For context, be sure and read the first two articles listed here.
Though the early figures in the history of pragmatism did not have a working system of philosophy called Pragmatism to which they adhered, a minimal definition of pragmatism is necessary from the outset. Pragmatism, minimalistically speaking, is a commitment to the functional and the beneficial over all other considerations. This method of reasoning could be, and has been, applied to many different areas of life: ethics, epistemology, education, government, etc. There are two general rules that guide it: if it is working do not fix it, and if it does not work it is either wrong or there must be something better. In cultures that thrive on immediacy and productivity, such methods of reasoning easily gain dominance.
Pragmatists in Plato’s Greece. Perhaps the earliest group to be accused of using this type of reasoning was a group that surfaced sometime before the life of Plato known as the sophists. Plato was a theist who believed in universal truths he called forms. The sophists of his day were traveling tutors-for-hire who taught a vast array of subjects, but particularly specialized in rhetoric. They were largely comprised of atheists and agnostics who held abstracts such as morality to be largely relative, shunning absolutes. Plato did not hold sophists in a high regard.
Plato argued that the sophists only concerned themselves with persuasion and would use any means possible to arrive at that end. He further argued that they were not concerned with truth, because truth did not always lend itself to persuasion. If Plato’s critique of the sophists was true, they were pragmatists in the truest sense. As a man who valued virtue and absolute values, Plato took issue with this form of pragmatism. Indeed, Plato understood sophistry to result “when men who are unworthy of education approach philosophy and consort her unworthily.”
Pragmatic Governance. This brand of thinking would resurface more than a millennium later in the writings of Niccolo Machiavelli. Counseling the princely class in much the same way as the sophists of ancient Greece, Machiavelli argued for a form of governance that primarily concerned itself with results. He insisted, “In all men’s acts, and in those of princes most especially, it is the result that renders the verdict when there is no court of appeal.” Such reasoning in politics would eventually become commonplace in governments worldwide. In many ways, it is still prevalent today.
Pragmatism pervading society. Nearly a century before William James and John Dewey systematized the American philosophy known as Pragmatism, Alexis de Toqueville observed traces of it already in existence in American thought. Toqueville bore witness as laissez-faire capitalism and American rugged individualism began to take shape in the new nation. Breaking from their aristocratic roots in Europe, the Americans were confronted with opportunities to advance out of the long-standing bonds of the feudal system. Alongside these new developments was a growing lack of concern for how one obtained the object of one’s desires. As Toqueville noted, the average American was “aiming for the result without allowing oneself to be shackled to the means.”Americans’ tendency toward pragmatism, then, spawned from a desire for individual advancement in a society built on the prospect of greater opportunity. America’s unique brand of pragmatism spawned from discontentment.
Plato, Republic, trans., G.M.A. Grube (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1992), 3.492-493.
Albert Henrichs, “The Sophists and Hellenistic Religion: Prodicus as the Spiritual Father of the Isis Aretalogies,” in Harvard Studies in Classical Philology, 88 (Cambridge, MA.: Harvard Univ Pr, 1984), 140.
Plato, Republic, 6.496a.
Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince, trans., Daniel Donno, Bantam Classic (New York: Bantam Dell, 2003), 70.
Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, trans., Stephen D. Grant (Indianapolis: Hackett, 2000), 171.