19. pragmatism

One of the most important schools of philosophy of education is pragmatism. It is also as old as idealism, naturalism and realism since it is more an attitude, than a philosophy. In the fifth century B.C. Heraclitus said, “One cannot step twice into the same river”. Thus Reality is a flux, things are ever changing. Modern pragmatists agree with the Greek sophists. According to Protagores, “Man is the measure of all things”. This maxim is the basis of modern humanism. Another famous sophist Gorgias used to say, “Nothing exists and if anything exists we can never know it”. This agnosticism has led to relativism in pragmatic epistemology. In modern times Francis Bacon and Auguste Comte were pragmatists. John Dewey regards Bacon, as the prophet of a pragmatic conception of knowledge. Auguste Comte created positive philosophy which formed the basis of pragmatic social philosophy. Pragmatists agree with Comte that the universe is composed of laws and relations and not substance. John Locke said, “Our business is not to know all things but those which concern our conduct”. Immanual Kant used the word pragmatic in different sense.
According to The Concise Oxford Dictionary the term ‘pragmatic’ means dealing with matters according to their practical significance or immediate importance. The term, ‘pragmatism’, according to the same source, means, “Doctrine that evaluates any assertion solely by its practical consequences and its bearing on human interests”.
The term pragmatism has been derived from the Greek term pragma which means use.
In point of fact pragmatism is a name which has referred to many varieties of doctrines since Pierce took over from Kant the adjective ‘pragmatic’ to stress the relation of thought and knowledge to definite human purpose.
Pragmatism and naturalism
The difference between Pragmatism and Naturalism can be defined as follows:
Universality of Scientific theories
According to naturalism the scientific conclusions are universal and objective. Pragmatism, however, does not admit any scientific principle to be universal and objective. According to William James, all the laws are determined by space and time, no law is independent of circumstances.
Explanation of the world
Pragmatists do not accept the mechanical and impersonal picture of the world drawn by the naturalist which has no place for human values. On the other hand, the pragmatists admit with the idealists that there is a spiritual order behind this mechanical physical world. In the pragmatic world-view, human efforts have been given a respectable place.
Opposed to monism
Both the idealists and naturalists are monists, while the pragmatists are pluralists. In the words of Robert R. Rusk, “Pragmatism joins issue with Naturalism and idealism insofar as both the latter are monistic, seeking to explain nature, man and God by reduction to a single principle—Naturalism to life, Idealism to mind or spirit. Pragmatism regards this way of conceiving the universe as singularly unimaginative and lacking in verity.” Thus, in the explanation of the world the pragmatists do not mention one but many elements. In comparison to the naturalists the pragmatists find idealistic standpoint more satisfactory in human life, but while idealists place the source of this satisfaction within man, the pragmatists attribute it to external success.
Opposed to abstraction
The naturalists establish a single element in the world through abstraction. The pragmatists, on the other hand, are against all abstractions. They give more importance to concrete things and facts. As William James has explained the pragmatist viewpoint, “He demands a universe with real possibilities, real indeterminations, real beginnings, real ends, real evils, real crises, catastrophes and escapes, a real God, and a real moral life”.
Opposed to static reality
Explaining the distinction between naturalism and pragmatism concerning the nature of reality, William James has said, “For Naturalism reality is ready made and complete from all eternity, while for Pragmatism it is still in the making, and awaits part of its complexion from the future.” Thus, the Pragmatists believe that our aim is not so much to know the world as to make it. The life should not be rigid or static but dynamic and flexible. It is clear that the pragmatist explanation of reality is nearer to modern human consciousness.
Value of moral ideals
The moral values have no place in the naturalist world-view. The pragmatist, on the other hand, considers moral values to be very important in human life. While the naturalist makes moral and aesthetic aims secondary, the pragmatist considers them primary.
Pragmatism and idealism
As has been already pointed out, in comparison to naturalism Pragmatism is nearer to idealism. However, the two differ in the following respects:
Explanation of the world
The idealists explain nature, man and God in terms of one spiritual element. This has led to pragmatists’ reaction in metaphysics. According to the pragmatists the world is neutral, neither spiritual nor physical. The presence of an eternal unchanging spiritual substance at the basis of the world is not admissible by logic or experience.
Number of reality
As regards the number of reality the idealists are monists while the pragmatists are pluralists. This pluralism is characteristic of pragmatists’ explanation not only in philosophy but also in ethics, religion and other fields of life.
Change and status
The values, ideals and truths; according to idealists, are eternal and unchanging. According to Pragmatists, on the other hand, there is nothing eternal or unchanging. The world is a constant flux. The truths, values, ideals and postulates change according to space and time.
Value of reason
The idealist philosophers consider reason to be most valuable and interest as the source of moral dictates and cultural expressions. According to the pragmatists, on the other hand, reason is and ought to be the slave of passions. It has no other business but to follow will. Man’s future depends on his will and his intellect and the will is based upon natural tendencies and not reasoning. Thus, reasoning has got the secondary place in pragmatist psychology.
Ends and means
While the idealists emphasise ends, the pragmatists give importance to means in education. This difference makes for the distinction in their contribution to education. While the idealists present aims and ideals, the pragmatists explain important means. However, even in the field of aims and ideals, while the idealists emphasise spiritual values, the pragmatists hold human values in highest regard.
