On Pragmatism: some excerpts


Over the past ten years or so the software development world has split itself between two extremes of temperament.  One is pragmatic while the other, for lack of a better term, is purist.  This is a division which actually happens again and again from one year to the next, with members of one party sometimes becoming members of the other, and practitioners of one philosophy in one technical domain becoming practitioners of the other under other circumstances.

This is not a division of temperament unique to programming of course, though it perhaps gets a little more play there than in other fields these days.  As a matter of interest and of clarification, I thought I might provide some excerpts from William James’s work Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking from 1907:

“The history of philosophy is to a great extent that of a certain clash of human temperaments. Undignified as such a treatment may seem to some of my colleagues, I shall have to take account of this clash and explain a good many of the divergencies of philosophers by it. Of whatever temperament a professional philosopher is, he tries when philosophizing to sink the fact of his temperament. Temperament is no conventionally recognized reason, so he urges impersonal reasons only for his conclusions. Yet his temperament really gives him a stronger bias than any of his more strictly objective premises. It loads the evidence for him one way or the other, making for a more sentimental or a more hard-hearted view of the universe, just as this fact or that principle would. He trusts his temperament.”

. . .

“Yet in the forum he can make no claim, on the bare ground of his temperament, to superior discernment or authority. There arises thus a certain insincerity in our philosophic discussions: the potentest of all our premises is never mentioned. I am sure it would contribute to clearness if in these lectures we should break this rule and mention it, and I accordingly feel free to do so.”

. . .

“Now the particular difference of temperament that I have in mind in making these remarks is one that has counted in literature, art, government and manners as well as in philosophy. In manners we find formalists and free-and-easy persons. In government, authoritarians and anarchists. In literature, purists or academicals, and realists. In art, classics and romantics. You recognize these contrasts as familiar; well, in philosophy we have a very similar contrast expressed in the pair of terms ‘rationalist’ and ’empiricist,’ ’empiricist’ meaning your lover of facts in all their crude variety, ‘rationalist’ meaning your devotee to abstract and eternal principles. No one can live an hour without both facts and principles, so it is a difference rather of emphasis; yet it breeds antipathies of the most pungent character between those who lay the emphasis differently; and we shall find it extraordinarily convenient to express a certain contrast in men’s ways of taking their universe, by talking of the ’empiricist’ and of the ‘rationalist’ temper. These terms make the contrast simple and massive.

“More simple and massive than are usually the men of whom the terms are predicated. For every sort of permutation and combination is possible in human nature; and if I now proceed to define more fully what I have in mind when I speak of rationalists and empiricists, by adding to each of those titles some secondary qualifying characteristics, I beg you to regard my conduct as to a certain extent arbitrary. I select types of combination that nature offers very frequently, but by no means uniformly, and I select them solely for their convenience in helping me to my ulterior purpose of characterizing pragmatism. Historically we find the terms ‘intellectualism’ and ‘sensationalism’ used as synonyms of ‘rationalism’ and ’empiricism.’ Well, nature seems to combine most frequently with intellectualism an idealistic and optimistic tendency. Empiricists on the other hand are not uncommonly materialistic, and their optimism is apt to be decidedly conditional and tremulous. Rationalism is always monistic. It starts from wholes and universals, and makes much of the unity of things. Empiricism starts from the parts, and makes of the whole a collection-is not averse therefore to calling itself pluralistic. Rationalism usually considers itself more religious than empiricism, but there is much to say about this claim, so I merely mention it. It is a true claim when the individual rationalist is what is called a man of feeling, and when the individual empiricist prides himself on being hard- headed. In that case the rationalist will usually also be in favor of what is called free-will, and the empiricist will be a fatalist– I use the terms most popularly current. The rationalist finally will be of dogmatic temper in his affirmations, while the empiricist may be more sceptical and open to discussion.

“I will write these traits down in two columns. I think you will practically recognize the two types of mental make-up that I mean if I head the columns by the titles ‘tender-minded’ and ‘tough-minded’ respectively.”

Rationalistic (going by ‘principles’) Empiricist (going by ‘facts’)
Intellectualistic Sensationalistic
Idealistic Materialistic
Optimistic Pessimistic
Religious Irreligious
Free-willist Fatalistic
Monistic Pluralistic
Dogmatical Sceptical


“Pray postpone for a moment the question whether the two contrasted mixtures which I have written down are each inwardly coherent and self-consistent or not–I shall very soon have a good deal to say on that point. It suffices for our immediate purpose that tender-minded and tough-minded people, characterized as I have written them down, do both exist. Each of you probably knows some well-marked example of each type, and you know what each example thinks of the example on the other side of the line. They have a low opinion of each other. Their antagonism, whenever as individuals their temperaments have been intense, has formed in all ages a part of the philosophic atmosphere of the time. It forms a part of the philosophic atmosphere to-day. The tough think of the tender as sentimentalists and soft-heads. The tender feel the tough to be unrefined, callous, or brutal. Their mutual reaction is very much like that that takes place when Bostonian tourists mingle with a population like that of Cripple Creek. Each type believes the other to be inferior to itself; but disdain in the one case is mingled with amusement, in the other it has a dash of fear.”

And here’s the bait and switch portion of this post.  When we speak of being pragmatic today, we generally mean by it the items in the second column above.  For James, however, the term describes a way of looking at the world that resolves disputes between the possessors of these two temperaments.  It is the tertia via.

“The pragmatic method is primarily a method of settling metaphysical disputes that otherwise might be interminable. Is the world one or many?–fated or free?–material or spiritual?–here are notions either of which may or may not hold good of the world; and disputes over such notions are unending. 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? If no practical difference whatever can be traced, then the alternatives mean practically the same thing, and all dispute is idle. Whenever a dispute is serious, we ought to be able to show some practical difference that must follow from one side or the other’s being right.”

. . .

“It is astonishing to see how many philosophical disputes collapse into insignificance the moment you subject them to this simple test of tracing a concrete consequence. There can BE no difference any- where that doesn’t MAKE a difference elsewhere–no difference in abstract truth that doesn’t express itself in a difference in concrete fact and in conduct consequent upon that fact, imposed on somebody, somehow, somewhere and somewhen. The whole function of philosophy ought to be to find out what definite difference it will make to you and me, at definite instants of our life, if this world- formula or that world-formula be the true one.”

. . .

“There is absolutely nothing new in the pragmatic method. Socrates was an adept at it. Aristotle used it methodically. Locke, Berkeley and Hume made momentous contributions to truth by its means. Shadworth Hodgson keeps insisting that realities are only what they are ‘known-as.’ But these forerunners of pragmatism used it in fragments: they were preluders only. Not until in our time has it generalized itself, become conscious of a universal mission, pretended to a conquering destiny. I believe in that destiny, and I hope I may end by inspiring you with my belief.”

. . .

“At the same time it does not stand for any special results. It is a method only. But the general triumph of that method would mean an enormous change in what I called in my last lecture the ‘temperament’ of philosophy.”

It is a philosophy that requires us to ask, when given two temperamental approaches to the same problem, a very rude question. 

We would be required to ask “What practical difference does it make?”  On the other hand, in programming if not in other spheres, it would save an insufferable amount of time and effort were we simply to ask this a little more often.

One thought on “On Pragmatism: some excerpts”

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