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What is pragmatism?

Well I’m chuffed that I submitted my Research Philosophy Essay on time this week.  It was fun researching Pragmatism and picking up the odd subtlety along the way.  I promised a couple of PhD friends I would gather a few references and post to my blog my ideas.


‘Pragmatism is a philosophy of human conduct and practice that seeks to account for lived experience’ (Simpson, 2010).


It is part of what is called in history as the social science ‘interpretivist turn’ in the late 20th century influenced by Europeans Edmund Husserl (1859-1938) and Alfred Schütz (1899-1959) [phenomenology], Heidegger (1889-1976) [hermeneutics], and the Frankfurt School and Habbermas (1929-) [critical theory] and the americans (see below) with symbolic interaction, ethnomethodology and of course Pragmatism!


Pragmatism is anti-foundationalist, anti-essentialist, anti-dualistic, and does not reject facts/objective realities nor principles/morals/subjective realities.  Here are some of the points I took away from the American Pragmatist’s:


Charles Sanders Pierce (1839-1914) – I don’t yet know a great deal about Pierce except he was the founder of Pragmatism, and he brought an early pragmatist idea an alternative theory of meaning.  Pierce argued meaning comes from its results, or a function of its practical outcome.  If I am correct I also think he was grounded in a sort of experimentalism ‘in the laboratory’ version he later renamed is Pragmaticism to avoid being confused with James.


“Consider what effects, which might conceivably have practical bearings,we conceive the object of our conception to have. Then, our conception of these effects is the whole of our conception of the object.” (Peirce, 1878)


William James (1842-1910) – my favourite Pragmatist due to his directness and that his writing is easily understood.  He builds on Pierce’s theory of meaning into a theory of truth.  Where truth is what works, and he believes the ‘a priori‘ understanding of knowledge i.e. without experience is not possible.  He says truth has a ‘cash value’, its instrumental, perspectival, fallible, plural, subjective but not necessarily relativist.


I love his way of resolving dualisms in life looking at the pragmatic differences between, and searching for a new way of thinking.


“Most of us have a hankering for the good things on both sides of the line. Facts are good, of course – give us loads of facts. Principles are good – give us plenty of principles. The world is indubitably one if you look at it one way, but as indubitably as it is many, if you look at it in another.” (James, 1907, 2007, p38).


I like this perspectival part of James, as I also like Nietzsche (1844-1900) who has been called the teenage version of James.  Nietzsche in some ways took perspectivalism to be kind of negative an in his book Gay science says “What are man’s truths ultimately? Merely his irrefutable errors.”  James on the other hand viewed it as a charter for positive change.   (Staloff, 2000)


John Dewey (1859-1952), wow – what a prolific writer on society, education, philosophy and more.  I took from him his ideas on method of inquiry and experience.  For him research is not an armchair exercise – it is grounded in positive action.  Some argue that Dewey’s method of Inquiry is only a similar to Pierce in terminology but not intent.  I am not yet that well read on the matter, but I have understood that Dewey’s method of Inquiry is centred on the idea of dynamic inquiry of action and is not meant to be passive but tightly related to the process of experience.  Experience can be a hard thing to understand but I think I get it.  In Dewey’s terms is multi-dimensional, temporal, it is also inter-subjective between people around social practice.  Interestingly for Dewey the knowledge is not the end production from Inquiry but instead Action is.  Means are used to reach ends, but ends only become means to future ends in an emerging self, and world.  Experience is also a fuller picture combining thinking, emotions, and values.


Not all agreed with Dewey’s account of inquiry, one I know of is Bertrand Russell who argued – “Knowledge, if Dr. Dewey is right, cannot be any part of the ends of life; it is merely a means to other satisfactions.  This view, to those who have been much engaged in the pursuit of knowledge, is distasteful.” (Russell, 2009)


I think I prefer Dewey’s view, that even knowledge is only a means to a better human life!


George Herbert Mead (1863-1931), extended for me Dewey’s idea of experience and the wider transaction, in the intra-subjective and the objective ‘me’ and the subjective ‘I’, and in the wider social sense.  Actually, it was here in Herbert Mead I found a link to Jean Paul Sartre’s view of the historical, transcendental and ‘being for others’.  Perhaps Sartre read Mead???  This however is where the existentialist commonality ends due to the distinctly social nature of peoples experience.  Mead added the concept around gesture and response i.e. symbolic interactionism.   Requires further reading!


Richard Rorty (1931-2007), known as the neo-pragmatist (i.e. new) is the most contemporary, and I hear rumblings that he was not popular as a philosopher.  I think this might mainly be because of the trait that sits behind all the pragmatists.  The sense in which Pragmatism is an anti-philosophy, it sidesteps old debates, accuses the 2,500 failed philosophical project of wasting time, energy and resources, and instead he suggests lets change the conversation!  Too be honest I am not sure why he often get’s left out in the ‘practice turn’ and pragmatist references within Organisational studies?  If anyone out there knows then I’d love to hear why.


Rorty was influenced by Wittgenstein’s work and said in his book Mirror’s in Nature that ideas in the mind had been replaced by language as the medium the sits between objective reality and ourselves, and because of this we can never objectively know something in itself.  This for me shares a common thread with phenomenologists who say in the process of observing one’s lens, frame, paradigm, or worldview just gets in between!


