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date: 25 May 2017


Summary and Keywords

When John Dewey announced that communication was the most wonderful of all affairs, he recognized the centrality of communication within the tradition of American pragmatism. In other traditions of philosophy, such as idealism or empiricism, communication certainly played a role, but usually it was a secondary function of transmitting ideas from one mind to another. In idealism, ideas were discovered through intuitive revelation of the whole and only later expressed through transcendent eloquence, whereas in empiricism, particular data was attained purely by the senses and communication served a kind of documentary function of fact gathering. Pragmatism, however, inverted this traditional hierarchy. By arguing that the meaning of our ideas was only found in their effects and consequences in experience, particularly those consequences brought about through shared experience, pragmatists made communication both the origin and consummation of knowledge—regardless if that knowledge was practical, scientific, aesthetic, or social. Consequently, pragmatists believed that improving the quality of communication practices was central to improving not only the state of knowledge but the quality of our experience living together in a common world.

Keywords: epistemology, ontology, humanism, democracy, mass media, persuasion, rhetorical situation, social psychology, semiotics, argumentation

The affinity between pragmatism and communication was formally recognized by John Dewey (1929) when he announced that “of all affairs, communication is the most wonderful” (p. 166). This statement, often quoted, opened a chapter called “Nature, Communication and Meaning” in Dewey’s Experience and Nature (1929). But what was unique to pragmatism was not the fact that Dewey praised communication but the reason for that praise. Indicative of the title of the chapter, he celebrated communication specifically for its capacity to generate meaning out of the flux of natural events and then to communicate those meanings to others and thereby make them common possession. Dewey famously goes on to say “that things should be able to pass from the plane of external pushing and pulling to that of revealing themselves to man, and thereby to themselves; and that the fruit of communication should be participation, sharing, is a wonder by the side of which transubstantiation pales” (p. 166). Here Dewey reflects many of the aspects of communication that captured the pragmatic imagination—the way language interacts with experience, the relationship between concepts and percepts, the transformation of events into objects, the sharing of meanings through signs, and the creation of participation through individual expression. In short, communication is wonderful for the pragmatists because it makes possible the fact that we might live in a common world partly of our own making.

Historically, pragmatism arose as the first distinctive American intellectual movement in the newly formed environment of the modern research university, an institution that operated in part as both an extension of and reaction to rising American economic, political, and technological power. Generally speaking, pragmatism represented a rejection of a type of philosophy traditionally conceived within the aristocratic tradition—that is, of the dialectical inquiry into the nature of transcendental ideals and abstract universals that were disconnected from the common experiences and practical judgments of ordinary life. Consistent with the ethos of the rising democratic power in which it arose, pragmatism saw philosophy as a higher-order work of intelligence whose primary aim was to clarify meaning and to provide a method of thinking and acting in an increasingly complex world so that power could be wielded with purpose, virtue, and understanding rather than with arbitrariness, vice, and ignorance. Pragmatism, in short, represented a concerted effort to address the problems of modernity through the development of a modern philosophy.

As a philosophical “school,” pragmatism originated in the United States around 1870 and was represented in its early decades primarily by the figures of Charles Sanders Peirce, William James, and John Dewey. As these were the three “leaders” of the school of pragmatism, writing the bulk of its philosophical literature, this article will focus primarily on their work. However, pragmatism also is a more loosely defined intellectual tradition. One can also include within early pragmatism figures like George Herbert Mead, Jane Addams, W. E. B. DuBois, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., Randolph Bourne, Max Eastman, and Sidney Hook. During the mid-20th century, however, pragmatism was largely superseded by the traditions of American analytical philosophy which were more concerned with the epistemological matters of logical positivism. However, the late 20th century saw a revival of pragmatism in philosophy championed by Richard Rorty and associated with thinkers like Stanley Fish, Hilary Putnam, and Robert Brandom. This revival differed in significant ways from early pragmatism because of its explicitly linguistic focus and became known as “neo-pragmatism.” This difference will be explored at the end of this article through a brief exploration of Rorty’s work.

It is important to point out that pragmatism as an intellectual tradition has very little to do with the meaning of the term “pragmatic” when it is used to refer to a desire on attaining immediate practical results in disregard for principled ideals and ends. In common usage, to be “pragmatic” is often contrasted with being “idealistic” or “rationalistic,” such that a pragmatic individual is said to be able to compromise or to be willing to accept tangible benefits whereas an idealist will be dogmatic and a rationalist concerned only with intellectual consistency. Indeed, pragmatists are often said to be opposed to intellectualism of any kind to the point of being anti-intellectual. For instance, William James (1977) once famously declared that pragmatists always ask the question: “What, in short, is the truth’s cash-value in experiential terms?” (p. 430). It was the implications of this kind of metaphor that made Bertrand Russell (1945) argue that pragmatists have an attitude continuous with “the age of industrialism and collective enterprise” (p. 827). In this reading, pragmatism is often reduced to an attitude of those who use any means necessary to achieve a short-term, tangible gain and are impatient with those who stick by principles and refuse to compromise. Consequently, a pragmatic form of “communication” might be associated with some combination of salesmanship, negotiation, or folksy common sense—that is, speech that addresses that most prudent of all questions, according to Ralph Waldo Emerson (1979): “Will it bake bread?” (p. 132).

In contradistinction to this popular caricature, pragmatism actually emphasizes the instrumental value of philosophy, frequently celebrates many of the classical virtues of courage, wisdom, and faith, and as a whole advances no consistent normative vision for how we should communicate. As William James (1977) famously defined pragmatism, it is best understood not as a system that defines specific set of truths and mandates a particular way of living; it is rather understood as “primarily a method of settling metaphysical disputes that otherwise might be interminable” (p. 377). That is to say, pragmatism represents a way of interpreting and communicating the meaning of experience. As James explains, when faced with one of the many disputes we might have about the nature of things, “the pragmatic method in such cases is to try to interpret each notion by tracing its respective practical consequences. What difference would it practically make to anyone if this notion rather than that notion were true?” (p. 377). The key misinterpretation of pragmatism is to take a metaphor like “cash-value” to mean that only particular types of consequences count as “practical,” such as those dealing with immediate economic gain, physical well-being, or emotional satisfaction. But neither James nor any of the pragmatists made such a utilitarian restriction. “Cash-value” was simply contrasted with the notion of “credit,” or something that was promised but as yet still intangible. In this way, “cash” more accurately was meant to indicate any quality of experience that was tangible in some way, that made some impact in our lives—whether immediately or in the distant future and regardless of whether that impact was economic, aesthetic, intellectual, physiological, or spiritual. What was important for the pragmatists, in other words, was to define meaning in terms of those interactions between human beings and their environments rather than how words or experiences represented or matched up to some transcendent and otherworldly reality. In short, pragmatism did not so much tell us what to say as much as it interpreted what it meant to say something.

