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The expression pragmatism (from ancient Greek πρᾶγμα pragma "action", "thing") describes colloquially a behavior that is based on known situational conditions, whereby practical action is placed above theoretical reason . The philosophical tradition of pragmatism, on the other hand, assumes that the content of a theory should be determined by its practical consequences ( pragmatic maxim ). Hence, pragmatists reject immutable principles.

Pragmatism emerged in North America towards the end of the 19th century and was founded in particular by the work of Charles Sanders Peirce and William James , and subsequently continued by John Dewey and George Herbert Mead . However, Peirce subsequently clearly distanced himself from the developments in pragmatic philosophy and henceforth called his philosophical concept pragmatism . In a letter he justified the distinction that the philosophy of FCS Schiller , James, Dewey , Royce and others should now be understood under pragmatism . Above all, he turned against the relativistic philosophy of usefulness , which was taught by many pragmatists as the basic principle of truth with pragmatism (for example, truth as cash value in William James). The teaching he introduced, the original form of pragmatism, should now be called pragmaticism. The meaning is identified more precisely by the additional syllable. Dewey and Mead's ideas also lay the foundations for the Chicago School of Sociology . According to pragmatism, it is the practical consequences and effects of a life-world action or a natural event that determine the meaning of a thought. At the same time, human knowledge is fundamentally fallible for the pragmatists ( fallibilism ). Accordingly, the truth of a statement or opinion (belief) is determined on the basis of the expected or possible results of an action. Human practice is also understood as a foundation of theoretical philosophy (especially epistemology and ontology ), since it is assumed that theoretical knowledge also arises from practical work with things and remains dependent on them. In the basic philosophical ideas there are considerable differences between the positions of the individual pragmatists, which saw the similarities more in the pragmatic method than in a unified theoretical structure.

Numerous basic concepts of systematic philosophy have been reinterpreted according to this pragmatic view, including the concept of truth; the pragmatism research program was applied to various problem and practical contexts, including democratic theory, pedagogy, and religion. After pragmatism was less influential in the first decades of the 20th century, since the 1970s some philosophers have decidedly understood themselves in the tradition of classic American pragmatism, including Richard Rorty , Hilary Putnam and Robert Brandom, and with more reference to Peirce, Nicholas Rescher and Susan Haack . In the social sciences, Hans Joas is a prominent representative of neopragmatism.

The term "pragmatism" was introduced in 1898 in a lecture by William James, who, however, explicitly cited Charles Sanders Peirce as the founder of this philosophy and referred to his publications from 1878. The fact that Peirce, as a result of his original doctrine , felt he had to delimit it as pragmatism , was due to his intention, rather to point out the importance of the principle of science as a closed system and the role of terminology as a result. He expressly opposed those "casual writers" who used his terms outside of his theoretical concept.


Classic (Anglo-Saxon) pragmatism

According to the views of the pragmatists, all judgments, views, ideas, concepts, etc. a. on people acting in each case. Peirce's pragmatism was primarily aimed at developing a theory of meaning . A central pragmatic maxim can be Peirce's demand to judge ideas of all kinds with regard to their possible practical effects. This demand is directed primarily against an epistemological fundamentalism and its assertion that immediate knowledge is possible through intuition or introspection. Peirce also rejects a rationalist ultimate justification that invokes the self-certainty of the ego, as well as the empirical view that knowledge comes from sensory perception alone. Rather, everything that has been recognized has always been symbolically present in consciousness and can therefore also be misinterpreted.

As a method of increasing knowledge, Peirce suggests accepting as knowledge only that which is intersubjectively verifiable or has been verified by means of experiments . This goes hand in hand with the requirement to formulate all knowledge in such a way that it immediately becomes clear “what one has to do” in order to check this or that statement. Peirce continues to assume that through history, a community of researchers will gradually come to a better knowledge of the world by constantly cross-checking its results.