Pragmatism verse Critical Realism

The key aspects from the Pragmatist view that are shared with Critical Realism are the fact that they both accept the constructed nature of knowledge, and acknowledge deduction, induction and abductions as valid forms of reasoning.  Where they depart is that Critical realism starts from objective reality not human experience, assumes actual reality can be approximated rather than have pluralist multiple meanings, and that dualisms provide frameworks for entitative analyses and as noted previously these are rejected outright by James, Dewey and Rorty.


Pragmatism verse Functionalism

While Pragmatism rules out dogma, it is worth sharing what I learned when compared to functionalism which in may ways feels like a polar extreme in that it treats the social system like in the natural world with universal laws (Bruce & Yearly, 2006).   According to scholars (Albert & Whetten, 1985; Godfrey & Whetten, 1998) functionalist research searches for an objective, independent truth out there and looking for causality;  uses the scientific method and scientific grounds for evaluating the research contribution; usefulness is in how true and applicable the theory is; using positivist language like hypothesis, prepositions, deduction, tests, validity, and reliability etc; building theories up front before testing; implicitly it assumes that the social science is stable and deterministic.


Interestingly, and I agree that functionalist research often falls short of the mark.  Recently I opened a core management textbook and most of it seemed vaguely interesting but largely not useful in the real world.  Some accuse functionalism of exploring how the individual works within the systems and norms around him/her mainly in order to create predictability and better organisational control systems for management.  There seems to me to be much truth in that statement.  Shrivastava states that today’s functionalist organisational theories are ‘inadequate ways of describing organisational reality’.


Position of Researcher in Pragmatism

Functionalist/Objectivist research attempts to do research independently from a value free position, and avoid change.  One of the most appealing aspects of Pragmatism is where the researcher is located!  I agree that all research is socially and politically situated (Reason & Bradbury, 2008), and because of that I think it is really important to put the researchers biases, motives, and beliefs ‘out in the open’ for anyone see.


As you can see, I have taken more than a superficial journey through some of Pragmatism’s history, and there are many questions left unanswered.


How will this philosophy REALLY impact my research?  I understand that we can be innovative and avoid the old paradigmatic dogma, yet I still feel some confusion.  Can I use facts but not search for them (otherwise this is kind of functionalist!), can I use principles but not search for them?


Am I just simply trying to explain how the world hangs together in organisations?  Where is pragmatism helping change the world or just understand it?  Should I be going directly to  Action Research, or being critical from a critical theory rhetorical sense of interpretivist ethnography…. GRRRRRR


So I’ll admit it – I have learned a lot – only to realize I don’t know enough…..  Hopefully my Research Methods course and further dialogue will help – but getting a new advisor and official recognition I’m on the PhD program will be EVEN BETTER.


Feel free to give me your advice!   






References for today’s blog:


Albert, S. and Whetten, D. A. (1985) ‘Organisational Identity’, Research in Organisational Behavior 7: 263–95.


Bradbury, H. & Reason, P., 2003. Action Research: An Opportunity for Revitalizing Research Purpose and Practices. Qualitative Social Work, 2(2), pp.155-175. Available at: http://qsw.sagepub.com/cgi/doi/10.1177/1473325003002002003.


Bradbury, H. & Reason, P. eds., 2008. The SAGE Handbook or Action Research. Participative Inquiry and Practice. 1st ed., SAGE PUBLICATIONS INC.


Bruce, S. & Yearly, S., 2006. The SAGE Dictionary of Sociology, SAGE Publications Ltd.



Eden, C. & Huxham, C., 1996. Action Research for Management Research. British Journal of Management, 7(1), pp.75-86. Available at: http://doi.wiley.com/10.1111/j.1467-8551.1996.tb00107.x


Elkjaer, B. & Simpson, B., 2010. Pragmatism : A lived and living philosophy . What can it offer to contemporary organisation theory ? Research in the Sociology of Organisations, Special Ph.


Easterby-Smith, M., Thorpe, R. & Jackson, P., 2008. Management Research Third Edit., SAGE PUBLICATIONS INC.


Godfrey, P. & Whetten, D. 1998. Identity in Organisations: Building Theory Through Conversations, SAGE Publishing, 300 pages


James, W, (1907, 2007), Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking, FQ Publishing, October 22, 2007, 184 pages


McNiff, P. & Whitehead, J., 2010. You and Your Action Research Project 3rd ed., Routledge.


Russell, B. (2009) The Basic Writings of Bertrand Russell, Routledge Classics


Shrivastava, P., 2010. Pedagogy of Passion for Sustainability. Higher Education, 9(3), pp.443- 455.


Simpson, B., 2009. Pragmatism, Mead and the Practice Turn. Organisation Studies, 30(12), pp.1329-1347.


Simpson, B., 2010. Pragmatism A Taxonomy of Research Perspectives. In Research Philosophy. Glasgow.


Staloff, D., 2000. Jame’s Pragmatism. In Great Minds of the Western Intellectual Tradition. The Teaching Company, p. 65. Available at: http://www.teach12.com/tgc/courses/course_detail.aspx?cid=470.

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