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Qwiz5 Quizbowl Essentials - Pragmatism

Pragmatism is a broad term for a philosophical tradition rejecting the notion that thought’s function is to mirror reality. Instead, pragmatism argues that abstract notions like thought, language, and belief should be interpreted in terms of their usefulness and practical effects. Pragmatism originated in the United States in the 1870s and has explored topics ranging from the nature of truth to politics and education. Notable pragmatists include Jane Addams, the first social worker, and George Herbert Mead, the founder of the Chicago School of Sociology. Since pragmatism is all about understanding the practical impact of ideas, let’s take a look at the practical impact of pragmatism on getting tossups!

William James, the founder of Pragmatism.  Part of the Qwiz5 series by Qwiz Quizbowl Camp, written to help quiz bowl teams power more tossups!

By analyzing questions, you can see patterns emerge, patterns that will help you answer questions. Qwiz5 is all about those patterns. In each installment of Qwiz5, we take an answer line and look at its five most common clues. Here we explore five clues that will help you answer a tossup on Pragmatism.


William James was an American psychologist and philosopher who helped develop pragmatism at Harvard University in the early 1870s. In 1907, James summarized his ideas through a series of lectures called Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking. These lectures presented pragmatism as a solution to the long clash between tough-minded (empirical) and tender-minded (idealistic) philosophers. James used the example of a man chasing a squirrel around a tree to demonstrate how pragmatism could be used to answer the question “does the man go ‘round the squirrel or not?”


John Dewey further expanded James’ pragmatism into politics and aesthetics. Dewey saw the individual as constantly developing and interacting with their environment. He criticized the reflex arc model of behavior that explained human behavior through pairings of a stimulus and a response. Dewey saw development through education as essential to a healthy society, and argued learning through experience was necessary in his Creative Democracy and Democracy and Education. Dewey explained his political philosophy further in The Public and Its Problems, maintaining that democracy needed the constant engagement of its citizens in order to be successful.


An early founder of pragmatism, Peirce also developed a general theory of signs he referred to as semeiotics (NOT to be confused with de Saussure’s semiotics). Peircean semeiotics views the sign relationship as a triad between the object, what it represents, and whoever interprets it. Despite this somewhat abstract theory, Peirce’s pragmatism was primarily concerned with clarity and logic. He articulated these views in his best-known works, “The Fixation of Belief” and How to Make Our Ideas Clear.”


Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature was written by American philosopher and pragmatist Richard Rorty. Rorty helped revive pragmatism as a philosophical school of thought in the 1970s. In his work, Rorty critiques analytical philosophy and argues that much of pre-existing philosophy has (wrongly) assumed that our perception and thoughts mirror the world in some way. This takedown of the correspondence theory of truth helped shape the principles of Neo-Pragmatism.


Written by C.S. Peirce, How to Make Our Ideas Clear examines logic from a pragmatic perspective. Peirce wants to make our concepts clear and distinct. In order to do this, he argues for simple conceptions that focus on the practical effects of what we wish to define. In addition to articulating these principles, Peirce uses them to define famously slippery concepts such as freedom, force, and reality.


Quizbowl is about learning, not rote memorization, so we encourage you to use this as a springboard for further reading rather than as an endpoint. Here are a few things to check out:

● Although it’s a little dense, this article from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy offers a comprehensive view of the philosophy of Jane Addams. Although she is often overlooked in favor of James, Dewey, and others, Addams was a pragmatist whose philosophy had a significant positive impact on America.

● James’ “squirrel tree” thought experiment is closely tied to his pragmatic philosophy as articulated in his lectures. However, the example still generates discussion more than a hundred years after the fact. Go here to read more about it!

● Is pragmatism actually pragmatic? Listen to a cool NPR story about how a tiny Colombian schoolhouse put John Dewey’s principles into action.

● To learn a little more about William James’ philosophy, specifically regarding his comments on belief that we weren’t able to cover in the guide, check out this video!


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