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The Classical Pragmatists, Part 1: Charles Sanders Peirce

Pragmatism is a philosophy that promotes ideas having practical applications over those that are primarily abstract. It is often called the only philosophy indigenous to America, its first proponents being late nineteenth and early twentieth century professors--Charles Sanders Peirce, William James, and John Dewey. Epistemologically, Pragmatism rejects Cartesian skepticism or any assumption that the world is not real; in its place it elevates science, specifically the scientific method, which requires that all research be subject to falsification (often referred to as “fallibilism”, destined to be a major component of Popper’s philosophy). The influence of science on metaphysical analysis also affected developments in the field of ethics: Dewey argued that just like any scientific discipline, ethics evolves as new knowledge is introduced to a debate. For example, changes in attitudes about women’s rights, euthanasia, racism, and sexuality were accelerated by research in biology, anthropology, psychology, and sociology.

James demonstrates how the logic of pragmatism can be an effective way of determining which of two solutions is more desirable:

"I tell this trivial anecdote because it is a peculiarly simple example of what I wish now to speak of as the pragmatic method. The pragmatic method is primarily a method of settling metaphysical disputes that otherwise might be interminable. Is the world one or many? – fated or free? – material or spiritual? – here are notions either of which may or may not hold good of the world; and disputes over such notions are unending. The pragmatic method in such cases is to try to interpret each notion by tracing its respective practical consequences. What difference would it practically make to any one if this notion rather than that notion were true? If no practical difference whatever can be traced, then the alternatives mean practically the same thing, and all dispute is idle. Whenever a dispute is serious, we ought to be able to show some practical difference that must follow from one side or the other’s being right." (from “What Pragmatism Means”)

After Dewey’s death, Pragmatism fell out of favor but saw a revival in the second half of the twentieth century. Notable neoclassical or analytical pragmatists include Quine, Rorty, Fish, and Rescher. What differentiates them from the classical pragmatists is greater attention to language, to the significance of social interaction, and to the question of whether truth statements must be universally valid.

Although we may study some of the Neo-Pragmatists at a later date, current time constraints force us to limit ourselves to the Classical Pragmatists. This month we will focus on Peirce, the next on James and Dewey. The anthology we will be using for both months is Pragmatism: The Classic Writings, ed. H. S. Thayer. Hackett Publishing Company, 1982. It is available from ($12.95 new, from $0.01 used). The essays we will discuss are John Dewey’s “The Development of American Pragmatism” (pp. 23-40) and all the Peirce essays (pp. 43-120). Two of his most famous--"The Fixation of Belief" and "How to Make Our Ideas Clear"--are in the public domain; to read them click here.

The following resources provide commentary, lecture notes, and bibliographies.

Wikipedia: "Pragmatism", "Pragmaticism", "Charles Sanders Peirce", "Charles Sanders Peirce Bibliography", "Pragmatic Theory of Truth", "Pragmatic Maxim"

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: "Pragmatism", "Charles Sanders Peirce"

Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy: "Pragmatism", "Charles Sander Peirce", "C. S. Peirce's Pragmatism"

Arisbe: The Peirce Gateway (the most comprehensive resource for full-text articles by and about Peirce)

Josiah Lee Auspitz, "The Wasp Leaves the Bottle: Charles Sander Peirce" The American Scholar 63 no. 4 (Autumn 1994): 602-618. (traces the evolution of Peirce's thought and critical reactions to it)

Susan Haack, “Not Cynicism, but Synechism: Lessons from Classical Pragmatism” (author is Professor of Philosophy, University of Miami)

Susan Haack, "The Meaning of Pragmatism: The Ethics of Terminology and the Language of Philosophy" teorema 28 no. 3 (2009): 9-29.

Thomas Short, “The Conservative Pragmatism of Charles Peirce” Modern Age (Fall 2001): pp. [masked]

James Liszka, "What is Pragmatic Ethics?" (author is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Alaska; sees a correspondence between the scientific theories of Darwin, Lamarck, and Gauss and the ethical theories of Peirce and Dewey)

The Commens Dictionary of Peirce's Terms: Peirce’s Terminology in His Own Words (list of linked entries is on left column)

Lecture Notes:

"Overview of C. S. Peirce" by Professor Cynthia A Freeland, Dept. of Philosophy, University of Houston (extended analysis of of "How to Make Our Ideas Clear")

“Introduction to Peirce” by Dr. Robert Lane, Dept of Philosophy, University of West Georgia

"Peirce’s 'The Fixation of Belief'" by Professor G. J. Mattey, Dept of Philosophy, University of California at Davis

Youtube: “Charles Sanders Peirce–Pragmatism"

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  • A former member
    A former member

    Great Moderator and enthusiastic and knowledgeable participants.

    August 20, 2012

  • Alex R.

    Great,as usual.

    August 19, 2012

  • A former member
    A former member

    A good discussion-- 15 people present.

    August 19, 2012

  • Kyongsook K.

    Very good. The reading was not easy, but I learned a lot from the discussions.

    August 19, 2012

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