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what is pragmatism?

Pragmatism carries an everyday meaning as being practical, paying attention to the particular context in which you find yourself and not being weighed down by doctrine or ideology. Thus in terms(Dewey, 1922 / 2007, 1931 / 1982; James, 1904 / 2007; Rorty, 1982) of philosophy of social research pragmatism has been associated with mixed methods inquiry, and, for example, the flexibility to see the merits of both quantitative and qualitative methods and adaptive to whatever one is researching.

However Pragmstism (Large P) has distinctive tradition of its own. As with all isms the classic texts of pragmatism, say, Peirce (1878); James (1904); Dewey ([1931] 1982) are open to competing interpretations and recent contributions, notably those from Rorty (1982; 2000), have shifted Pragmatism into a more contemporary anti-positivism. Nonetheless one common starting point is the classic pragmatic maxim put forward by Peirce in 1878:

Consider what effects, which might conceivably have practical bearings, we conceive the object of our conception to have. Then, our conception of these effects is the whole of our conception of the object (Peirce 1878, 135).

This ‘maxim’ has been open to varying interpretation, not least by Peirce himself. For example it may as easily suggest that inquiry is focused on conceptual clarification, almost a deductive testing of ideas, as much as an inductive drawing out of what can be learned by attending to the consequences of actions. The maxim might also be read as offering a utilitarian calculation regarding the impact of our action - something which Dewey in particular was keen to counter (Dewey, 1926 /1986, 28). Nonetheless the maxim captures a unifying principle in pragmatic thinking that knowledge is consequential, generated after action and reflection on action, even if we can use what we know already (antecedent knowledge) to guide our actions.

Dewey tended to differentiate between everyday experience of the world and intelligent action. As organisms we were necessarily faced with problems to which we do not know how to respond and this means that we need to continually generate knowledge in order to adapt to a changing world. Of course we could respond, and respond successfully, through trial and error, but for Dewey indeterminate situations provided a stimulus for intelligent action:

Thinking begins in what may fairly enough be called a forked-road situation, a situation which is ambiguous, which presents a dilemma, which proposes alternatives. …… In the suspense of uncertainty, we metaphorically climb a tree; we try to find some standpoint from which we may survey additional facts and, getting a more commanding view of the situation, may decide how the facts stand related to one another. (1910, 11)

Intelligent action involved ‘experimentation’ at a symbolic level as well as at a practical level. Indeed for Dewey thinking or deliberation carried the sense of ‘dramatic rehearsal’ and in taking intelligent action we have ‘hit in imagination upon an object which furnishes an adequate stimulus to the recovery of overt action.’ (Dewey [1922] 2007, 192). Of course whether the solution we have imagined will lead to a resolution of the problem, whether it will ‘work’ or not, only becomes clear when the consequences of an action are considered but much more than trial and error is at stake.

Pragmatism is not a methodology and pragmatic principles can inform many kinds of research. However the logical stance of a Pragmatic inquiry is to be action oriented – there is close link between pragmatism and action research for example (Hammond, 2015). Pragmatists will see knowledge as fallible. Past research can inform action however researchers cannot claim to offer ‘anywhere, anytime’ answers or incontrovertible ‘best practice’ (for example, Biesta and Burbules, 2003).

Pragmatism is open to criticism – though much writing on research simply ignores Pragmatism or stops at noting its association with mixed methodology. It is disliked by those who like certainty (for example positivists and Leninists) and it is too asociological to be embraced by social theorist.


Biesta, G., & Burbules, N. (2003). Pragmatism and Educational Research. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.

Dewey, J. (1910). How We Think. London: D. C. Heath & Company available online at

Dewey, J. (1922 / 2007). Human Nature and Conduct: An Introduction to Social Psychology. NY, USA: Cosimo.

Dewey, J. (1931 / 1982). The Development of American Pragmatism. In H. S. Thayer (Ed.), Pragmatism, the Classic Writings. Indianapolis, USA: Hackett.

Dewey, J. (1922 / 2007). Human Nature and Conduct: An Introduction to Social Psychology. NY, USA: Cosimo.

James, W. (1904 / 2007). What is Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking. Minnesota, USA: Filiquarian Publishing, LLC.

James, W. (1904 / 2007). What is Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking. Minnesota, USA: Filiquarian Publishing, LLC.

Peirce, C. (1878). Illustration of the logic of science: Second paper. - How to make our ideas clear. Popular Science Monthly, January 1878, p 286-302:

Rorty, R. (1982). Consequences of Pragmatism. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

The earlier notes are abridged from

Hammond, M. (2013). The contribution of pragmatism to understanding educational action research: value and consequences. Educational Action Research, 21(4), 603-618.




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