American pragmatism : LUSENET : History & Theory of Psychology : One Thread

What direct and indirect influence does American pragmatism has on psychology?

Thank you

-- Emily Leong (, December 16, 2003


You'll most likely find a discussion of this in your testbook discussion on William James and/or Charles Sanders Peirce. James wrote a book on Pragmatism. You might also check an encyclopedia of psychology for an article on pragmatism.

-- Hendrika Vande Kemp (, December 17, 2003.

American Pragmatism, to a first approximation, was the claim that the meaning of a concept is nothing more than the work it can do. It is often abbreviated as "what is true is what works." It originally derived from a comment by British philosopher Alexander Bain that a belief is "that upon which a man is prepared to act." Bain's dicutm was frequently invoked by Nicholas St. John Green in the converstations of the Cambridge (Mass.) "Metpahysical Club" in the late 1860s and early 1870s. It was picked up and developed by Charles Sanders Peirce, who invented the term (and the initial philosophy of) pragmatism. Another member of the Metaphysical Club, William James, expanded Peirce's ideas, which were meant to apply essentially to science alone, to realms of belief quite distant from science. He "declared" himself a pragmastist in the 1890s and wrote a famous essay on pragmatism in the first decade of the 20th century. Part of James' aim was to justify religious and spiritual belief in terms of what it could "do" for one. (He is reputed to have pulled himself out a depression over whether humans behavior is determined by simply choosing to believe that free will is true, thereby putatively justifying the belief in free will by its power to raise one's spirits.) (See Louis Menand's book _The Metaphysical Club_ for a more detailed account.)

Peirce was by James' move horrified and renamed his own position "pragmaticism" in order to distance himself from it.

Pragmatism of a sort was picked up by John Dewey at Chicago as well. Dewey and James Rowland Angell, both greatly influenced by the work of William James, founded the psychological school later known as "functionalism" in the mid 1890s. (Another important figure in this movement who often gets left out of histories of psychology was the Chicago sociologist, George Herbert Mead.) Many aspects of pragmatism can be found in the functionalists' attitude toward science and truth. Not least of these was their emphasis in "applied" psychology (what psychology can "do") and (espeically with Dewey) education and social welfare. Many other America psychologists of the era had an applied focus (to varying degrees) as well: Muensterberg, Hall, Witmer, Baldwin. The main holdout against this movement was E.B. Titchener at Cornell, who held fast to what he believed to be Wundt's commitment to "pure" research. It was Titchener who declared his own position to be "structuralist" in contrast to the Chicago position, which he also dubbed "functionalism."

-- Christopher Green (, December 17, 2003.

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