“On the other hand, all representatives of science are carried by the joyous hope that the processes of research, if only carried forward far enough, will yield a reliable solution to every question to which they are applied. […] You may get different results at first, but when everyone perfects their methods and processes, you will find that the results steadily move towards a predetermined center. This applies to all scientific research. Different minds may start out with extremely contradicting views, but the progress of the investigation, by some external force, brings them to the same conclusion. This activity of thinking, which does not take us where we want to go but to a predetermined goal, is like a work of fate. […] The opinion that all researchers fatefully have to agree in the end is what we mean by truth, and the object that is represented by this opinion is the real. ”(CP 5.407)

According to this, Peirce advocated a "convergence theory of truth" which, at a fictitious, infinitely distant point in time in the future, leads to a correspondence between thought and reality. Until then, all knowledge is fallible. For Peirce, intersubjectivity was a prerequisite for truth. The connection that Peirce often makes with a consensus theory of truth cannot be seen here.

This concept of establishing the truth was shifted towards relevance to human action by William James. Due to various misunderstandings that brought his conception of truth close to utilitarianism , he wrote a separate essay on this. James accepts the correspondence theory of truth as the basis:

“Truth, as any dictionary tells you, is a property of certain ideas. It means something like 'agreement' with reality, just as falsehood means disagreement with reality. "

But such a definition was not enough for him. In particular, for him, as a pragmatist, the idea of ​​an image of reality is insufficient. Truth as a theoretical construct has no practical relevance. He was interested in the question of what it means that an idea or a judgment is true:

"[...] what specific difference is made in a person's real life? How will the truth be experienced? What experiences will be different from what they would be if that judgment were wrong? In short, what is the present value of truth if we convert it into this experience coin? [...] True ideas are those that we acquire, that we can assert, enforce and verify. Misconceptions are those where none of this is possible. "

For James, it can only be seen in practice whether something is true. Truth is an event in which ideas prove themselves in practice and which is consistent with already proven experiences. Ideas that “work” and save work are true: “Ideas […] become true just in so far as they help us to get into satisfactory relations with other parts of our experience. [...] Any idea is true for just so much, true in so far forth, true instrumentally . "

True knowledge is therefore always based on experience and promises the satisfaction of intentions to act. In this form, pragmatism became known to a wider audience, which led to widespread rejection, especially in Europe, because pragmatism was equated with a pure utility theory .

Other currents linked to early pragmatism are instrumentalism , which goes back to Dewey , the own, rather skeptical position of F. C. S. Schiller , which he himself called humanism , Bridgman's operationalism , as well as behavioristic psychology, which also rejects introspective methods and focuses solely on the observable Concentrated behavior of the objects of investigation. Dewey in particular made important contributions to practical philosophy, especially to the theory of education and democracy theory. Charles W. Morris , a student of George Herbert Mead , developed his own theory of semiotics based on Peirce .


Pragmatism received a new impetus from Willard Van Orman Quine , who connects it with Duhem's instrumentalism and holism . Duhem assumed that all theories represent "wholes"; H. their individual sentences always refer to an overall concept from which they cannot be extracted without a loss of meaning. However, this means that all the experimental tests themselves are loaded with theory again, i.e. they do not provide any knowledge that is completely independent of the previous views of the experimenter - the result of an experiment also has to be interpreted. Quine therefore comes to the conclusion that terms cannot simply be verified through experiments, since their meaning can only be understood in the overall context of the theory. However, this theory is an opinion supported by a research community that goes back to their conventions .

What the following neo-pragmatic theories have in common since the 1970s is that they are based on a dynamic epistemology that establishes the origin of knowledge primarily on the method of trial and error . The most important authors include Robert Brandom , Hilary Putnam and above all Richard Rorty , who follows the linguistic turn . For Rorty, truth can only be viewed in the context of language; this is a tool, a system of metaphors that, like other tools, only serves to maximize happiness or to avoid suffering. In Germany, Hans Joas can be seen as a representative of neo-pragmatism.

Overall view

As with other philosophical currents, there are some basic similarities in the views for the individual positions, but when looking at the details there are sometimes considerable differences. Peirce and Royce took idealistic positions, while James, Schiller and Dewey can be classified as empiricists. Quine took a strongly analytical and at the same time skeptical position, while Rorty is predominantly associated with a relativistic attitude. Putnam, in turn, advocates a philosophy closer to Peirce and James, but at the same time has considerable weight in the discussion of the more recent philosophy of mind.

