Pragmatism as a school of Philosophy

"Pragmatism is a temper of mind, an attitude, it is also a theory of the nature of ideas and truth and finally it is a theory about reality.” William James

The Revolution: A Prehistoric novel

The word pragmatism is derived from the Greek word “Pragma” which means Practice . Pragmatists firmly hold that the meaning of concepts lie in their practical consequences, and knowledge develops from practice.According to Peirce, a great pragmatis, if we need to know the meaning of the word hard , we have to carry out an experiment. The experiment is we have to scratch something and find the effect of scratching. If the thing is easily scratched, it is soft, if not, it is hard.

The Slave: A novel from the prehistoric past of humanity

Theoretical Versus Pragmatic Attitude
Philosophers have identified two different types of human interests that generate knowledge and understanding of something. One is called pragmatic, and the other one is called theoretical. Theoretical interest is rooted in the feeling of wonder. If I feel wonder what these starts are , I would certainly try to know about them and start my inquiry about the stars.

Sometimes a person wonders what this universe is? Where it has come from? Who created it? Why I am here in this World? Such questions are the result of the feeling of wonder, and develop a theoretical interest in humans. They don't want any material benefit while they address these questions. Such an attitude is called theoretical attitude.

The other attitude towards things is pragmatic. I want to know how I can reach a spot? or how I can get a job? How can I educate others? Such questions are pragmatic, for the knowledge solves a problem. This knowledge is a result of my practical copncerns, and not theoretical concerns. This type of knowledge is called pragmatic.

Pragmatism Vs Idealism
 Idealists believe that it is the knowledge or the idea , that leads practice, but pragmatism holds that ideas are constructed from experience. First comes the practice , and then on its basis, principles and ideas are derived. Hence, pragmatism is also known as Experimentalism or consequentialism as opposed to idealism.

Dewey holds Plato responsible for giving ideas undue priority over existence. Plato, one of the greatest ever exponents of idealism, was responsible for reversing the relationship between idea and practice . According to Khalid, Wasim and Shams(2007):

"Dewey criticized Greek philosophers for presenting an epistemologically erroneous view of reality. Since Greeks were freemen and did not have to participate in the production process; therefore, they simply neglected the importance of process and eulogized the outcome. This resulted in Greek idealism, which erroneously considered essences as the cause of existence.On the other hand, Dewey thinks that ideas are the outcomes of the experience of existing things, and contends that Greek philosophy inverted the order of things and considered the idea, the effect, as the cause of the existing things and thus committed a fallacy. It disregarded the actual course of experience in the formation of knowledge and misconceived the nature of knowledge itself. "

One Application of this view, as quoted in (Khalid, Wasim and Shams, 2007), is found in Dewey's educational thought. Criticizing traditional educational way of teaching Ideas and theories prior to experience Dewey says:

"What Dewey has said in the chapter titled ‘Science in the Course of Study’ in his ‘Democracy and Education’, suggests that ideas should not be given priority over the actual course of experience in education. Children should not be first taught and then asked to verify concepts and theories through their experiences. Rather, they should be expected to formulate their ideas with the aid of their experience through following the process of inquiry. Thus, Dewey establishes a priority of experience over theory and fixed concepts."

Pragmatism is also called experientalism because pragmatists believe experience as the only basis for knowdge. For pragmatists, there is no absolute or fixed truth and value. Concepts are not predetermined and absolute. Knowdge and values are pragmatic and change if the underlying human experience is changed.No truth is absolute and permanent. Dewey has given a great significance to change in his educational philosophy. He says:

“With the advent of democracy and modern industrial conditions, it is impossible to foretell definitely just what civilization will be twenty years from now. Hence, it is impossible to prepare the child for any precise set of conditions.”

Pragmatism Vs Realism

Realism believes that the truths are objective and infallible. There is a reality out there, and its knowledge is absolute. This absolute does not mean to bestow eternity upon truth, but a kind of objectivity. Change is there, but despite change, people can build a consensus over a matter, and that consensus is largely objective . Objectivity of realism comes from the object of knowledge and not from the subjects.
If an object is hard, it should appear hard to all those who are evaluating it in similar conditions, for hardness is not circumstantial, neither it is subjective, hardness is a quality that pertains to the object and not to the subject. Hardness is an absolute standard.

For pragmatism, meanings are pragmatic. So if I say that something is hard, and my evaluation works, brings good results, I am right. If it does not bring the desired results or that results, the assertion is wrong. Pragmatism is all about experimentation and experience.

Forms of pragmatism according 

  •  Humanistic pragmatism

According to this ideology only those things and principles are true which satisfy the needs, requirements, aspirations and objectives of human beings and cater to the welfare of mankind.

  •  Experimentalism

According to this position meaning is derived from experience

  •  Biological pragmatism

According to this power or capacity of a human being is valuable and important which enables him to adjust with the environment or which makes him able to change his environment according to his needs and requirements.