In order to show the relationship between pragmatism and communication, as well as to explore the differences between the pragmatists, the main section of this article will be divided into three parts—symbols, self, and society. The first section on “symbols” will explore the foundations of pragmatism through the work of Charles Sanders Peirce. It will offer a definition of pragmatism closely bound up with semiotics, or the study of signs, which will entail an exploration of the categories of existence, the triadic nature of meaning, the three categories of signs, and the definition of pragmatism as a way of making ideas clear in our language. The second section on “self” will draw from the psychological work of William James. It will focus on how pragmatism understands the nature of an individual as a biological organism always in a process of adapting and growing within a pluralistic universe. Specifically, it will focus on how we use language to channel energies and make judgments, particularly in the context of doubt and crisis that necessitate a will to believe. The third section on “society” will then use the work of John Dewey to expand our understanding of communication to encompass broader issues of democracy and social change, particularly with respect to the formation of publics and public opinion in a modern and mediated public sphere. Lastly, the concluding section will explore some of the differences between early and neo-pragmatism through the work of Richard Rorty.

Communication and Symbols

Although William James was the first to popularize the word “pragmatism” in print (namely in his 1907 book, Pragmatism), James credited the invention of both the term and the fundamental principle of the philosophy to Peirce. The term itself was invented in the early 1870s in discussions between Peirce, James, and Chauncey Wright, derived from the Greek word pragma, which meant an occurrence, matter, affair, or action. And what came to be known as the pragmatic maxim was defined in Peirce’s 1878 Popular Science Monthly article titled “How to Make Our Ideas Clear,” which read as follows: “Consider what effects, that might conceivably have practical bearings, we conceive the object of our conception to have. Then, our conception of these effects is the whole of our conception of the object” (Peirce, 1992, p. 132). As James (1977) interpreted it, this maxim meant that “to attain perfect clearness in our thoughts of an object, then, we need only consider what conceivable effects of a practical kind the object may involve—what sensations are we to expect from it, and what reactions we must prepare. Our conception of these effects, whether immediate or remote, is then for us the whole of our conception of the object” (p. 378). At its origin, then, pragmatism has as its aim the attainment of communicative clarity in language and meaning. Peirce, being a scientist and member of the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey, sought a method by which we could demonstrate exactly what our words meant in order to avoid unnecessary and misleading vagueness and by so doing improve the precision and accuracy of thought, language, and communication. Pragmatism offered in this method by turning attention away from abstract pronouncements and toward sensible effects.

To begin with Peirce is to emphasize the fact that pragmatism in its origin is closely related to the scientific ethos, namely the rise of cutting-edge research institutions that wanted a modern philosophy of knowledge on which to build their research programs. To begin an exploration of pragmatism with Peirce is thus to begin at the opposite end of the spectrum from a popular pragmatism that interprets “practical” as bread-baking. Peirce (1998) became so frustrated, in fact, with his term being used to denote the pursuit of prudent self-interest or emotional satisfaction (as opposed to intellectual or theoretical aims) that he later invented his own word, “pragmaticism,” to label his philosophy, which he said “is ugly enough to be safe from kidnappers” (p. 335). For as he later attempted to explain, his original use of the term “practical” had little essentially to do with everyday pursuits and rather signified only attention to pragma which could be empirically observed, experienced, and documented. In other words, his pragmatism had everything to do with an effort to clearly define terms by pointing to effects quite irrespective of the nature of those effects and their impact on a person’s life or affairs. In a later definition of the pragmatic maxim, he explained that “if one can define accurately all the conceivable experimental phenomena which the affirmation or denial of the concept could imply, one would have therein a complete definition of the concept, and there is absolutely nothing more in it” (p. 332, italics in original). Yet Peirce was not unconcerned with what he called matters of the “conduct of life” (p. 332). His point was simply that one conducted one’s life better, and ultimately more prudently, if one knew the precise difference between concepts. His faith was one of a scientist. To clearly perceive the world was to act more intelligently and more ethically within that world. Pragmatism was thus a means to see the world clearly by describing the process by which our experience with phenomena could be translated into meaningful signs capable of communicating meaning to another person in various degrees of clarity.


The foundation of Peirce’s entire philosophy of pragmatism is his theory of Categories, which is a way of understanding the three modes of being of anything that has existence. These categories are not distinct objects but rather one of three “modes” by which we can encounter something. What is important about Peirce’s categories is that they formed the foundation of what James and Dewey would later call “experience,” which represents a total sphere of interaction between an organism and an environment. For Peirce, phenomenology is the study of any and all appearances which come before the mind. As a result, “students of phenomenology, simply open our mental eyes and look well at the phenomenon and say what are the characteristics that are never wanting in it, whether that phenomenon be something that outward experience forces upon our attention, or whether it be the wildest of dreams, or whether it be the most abstract and general of the conclusions of science” (1998, p. 148). It was thus through the Categories that Peirce collapsed the dualism between subject and object, between mind and body, between concepts and percept, that had long dogged Western philosophy. The Categories themselves did not tell us what was real or not, or what was true or false. They simply helped us distinguish properties of our experience in order to give us more precise material to distinguish in thought and communicate through the use of signs.

Peirce rather plainly labels his Categories “First, Second, and Third.” He defines a First as a pure quality “whose being is simply in itself, not referring to anything nor lying behind anything” (Peirce, 2000, p. 170). Peirce frequently uses color as an example of a pure First, as one might imagine a state of “redness” detached from any particular object. But he also uses as an example of First aesthetic qualities like “beauty,” moral qualities like “courage,” or emotional qualities like “fearful.” The key quality of any First is that it is “present, immediate, fresh, new, initiative, original, spontaneous, free, vivid, conscious, and evanescent” (p. 171). A Second thus always stands in relationship to some First, as a subject is to a predicate or an effect is to a cause. Peirce says that a Second “meets us in such facts as Another, Relation, Compulsion, Effect, Dependence, Independence, Negation, Occurrence, Reality, Result” (p. 171). Most often, Peirce refers to Secondness as resulting from an encounter with resistance or recalcitrance, as one might only fully recognize the existence of a particular object after bumping into it. “Hardness,” for instance, can exist purely as a First in our imagination, but the recognition that a “table” is “hard” only occurs after a physical encounter in which a Second is bound to a First. Lastly, a Third is “that which bridges over the chasm between the absolute first and last, and brings them into relationship” (p. 172). Thirdness thus represents a law, habit, and rule, and is related to such terms as “Continuity. Process. Flow of time. Sympathy. Comparison. Exchange. Modification” (Peirce, 1998, p. 295). A Third thus explains why a First and a Second would be brought together at all, much as a contract might bind together two parties. If a First is a Quality (which we perceive through the faculty of Feeling) and a Second is a Reaction (which we encounter as an effect of the exertion of Will), then a Third is a Representation of a whole process (through Thinking).


