What Is Pragmatism? A Praxis Philosophy Night Conversation

Which philosophical questions really matter?

If you’re like me, you’ve spent hours, days, and weeks pondering a thorny philosophical problem or two at some point in your life. But with a field as vast as philosophy, how can you ever know where to start and where to end?

You really have to know what truth is. Enter pragmatism, one broad and sweeping attempt in the field of philosophy to redefine and recategorize ideas around truth.

Notes on Liberty editor Zachary Woodman joined us on our most recent Praxis philosophy night to guide us through the history of Pragmatism and its many roots and branches through the years.

We started with Jamesian pragmatism – the branch of the vast philosophical school first advanced by William James in the late 19th century. For James, pragmatism was “a way of dissolving metaphysical disputes” which he used to question the nature of what it meant for something to be true.

This pragmatism James sets in firm opposition to the “spectator theory of knowledge”: that knowledge is a sort of passive relationship in which the verifier is merely passively observing the being-ness of a truth.

Here’s what William James presented as an alternative in one of his well-known lectures on his flavor of pragmatism:

“Pragmatism, on the other hand, asks its usual question. “Grant an idea or belief to be true,” it says, “what concrete difference will its being true make in anyone’s actual life? How will the truth be realized? What experiences will be different from those which would obtain if the belief were false? What, in short, is the truth’s cash value in experiential terms?…”

“Truth HAPPENS to an idea. It BECOMES true, is MADE true by events. Its verity is in fact an event, a process: the process namely of its verifying itself, its veri-FICATION. Its validity is the process of its valid-ATION.” 

So, just what does it mean for an idea to be “useful”? And what does it mean for truth to be closer to a process than a static attribute?

Dive into our discussion, but be sure to read the William James essay “Pragmatism’s Conception of Truth” to get a good introduction.

Like this video? Learn more about Zachary Woodman and his work at Notes on Liberty. And watch our other Praxis Philosophy Night videos if you want more deep thoughts, ramblings, and group belly laughter about big philosophical topics. 

James Walpole

James Walpole is a writer, startup marketer, and perpetual apprentice. You're reading his blog right now, and he really appreciates it. Don't let it go to his head, though.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.