at the end" (p. 191). This scientific thinking is orderly and coherent and when applied "to the problems of life [is] designed to bring about a better life for all" (Ozmon & Craver, 2008, p. 210).

Pragmatism in Democracy

One of democracy's most compatible philosophies is pragmatism (Minnich,1999). The democratic ideal is considered to infiltrate every aspect of life (Younkins, 2009). When speaking in terms of educating for democracy, the role of education is not to transfer one image of American identity, but "to foster mutual respect among the diverse cultures and peoples that make up the American people" (Ryan, 1996, p. 1050). People experience personal development to achieve and this benefits democracy. Only "enlightened individuals can operate a thinking democracy." People become enlightened through education, as education is "a key requisite for a workable democracy" (Rescher, 2000, p. 27). To pragmatists, a progressive education equals a progressive society equals democracy (Marcell, 1974).

In education, the pragmatist philosophy has evolved into "a multi-faceted movement aimed at changing school practice" (Englund, 2000, p. 306). Until the 20th century, education had largely been considered a preparatory process for life in which the students learned what teachers wanted them to learn in order to become educated (Marcell, 1974). For pragmatists, the direction of formal education is to develop a progressive pattern of growth and learning. Growth becomes an ongoing self-corrective educative process in which the students are provided the dynamics to expand their capacity to grow and learn. They acquire "the habit of learning; they learn to learn" (Marcell, 1974, p. 238). The process of learning itself becomes its own end. Hence, people become life-long learners of their own lives: "As long as life continues, education continues" (Thayer, 1968, p. 181-182).

Applications

Pragmatism in Schools

Progressive schools who base their education on the philosophy of pragmatism teach their students "how to know and how continually to grow in their capacity of knowing" (Marcell, 1974, p. 240). These schools produce students who constantly strive "to acquire new knowledge and who progressively seek newer and deeper meaning to that knowledge" (p. 240). Through education, the culture is transmitted (Ozmon & Craver, 2008). Progressivists foster a social consciousness that develops thinking, as children "serve and adapt to others" (Younkins, 2009, p. 2). Through exposure to a social environment, children can examine natural human processes and develop their own thinking processes. Education is that process which "renews people so they can face problems encountered through their interaction with the environment" (Ozmon & Craver, 2008, p. 136).

To pragmatists, teaching "abstract, general principles and eternal …truth is beyond a child's understanding and a barrier to the authentic growth and development of the child" (Younkins, 2009, p. 3). Moore (1961) explains that the most valuable and effective learning takes place when children follow the development of a...

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