However, even though all of these aspects are embedded in every part of our experience, they remain vague and indistinguishable until they are translated into a system of signs, or those things which stand to somebody for something in some respect or capacity. One of Peirce’s most innovative and lasting contributions to communication was his triadic understanding of signs which challenged the conventional understanding of a sign in terms of a dyadic relationship between a sign and a signified. Based on his triadic theory of Categories, Peirce argued that a “Sign, or Representamen, is a First which stands in such a genuine triadic relation to a Second, called its Object, as to be capable of determining a Third, called its Interpretant” (Peirce, 1998, p. 272). For instance, a pure color, such as “red,” can function as a representamen because it displays a particular recognizable quality, and in specific situations can operate as a sign when it refers to some particular object, such as a flammable substance. But the only reason we are able to make this connection between redness and flammability is because the relationship between a representamen and an object is mediated by an interpretant which explains the relationship between them. However, we often neglect to pay attention to the interpretant because it is often taken for granted. Yet the importance of the interpretant becomes apparent in cases of metaphor in which the interpretant explains why redness might refer to someone being angry. The only reason that the representamen “red” can refer to multiple objects is because there are a multitude of different interpretants, or explanatory rules, that explain and establish these relationships.

A major part of the endeavor to make our “ideas clear” for Peirce thus had to do with clarifying the meaning of our signs and then understanding their logical relationship to the real world—for the world was indeed “real” for Peirce—that we experienced phenomenologically. The next step in this process was thus to define the different types of signs that we could create using this triadic framework. Although by the end of his life Peirce had created an incredibly detailed chart of different signs (something like a periodic table) he exerted most of his effort in distinguishing between three general types of signs—icons, indexes, and symbols. An icon serves “to convey ideas of the things they represent simply by imitating them” (Peirce, 1998, p. 5). In this case the interpretant explains the relationship between two things—for instance, a jagged line and the existence of a stairwell. An index, by contrast, acts as an indication which shows “something about things, on account of their being physically connected with them” (p. 5). Peirce often gives examples of a pointed finger, a weathervane, or the expression “hey!” which for its meaning relies on some relationship with a physical object in its immediate presence. Finally, symbols are the most general of the signs “which have become associated with their meanings by usage” and represent “most words, and phrases, and speeches, and books, and libraries” (p. 5). Importantly for Peirce, however, the meaning of symbols is derivative of the meanings of icons and indexes which are more closely connected with our phenomenological experience. Icons are closely related with the realm of Firstness, or image, indexes with Secondness, or relation, while symbols are able to explore the realm of Thirdness, or law.


Finally, Peirce develops explicit forms of reasoning that allow symbols to interact with other symbols to form complex arguments, explanations, and claims. Following the triadic pattern, Peirce identifies three forms of inference which characterize our conscious life—deduction, induction, and abduction. Deduction reveals to us the consequences of a rule by applying it to a case which predicts a result, such as “marriage produces happiness (rule), therefore when I get married (case), I will be happy (result).” In deductive reasoning, then, one “traces out what is implicitly involved in what [is] already admitted” (Peirce, 1982, p. 362). Induction differs from deduction because whereas deduction “simply explicates our knowledge” induction “leads us to some new belief” (p. 394). Induction produces this new belief by showing how a certain number of cases accompanied by the same result prove a general rule, such as “I keep meeting married people (cases) who seem really happy (results), so being married must produce happiness (rule).” Induction is thus “the process by which we find the general characters of classes and establish natural classifications” (p. 428). Finally, abduction represents a way of explaining the nature of the case by invoking a rule capable of accounting for a variety of results, such as “I think that man is married (case) because he is wearing a ring (result), and all married men wear rings (rule).” Abduction thus represents the operation of adopting an explanatory hypothesis which enables us to see the why of things, the ultimate end of which is “to the test of experiment, to lead to the avoidance of all surprise and to the establishment of a habit of positive expectation that shall not be disappointed” (Peirce, 1998, p. 235). For Peirce, these three forms of inference represent the primary activities of mind as we attempt to figure out and navigate the world of phenomena. Inference thus represents the culmination of our efforts at meaning-making by translating our experience into symbolic arguments.

Although all of the layered relationships between all of these different triads—from the Categories of phenomena to the nature of signs to the different types of signs to the forms of reasoning—may seem at first glance to be many steps removed from a concern for communication, they have actually been outlined in order to demonstrate the very primacy of communication to Peirce’s thought. The reason is because unlike traditional empiricists in the tradition of John Locke or René Descartes, Peirce does not look at language and symbols as somehow “mirroring” the world. Nor does he embrace a romantic idealism that only values those speech acts which create in us a sense of political or religious transcendence. For Peirce, symbols are the means by which we transact “business” (to extend the cash metaphor) with our environment in the sense of predicting and controlling our experience. In his later work, Peirce defined the underlying principle of his pragmatism this way: that “the entire intellectual purport of a symbol consists in the total of all general modes of rational conduct which, conditionally upon all the possible different circumstances and desires, would ensue on the acceptance of the symbol” (Peirce, 1998, p. 346). A symbol thus represents a kind of web which encounters the phenomenal world at various points, and the meaning of the symbol represents the totality of all of these encounters rationally understood. Our entire symbolic apparatus is thus directed toward the mapping and prediction of different types of effects—whether they are physical, practical, emotional, spiritual, social, intellectual, or aesthetic—that we can expect when we attribute symbolic meaning to some aspect of our world.


The degree to which communication was central to Peirce’s pragmatism, however, only really becomes clear through his conception of inquiry as a process of settling belief rather than aligning words with objects. In direct opposition to Cartesian understandings of inquiry, Peirce both denies that universal doubt is possible and that representational truth is the aim of our investigations. Instead, he believes that the only reason we inquire is to “attain a state of belief” which rids ourselves of the “irritation of doubt,” in which doubt represents “an uneasy and dissatisfied state from which we struggle to free ourselves” and which belief represents the existence of some “habit which will determine our actions” (Peirce, 1992, p. 114). Inquiry, in other words, begins only when some habit, whether a habit of mind or of action, is actively disrupted or challenged, and inquiry ends when a new habit is reconstituted such that a person will act in a certain way when confronted with certain phenomena. But if this is so, communication is vital at each stage of this process. It is through our symbolic communication that we establish beliefs in the first place, whether informally in family or social life or formally in classrooms or institutions. Likewise, it is in communication that our beliefs are challenged and disrupted, particularly in contexts of criticism and argumentation, and then reconstituted in our communication with others, whether in the laboratory, around the dinner table, or in the public sphere.

That Peirce recognized the centrality of communication to his pragmatism is evident in his early conceptions of the “fixation of belief” in which he detailed the four methods by which belief was attained—tenacity, authority, a priori, and science. Here we see Peirce applying his philosophy to the criticism of public opinion by holding up scientific method as the ideal method of fixing belief. In each of these, the method of communication determines the structure of our belief. The first three are clearly deficient in Peirce’s view. In tenacity, a person seeks to doggedly persist in a single belief primarily by the method of isolation, by “systematically keeping out of view all that might cause a change in his opinions” (1992, p. 116). It is the method of the ostrich. The method of authority in many ways expands the method of tenacity to the level of institutions and has as its object to place “correct doctrines before the attention of the people, to reiterate them perpetually, and to teach them to the young; having at the same time power to prevent contrary doctrines from being taught, advocated, or expressed” (p. 117). It is the method of the Inquisition. And the last method, that of a priori, has advantage over the first two in allowing a free play of thought and encouraging the use of reason in the belief that free people, “conversing together and regarding matters in different lights, gradually develop beliefs in harmony with natural causes” (p. 118). It is the method of Plato’s Academy. All three of them have their advantages, but each has a significant disadvantage in neglecting the experimental need to test and develop symbols in relationship to experience and the documentation of effects. They rely completely on unscientific methods of communication and understanding to establish and indoctrinate beliefs that may be based on little more than dogmatism, tradition, or taste, respectively.

