Pragmatism and Its Impact on Public Administration


The philosophy of pragmatism has brought significant changes into the world of science having presented research, knowledge and the truth from a new perspective. These changes can be concisely articulated by the quote from (Miller, 2004), “All pragmatists want to develop knowledge that works” (p.245). Pragmatism has influenced the whole understanding of the research process, its purpose and possible outcomes. There is a strong affiliation to connect the philosophy of pragmatism with the rise of United States to the position of the world’s socio-economic and geopolitical center that took place in the second half of the 20th century. Particularly, it is stated that this unprecedented rise can be partially explained by essentially “pragmatist workings” of American people’s mentality. By quoting the letter of one of founders pf pragmatism William James, Stuhr (2010) provides us with the insight onto the fact that, even as early as 1907, James had the notion about the significance of the pragmatist philosophy attaining a full academic and practical legitimacy in America, “I shouldn’t be surprised if ten years hence it (Pragmatism) should be rated as ‘epoch-making,’ for of the definitive triumph of that general way of thinking I can entertain no doubt whatever – I believe it to be something quite like the Protestant Reformation” (p. 2). It would not be an overstatement if we say that throughout the course of first half of 20th century, American politicians who headed the country’s social, political and economic growth were guided and inspired by the ideas of pragmatism. In this paper, we will however refrain from analyzing validity of the notion of the “pragmatist mentality” and discussing the role of pragmatism in the history of the USA, but will rather focus on the scientific perspectives of the issue. We will observe the origins and the evolution of the pragmatist philosophy and touch upon its significance for the development of public administration.

Essence and Roots of Pragmatism

In his article, Ormerod (2006) defines pragmatism in the following way, “Pragmatism is a philosophy expounded notably by CS Peirce and William James, that evaluates assertions solely by their practical consequences and bearing on human interests” (p. 894). Despite apparent brevity of such a definition, it nevertheless articulates the conceptual premise of pragmatism with utter preciseness: pragmatism is a theoretical framework for assessing the qualitative subtleties of particular phenomena in regards to how these subtleties emanate themselves practically.

It is now being commonly assumed that the roots of pragmatism can be traced to the activities of Oliver Wendell Holmes (1841 – 1935) who while practicing law on full-time basis never ceased being concerned with trying to improve law’s ‘situational applicability’. As Holmes had put it in his now famous book The Common Law, “The life of the law has not been logic: it has been experience… it cannot be dealt with as if it contained only the axioms and corollaries of a book of mathematics” (1881, p. 1). It was namely Holmes, who introduced the notion of ‘judicial discretion’ into the matrix of 19th century’s American jurisprudence.

Classical Pragmatism

The role of the founder of pragmatism is now considered to belong to Charles Saunders Peirce (1839-1914). In his works, Peirce theorized upon the mechanics of a scientific inquiry, which according to him, features three stages of a signification process: formulaic, dyadic and triadic. And, it is only when the results of a scientific inquiry, which had undergone all three stages, appear mutually confirmative that we can be sure of inquiry’s overall validity. Despite the fact that Peirce always considered the possibility for the scientific notions about surrounding reality to be proven fallacious, he never ceased stressing out the full objectiveness of a cognitive process, concerned with making judgments on the basis of these notions, “There are real things, whose characters are entirely independent of our opinions about them; those realities affect our senses according to regular laws, and though our sensations are as different as our relations to the objects, yet, by taking advantage of the laws of perception, we ascertain by reasoning how things really are” (1877, p. 120). It was specifically due to Peirce’s uncompromising criticism of the principle of Cartesian intuition that by the end of 19th century, the very theoretical premise of idealistic metaphysics started to be perceived as increasingly outdated. Thus, it would not be an exaggeration to suggest that Peirce may be considered the ‘father’ of American modern philosophy. According to Gerard (2000), “It was the destiny of America to unite what was divided in Europe and give birth to a new philosophy: pragmatism, thanks to Peirce, without whom philosophy would not be what it is, not only in America, but the world over” (p. 189). As many of today’s researchers point out, Peirce paved the way for the American pragmatism to become one of 20th century’s most important philosophical movements.

Nevertheless, the ‘mainstream’ American pragmatism is being strongly associated with the name of William James (1842-1910) who managed to provide well-substantiated rationale to the idea that the truthfulness/fallaciousness of every particular idea should be assessed in regards to the extent of such idea’s practical usefulness. In his book Pragmatism, James stated, “The ideas (which themselves are but part of our experience) become true just in so far as they help us to get into satisfactory relation with other parts of our experience” (1907, p. 58). As it was pointed out by Ormerod in the article mentioned above, “Truth, for James’s pragmatism, consists in useful ideas. Their utility may lie in the power they confer to predict experience or their encouragement of valuable emotion and behavior” (p. 899). Therefore, James used to deny the validity of theorizations about a variety of purely abstract matters as “things in themselves”. According to him, the “truth” cannot exist independently of its qualitative emanations in the realm of practice, which is why the concepts that we perceive as beneficial to our personal well-being, must necessarily be truthful: “My first act of free will shall be to believe in free will” (p. 117). As James was able to show, it is namely the ability/inability of metaphysical notions to benefit concerned individuals practically, which should be thought of as the measure of these notions’ truthfulness. As for the scientific knowledge, James considers scientific theories to be of limited value: particularly, they summarize the old facts and give scholars opportunity to find the new ones (Hollinger, p.23).

