Chapter 30

Technological Pragmatism


From its inception, the philosophical movement now known as classical American pragmatism was strongly committed to the methods of the sciences. Charles S. Peirce (1839–1914) was employed by the US Coast and Geodetic Survey. William James (1842–1910), who was trained as a physician, taught physiology before turning to psychology and philosophy. John Dewey (1859–1952) and his team at the University of Chicago performed experiments related to perception and attention.

The close relationship between pragmatism and experimentalism is evident in Peirce’s 1878 maxim: “Consider what effects, which might conceivably have practical bearings, we conceive the object of our conception to have. Then, our conception of these effects is the whole of our conception of the object” (Peirce 1986). William James extended the application of this proposition by asserting that, for the pragmatist, “theories become instruments, not answers to enigmas, in which we can rest” (James 1975). Dewey pushed it still further by treating logical objects, numbers, hypotheses and other abstract entities as tools that are designed, developed and utilized in much the same ways as material tools, that is, for the sake of achieving some desired end.

Building on his insights into the relations between tool use and inquiry, Dewey had by the 1890s already begun to develop a comprehensive project that would ultimately relate technology to the history of science, education, ...

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