Yet unlike the tradition of positivism, Peirce did not view the “scientific” alternative as one liberated from the symbolic world of communication. Quite the opposite. Peirce’s pragmatism actually makes communication central to the pursuit of what he called “truth,” which for him referred not to a one-to-one relationship between symbols and things but rather “the opinion which is fated to be ultimately agreed to all who investigate” (Peirce, 1992, p. 138). Truth was, in effect, simply an extension of his doubt-belief inquiry extended to an entire community of inquirers both in space and in time. Science thus referred to the process of collaborative argumentation and investigation reminiscent of the principle of dissoi logoi that Aristotle used to defend rhetoric as a useful art. Peirce remarks that “different minds may set out with the most antagonistic views, but the process of investigation carries them by a force outside of themselves to one and the same conclusion” (p. 138). This “force” for him was what he meant by the “real,” which represented that which was the case regardless of what any one person or group may think about it at any one time. Yet because we have no direct access to the “real,” the best we can do is try to develop symbols that accurately describe and predict the effects in experience that come from the adoption of that symbol. Science thus represented the art of crafting clear and reliable symbols through the collaborative communication of a group of inquirers, just as art represented creating symbols that stimulated the emotions and imagination, and politics represented the art of crafting symbols that transformed opinion and moved a public to action. All of this is what it meant to be a pragmatist, for Peirce. It meant to fully grasp the meaning of symbols. Thus Peirce established, through his pragmatism, what he believed not only to be a firm scientific basis of inquiry into reality but also a guide for rationalizing public opinion in a modern democracy.

Communication and the Self

Although Peirce deserves credit for formulating the philosophical foundations of pragmatism, it is William James who popularized the philosophy and brought it fully before the public eye. His publication of Pragmatism in 1907 communicated the meaning of pragmatism to a popular audience and made it relevant to their everyday lives. Whereas Peirce believed that the function of philosophy was to make our ideas clear—quite independently of whether those ideas were useful to offer not—James (1977) argued that “the whole function of philosophy ought to be to find out what definite difference it would make to you and me, at definite instants of our life, if this world-formula or that world-formula be the true one” (p. 379). In a direct appeal to those popular readers who found the technical language of someone like Peirce distant and abstract, James argued that the true pragmatist “turns towards concreteness and adequacy, towards facts, towards action and towards power” (p. 379). His framing of pragmatism thus brought him closer alignment to those who wished for a philosophy whose “cash value” was more explicit, which could help them make judgments that were formative of a “self” capable of action and power in a changing and pluralistic universe. Consequently, communication in James’s philosophy was largely understood as a means of self-making, as a way of gaining insights from others, developing a richness of thought, and expressing oneself in works of art or in practical judgments, all of which helped constitute the self we are coming to be.

James’s focus on the relationship of philosophy to the development of “self” was a direct outcome of the fact that he was trained as a psychologist. Indeed, his theory of pragmatism grew directly out of his reinterpretation of the nature of the “self” as something that was formed as a product of activities and effort rather than a source of them. For James, behavior is not necessary for the realization of a pre-given self; behavior is the self, and psychology is the study of the mental and emotional factors that influence and direct that behavior. As he writes in the Principles of Psychology, “If we divide all possible physiological acts into adjustments and executions, the nuclear self would be the adjustments collectively considered; and the less intimate, more shifting self, so far as it was active, would be the executions” (James, 1918, p. 302). In other words, just as Peirce argued that the meaning of any “symbol” was the sum of the effects we might anticipate on adopting the symbol, so too did James argue that a “self” was understood only by its actions and powers rather by reference to any transcendental “soul” or inner “mental stuff.”

Whereas Peirce can be best understood as channeling the rising scientific and professional mentality of the modern research university, James can be seen in part as a reaction against it. Although trained in the latest scientific methods, James also wanted to preserve a space for religious faith, for personal experimentation, for pluralistic tolerance, and for public eloquence in an age in which specialization was the rule and scientific rationalism the standard. He thus spoke to an audience at the turn of the century that was not only confronted with the latest scientific achievements but also exposed to the rise of popular entertainments and the mass media which helped cultivate in members of the public a growing desire to chart their own paths and strike out in new directions. James’s emphasis on the “self” thus functioned as a corrective to Peirce’s focus on science by giving philosophical warrant for individuals to construct new identities commensurate with a new century.

Between the Tough and Tender Minded

The psychological orientation of James is revealed from the very opening of Pragmatism in which he defines the essential dilemma of philosophy less as a conflict of ideas than a conflict of different psychological attitudes, or what he famously called the conflict between the “tender minded” and “tough-minded.” That is because for James, as for all pragmatists, “the philosophy which is so important in each of us is not a technical matter; it is our more or less dumb sense of what life honestly and deeply means” (1977, p. 362). For the tender minded, the physical world we experience is but an emanation of some larger idea (whether in Nature or the mind of God), and the duty of the individual is to perceive the world as a rational whole that is ultimately moving toward the good. For the tough-minded, this conception of the world as Cosmos is a sentimentalist illusion, and so they adhere to a materialistic skepticism that holds only individual facts to be real and all ideals to be only partial and deceptive. Thus the dilemma of philosophy reduces to a conflict between two personality types: “the tough think of the tender as sentimentalists and softheads. The tender feel the tough to be unrefined, callous, or brutal” (p. 366). Pragmatism thus offers itself as a philosophy of life that can satisfy both kinds of demand: “it can remain religious like the rationalism, but at the same time, like the empiricisms, it can preserve the richest intimacy with facts” (p. 373). For James, then, the promise of pragmatism is that it can help us create a “self” capable of being enriched by every aspect of experience rather than restricting it to only one or another sphere.

