Pragmatism is the suggestion that truth-value and meaning should be talked about in terms of the way we use those terms. All such talk should be hashed out in terms of the practical bearings of such words.

What sort of suggestion is this though? Are we to understand the meaning of this suggestion in terms of its practical bearings (as would be consistent with the suggestion of pragmatism)? And if so, do we ever really know what pragmatism is a suggestion of if 'practical bearings' is continually explained by reference to 'practical bearings' (which would seem circular)? Is this conceived as a problem by pragmatists themselves?

  • Your first sentence is ambiguous. Can you clarify what you mean by "those terms"?
    – user20153
    May 1, 2016 at 21:21
  • IOW, are you asking about the terms "truth-value" and "meaning" from a pragmatist perspective? Or about the T-value and/or meaning of any term from that perspective?
    – user20153
    May 1, 2016 at 21:28
  • Both I suppose. In the question I was admittedly asking about the terms 'truth-value' and 'meaning' specifically (so the last word, 'terms', in the sentence is referring to 't-value' and 'meaning' in the same sentence), but it seems that this objection can very well apply to any term that is predicated over and about in the pragmatist suggestion. That is somewhat the purpose of this question later on when I'm asking how pragmatism can explain the content of its own words and standards, such as 'practical bearings' and even the simple seeming phrase 'is useful'.
    – Esse
    May 1, 2016 at 21:40
  • Ok then, great question but my answer is too big to type on a mobile phone. ;) Will respond later.
    – user20153
    May 1, 2016 at 21:59
  • @mobileink Gotcha.
    – Esse
    May 1, 2016 at 22:02

3 Answers 3


Sorry for not getting back to you sooner. The short version of my answer is something like: to me Pragmatism is more like an attitude or orientation than a claim. If it were a claim along the lines of a definition of truth or reference in terms of practices then it would be circular as you note. But pragmatists do not (usually) presume to define truth and reference (i.e. what they are); rather they tend to explain the way we use those terms, and then (usually) argue that looking for more than that is a waste of time. At the extreme this means that concepts like truth and reference are vacuous; they are not properties, have no substantial role, and have no explanatory value. Do a little searching on "deflationary truth" for more on this.

Most (all?) pragmatists are anti-foundationalists, by which I mean they do not offer a "better" foundation (or "claim") than the old ones; rather they reject very idea that we can get at such a foundation. Not that they disprove it or deny that some such may exist. Maybe a foundation exists, maybe not, but either way arguing about it is a waste of time.

So "how pragmatism can explain the content of its own words and standards"? By explaining how that content is instituted by and illustrative of our practices, not by appealing to concepts like truth and reference. The nice thing about this is that is naturalistic, and so compatible with natural science - explaining our practices, which are naturalistic, is something natural science can (in principle) do.

Note that terms like "practical bearings" or even "practices" are not philosophically mysterious, unlike semantic vocabulary like "truth". The practices of a linguistic community are analogous to the behavior of a population of non-human creatures or of a system of non-living particles: something that can be observed and described scientifically. So there's no circularity in using such terms to describe how we explain our practices.

BTW, the risk of circularity was/is indeed well known to praggies, and the issues are actually much more complex and subtle than I've indicated. Plus there is more than one such risk. For a detailed argument about a possible circularity in the way pragmatists use semantic vocabulary like "true" and "refers" ("semantic" vocab being terms that purport to get their significance from representational relations) see Huw Price's response to Horwich in Expressivism, Pragmatism and Representationalism.

Hope that helps. FWIW the best intro to contemporary pragmatism that I know of is Pragmatism by Michael Bacon.

Edit (in response to comments): Consider Wittgenstein's famous dictum "meaning as use". That's a slogan, but it is often offered as a kind of definition, "meaning is use". The problem is it looks like a definition of meaning, which it is not, and the word "use" inevitably suggests instrumental use. But the kind of practices involved are not necessarily instrumental, at least not for the individual. E.g. "Ouch!" - there's no goal achieved by squeeling that, as far as I can see. It's easy to imagine many less elementary cases.

Replace "meaning as use" with "practices explain signficance" and you get closer to contemporary pragmatism. More technical: normative practices institute conceptual content. It's really the normativity that makes the difference. Here the risk is infinite regress: to apply a first-level rule, you have to have a 2nd-level rule telling how to apply the first-level rule. To apply the 2nd-level rule, you need a 3rd-level rule, and so on ad infinitum. This is where practice comes it: it halts the regress. At some point we say "that's just the way we do things around here." So practice is the unexplained explainer.