John Dewey (1859-1952) who popularized Darwinist approach in dealing with Pragmatism’s subject matters has explored the validity of James’s theoretical insights even further. While agreeing with James’s functualist view on the very purpose of pragmatism, Dewey nevertheless opposed to how James thought of the concept of epistemology. Whereas James used to think of cognition from essentially spectator’s perspective, Dewey believed that it is conceptually fallacious to address cognition outside of existence. According to Dewey, Western classical philosophers, especially those affiliated with idealistic tradition, had made a fundamental mistake in adopting existentially unengaged stance, while indulging in theorizations. The reason for this is simple – as representatives of Homo Sapiens specie, we are not spectators, but agents. We are biological organisms living in the environment where we have to survive. Therefore, the possession of knowledge, on our part, is actually the most important instrument of assuring such a survival – pure and simple. As McDonald (2004) had put it, “Dewey does not conceive of experience as outside of nature, but as within nature and thus of nature or natural… Human nature is an outgrowth or development within nature. Dewey’s project is to show the continuity between human and the rest of nature, not to emphasize the difference” (p. 68). Hence, Dewey’s perceptional relativism may be formulated as follows: things that makes us rich, healthy and happy, are good and therefore, moral. On the other hand, things that make us ill and miserable are necessarily immoral, regardless of how strongly they might be embedded into the framework of a conventional morality.


Recent decades mark the rise of a new branch of pragmatism, a so-called neo-pragmatism represented by Richard Rorty, Hilary Putnam and Donald Davidson. Despite the fact that these philosophers differ in how they address ethical, aesthetical and epistemological issues, they nevertheless agree with classical pragmatist idea that there is no difference between “facts” and “values”, that “beliefs” never cease being the subject of revision and that, within the context of conducting a scientific inquiry, practice plays a primary role. The words “fact”, “truth”, “experience” are considered by Richard Rorty within a certain linguistic system (Miller, p.244). In his famous Contingency, Irony And Solidarity, Rorty says, “Truth cannot be out there – cannot exist independently of the human mind – because sentences cannot so exist, or be out there. The world is out there, but descriptions of the world are not” (Rorty, p.5); there is no need to say how strongly this statement shifts the notion about a scientific research itself. Rorty positions himself as “a Deweyan philosopher who also thinks of himself as a reformist, bourgeois, Dewey-style liberal” (quoted in Cotkin, p.38). However, Cotkin tends to see Rorty as a follower of James’s philosophical ideas as well seeing a series of points of contact in their views (ibid.). At the same time, Cotkin emphasizes the discrepancy in two philosophers’ opinion about the difference between the private and the public spheres (p.39), which makes this debate of particular interest for scholars working in the field of public administration.

Pragmatism In Public Administration

Considering the “epoch-making” value of pragmatism, it is not accidentally that we may state that pragmatism has brought the principal changes into public administration as it is. The pragmatist approach has brought a significant share of practicality into the public administration scholarship. It is well known that the notion of public administration has two meanings: firstly, it is the implementation of governmental policies; secondly, it is a field of study. For a long time, this dual character of the notion presupposed the gap between these two meanings, which in fact means the existence of a gap between scholarship, and the real-life decision making and policy implementation. The main change that pragmatism has brought into the field of public administration is the reduction of this gap. Here, the focus is not even on the practical implementation of theoretical knowledge, but, backwards, on making the practice the “input data” and the main focus of scholarship.

Particularly, Millers says, that from the issue of legitimization, or the question “who should rule?”, the focus of public administration shifts to decision making in the real situations, or the question “what shall we do next?” (Miller, p.248). This new condition is not identical with the any of three approaches existing in public administration (managerial, public and legal approaches); even the managerial approach, despite also being focused on making appropriate decisions, is more distanced from providing concrete solutions for situations taking place in the real-life setting. This is what Rorty has expressed in his quotation, “liberal culture needs an improved self-description rather than a set of foundations” (p.52).

Alluding once again to the dual nature of the notion of public administration, we may notice that pragmatism has somewhat reformed the roles of public administrators as the agents who work in the field of practical realization of public administration, and scholars who conduct their study in this field. On the one hand, despite both public administrators and scholars are at the service of the state and the society, they have different power: public administrators work in order to solve problems (Miller, p.246), and a scholar’s public role is limited: as Rorty says, “we should not assume it is our task, as professors of philosophy, to be avant-garde of political movements” (quoted in Cotkin, p.46). The last statement is in accordance with the abovementioned quotation about self-description and foundations. On the other hand, government, says Miller (p.246), is also not a monopolist in public administration any more. Now, it may have different roles, such as a facilitator, an information resource, et al (ibid.). Together, these trends describe eloquently the difference between the today’s condition and the “pre-pragmatism” era.

One more notion that has a close relation to public administration is the notion of an inquiry community. The notion has formed on the basis of the ideas of classical pragmatism, and is actively discussed today (for example, Shields, 2003). The notion of the community of inquiry corresponds to the orientation of pragmatism onto detection of problems and making decisions. The community that has common interests and puts common effort into achieving common goals is a very useful concept for public administration. In consonance with the tradition of pragmatism, Shields says that public administrators “should be better able to tap into the collective and historical experience of their organizational community” instead of limiting its notion to that of a “conceptual structure” (Shields, p.530).


“The future of our civilization depends upon the widening spread and deepening hold of the scientific habit of mind”, said Dewey (quoted in Hollinger, p.21). Pragmatism has already significantly contributed to this process having impacted the modern “habit of mind” in different fields including public administration. The main change that is has brought in the modern scientific world is the revision of the “old Enlightenment ideals” (p.33) that dominated in science for a long time. There are all grounds to say that the discussed tendencies in public administration scholarship will take roots and advance.


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Stuhr, J. (2010). 100 years of Pragmatism: William James’s revolutionary philosophy. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.