PHIL 3120: American Philosophy
Dr. Robert Lane
Lecture Notes: Tuesday January 8, 2013


[1.] Introduction to Pragmatism.


This course will focus on the philosophical tradition called pragmatism, the only major philosophical tradition to have originated in the United States.


The classical American pragmatists are:

·         Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914)

·         William James (1842-1909)

·         John Dewey (1859-1952)


More recent American pragmatists include:

·         Hilary Putnam (b.1926)

·         Richard Rorty (1931-2007)

·         Susan Haack


[We will be covering all of these thinkers in this course, but note that this is nowhere close to a complete list of American pragmatists and neo-pragmatists.]


These thinkers all belong to the same philosophical tradition, and there are connections of influence among them, e.g., Peirce was friends with James and a teacher of Dewey; James has influenced Putnam, and both James and Dewey have influenced Rorty. But there is no specific philosophical claim or doctrine that they all have in common.


What they do all have in common is that each one reacts against a group of traditionally held philosophical doctrines, doctrines about concepts like:

·         knowledge

·         reality

·         truth

·         belief


I will call this group of doctrines against which the pragmatists are reacting the Traditional View. The Traditional View includes the following theories:


The JTB theory of knowledge: knowledge is justified true belief; in other words, if a person knows that p, then (a) that person believes that p; (b) it is true that p; and (c) that person is justified in believing that p. [This dates back at least to Plato.]


The correspondence theory of truth: truth is a matter of correspondence with reality.  A belief (or sentence, or proposition, or statement, or other truth-bearer) is true exactly when it corresponds with some aspect of the real world, i.e., when it represents the world as being how it actually is. [This dates back at least to Aristotle.]


Representationalism about belief: to believe that p is to have a specific kind of mental representation, i.e. a representation in one’s mind, e.g., my belief that there is a tree outside the window is a thought, or an idea, or some other sort of representation of the area outside the window, a representation that is in my mind. [This dates back at least to Aristotle.]


As we will soon see, each of the pragmatists either adds to or modifies these theories in important ways.


And what unites them—what makes pragmatism a single tradition rather than just a group of philosophers who happened to know and influence one another—is that in reacting to the Traditional View, they all emphasize (in different ways and to different degrees):

·         the empirical, i.e., experience;

·         experimental interactions with one’s environment;

·         the practical consequences of claims and beliefs;

·         understanding philosophical concepts in terms of actions or deeds… in terms of living, breathing human beings doing things.


As we will see, different pragmatists will use this approach to try to explain the concepts mentioned above: knowledge, truth, reality, and belief.


While the philosophers we will study are all lumped together as “pragmatists,” there is no doctrine that they all have in common. In fact, “pragmatism” means something slightly different for each one of them.



[1.2.] From More- to Less-Realist Pragmatism.


Peirce accepted


realism (df.): the view that there is a real world. [What this amounts to depends in part on what is meant by the word “real.” We will see in the next couple of weeks what Peirce meant by it.]


WARNING: The word “realism” is used in a number of different ways in philosophy.[1]


Peirce also believed that:

·         we can discover truths through experience and reasoning;

·         philosophy is a type of inquiry (an attempt to discover truths).


The shift away from this realist version of pragmatism began early in the history of the pragmatist movement.  Peirce actually saw this shift occurring in his own lifetime.


By the late 20th century, pragmatism had changed significantly.


The best-known neo-pragmatist is Richard Rorty, who, when he died in 2007, was professor emeritus of comparative literature at Stanford University. Rorty sees himself as inheriting and forwarding the work begun by some of the classical pragmatists, especially John Dewey. His form of pragmatism holds that:


     There is no such thing as “the way things really are.”

     “True” means whatever you can actually defend against all objections.

·         Philosophy is not inquiry (at least, not in the sense of an attempt to discover “the way things really are”); it is a conversation. Philosophy should think of itself not as an attempt to discover truths but as something more like literature.


Although Rorty denies it, some of his critics accuse him of being a relativist:


relativism (df.): the view that truth and/or reality [and/or something else] are somehow dependent on (in other words, relative to) human thought [and/or on something else].


WARNING: The word “relativism” is used in a number of different ways in philosophy. To say simply that you are a relativist is to say practically nothing at all. One needs to be more specific and say what one is a relativist about, e.g., that one believes that all truth is relative to (dependent on) human belief.[2]


Although Rorty himself doesn’t put it this bluntly, his type of pragmatism seems to imply that truth and reality are relative to us (either as a group or as individuals).


So the history of pragmatism includes a drift away from a more realist view of truth and reality (there is a real world, and we are capable of having true beliefs about it) to a less realist view of truth and reality.


The evolution of pragmatism from Peirce’s realist philosophy to Rorty’s (alleged) relativism is the theme of this course.



Stopping point for Tuesday January 8. For next time:

·         review any lecture notes you have from your Introduction to Philosophy class or your Modern Philosophy class about Descartes’ Meditations. One of the first things we cover will be Charles Peirce’s criticisms of the approach to philosophical inquiry that Descartes took in that work.

·         then read pp.69-72 (to the end of the first full paragraph) of your textbook. This is a short reading but it’s very dense. Read it slowly and carefully, taking notes on what you think Peirce is up to here.


[1] For an idea of the philosophical quagmire surrounding the general topic of realism, see Alexander Miller, “Realism,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2010 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <>.



[2] There is also a philosophical quagmire surrounding the topic of relativism. See Chris Swoyer, “Relativism,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2010 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <>.

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