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American Philosophies - Pragmatism

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Pragmatism developed primarily out of the work of Charles Sanders Peirce (1839–1914), William James (1842–1910), and John Dewey (1859–1952). Peirce, a logician, semiotician, and philosopher, first developed the notion of pragmatism as a theory of meaning, a way of clarifying terms used in philosophic debate. Peirce claimed that when one understands "all the conceivable experimental phenomena which the affirmation or denial of a concept could imply," one understands the definition of that concept. Peirce was attempting to force otherwise unending metaphysical speculation to come to terms with the effects and consequences of philosophic debate—to arrive at agreement as to the meaning of concepts by bringing those concepts into the shared realm of common experience.

While Peirce is normally heralded as the father of pragmatism, William James and John Dewey are usually credited with the popularization and refinement of this distinctly American philosophy. James, a psychologist, physician, and philosopher, emphasized the personal elements of pragmatic thought—focusing on what the adoption of pragmatic belief might mean for individuals confronted with difficult personal and philosophical dilemmas. James believed that by looking to consequences, and thus getting one's bearings through a consideration of the practical elements of a situation, one could resolve for oneself answers to otherwise endless difficulties. Dewey, also a psychologist and philosopher, and a key figure in the development of American educational theory, emphasized the social, political, and educational aspects of pragmatic thought. By looking to public and shared experience as the means of resolving philosophical debate, rather than antecedent arguments and abstract truths, Dewey's version of pragmatism focused on experimental inquiry and the refinement of practical, philosophic instruments of ongoing communication.

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