Pragmatism accomplishes this feat by taking a novel approach to the long-standing question of philosophy of whether the universe is “one or many.” On the one hand, tender minded philosophy tends to assume the world is One, meaning that it is a completely unified totality, or Cosmos. In this case, the self is usually conceptualized as simply an emanation of some larger, pre-existing (and usually spiritual) whole whose favored form of communication is epideictic praise. On the other hand, tough-minded philosophy assumes the world is many and that every object and person and event is distinct from every other thing and ultimately exists only in isolation. In this case, the self is usually conceived materialistically, as simply a chance combination of elements determined by natural forces whose favored communication is a kind of forensic analysis of facts. For James, however, we live in a pluralistic universe that has not one but many forms of oneness, each of them existing in relation to each other. He writes that there are “innumerable little hangings-together of the world’s parts within the larger hangings-together, little worlds, not only of discourse but of operation, within the wider universe” (p. 408). In other words, the world is most certainly “many,” but what the tough-minded lack is an appreciation for the real existence of relations between parts that bind them together, however loosely and flexibly, into partial and overlapping wholes, just as “a man may hold various offices and belong to several clubs” (p. 408). This incorporation of “relation” as a real quality of the universe is what James meant by radical empiricism, whereas pragmatism is what follows from its acceptance. Consequently “the pragmatic value of the world’s unity is that these definite networks actually and practically exist” (p. 408). But they exist not separate from human effort and consciousness and language but often as a result of them. Because the universe is neither fixed nor chaotic, but constantly bound together and remaking itself, “the really vital question for us all is, What is this world going to be? What is life eventually to make of itself?” (p. 404). By acknowledging both the plurality of the universe as well as the potential for unity (however partial and ephemeral that unity might be), pragmatism orients us—in deliberative fashion—toward the future and encourages us to attend to the manner in which our thoughts and actions and habits in the present can form (or deconstruct) the different networks in which we form of our selves.

The Energies of Men and Women

The pragmatism of William James is distinct from that of Peirce insofar as James is far less concerned about developing a “clearer” philosophy of knowledge and more interested in how our ways of knowing ourselves and our world enriches our sense of self and increases our power of action. Perhaps James’s clearest expression of this interest is his essay “The Energies of Men” (and Women, we might add) which focuses exclusively on the question of “how men can be trained up to their most useful pitch of energy” (1977, p. 673). For the problem he sees is that “as a rule men habitually use only a small part of the powers which they actually possess and which they might use under appropriate conditions” (p. 674). And by “energy” or “power” James does not simply mean physical energy, but rather the “sum total of activities, some outer and some inner, muscular, some emotional, some moral, some spiritual, of whose waxing and waning in himself he is at all times so well aware” (p. 673). Pragmatism for him was not so much a philosophy of the symbol but a philosophy of the self, a philosophy which gave what he called a “topography of the limits of human power” that could help us understand our relationship to our environment, and also to ourselves, that would enable us to express our powers in thought and in action (p. 675).

It is thus in essays like “The Energies of Men,” as well as the more famous “The Will to Believe,” that we find his most explicit relevance to our understanding of communication. For what James provides in these essays is a pragmatic account of the situations in which individuals make crucial life choices and how their judgments might be influenced by communication. Effectively expanding on Peirce’s doubt-belief theory of inquiry, James rejects the notion that individuals are merely passive receptacles for either empirical knowledge or religious faith, as if beliefs can simply be poured into a person’s mind. “The Will to Believe” is based on the premise that our most important decisions that are formative of our selves come in response to judgments we make when confronted with what he calls “genuine options” that arise from our direct encounters with the world around us. A genuine option has three characteristics—being forced, living, and momentous. A “living” option is simply that which “appeals as a real possibility to him to whom it is proposed,” meaning it is not a fantastic or purely imaginative one but is actually something which a person may realistically choose (p. 717). A “forced” option is one in which “there is no standing place outside of the alternative,” meaning that one is forced to make a decision rather than simply avoiding a choice (p. 718). And a “momentous” option is one in which the opportunity is unique, the stakes are significant, and the decision is irreversible, such that one who “refuses to embrace a unique opportunity loses the prize as surely as if he tried and failed” (p. 718). In other words, our most significant choices come when we are confronted with two realistic options that we are forced to choose between, and in which that choice has significant consequences for the future. It is these times when communication with others may have a significant pragmatic impact on our lives.

The Will to Believe

Specific to the context of “The Will to Believe,” we find James attempting to reconcile the differences between the discourses of science and religion through a pragmatic appeal to choice and action. The reason for defining a “genuine option” is twofold. On the one hand, it is to call into question an empirical skepticism that demands that we must not make “up our minds at all till objective evidence has come,” as if the worst thing that we might do is to commit an error (1977, p. 728). But when faced with a genuine option, one is forced to make a choice before all the facts are in. On the other hand, it is critical to recognize the importance of faith, often derived from religious discourses, when making these forced choices and that “we have the right to believe at our own risk any hypothesis that is live enough to tempt will” (p. 733). James does not deny the utility of scientific rationalism, in fact arguing that in most cases when we have time to investigate, a “dispassionately judicial intellect” may be the ideal (p. 729). But he wants to say that in certain “momentous” occasions, we must act without the facts and on the basis of faith alone. Yet he also adds that these acts of faith may in fact help create facts that can in turn prove true. For instance, he gives a famous example of a train of passengers being looted by a few highwaymen because the people cannot count on one another to resist them as a group. Yet “if we believe that the whole carful would rise at once with us, we should each severally rise, and train robbing would never even be attempted” (p. 731). The will to believe thus represents an action based on faith that can, in certain circumstances, create facts that would otherwise go unknown. James’s argument here thus amounts for pragmatic appeal to consider the value of a plurality of different discourses for “then only shall we bring about the intellectual republic; then only shall we have that spirit of inner tolerance without which all our outer tolerance is soulless, and which is empiricism’s glory; then only shall we live and let live, in speculative as well as in practical things” (p. 734). To restate the premises of James’s pragmatism, what matters is not whether any act of communication somehow “refers” to the truth, but to what degree a statement is “made true” in action in a way that increases our power and the quality of our lives.

Lastly, we can see how James applies these principles to more explicitly rhetorical communication in the political sphere. He argues that most people exert added energy only when “some unusual stimulus filled them with emotional excitement, or some unusual idea of necessity induces them to make an extra effort” (p. 674). But now he identifies three different and more public stimuli, including “duty, the example of others, and crowd pressure and contagion” (p. 675). The last one is particularly significant with respect to how James understood political communication. He argues, for instance, that “certain objects naturally awaken love, anger, or cupidity, so certain ideas naturally awaken the energies of loyalty, courage, endurance, or devotion” (p. 680). For example, he gives as examples of “energy releasing ideas” those of Fatherland, the Flag, the Union, the Holy Church, the Monroe doctrine, Truth, Science, and Liberty (p. 681). In each case these powerful public symbols have the potential to “unify us, and put a stop to ancient mental interferences. The result is freedom and often a great enlargement of power” (p. 681). James well knew, of course, that this enlargement of power could often be used for war. But that is precisely why he called for a “moral equivalent of war” by which the energies so easily channeled into militarism might be used for constructive purposes in building a just nation (p. 66). James remained optimistic such an endeavor might be accomplished: “it is but a question of time, of skillful propagandism, and of opinion-making men seizing historic opportunities” (p. 669) Here, then, was James applying his pragmatic psychology of self-making to questions of remaking the nation through rhetoric.