Role of concept and action
The idealists are conceptualists. Idea is most important in their philosophy. To the pragmatists, on the other hand, action is more important than idea. This difference makes so much distinction among the two types of thinking concerning teaching methods and curriculum.
Value of the world
Most of the idealist philosophies consider the objective world to be less real than the world of ideas. This has sometimes led to world negating attitude. On the other hand, according to the pragmatists, the physical world and mundane life are the ultimate valuable.
Static v/s dynamic approach
Thus the idealist thinking is static while the pragmatist thinking is dynamic. The pragmatists present a progressive and evolutionary approach in education.
In spite of the above distinction between the idealism and the pragmatism, the two are nearer than pragmatism and naturalism.
Fundamental principles of pragmatism
The following are the fundamental principles of prag-matism in the field of education :
Philosophically, the pragmatists are pluralists. According to them there are as many worlds as human beings. The ultimate reality is not one but many. Everyone searches truth and aim of life according to his experiences. The truth changes according to different spatio-temporal circumstances.
Emphasis on change
The pragmatists emphasise change The word is a process, a constant flux. Truth is always in the making. The word is ever progressing and evolving. Therefore, everything here is changing.
Pragmatists are utilitarians. Utility is the test of all truth and reality. A useful principle is true. Utility means fulfillment of human purposes. The results decide the good and evil of anything, idea, beliefs and acts. If the results are good, these are good, if bad these are evil. Beliefs and theories are determined by circumstances. Utility means satisfaction of human needs.
Changing aims and values
The aims and values of life change in different times and climes. The old aims and values, therefore, cannot be accepted as they are. Human life and the world is a laboratory in which the aims and values are developed. Everyone should seek aims and values according to his tendencies and abilities.
Pragmatists are individualists. They put maximum premium upon freedom in human life. Liberty goes with equality and fraternity. Everyone should adjust to his environment.
Emphasis on social aspects
Since man is a social animal, therefore, he develops in social circumstances. His success is success in society. The aim of education is make him successful by developing his social personality.
Pragmatists are experimentalists. They give more importance to action than ideas. Activity is the means to attain the end of knowledge. Therefore, one should learn by doing constant experimentation which is required in every field of life. According to William James, “Pragmatism is a temper of mind, an attitude, it is also a theory of the nature of ideas and truth, and finally it is a theory about reality.”
Forms of pragmatism
According to H.H. Horne, “The main principle of pragmatism is that the theories that work are true.” As E.S. Brightman maintains, “Primarily, pragmatism is a criterion of truth.” According to them everyone should discover his truth according to his experience and commonsense. The following four types of pragmatism are distinguished according to emphasis:
Humanistic pragmatism
This type of pragmatism is particularly found in social sciences. According to it the satisfaction of human nature is the criterion of utility. All truths are human truths. As the British humanist philosopher F.C.S. Schiller pointed out, “Some London squares are circular.” Contradiction in this statement disappears when we know that the term square here means the meeting of roads and not the geometrical figure known by this name. Similar instances may be multiplied in different social sciences. In philosophy, in religion and even in science man is the aim of all thinking and everything else is a means to achieve human satisfaction.
Experimental pragmatism
Modern science is based upon experimental method. The fact which can be ascertained by experiment is true. In other worlds, whatever works in the real world is the truth. The truth of a theory in science can be ascertained by its workability. No truth is final, truth is known only to the extent it is useful in practice. The pragmatists use this criterion of truth in every field of life. The field of experiment, however, is widest in the field of science. In science, experiment is the only basis for arriving at conclusion in a controversial matter. The human problems can be solved only through experiment. This is true even in the field of religion.
In his famous book Varieties of Religious Experience William James has advised that everyone should discover his God, mode of worship and man-God relationship by experiments in his own life. No other proof is required for a belief. By experiment in a field of life, one may know what to believe and what not to believe, what to do and what not to do. Whatever is proved by experience is true.
Nominalistic pragmatism
When we make any experiment we attend to the result. Our aim is examination of the material. Some hypothesis about the results invariably precedes every experiment. According to nominalistic pragmatism, the results of an experiment are always particular and concrete, never general and abstract. According to medieval European nominalistic philosophy, a universal is only a name. While only particulars are existing, the universals have no concrete existence. For example, while we find existing human individuals, we do not find humanity outside these individuals.
In the words of E.S. Brightman, “This kind of pragmatism is closely affiliated with sense experience as criterion for the particulars that we meet are mostly sense data, including their relations.” In the field of education emphasis is laid on concrete particular things and their experience in comparison to verbal knowledge.
Biological pragmatism
According to John Dewey, “The pragmatic test is found in the function of thought in adapting the human organism to its environment.” Experimentalism of John Dewey is based upon this biological pragmatism according to which the ultimate aim of all knowledge is harmony of the man with the environment. Education develops social skill which facilitates one’s life. The school is a miniature society which prepares the child for future life. From the biological point of view, man is a psycho-somatic being. Everyday we begin our work by means of set habits. Suppose some day we receive a letter which rises a problem requiring immediate decision the success of thinking in this function depends upon the best answer to the problem.

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