The pragmatic movement has often been misunderstood; the most frequent misconceptions, which assimilated the philosophies of Peirce and James in particular to forms of positivism, reductionism, or crude voluntarism seem to be on the wane. Peirce's scholastic realism, his doctrine of signs, and his conception of truth as the unique and destined goal of inquiry now tend to receive the attention that was formerly reserved for his empiricism and pragmatism. A similar change in the estimation of James seems to be taking place insofar as his theory of truth is seen as much less simplistic than was formerly supposed; and both his conception of truth and his pragmatism are coming to appear as more powerful philosophical suggestions when seen in their connection with his radical empiricism.

It would, however, be too easy for those sympathetic to the early pragmatists to attribute the misunderstandings to unsympathetic critics (or, in Peirce's case, to the additional factor of the late appearances of the Collected Papers). Much of the misunderstanding appears to have been generated by the pragmatists themselves; on a superficial level, they seem to be responsible for sometimes misrepresenting their own ideas. This is not a clear case of philosophical bad faith, for there is sometimes an incoherence in their thought which is quite capable of generating several interpretations. The most general discrepancy has always seemed to be between the metaphysics espoused by the pragmatists and their theory of meaning. When the theory of meaning (in its more reductionist versions) was taken to be the primary philosophical contribution of the pragmatists, their metaphysical speculations were regarded as aberrations, to be explained perhaps in terms of the heady climate created by the competing forms of idealism in their philosophical milieu. However, the more we see of the speculative vigor and coherence of their metaphysics, the more we may be tempted to reverse this interpretation.

Document Type


Publication Date

Winter 1973

Publisher Statement

Copyright © 1973 Indiana University Press. This article first appeared in Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society 9, no. 1 (Winter 1973): 24-40.

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