Communication and Society

Of the three early pragmatists, it is John Dewey who speaks a language which is closest to that of contemporary social theory and its focus on the constitutive nature of communication. Although his early years were marked by a distinctly Hegelian and idealistic philosophy that posited the kind of organic selfhood that James explicitly rejected, by the time he became well-established at the University of Michigan and then at the new University of Chicago, Dewey had fully embraced the principles of pragmatism. What characterizes the context of Dewey’s middle and later works was the fact that it was in continual conversation with the events of his age. Dewey died in 1952 at the age of 92 and his most prolific period of writing occurred in the decades which included both world wars and saw the proliferation of new technologies, most notably in transportation and communication. Particularly in his experience at the University of Chicago at the turn of the century, Dewey saw the need to use philosophy as a tool for leveraging change over broad historical affairs in times of great change. He thus called for the use of intelligence to coordinate public policy, like Peirce, while also placing significant importance on the need to develop unique forms of individuality, like James. In Dewey, then, we find the most explicit attention to communication as the ground on which all social organization is built and which is the means by which the self is formed in relationship to society.

Dewey was the first pragmatist to be educated in the context of the modern American research university (actually taking a course in logic from Peirce at Johns Hopkins University), and early on he developed an interest in the study of social psychology from a scientific standpoint. Although the “science” of the 19th century was still heavily idealistic, Dewey eventually came to embrace a view of the self that was detached from idealistic conceptions and based almost entirely on the presumption that we form a sense of individuality only in the context of our social communication with others. As Dewey (1916) quite famously declared, “society not only continues to exist by transmission, by communication, but it may fairly be said to exist in transmission, in communication. There is more than a verbal tie between the words common, community, and communication. Men live in a community in virtue of the things which they have in common; and communication is the way in which they come to possess things in common” (p. 4). If the importance of communication was latent in Peirce and James, it comes to the forefront in the work of Dewey. For him, society exists in communication precisely because it is in the act of communicating with one another in a shared environment through symbols that we come to form not only common habits but a “mind” capable of sizing up and acting within situations.

As indicated by the quote, what Dewey means by “communication” is more than simply the transmission of an idea to another person through a medium. It is rather the creation of something “common” by using symbols in the context of shared experience in which some aspect of that experience has been abstracted and turned into a meaningful object. James W. Carey has distinguished these two views of communication by calling one the “transmission” and the other the “ritual view” of communication. For Carey (1989), the “transmission view” is one in which “communication is a process whereby messages are transmitted and distributed in space for the control of distance and people” (p. 15). In the transmission view, communication is little more than a means of getting bits of information from one place to another. In the ritual view, communication is organically related to our cultural environment and is constitutive of how we think, feel, and act within the milieu of community life. Therefore, from the ritual perspective based on Dewey’s insights, “to study communication is to examine the actual process wherein significant symbolic forms are created, apprehended, and used” (p. 30). Or to use the language of Peirce, it is to study how society, in its sharing of symbols, creates certain forms of common beliefs which take the form of habits which in turn are formative of our sense of self.

Education as Communication

Indeed, one way to look at Dewey’s pragmatism is to see how he interpreted many aspects of our social life as communication. First and foremost, the process of education is communication—not understood primarily in terms of classroom lectures and assignments, but rather as the way in which any society communicates its “habits of doing, thinking, and feeling from the older to the younger. Without this communication of ideals, hopes, expectations, the standards, opinions, from those members of society who are passing out life to those who are coming into it, social life could not survive” (Dewey, 1916, p. 3). But even in the classroom itself, communication becomes central to the educational process. We can of course transmit words and abstract ideas through language, which is represented by the acquisition of literacy, but the more important communication that goes on occurs between those being educated. Dewey observes that “impulses of communication and habits of intercourse have to be adapted to maintaining successful connections with others; a large fund of social knowledge accrues” (p. 186). This is why one of Dewey’s educational reforms was to make a classroom active rather than passive, to make students learn through doing and through communicating with each other in order to resolve some problem or accomplish some task. Communication was not only the way that our abstract knowledge became concrete but the way in which we could understand the perspectives of others and work together with them in common.

Science as Communication

Second, the knowledge we learned in school—even the most scientific—can also be understood as a specific form of communication. Dewey does not deny that science relies on empirical data or direct experience with phenomena, but like Peirce he insists that science is not meant to mirror or copy reality but rather to create a symbolic representation of reality by which we can predict and control future experience. As he writes, “what makes any proposition scientific is its power to yield understanding, insight, intellectual at-homeness, in connection with any existential state of affairs, by filling events with coherent and tested meanings” (Dewey, 1929, p. 136). Science is thus like mapmaking; it serves as a representation whose proof is to act as a sort of guide to what might be experienced in the future and to navigate the world of affairs. It is in this way that the final expression of science always is in communication, in an act of sharing meanings that directs our experience. That is why Dewey (1954) writes that “knowledge is communication as well as understanding,” precisely because “the thing is fully known only when it is published, shared, socially acceptable” (p. 176). Science does not exist, he writes, “cooped up in a private consciousness” or even in the pages of scientific journals; it exists only when it becomes a shared possession of a community that can make use of scientific discourse to anticipate effects and make reliable judgments (p. 176).

Art as Communication

Third, what applies to science also applies to art. Just as much as he rejects the positivistic view of science, Dewey (1934) rejects transcendent views of beauty “which isolate art and its appreciation by placing them in a realm of their own, disconnected from other modes of experiencing” (p. 9). Neither beauty nor truth is a fixture in a museum that it is our duty to gaze upon from a distance. Their meaning only comes as a result of experience and “the fulfillment of an organism and its struggles and achievements in the world of things” (p. 19). What this means is that Dewey understood art not as a transcendent object but as a form of expression and communication that found its meaning in the interaction of the experience of those who encountered a work in a particular place and time. As he explains, “every art communicates because it expresses. It enables us to share vividly and deeply and meanings to which we had been dumb” (p. 253). Once again, this communication does not amount to a transmission from some intrinsic idea embedded in the work of art into the mind of a passive receiver; it is an act of creative communion. For “communication is the process of creating participation, of making, and what had been isolated and singular; and part of the miracle it achieves is that, in being communicated, the conveyance of meaning gives body and definiteness to the experience of the one who utters as well as to those who listen indeed, due” (p. 253). Dewey thus put a great deal of emphasis on the power of art to break divisions between people by creating a mode of communication that approaches the universal, or at least as close to the universal as is in the human power to achieve.

Politics as Communication

Lastly, communication forms the basis of our social and political life. In defining the nature of the public, Dewey explicitly rejected any notion that started with some inherent sociability in human nature in which a public was formed from the bottom up or, alternatively, some formal theory of the state which started with a preexisting structure and worked down to the atomic citizen. Publics were formed only when increasingly larger groups of people were able to become conscious of the existence of others whose actions have direct or indirect consequences on their own affairs, and vice versa. As Dewey (1954) defined it, “the public consists of all those who are affected by the indirect consequences of transactions to such an extent that it is deemed necessary to have those consequences systematically cared for” (pp. 15–16). The state is the formal body charged with caring for those consequences through the enactment of law and its enforcement. But the precondition for a public to exist as an actual public, and not simply as an inchoate mass of bodies, is the development of some kind of common consciousness that is brought into existence through communication, both in face-to-face settings and through various mass mediums. It is to bring this self-conscious public into existence that Dewey forcefully argued that “the highest and most difficult kind of inquiry and a subtle, delicate, vivid and responsive art of communication must take possession of the physical machinery of transmission and circulation and breathe life into it” (p. 184). For until that time, the public will simply be a passive recipient of manufactured propaganda that keeps people isolated from one another and the victim of manipulative forces beyond their understanding and control.