Pragmatism and Reception in Germany

In German philosophy, Kant already wrote an anthropology from a pragmatic point of view . In doing so, he separates the practical ought from the pragmatic, which belongs to being. The moral imperative is a question of pure practical reason; the pragmatic imperative, on the other hand, falls within the realm of empirical natural science (cf. MdS, A 12).

When Anglo-Saxon pragmatism reached Germany, the word “pragmatism” was often used synonymously for “practicalism” or “day sausage”, which also rubbed off on the reception of the philosophical current, or put a strain on it. In Germany he was first known in the form represented by James, through the translation of the essay collection Der Wille zum Glaube ( The Will to Believe, German 1899), followed by translations of his pragmatism lectures in 1906. In 1911, F. C. S. Schiller's essays on Humanism appeared.

German orientation

Max Scheler

The most important recipient of this time is Max Scheler , who is his reaction in knowledge and work. A study of the value and limits of the pragmatic motive recorded in the knowledge of the world . His work Die Wissensformen der Gesellschaft from 1926 is also still under this influence. Scheler differentiates between three forms of knowledge

  • Work knowledge as the knowledge for practical-technical mastery of the world,
  • Educational knowledge which serves the development of the personality , and
  • Knowledge of redemption as “participation in the highest”.

Scheler expresses his approval of pragmatism as a philosophical illuminating of work knowledge, if this puts the theoretical statements and hypotheses of science in a correct connection with the acting world reference. However, according to Scheler, pragmatism made the mistake of marking this knowledge as the only correct one ; the extreme dominance of “domination” and “performance knowledge” should be criticized.

Max Horkheimer

Influenced by Max Scheler, Max Horkheimer also criticized the reduction of all knowledge to purposeful action that no longer questions its own objectives. In his 1944 Critique of Instrumental Reason , he took a stand against James and Dewey in particular. The fallacy for Horkheimer lies in the fact that the method of the natural sciences was transferred to philosophy as a whole for reasons of the success of these sciences. He identifies pragmatism with positivism . He also establishes a connection between pragmatism and capitalist- utility-oriented economy. In this sense, Marxist authors such as Ernst Bloch , Adam Schaff and Georg Klaus also interpreted pragmatism as an expression of the interest of the US capitalist class.

Current pragmatism

At the moment, the German pragmatic or pragmatic basic approach is primarily associated with the concepts of lifeworld and media philosophy, as well as with the discussion of truth theories (especially consensus and coherence theory ).

Contemporary German representatives of pragmatic approaches include Ulrich Oevermann , Hans Joas , Julian Nida-Rümelin , Gunther Hellmann and Mike Sandbothe : "At the end of all justification, there is the practiced way of life as a whole".

Pragmatics in German Legal Philosophy

Dietmar von der Pfordten emphasizes the “pragmatic relationship between law and morality” for legal ethics. Norbert Horn includes religion in his legal philosophy and sees three types of orientation for people, "everyday reason, science and religion".

The three worlds doctrine in social and legal philosophy, which Axel Montenbruck represents, understands the pragmatic as a third (humane) world that connects the worlds of ought and being . "Even the vital necessity for a pragmatic but only artificial synthesis of being and ought describes the basic dilemma of secular people."