The normativity of practice is instituted socially, by punishment of deviation from norms and reward of conformance. If you use a word in a way that does not conform to community standards your interactions in the community are more likely to result in failure. This is where Pragmatism is deeply related to evolutionary thinking.

As to circularity and the need for Pragmatism to explain its own terms I guess the question would be something like, if normative practices explain conceptual content, then what is it for normative practices to explain the conceptual content of "normative practices". Point one: we've already rejected the idea that we need to explain some mysterious semantic relation between the term "normative practices" and something in the world that we describe using that term. Second, it's not the term "normative practices" that does the explanatory work, its the practices themselves, which can be observed and studied scientifically, unlike whatever it is that "true" and "refers" are supposed to mean. So in looking to our practices to explain our term "practices" there is no circularity. Just think of it as "look at what we do when we employ the term 'practice' and that will tell you what the term 'means' (to us, at least)"; this does not require an antecedent definition of "practice" that needs explanation. Or maybe think of "normative practices explain conceptual content" (or whatever your preferred pragmatism slogan is) as a methodological recipe rather than a definition.

Dunno how convincing that is but it's about the best this non-professional can do. If you really want to dig into this I highly recommend Bacon's Intro or Robert Brandom's Articulating Reasons. FWIW reading Brandom changed my life, no lie.

  • Thanks for the well thought out response. I do still have a few questions. Firstly, you note that the terms of pragmatism are not 'philosophically mysterious', unlike 'truth'. This seems to be your reason why pragmatism needn't explain its own terms. But this doesn't really settle well with me. Just what qualifies something as 'useful'? If it is simply that something has the capacity to be used for a certain purpose, this leaves the door open for all kinds of statements as being 'useful', though obviously unacceptable (such as Russell's 'Santa Claus exists' statement).
    – Esse
    May 4, 2016 at 19:39
  • And to be fair, you did note that the problem is more complex and subtle than your account of it indicates (I'm mostly asking out of interest than criticism). Secondly, I am also skeptical of how pragmatism can be only an 'attitude'. What sort of attitude would it be? Furthermore, why would it be so controversial if it were only an attitude? It just seems like a way to evade answering to the consequences and presuppositions inherent within it.
    – Esse
    May 4, 2016 at 19:45
  • Excellent points - I realize I omitted two critical pragmatic notions, namely normativity and the social dimension of normative practices. Alas I'm on the cellphone again, will edit my answer in a bit. Re: attitude, I can't think of anything better. Pragmatism is not a single doctrine or theory, nor a system, does not claim to be the One True Philosophy. So I think of it as an attitude or orientation in the same way I think of science like that. Compare Wittgenstein's "way of life".
    – user20153
    May 4, 2016 at 20:16
  • P.S. I think one reason Pragmatism is so controversial is because it is so revolutionary. If you tell professional philosophers there are no important questions in their field, that philosophy is at best therapeutic, or just another literary genre (Rorty) you can expect a little pushback. Most contemporary Pragmatists don't go that far but even then Pragmatism is opposed to ways of thinking (representationalism, etc.) that have dominated Western thought for centuries. Price, for example, denies that science has any claim to special knowledge, says science is essentially pluralistic.
    – user20153
    May 4, 2016 at 20:30
  • Cool beans. I have another question going along these same lines that I plan on mulling over. In the meanwhile I'll allow you to edit your answer before commenting further.
    – Esse
    May 4, 2016 at 21:40

Any system gets murky once it starts talking about its own truth values, not just pragmatism.

If the system is a sufficiently powerful formal language, declaring the Truth value of its statements within the system itself is impossible, as proven by Tarksi's undefinnability theorem. "Sufficiently powerful" is defined as being able to prove all of the truths in arithmetic, such as 1+1=2, and 5*4 = 20.

We can consider weaker systems, but if we weaken them too much, pragmatism cannot be proven invalid. The "circular reasoning" of pragmatism can easily be short circuited and turned into a recursive series of systems with a boundless number of iterations. Without laws of arithmetic that handle boundless series, it can be markedly hard to disprove the value of pragmatism.

This leaves informal systems. It is not clear whether it is possible to prove that two individuals have the same interpretation of an informal system or not. Obviously if interpretations differ, truth values can differ.