His final version of a fully formed democracy, then, combines his vision of education, science, art, and politics into one vision. Dewey argues, for instance, that the essential need “is the improvement of the methods and conditions of debate, discussion and persuasion. That is the problem of the public” (p. 208). What this means can be understood through the four previous points. First, it needs a form of education that is based on the training of critical and creative habits in citizens by which they can meet challenges through their own initiative. Second, it requires creating a form of knowledge that is not only the property of the elites but is also disseminated to the public and put to use solving the everyday problems of men and women. Third, it means making use of the resources of art to communicate the complex principles and conclusions of science as well as create understanding between different communities in order to break down the divisions of culture. And lastly, it means creating a political culture whose primary virtue is publicity, or the ability for individuals to make themselves heard and to freely access information by those in power. Only when all of these communicative virtues are fulfilled will democracy come into being.

Communication and Neo-Pragmatism

After many decades in the wilderness, the tradition of pragmatism was revived most prominently by former analytic philosopher Richard Rorty, who advanced a philosophy that came to be known as “neo-pragmatism.” The “neo” derived from the fact that Rorty rejected an important part of original pragmatism that was connected with Peirce’s realism, which hung on to the Kantian notion that there still existed a real world that we might be able to approximate over time with symbolic conceptions (however pragmatically understood). Consequently, Rorty (1982) downplays the importance of Dewey’s “metaphysics of experience” and focuses our attention on Dewey’s writing as a cultural critic that appeared “in much of his older (and best) work” (p. 85). What troubles Rorty is Dewey’s instance that experience exists within a world that has boundaries that extend beyond the limits of bodily stimulus and linguistic meaning and thus embody actual relations between things. For Rorty, defining “experience” as anything more than the functioning of the nervous system is simply another manifestation of the desire to connect with some nonhuman reality. Better, he suggests, to abandon this hope and to concentrate on the construction, critique, and reinvention of the vocabularies that constitute the meaning of our selves and of our world. It is language, not experience, toward which we should turn our attention.

Rorty (1982) advises us to “put aside that spirit of seriousness” and treat the past “as material for playful experimentation rather than as imposing tasks and responsibilities upon us” (p. 87). Rorty (1989) thus develops an approach to scholarship in which “the method is to redescribe lots and lots of things in new ways, until you have created a pattern of linguistic behavior which will tempt the rising generation to adopt it, thereby causing them to look for appropriate new forms of nonlinguistic behavior” (p. 9). Scholarship, like other forms of “conversation,” is a never-ending process in which we “see human beings as generators of new descriptions rather than beings one hopes to be able to describe accurately” (Rorty, 1979, p. 378). The only judge of their legitimacy is the degree to which they tempt others to alter their linguistic behavior. Rorty’s utopian vision rests on a firm distinction between self-creation as a private act and social solidarity as a public endeavor. Personal transformation is pursued through private acts of self-reflection such as the reading of poetry, literature, and other historically contingent narratives that help the “self” become something other than it is; “the vocabulary of self-creation,” he notes, “is necessarily private, unshared, unsuited to argument” (Rorty, 1989, p. xiv). By contrast, the vocabulary of social justice “is necessarily public and shared, a medium for argumentative exchange” (p. 41). Our sense of “we”-ness grows out of values and feelings that result from the forging of social consensus over time through communication; “solidarity,” Rorty notes, “is not discovered by reflection but created” (p. xvi). Genres of communication such as journalism, comic books, and the novel are well-suited for generating solidarity in that they help us experience the suffering of others by telling us their stories (p. xvi). As a result, we learn the importance of leaving them alone to pursue their own salvation free from public interference. Self-creation and social solidarity have nothing to do with one another; they simply occupy different spheres, with the disentanglement of self-creation from metaphysics serving as the basis for public tolerance of private idiosyncrasies.

Neo-pragmatism thus refuses to ground any of its ethical or political commitments on any presuppositions about nature and experience in the way that Dewey had done. By advancing a more behavioristic notion of language that sees vocabularies largely as ways of coordinating the future actions of others, it accepts the fact that there is no universal ground for any particular belief or behavior that transcends one’s own vocabulary. It is for this reason that Rorty controversially advances what he called an “ethics without principles,” meaning an ethics that does not rely on notions of transcendental rights or moral claims but simply on a desire to increase the range of one’s sympathies to people beyond the sphere of one’s cultural boundaries. As he writes, “pragmatists think that the idea of something nonhuman luring us human beings on should be replaced with the idea of getting more and more human beings into our community—of taking the needs and interests and views of more and more diverse human beings into account” (Rorty, 1999, p. 82). Neo-pragmatism does not concern itself with determining the relationship between symbols and experience under the assumption that some kind of “nature”—human or material—is determining that relationship. It assumes that language is purely a tool for creating vocabularies. For Rorty that means committing ourselves to developing vocabularies that can be communicated to increasingly diverse communities of human beings.


Communication and language is central to all pragmatic philosophy because it is in communication with others that we are able to translate meaning into the actions that show what James called the “cash value” of our commitments. In idealistic or materialistic philosophies, communication is also important, but it is valued more in terms of how it “applies” truths that have been developed and verified in separate spheres. Pragmatism inverts this order of things, and insist that it is only in the effects of our speech acts—the predictable ways our language influences others, coordinates actions, and brings about a shared experience—that ever “proves” anything true or beautiful. Any idea that exists prior to its public communication exists only as a hypothesis. Consequently, pragmatism demands a commitment to continually expanding our community of inquiry to include more and more perspectives so that our “truths” have wider and wider application. Whether or not this truth ever corresponds to the “real” remains a matter of debate among the pragmatists, with Peirce and Rorty occupying different ends of the spectrum. But no matter what their epistemological commitments, all pragmatists share in Dewey’s belief that of all affairs, communication is the most wonderful.

Review of the Literature

Although the literature on pragmatism in general is vast if one includes all of the philosophical and historical works of the subject, scholarship specific to the discipline of communication tends to be more narrowly localized in the late 20th century and for often very specific purposes. In one of the most comprehensive reviews of the relationship between pragmatism and communication studies, Simonson (2001) remarks that the field of communication “is not a discipline in any narrow sense of the word, not one that is governed by common methods, common standards, common focus, or common knowledge,” but “is rather a set of questions pursued by sometimes motley assortment of guerrilla bands that raid other disciplines for tools and texts” (p. 19). With perhaps the exception of one of the earliest treatments of Dewey’s view of communication by Belman (1977), scholars of communication often look back to the pragmatists to give them resources to pursue their own endeavors rather than simply to better understand the concept of its own, an attitude that one could argue actually embodies the very spirit of pragmatism itself.