Philosophy Bibliography : Pragmatism - Additional references on the topic

  • William Egginton, Mike Sandbothe (Eds.): The Pragmatic Turn in Philosophy. SUNY, Albany 2004.
  • Russell B. Goodman (Ed.): Pragmatism: Critical Concepts in Philosophy. 4 volumes. Routledge, London 2005.
  • Russell B. Goodman (Ed.): Pragmatism: a Contemporary Reader. Routledge, London 1995.
  • Michael G. Festl (Ed.): Handbook of Pragmatism. Metzler, Stuttgart 2018.
  • Andreas Hetzel, Jens Kertscher, Marc Rölli (eds.): Pragmatism. Philosophy of the future? Velbrück, Weilerswist 2008.
  • Robert Lane, Susan Haack (Eds.): Pragmatism, Old & New: Selected Writings. Amherst, Prometheus Books, New York 2006.
  • Louis Menand (Ed.): Pragmatism: a Reader. Vintage, New York 1997.
  • Mike Sandbothe (ed.): The renaissance of pragmatism. Velbrück, Weilerswist 2000.
  • Herbert Stachowiak (Ed.): Pragmatics. Handbook of pragmatic thinking. 5 volumes. Meiner, Hamburg 1986–1995, ISBN 3-7873-0660-9 .
  • H. Standish Thayer (Ed.): Pragmatism: the Classic Writings. Hackett, Indianapolis 1982.
Modern classics and contemporary contributions
  • Robert Brandom : Making It Explicit. Harvard University Press, Cambridge MA 1994.
  • Donald Davidson, Richard Rorty, Mike Sandbothe: Why Truth? A debate. Suhrkamp, ​​Frankfurt am Main 2005, ISBN 978-3-518-29291-4 .
  • Christopher Hookway: Truth, Rationality and Pragmatism. OUP, Oxford 2000.
  • Michael Hampe: Knowledge and Practice. Studies on pragmatism, Frankfurt am Main 2006.
  • Issac Levi: The Enterprise of Knowledge: an Essay on Knowledge, Credal Probability and Chance. MIT Press, Cambridge MA 1980.
  • Joseph W. Long: Who's a Pragmatist: Distinguishing Epistemic Pragmatism and Contextualism. In: The Journal of Speculative Philosophy. 16/1, 2002, pp. 39-49.
  • Joseph Margolis: Pragmatism without Foundations: Reconciling Realism and Relativism (The Persistence of Reality). Blackwell, Oxford 1986.
  • Helmut Pape : The dramatic richness of the concrete world. The origin of pragmatism in the thinking of William James and Charles S. Peirce. Velbrück, Weilerswist 2002.
  • Hilary Putnam : Pragmatism. An open question. Blackwell, Oxford 1995.
  • Nicholas Rescher : Realistic Pragmatism: An Introduction to Pragmatic Philosophy. SUNY Press, 2000.
  • Mike Sandbothe : Pragmatic Media Philosophy. Basics and application horizons in the age of the Internet. Velbrück, Weilerswist 2001.
  • Mike Sandbothe: Pragmatic Media Philosophy . In: 2005.
  • Heidi Salaverría: Scope of the Self. Pragmatism and creative action. Academy, Berlin 2007.
Secondary literature
  • AJ Ayer : The Origins of Pragmatism: Studies in the Philosophy of Charles Sanders Peirce and William James. Macmillan, New York 1968.
  • Alexander Gröschner, Mike Sandbothe: Pragmatism as cultural policy. Contributions to the work of Richard Rorty. Suhrkamp, ​​Berlin 2011, ISBN 978-3-518-29581-6 .
  • Susan Haack : Pragmatism. In: Nicholas Bunnin & EP Tsui-James (Eds.): The Blackwell Companion to Philosophy. 2nd Edition. Blackwell 2002
  • David L. Hildebrand: The Neopragmatist Turn. In: Southwest Philosophy Review. 19/1, 2003 ( PDF ( Memento of March 8, 2005 in the Internet Archive ))
  • David L. Hildebrand: Beyond Realism and Antirealism: John Dewey and the Neopragmatists. Vanderbilt, Memphis 2003.
  • Joseph Margolis: The Unraveling of Scientism: American Philosophy at the End of the Twentieth Century. Cornell UP, Ithaca 2003.
  • Joseph Margolis: Reinventing Pragmatism: American Philosophy at the End of the Twentieth Century. Cornell UP, Ithaca 2002
  • Douglas McDermid: The Varieties of Pragmatism: Truth, Realism, and Knowledge from James to Rorty. Continuum, London / New York 2006.
  • Louis Menand : The Metaphysical Club: a Story of Ideas in America. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, New York 2002.
  • Klaus Peter Müller: On the art of pragmatic orientation. Philosophical essays. Tectum, Marburg 2007, ISBN 978-3-8288-9465-5 .
  • Ludwig Nagl : Pragmatism. Campus, Frankfurt / New York 1998, ISBN 3-593-35978-2 .
  • Hans-Joachim Schubert, Hans Joas, Harald Wenzel: Pragmatism as an introduction. Junius, Hamburg 2010, ISBN 978-3-88506-682-8 .