All of this suggests that pragmatism can never claim to have the one and only answer for every question. However, pragmatically speaking, there are many series of iterations on words which we are generally comfortable having a mathematical limit as to how much misinterpreration can be had. Pragmatically, a realizable system which has a limit pointing towards the behaviors you want to see is more useful than an unrealizable idealized system which has the behavior you want to see.

  • While it can be granted for the sake of argument that any formal language's truth-values cannot be represented by the said formal language itself, this seems to fly high of the point of the question, which is concerned not so much with truth-value, but rather with what is simply meant at all by a given formal language, in this case, what is meant by pragmatism. I'm not sure what you mean by stating that 'pragmatism can easily be short circuited... with a boundless number of iterations'. Would you mind clarifying a bit?
    – Esse
    May 2, 2016 at 0:08
  • @Esse I was targeting, somewhat, the comments on the question. As for short circuiting, take any string of text which is purported to define the nature of pragmatism. Interpret it using whatever interpretation makes sense. Use that interpretation to develop a more pragmatic interpretation. Then do it again, interpreting the text even more pragmatically, to determine a better undersatnding of the nature of pragmatism. And so forth. It turns a circular argument into an infinite regress. In the formal language world, tarski approached this with his (L,N) tuples, where L is the language
    – Cort Ammon
    May 2, 2016 at 1:39
  • and N is the interpretation of the language. He insisted the semantic meaning could only be acquired from (L, N), not just L itself. He proved it for formal languages. However, if we step away from formality, and go to informal languages, a more informal argument is needed.
    – Cort Ammon
    May 2, 2016 at 1:40
  • Thanks for the reply. It seems that, while your suggestion is interesting, it still succumbs to circularity. The problem, as I see it, is when you say "Interpret it using whatever interpretation makes sense. Use that interpretation to develop a more pragmatic interpretation." All such suggestions assume an interpretation, and don't really provide us with an answer to the question of what pragmatism, or in this case 'pragmatic', is. What does it mean to 'develop a more pragmatic interpretation'? Isn't that the very question being asked? I might just be confused here though.
    – Esse
    May 2, 2016 at 12:43
  • @Esse It's only circular if you come back to the interpretation you had before. As long as the interpretations keep evolving, it's a redicution to infinity, not a circular argument. It's basically what we have computers do when we have them run optimizers. They take a guess, see what the state-space looks like around that guess, then make a better educated guess based on what they learned. The goal is convergence. If it converges on a definition, then that iterative process works. A pragmatist would argue that definitions based on "practical bearings" will converge (because it is
    – Cort Ammon
    May 2, 2016 at 14:52

There is nothing inconsistent about intersubjectivity, but there is nothing definite about it either.

A clearer way of putting the philosophy of language you describe here is the Wittgenstein's formulation in terms of language-games. He suggests the best way to look at language is as a set of overlapping games, each with a slightly different set of rules about how words combine and maintain their meaning. To call them games is perhaps a bit too lighthearted, they are all deadly earnest, but they have the form of a game, with rules and moves and often, but not always, winners and losers.

We have a game of Government, in which we encode decisions about fairness through precedents and statutes. It includes a game of finance, which controls how we decide prices, etc. Each religion has its own game in which things mean slightly different things from what they mean in other religions, and we have a meta-game of God-talk that tries to coordinate the discussions of religions -- mostly so that religion as an institution gets respected by the Law.

The games then modify each other, and constitute larger games about the modifications. We have a meta-game of English grammar that continually modifies all the games that are conducted in English, for instance, as our language evolves. We have a meta-game of Science that modifies the way we talk about other things as we converge on a common network of explanatory concepts that predict the success of our technology.

One can object that this is all circular. It is, but not in a way that degenerates. It works like the organs of a human body. The system of games maintains its own homeostasis through use, the same way your body maintains homeostasis via living.

Your circulatory system does its job, and it is constantly being modified by all the other systems of the body, which put things into it and taken them out. Your liver controls the concentrations of various enzymes by modifying the blood. Your digestion pushes around fats and sugars in ways that are modified by the liver... There is nothing wrong with the circularity of the fact that the tissues of the Liver need the products of the digestive process that the liver regulates. It means that neither the liver nor the digestion can have come first, and that is fine. They came together.

The problem with this all is that it makes philosophy messy, more like biology and less like physics or math, and that makes issues of belief complex. But you can't argue with reality on the basis that it offends your naivete.

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