One can, however, argue that pragmatism has had the greatest influence on two distinct scholarly traditions in the field of communication in different ways—one the tradition of critical studies of mass communication and the other the tradition of rhetorical theory. The use of the pragmatists to understand the form and impact of the mass media is probably the longest tradition of communication scholarship. In fact, it was Walter Lippmann, himself a student of James who was well-versed in pragmatic philosophy, who applied its principles most effectively in his famous work, Public Opinion (1922). His subsequent debate with John Dewey over the role of the news and the nature of democracy established the basic terms for controversies that would last into the 21st century. But the full impact of the field of communication would largely await the work of James Carey (1989), whose essay on Dewey and Lippmann would help define the terms “mass” and “media,” while his essay addressing a cultural approach to communication introduced the difference between a “transmission” and “ritual” view of communication. Since then, subsequent work by Bybee (1999), Crick (2009), Jansen (2009), Jensen (1995), Peters (1989a; 1989b), Schudson (1997; 2008), and Tell (2013) have continued to explore how pragmatism can help illuminate such issues as the structure of the media industry, its relationship to democracy, impact on individual consciousness and experience, its relationship to science and art, and its use as education or propaganda.

The explicitly rhetorical significance of pragmatism has had an equally long tradition, although in only recent decades has it attained any kind of balance with the scholarship of the mass media. Perhaps the earliest rhetorical scholar to pay attention to pragmatism was Kenneth Burke, who famously used Dewey’s concept of “occupational psychosis” to explain one of the pervasive challenges in any culture going through periods of change in which old habits clash with new environments. However, it was Lloyd Bitzer’s (1968) famous essay, “The Rhetorical Situation,” which applied the principles of pragmatism, namely the idea of encountering a problematic situation which brings up the context of deliberate choice, to rhetoric. Since then, essays and books on the relationship to pragmatism and rhetoric have flourished in the field of communication and in that of rhetoric and composition, including works by Colapietro (2007), Crick (2003; 2010), Danisch (2007; 2013), Fishman (1993), Fishman and McCarthy (1996), Greene (2003), Johnstone (1983), Jones (1996), Keith (2007), Mackin (1990), Patton (1979), Russell (1993), Stob (2011; 2012; 2013), and Stroud (2008; 2011; 2013). Pragmatism provides rhetoric a foundation for understanding how the arts of language function by articulating the relationships between symbols, self, and society in a way that begins with the experience of those being persuaded rather than imposing structure upon them.

Finally, recent scholarship has also begun to look at the pragmatists for the development of communication theory at large. The most recent focus in communication scholarship has been the work of Peirce, most notably by Bergman (2009a; 2009b), Bodie and Crick (2014), Colapietro (2007), and Lyne (1980). And several works have looked generally at the relationship between pragmatism and communication as a field, including works by Craig (2007), Perry (2001), Peters (1999), Russill (2005; 2007), and Simonson (1996). All of these tendencies indicate that pragmatism, far from becoming an antiquated theory, has gained ever new life within the field of communication in a way that is instrumental and imaginative.

Primary Sources

For those seeking a broad introduction to American pragmatism, the best collection of primary sources is Menand’s (2001) Pragmatism: A Reader, which includes important selections not only from the older pragmatists like Peirce, James, and Dewey but also contemporary pragmatists like Rorty, West, and Bernstein. There are also many excellent recently edited volumes, and these include collections of the major works by the leading pragmatists. These include two volumes of the Essential Peirce by the Peirce Edition Project, the two volumes of The Essential Dewey spearheaded by the Center for Dewey Studies, and the compendium of The Writings of William James put together by James McDermott. The benefit of these edited collections is that they bring together many of the smaller, significant essays that are not included in the books by the pragmatists, with the notable exception of Peirce, who published only essays. Consequently, his works are only available in these types of edited collections.

Of Dewey and James, a few key books are central to gaining an understanding to their thought. By far, James’s most important book is his Pragmatism, which is an essential reading for anyone interested in this tradition of thought. Also very significant is his Varieties of Religious Experience, although as the majority of the book is largely a documentation of religious experience, only the beginning and end represent a sustained philosophical discussion. Much less read but important is his Psychology: The Briefer Course, which is a condensed version of his two volumes of The Principles of Psychology. Particularly for those interested in exploring the inner workings of the mind, this book is especially important for understanding the psychological basis for his theory of pragmatism. John Dewey wrote far more books than James, but a few stand out as being particularly influential in the field of communication. In terms of its influence on communication pedagogy, in particular, nothing compares with the influence of Democracy and Education. If one is looking for the most comprehensive treatment of his understandings of epistemology and ontology, Experience and Nature sums up his whole career of thought on our relationship to the world around us. The Public and Its Problems remains the touchstone for political theory in American political thought, while Art as Experience is perhaps the most unique treatment of works of art as acts of communication designed to influence our thought, action, and relationship to others and the world.

Expanding out beyond the three major representatives of early pragmatism, many famous works can trace their influence to the pragmatic tradition. George Herbert Mead worked with Dewey at the University of Chicago and many of his most important works were published posthumously under the collection called Mind, Self, and Society. Dewey’s former student, Randolph Bourne, was the voice of radicalism at the turn of the century and had many of his provocative essays published in a collection called The Radical Will. And social reformer Jane Addams published her experiment in urban settlements in Twenty Years at Hull House. One can also find pragmatist themes in The Souls of Black Folk by W. E. B. DuBois, who was a student of James’s at Harvard. All of these works show pragmatic principles and practice in different ways. For contemporary neo-pragmatism, the touchstone is Rorty’s Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature. It was this work which was largely responsible for the resurgence of pragmatism in the discipline of philosophy. Also important is Rorty’s Consequences of Pragmatism and Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity.

Further Reading

The best narrative introduction to American pragmatism in the context of history is by far Lewis Menand’s The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America. This intellectual history shows how American pragmatism evolved from the writings of Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., James, Peirce, and Dewey after the Civil War. Also an incredibly lively treatment is Cornel West’s The American Evasion of Philosophy: A Genealogy of Pragmatism. This book starts with Emerson and includes other figures such as Trilling, Mills, Hook, and Niebuhr and places them within a single intellectual tradition. A more recent treatment of the relationship between pragmatism and neo-pragmatism, by many of the most important representatives of the contemporary pragmatic tradition, is The Revival of Pragmatism: New Essays on Social Thought, Law, and Culture, edited by Morris Dickstein. And in the discipline of communication, the best collection of pragmatism is put together by Lenore Langsdorf and Andrew Smith called Recovering Pragmatism’s Voice: The Classical Tradition, Rorty, and the Philosophy of Communication.


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Bergman, M. (2009a). Experience, purpose, and the value of vagueness: On C. S. Peirce’s contribution to the philosophy of communication.” Communication Theory, 19, 248–277.Find this resource:

Bergman, M. (2009b). Peirce’s philosophy of communication. New York: Continuum.Find this resource:

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