Principles of pragmatism:

  • Changing nature of truth
  • Truth is construcred from experience
  • Problems as the motives of truth
  • Emphasis on social and democratic values
  • Emphasis on the principle of utility
  • Opposion to fixed ideals and values
  • Importance of man power
  • Importance of activity
  • Faith in present and future
  • Opposition to social customs and traditions
  • Faith in pluralism
  • Faith in flexibility

Pragmatism and education

Dewey has intimately related pragmatism to modern education. Dewey has advocated change in education and opposed traditional education. Gaining knowledge for the sake of knowledge is not the real aim of education. Pragmatic philosophy focuses mental, religious and aesthetic modes of human activity. Through practice, human beings create their own ideals and values. Aspects of education should be suitable to human good and human growth. According to pragmatists educational process should promote human welfare. Only flexible educational institutions can remain alive, active and satisfy the changing needs of the society and provide real experiences through activities.

Characteristics of pragmatic education

  • Education as life
  • Education as growth
  • Education as continues reconstruction of experience
  • Education as a social process
  • Education as a responsibility of the state

Pragmatism and aims of education
Dewey, in Experience and Education, has criticized traditional aims of education.  He emphasises that aims of human life always change with the changing times, places and circumstances. No specific aim of education can be predetermined which holds true and good in all times, places and situations. Aim of education according to pragmatists is more and more growth, creation of new values and to provide a direction and guidance to the child according to his natural interest, aptitude and capacities. In How We Think Dewey has identified Judgment making as the main aim of education.

Pragmatism and curriculum
According to  Dewey, experience is the content of education. Ideas formed by previous generations are vital for human survival, and it is the task of education to transmit this knowledge to the younger generations. This, however, should not be done as it was being done traditionally. Traditional education never relates ideas and experience, and due to this reason, children cannot understand the taught lessons. Dewey says that ideas should be taught as experience. Children should learn to derive ideas from their experiences.

Pragmatism and methods of teaching
Dewey advocates problem solving method. Through this method a child learns by his own activities and experiences. The teacher develops a problematic experience for learners. Learners perform an activity, and in the course of that activity , a problem is introduced. And then learners are asked to find solutions to that problem. In the course of solving that problem, children learn.

Pragmatism and teacher
According to Dewey, it is the responsibility of teacher to design and select proper educative experiences for the learner. Not only that a teacher has to design the learning experience, but he or she also has to conduct that experience.

Pragmatism and discipline
Dewey in Experience and Education, advocated a notion of discipline drawn from the field of sports. Education is activity based, and each activity, like a sports, has its own laws and regulations. This means that discipline of education comes from individual activities and is never imposed from outside. Dewy is against externally imposed discipline.

Pragmatism and school
School for Dewey is a social organization designed to provide social experience to the learners. School mimics the organization of society itself. Accordingly, in a school learners  gain real experiences of actual life which develops in them a sense of duty towards society . It is not only a centre of education but a centre of community. School is a true representative of a society.

Merits of pragmatism

  • Importance of child
  • Emphasis on activity
  • Faith in applied life
  • Social and democratic education
  • Progressive and optimistic attitude
  • Construction of project method

Pragmatism aims to develop a dynamic, flexible and adaptable mind which is always resourceful and able to create new values in the face of changing realities. This way of thinking has given a new direction and a new purpose to all educational activities and programmes. It prepares an individual to face successfully all the present and future problems and challenges of life. Pragmatism is an attitude and a way of living which opposes the old doctrines of idealism and naturalism and inspires the individual to look ahead and create new values and ideas to meet the challenges of an unknown future.

Dewey, John, How We Think,
Dewey, John, Experience and Education,
Khalid, Wasim and Shams, Freedom, Truth and Education
Singh, Y. K. (2007). Philosophical foundation of education. New Delhi: A P H Publishing.
Shahid, S. M. (2000). Philosophy of education. Lahore: Majeed Book Depot.


Shiwa Kambata said…
I came across new things which some of them sounds very weird in my world
What's the difference between pragmatism and progressivism? Both Dewey and James were mentioned as proponents of these two Philosophies.
Khalid Rawat said…
Progressivism is a critic on ideas and practices. In his work, Experience and Education , Dewey mentioned progressive ideas and progressive movement in education as a criticism on traditional ideas and practices.

Pragmatism is a philosophy that gives meanings and values on the basis of practice. Pragmatic gives its own normative statements, as compared to progressivism(in Dewey's view) that stops short of suggesting anything positive after it has negated traditional ideas and values.
May I ask if what is the nature of a child according to pragmatist?Thank you.
May I ask if what is the nature of child as a learner according to pragmatist?Thank you.
jeet Joil said…

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alex amarxon said…
envies and material struggles, the need of idealistic education is greatly essential for peaceful living of human beings devoted to social good and national welfare. Importance Of Parent Involvement In Early Childhood Education

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