Peirce, James, & Dewey are generally regarded as the three originators of American pragmatism. Personally, I have noticed each of them for different reasons. James is interesting because of his radical empiricism, Dewey because of his understanding of inquiry as both cognitive and action-oriented, and Peirce because of his work on abduction.

However, I don't have a clear overview of how each of their philosophies compare overall. Hence, my question is: what are the main differences between the philosophies of Peirce, James, & Dewey?

  • 3
    I think your asking for a doctoral thesis ;)
    – Lucas
    Commented Mar 9, 2014 at 18:36
  • A more modest question you might consider: How do each of these philosophers define Pragmatism (or see its role)? That definition alone will give you a good start, as all three define it differently. @Lucas is right, you're asking for a thesis, if not a series of books.
    – jxn
    Commented Apr 29, 2014 at 16:54

2 Answers 2


James and Dewey were students of Peirce. Peirce opposed their pragmatism to such a degree that he thought it necessary to term his original pragmatism "pragmaticism," distinguishing it from their simple positivist pragmatism, which is compatible with nominalism, as superior to it in three ways:

…first, its retention of a purified philosophy; secondly, its full acceptance of the main body of our instinctive beliefs; and thirdly, its strenuous insistence upon the truth of scholastic realism (or a close approximation to that…

—C. S. Peirce, Collected Papers vol. 5 (Pragmatism & Pragmaticism) 5.423

See the section "Pragmaticism is not Pragmatism" on PDF pages 15 ff. of "The Red Book" (Deely's Four Ages of Understanding ch. 15).


Pragmatism is a method. It begins with a rejection of the Cartesian method and its dualism while sincerely reforming British empiricism. Pragmatists attempt to break out of the closed dialectics of rationalist and empiricist philosophies.

For Peirce, Pragmatism is a method of clarifying the meaning of highly difficult concepts and terms, including a critique of the ways in which we structure our inquiries. Peirce critically attacks the methods of Descartes.

William James asserts that Pragmatism is a theory of truth (as opposed to Peirce's theory of meaning) focused on the richness and abundance of experience. James is the American philosopher most responsible for amending empiricism to a radical empiricism. James accepts most of what Peirce says about pragmatism, but his method is more personal and custom-made with the intimacy of oneself.

John Dewey continues in this vein by critiquing modernity and its reliance on dualisms inherited through the Cartesian tradition. Pragmatism for Dewey is an instrumentalism, which views truth as "warranted assertion" following from our inquiries, which is a stabilization of our precarious situations.

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