Web links

Wiktionary: Pragmatism  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations
Lexicon entries
Technical article

Individual evidence

  1. "I proposed that the word 'pragmatism' should hereafter be used somewhat loosely to signify affiliation with Schiller, James, Dewey, Royce, and the rest of us, while the particular doctrine which I invented the word to denote, which is your first kind of pragmatism, should be called "pragmaticism." The extra syllable will indicate the narrower meaning. ”(Letter to Calderoni, CP 8.205) Peirce, CS, Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce, Vols. 1-6, Charles Hartshorne and Paul Weiss (eds.), Vols. 7-8, Arthur W. Burks (ed.), Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 1931-1935, 1958. Cited as CP nm for volume n, section m.
  2. ^ Hans-Joachim Schubert, Harald Wenzel, Hans Joas and Wolfgang Knebel: Pragmatism for an introduction. Junius, Hamburg 2010, 10–11.
  3. Cf. Karl Marx: Das Kapital (Volume I, Chapter 5); Dietz Verlag, Berlin 1972, p. 192.
  4. Pragmatic idealism or idealistic pragmatism? Interview with Nicholas Rescher, in: Nicholas Rescher: Rationality, Science and Practice. Königshausen & Neumann, Würzburg 2002, pp. 103–128.
  5. ^ Richard Ormerod: The History and Ideas of Pragmatism. In: The Journal of the Operational Research Society. Volume 57, No. 8 (August 2006), pp. 892-909, here p. 892.
  6. Karl-Otto Apel: The way of thinking of Charles S. Peirce. Gerd Wartenberg: Logical socialism. Vittorio Hösle: The crisis of the present and the responsibility of philosophy.
  7. William James: The Concept of Truth in Pragmatism. In Gunnar Skirbekk (ed.): Truth theories. A selection from the discussions about truth in the 20th century. Frankfurt am Main 1977, pp. 35-58, here pp. 35-36; Original: Pragmatism's Conception of Truth. In: The Journal of Philosophy, Psychology and Scientific Methods. Volume 4, No. 6 (March 14, 1907), pp. 141-155.
  8. William James: The Concept of Truth in Pragmatism. P. 37.
  9. Philipp Kitcher: The other way. In: Martin Hartmann, Jasper Liptow, Marcus Willaschek (eds.): The presence of pragmatism. Suhrkamp, ​​Frankfurt am Main 2013, pp. 35–61.
  10. ^ William James: Pragmatism: A New Name for some Old Ways of Thinking. Cambridge, MA 1975, p. 34.
  11. See for example Karl Vorländer : History of Philosophy. Volume II: “Pragmatism” .
  12. ^ Kant: Anthropology in a pragmatic way , edition of the Prussian Academy of Sciences, Berlin 1900ff, AA VII, 199–
  13. Max Horkheimer: On the Critique of Instrumental Reason. In: Collected Writings. Volume 6: "On the Critique of Instrumental Reason" and "Notes 1949–1969", Frankfurt am Main 1991, p. 63.
  14. Ernst Bloch: Weltverwechsel or The Eleven Theses of Marx on Feuerbach. In: Ernst Bloch: About Karl Marx. Frankfurt am Main 1968, pp. 58-120 and pp. 92-95.
  15. Adam Schaff: Theory of Truth. Attempt at a Marxist analysis. Vienna 1971, pp. 257–283.
  16. Georg Klaus: The power of the word. An epistemological-paradigmatic treatise. Berlin 1972.
  17. Julian Nida-Rümelin: Reason and Freedom. Text basis for lecture and colloquium. In: Dieter Sturma (Ed.): Reason and freedom. On the practical philosophy of Julian Nida-Rümelin (human project). 2012, p. 9 ff, 11.
  18. ^ Dietmar von der Pfordten: Legal ethics. 2nd, revised edition. 2011, p. 85 ff.
  19. ^ Norbert Horn: Introduction to jurisprudence and legal philosophy. 5th edition. 2011, p. 235.
  20. Axel Montenbruck: Middle world and three-middle man. Socially real dehumanization and civilization as synthetic pragmatism. 2nd, considerably expanded (partial) edition, 2013, civil religion series. A Philosophy of Law as a Philosophy of Culture, Volume IV - Holistic Superstructure, Free University of Berlin ( Access ), p. 203.