Methodological Pragmatism


Interpreting truth in term of practical application rather than transcendent claims

Principal Metaphors

  • Knowledge is … what works
  • Knowing is … fitting action
  • Learner is … a system of propositions (personal, social, cultural)
  • Learning is … adapting; maintaining coherence
  • Teaching is … challenging




Pragmatism is a perspective on knowledge that, coarsely put, interprets truth in terms of “what works.” Within Pragmatism, learning and thought are not about internal representations of external reality, but about ever-evolving, experience-based webs of interpretation that channel perceptions, frame actions, enable predictions, and support problem solving. Language, science, beliefs, mathematics, and so on are all understood in terms of their practical uses – not as labels or objective truths, but as coherences and useful shared fictions. Pragmatism has many subdiscourses and associated discourses, including the following:
  • Instrumentalism (Pierre Duhem; early 1900s) – Sharing Pragmatism’s emphasis on utility, within Instrumentalism, the value and usefulness of an idea is understood in terms of its effectiveness in interpreting and predicting phenomena. That is, concepts are not seen as literal characterizations of phenomena, but as means to interpret and tools to engage with phenomena.
  • Neopragmatism (Post-Deweyan Pragmatism; Linguistic Pragmatism; Analytic Pragmatism) ­(Donald Davidson, Hilary Putnam, W.V.O. Quine, Richard Rorty; 1960s) – Focused more narrowly on language, and concerned explicitly with word meaning, Neopragmatism asserts that it is a function of how they are used and what they trigger/occasion, rather than what dictionaries say or what speakers intend.
  • Critical Pragmatism (various authors; 2000s) – Aimed at recovering (or amplifying) the critical dimensions of John Dewey’s version of Pragmatism, Critical Pragmatism emphasizes commitments to democratic citizenship, critical reflection, and social justice.


Criticisms of Pragmatism tend to revolve around its apparent conflation of fact and fiction. Usually, these criticisms reject the assertion that facts are explanatory systems that consistently work, whereas known fictions present gaps or inconsistencies. Another major cluster of criticisms argue that Pragmatism is potentially relativistic – that is, it runs the risk of casting each person’s, social group’s, or culture’s unique system of truths as equally valid.

Authors and/or Prominent Influences

William James; John Dewey; Charles Sanders Peirce

Status as a Theory of Learning

Pragmatism is more often described as a theory or knowledge (or truth) than a theory of learning. However, the theory attends to how systems of knowledge change – that is, how systems learn – and so it’s not unreasonable to characterize Pragmatism as a theory of learning.

Status as a Theory of Teaching

Pragmatism is not a theory of teaching.

Status as a Scientific Theory

Pragmatism satisfies our criteria of a scientific theory, in part because at aligns strongly with evidence generated within Cognitive Science and related domains.


  • Instrumentalism
  • Neopragmatism (Post-Deweyan Pragmatism; Linguistic Pragmatism; Analytic Pragmatism) ­
  • Critical Pragmatism

Map Location

Please cite this article as:
Davis, B., & Francis, K. (2023). “Pragmatism” in Discourses on Learning in Education.

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