Philosophy of Education: Essays and Commentaries

By Hobert W. Burns; Charles J. Brauner | Go to book overview

As is characteristic of most "new" philosophies, pragmatism has its historical progenitors. In observing that one cannot step twice into the same river, Heraclitus ( fifth century, B.C.) perceived the inevitability of change, which suggests a relativism in respect to basic processes. The oft-quoted remark of Protagoras ( B.C. 481?-411) that "man is the measure of all things" points to the notion that so-called extramundane truths are reducible to human judgment and human interpretation-- hence that truth is neither more nor less than what man assesses it to be. Much of the same attitude characterizes the teachings of Socrates ( 469-399) and the Sophists. The Biblical directive, "By their fruits shall ye know them," is certainly a bluntly pragmatic maxim. In his advocacy of inductive method Francis Bacon ( 1561-1626) reviled the older system of logic wherein reasoning consisted in manipulating premises for the purpose of safeguarding predetermined beliefs rather than in seeking after knowledge. Such logic, said Bacon, " . . . rather assists in confirming and rendering inveterate the errors founded on vulgar notions, than in searching after truth; and is therefore more hurtful than useful." August Comte ( 1798-1857), in holding that laws and relations are more basic than spiritual or physical substance of any kind, urged greater attention to methods and processes than to supposed entities or realms of "being." Hints of pragmatism may likewise be found in the writings of Aristotle, Berkeley, and Hume, while Kant's emphasis upon practical reason may be construed to have further paved the way toward present-day pragmatism.


PEIRCE, JAMES, AND DEWEY

The three greatest contributors to American pragmatism are generally recognized to be Charles Sanders Peirce ( 1839-1914), William James ( 1842- 1910), and John Dewey ( 1859-1952). It has been said that Peirce was brilliant, James was witty, and Dewey was profound. Peirce first gained recognition in philosophic circles through his association with the Metaphysical Club, which consisted of a small group of persons interested in philosophy who met in Cambridge for the purpose of presenting papers and arguing philosophic questions. Another member of the Club, William James, was impressed with Peirce's views and encouraged him to give them a wider audience. As a result, Peirce published two essays, "The Fixation of Belief" ( November, 1877) and "How to Make Our Ideas Clear" ( January, 1878), in the Popular Science Monthly. The publication of these essays may be said to mark the "official birth" of pragmatism as a full-fledged philosophy. Peirce had been trained as a mathematician, and his orientation was primarily mathematical and objective, not psychological and subjective. One of Peirce's intentions was to correct what he regarded as a defect in Kant's thinking by establishing a continuity between an inner world of ideas and an outer world of objective realities. To do this he advocated testing the meaning of an idea by putting it to work in the objective world of action; whatever consequences appeared he believed would thus determine what an idea means.

In "How to Make Our Ideas Clear" he wrote:

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