Pragmatism is an international philosophical movement that coalesced in the two decades before World War I, and has reverberated widely since. From the beginning, it featured communication, sometimes as an explicit concept, and more generally by emphasizing interaction, community, and communicable consequences as key components of knowledge, meaning, politics, ethics, aesthetics, and selfhood.
In the twentieth century, pragmatism was often characterized as a “distinctly American” philosophy associated with four thinkers – Charles Peirce, William James, John Dewey, and George Herbert Mead. In fact, the movement developed in a trans-Atlantic network of letters and print that included a number of European philosophers. Pragmatism’s center of gravity has generally been on American soil, but the family of philosophical positions it names grew up in dialogue with European, and especially German, thought (Joas 1993). Recent historical work has broadened the pragmatist genealogy considerably (Simonson 2001).
Pragmatism has long served as a covering term for a variety of related, but distinct positions. James publicly launched “the principle of pragmatism” in an 1898 lecture, but credited Peirce, whom he heard use it during a meeting of the later-famous “Metaphysical Club” (Menand 2001). The principle named a position Peirce had established several years earlier, that the meaning of ideas lies in the consequences and “habits of action” that those ideas produce (1992, 131). Peirce drew the name for his doctrine from Kant’s Critique of pure reason, which held the pragmatisch belief to be one among several kinds, characterized by contingency and lack of ultimate certainty.
In contrast to Kant, pragmatism has generally taken contingency as an inescapable part of knowing, counteracted through communal inquiry and communication. Against the Cartesian notion of certainty as built upon the foundations of introspective philosophy, Peirce turned instead to the community of knowers as the best hope for establishing adequate beliefs. James de-emphasized the communal aspects, and (to Peirce’s chagrin) transformed a theory of meaning into a theory of truth, opening up the first of many fissures among pragmatists. Dewey would re-emphasize the communal element of knowing and democratize it by leveling distinctions between scientists and non-scientists, and by championing a general experimental attitude worked out through communication.
Early pragmatists also developed accounts of self and society that featured communication. Humans were conceived as animals for whom language was both a tool and an inescapable medium of life. Along with Charles Cooley, Mead laid the foundations for what became known as symbolic interactionism. He took physical gesture as basic to the development of mind and self, and as preparing the foundation for linguistic interactions, which, in turn, produce higher-order consciousness. For Cooley, Mead, and Dewey, societies and selves exist by and through communication.
Communication carries strong moral and political dimensions for pragmatists. For Mead, it is a social process that involves taking the perspective of others, and eventually the community writ large, or what he called “the generalized other.” Dewey, meanwhile, worked out a vision of participatory democracy actualized through newspapers, face-toface conversation, and education. Art too would play a role as a communicative form for Dewey, as it did for Alain Locke, the architect of the Harlem Renaissance and its “New Negro” aesthetic.
First-generation pragmatists influenced a number of early students of media and communication, including Robert Park, Walter Lippmann, Harold Lasswell, Kenneth Burke, Herbert Blumer, Helen McGill Hughes, Hugh Duncan, and C. Wright Mills. As a philosophical movement, though, pragmatism fell on hard times from the late 1930s until the late 1960s, when it began to be revived by a disparate array of thinkers. Ideas of communication coursed through their work, often as key elements in accounts of knowledge, ethics, politics, and culture. The German philosophers Karl-Otto Apel and Jürgen Habermas led the way. In the late 1960s, Apel wrote introductions to translations of Peirce, and suggested that pragmatism offered “the starting point for a new foundation of the human sciences . . . as sciences of communicative understanding” (1981, 194). Habermas, in his turn, drew upon Mead to develop his widely influential theory of communicative action as that “coordinated not through egocentric calculations of success but through acts of reaching understanding” (1984, 286).
While Habermas, Apel, and others used pragmatism to establish new philosophical foundations, others revived it for postmodernist projects that rejected foundations all together. None was more influential in this regard than Richard Rorty, whose Philosophy and the mirror of nature (1979) did more than any book to place pragmatism on the intellectual agenda again. Abandoning early pragmatism’s embrace of science as a model for knowing, Rorty turned instead to art and literature, while rhetoric provided a template for the anti-foundationalist pragmatisms of critics like Stanley Fish. Recent literature on pragmatism extends across many fields, including philosophy, law, criticism, political theory, history, and communication.
- Apel, K.-O. (1981). Charles S. Peirce: From pragmatism to pragmaticism. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press. (Original work published 1967, 1970).
- Dewey, J. (1958). Experience and nature. New York: Dover. (Original work published 1925).
- Dickstein, M. (ed.) (1998). The revival of pragmatism: New essays on social thought, law, and culture. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
- Habermas, J. (1984). The theory of communicative action. Boston, MA: Beacon Press. (Original work published 1981).
- James, W. (1907). Pragmatism. New York: Longman.
- Joas, H. (1993). Pragmatism and social theory. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
- Menand, L. (2001). The Metaphysical Club: A story of ideas in America. New York: Farrar, Straus.
- Peirce, C. S. (1992). How to make our ideas clear. In N. Houser & C. Kloesel (eds.), The essential Peirce, vol. 1. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press. (Original work published 1868). The Pragmatism Cybrary. At www.pragmatism.org, accessed September 9, 2006.
- Rorty, R. (1979). Philosophy and the mirror of nature. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
- Shook, J. R., & Margolis, J. (2006). A companion to pragmatism. Oxford: Blackwell.
- Simonson, P. (2001). Varieties of pragmatism and communication: Visions and revisions from Peirce to Peters. In D. K. Perry (ed.), American pragmatism and communication research. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, pp. 1–26.
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