The Meaning of Pragmatism

Although Charles Peirce was “the Father of Pragmatism,” William James gave the term its clearest expression. “Pragmatism asks its usual question,” said James. “‘Grant an idea or belief to be true,’ it says, ‘what concrete difference will its being true make in one's actual life? … What experiences will be different from those which would obtain if the belief were false? What in short is the truth's cash-value in experiential terms?’”

In short, pragmatism asks: What difference will this truth (or belief or concept, etc.) make in your life? If you believe in God, freedom of the will, and moral responsibility, say, will this impact your life for the better? William James did more to popularize pragmatism than the two other American pragmatists Charles Sanders Peirce and John Dewey. Worth quoting is James's most famous dictum describing pragmatism: “There can be no difference anywhere that doesn't make a difference elsewhere.” Translation: Things are not true or right because of some theoretical meaning. They must have an application and impact in the real world.

James insisted that all knowledge is pragmatic. It is difficult if not impossible to settle some philosophical questions — like whether there is a God or an afterlife. Neither reason nor empirical evidence seems to settle these matters. Where does that leave you? James thought that the best theory to believe is the one that brings about the best consequences in your life. Ask yourself: “If I believe in God, will it contribute to a successful or meaningful life for me?” If the answer is yes, then it makes sense — that is, it is pragmatic — for you to believe in God.

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