Positivism tells us that only what is verifiable exists. Therefore scientists should study only what they can observe and measure, through which they can explain natural or social phenomena. Interpretivists focus on the experience that people are having, hence scientists should conduct qualitative interviews to understand study participants and the social worlds they construct.

Pragmatists, like Dewey for example, says that truth is less important than utility. The "truth" (or something akin to it) is judged by its consequences, in short: it's true if it works!

So, what are the consequences of pragmatism for how scientists should conduct empirical research?

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    @DBK — our resident "philosophy of scientist" — might be interested in this. :)
    – stoicfury
    Commented Oct 19, 2012 at 2:37

2 Answers 2


Experiments are an excellent way to determine what works, and what does not. A great deal of scientific research is concerned with pragmatic matters and determining what does and what does not work: an obvious example would be medical research, but people also examine whether certain activities lead to certain results, such as whether writing an essay improves your physics grade.

Pragmatism does not state that if it appears to work, it is true. "It" has to actually work, for a given definition of "it" and "work". Science is a toolkit for finding out what the actual definition of "it" is, and therefore learn what, if anything, works.

  • Medical science is not the best example for conducting science, since the ethics of experimentation is severely constrained. Conversely it is a good example because medicine advances only on pragmatic grounds. Thus it can be concluded that pragmatism have different influence on different sciences.
    – christo183
    Commented Nov 2, 2018 at 15:20

I personally think that the main distinction between positivists and interpretivists and pragmatists is in the varying kinds of confusion they are subject to. Unless you're a full-blown relativist, the endeavor is the same, the methods are the same, the goals are the same.

What is a qualitative interview yielding understanding other than an observation and measurement computed in the head of the interviewer? All you can manage by rejecting the positivist aspect of interpretation is to embrace being confused and misled. It's perfectly okay to say: human subjective interpretation is the best measurement tool we have for this. To say, you can't measure this and yet I'm going to come up with the right answer in some sense is just wishful thinking or confusion about what one is actually doing. So I don't think there's actually much of a logical gulf between those approaches done well. (For instance: a good interpretive study would try to estimate measurement error. You always want to know how good your measurements are, even if the measuring device is a graduate student chatting with someone.)

Pragmatism again is in accord but focused on a different aspect of a problem. All models are incomplete, which is to say wrong in some sense. Why bother with wrong-in-some-sense models at all, except if they're useful in some way (at least useful for appealing to your sense of elegance or completeness!)? One can argue about which aspect of utility is most important: I-can-predict-something-a-bit-better-now vs. this-is-reliable-knowledge-that-we-can-write-in-textbooks-and-trust, for instance. But to the extent that pragmatists say anything new, it's only to the extent that others have gotten confused about the nature and scope of what they're doing. Otherwise, it's just a difference in degree, not kind, as the pragmatist would probably be better disposed to useful-now theories than a self-identified positivist.

  • Your post provides some good (but generic) reflections on the overlaps between positivist (or postpositivist rather) and interpretivist research. However, it still does not answer the question: what are the consequences of philosophical pragmatism on empirical research?
    – histelheim
    Commented Oct 19, 2012 at 16:32
  • @AronLindberg - Sorry, I thought that was clear: none. It's already built in (now). Or are you asking for a historical answer, explaining how the ambitions of the scientific endeavor as conceived during the Enlightenment had to be curtailed, and how philosophical pragmatism could be seen to inform that necessary curtailing? (That it was a question about the history of science and philosophy was not obvious from the question, if that was your intent.)
    – Rex Kerr
    Commented Oct 19, 2012 at 16:40
  • It's not a historical question. Also, I didn't mean to suggest a vast chasm between the extremes of positivism and interpretivisim - I think this view is outdated - even if I also disagree with the complete overlap you are suggesting in your post. My assumption is that any philosophical stance has implications on empirical research. Suggesting that there are none sounds like nihilism to me, and is not a suitable basis for constructive research.
    – histelheim
    Commented Oct 19, 2012 at 17:16
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    @AronLindberg - You'd have to contrast stances, then. Adding philosophical pragmatism to current research practice changes nothing, in my opinion. Adding something else might. In that philosophical pragmatism can keep that other thing at bay, whatever it is, it may have an impact.
    – Rex Kerr
    Commented Oct 19, 2012 at 18:49

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