Idealism & Pragmatism:
Convergence or Contestation?

About the Project

Idealism and pragmatism are two of the major schools in philosophy, where both have distinguished histories as well as considerable contemporary resonance

Idealism is the older tradition, with roots in Plato and Platonism, and has developed into a myriad of forms: for example, platonic idealism, Berkeleyian idealism, rationalist idealism, Kantian idealism, and absolute idealism. Underlying this variety is the claim that reality contains more than matter, but is also constituted by ideas or mental structures, where it is an issue for dispute within this tradition whether these ideas are outside and prior to individual minds, whether they only exist in such minds along with reality itself, or whether reality consists in some combination of mind-imposed ideas and mind-independent elements. The intellectual power of this tradition is indicated by its longevity, where amongst other things it claims to offer a unique solution to questions concerning knowledge, the law-like features of the natural world, freedom, and the place of norms and values within reality.

Pragmatism as such is a more of a new-comer, with its acknowledged origins being traceable to the work of philosophers such as C. S. Peirce and William James in the mid nineteenth century – though arguably the antecedents of this tradition go back to earlier figures such as Thomas Reid. The outlook can be summarized in the so-called pragmatic maxim of Peirce, that ‘a conception, that is, the rational purport of a word or other conception, lies exclusively in its conceivable bearing upon the conduct of life’. As such, pragmatism offers a distinctive account of meaning, knowledge and metaphysics, which is opposed to the abstractions of a philosophy that has no relation to our activities within the world.

Laid out as such, it may seem that idealism and pragmatism have little to do with one another and could indeed be seen as intellectual opponents; and some of their defenders have in fact viewed their relation in this way. So, it may appear on the one hand to pragmatists, that the idealist represents just the kind of empty and abstract metaphysical theorizing that they want to overturn, while to idealists on the other hand, the pragmatist may be viewed as offering a position that cannot resolve the problems that concern them, in refusing to engage with such problems properly by offering instead a crude appeal to ‘practical consequences’. It could be assumed, then, that these two traditions will simply confront each other as philosophical opposites.

However, on closer inspection, it is clear that historically this has been far from the case, while looking forward, there is much to be learned from exploring common ground, as well as thinking more deeply about where the divergences between them may lie.

So, for example, while historically F. H. Bradley and William James presented themselves as at odds in their published writings, in their private correspondences they recognized a greater degree of convergence; and while Peirce on occasion denounced both Kant and Hegel, he also on other occasions expressed his warm appreciation for their views. Likewise, figures like Dewey and Sellars were explicit in claiming a shared ancestry for their respective positions.

And more thematically, there is much that suggests how far idealism and pragmatism can be aligned, for example in relation to the question of naturalism and how that should be best conceived, or in relation to scepticism and how that is to be dealt with, or in considering the issue of how social norms arise and how they come to be upheld.

Indeed, it is this kind of common ground that explains how many of the most prominent contemporary philosophers, such as Jürgen Habermas, Richard Rorty, Hilary Putnam, Robert Brandom, Richard Bernstein and others, may be said to draw inspiration from both these traditions, in finding ways in which they can reinforce one another.

However, while this rapprochement is an underlying feature of both the history and current profile of philosophical thought, it has so far received little explicit reflection and analysis, and it is precisely this gap that the current project aims to fill. The hope is that by shedding light on where these traditions stand, both historically and conceptually, this will lead to a greater appreciation of their individual strengths and weaknesses, and their real similarities and differences. The aim here is not mere eclecticism or to reduce each side to bland uniformity, but rather to explore where each can learn from the other, both in terms of finding common ground, and in offering mutual critiques. As such, this will also enable us to better gauge where these traditions should also be placed in the wider philosophical landscape, for example in relation to realism, naturalism, supernaturalism and so on.