Humanism and Pragmatism — Uniting Two Great Philosophical Traditions

The modern world has given birth to two great philosophic traditions which shaped intellectual and cultural life: humanism and pragmatism. Humanism developed at the outset of modernity which began with the work of Francesco Petrarch at the earliest stage of what would become the Italian Renaissance. Pragmatism emerged in the latter decades of the twentieth century as the greatest contribution to the history of philosophy by any society in the Western Hemisphere. The reputation of a single man stands as a bridge between the two traditions: that of the English philosopher Francis Bacon (1561–1626). Francis Bacon, popularizer of the scientific method, has been hailed as the father of empiricism. Humanism and Pragmatism are the two greatest philosophic traditions, are very much relevant to the contemporary world, and should be connected together into a singular, coherent philosophic outlook for the twenty-first century.


Humanism emerged in Italy in the fourteenth century, born out of a love of the Classics, a humility before transcendental ideals, and a human-centered (and practical) perspective. Humanism is a philosophy, grounded in the Liberal Arts, which promotes the excellence of the individual through engagement with the Great Books. Humanism arose, in part, as a reaction to the irrelevant and obscure direction of medieval scholasticism. The Humanists used and built on the Trivium (grammar, logic, rhetoric) but focused on practical concerns rather than simply metaphysical speculation.

“We call those studies liberal, then, which are worthy of a free man; they are those through which virtue and wisdom are either practiced or sought, and by which our minds are disposed towards the best things.” -Pier Paolo Vergerio (1370-c.1445) — Renaissance humanist, statesman, teacher, and lawyer

Bacon was also influenced by the ancient authors, men such as Cicero and Aristotle. He, however, developed a new vision — an empirical one. While still in the Humanist tradition, Bacon expanded and moved beyond it. He popularized empiricism and contributed to what would become the groundwork for the Pragmatist philosophical tradition centuries later. Francis Bacon wrote a series of essays — among the greatest essay collections of any philosopher in terms of both their ideas and the quality of language employed to express those ideas. His famous essay Of Studies emphasized the fundamental importance of reading, writing, and developing a discerning mind.

“To spend too much time in studies is sloth; to use them too much for ornament, is affectation; to make judgment wholly by their rules, is the humor of a scholar. They perfect nature, and are perfected by experience: for natural abilities are like natural plants, that need proyning, by study; and studies themselves, do give forth directions too much at large, except they be bounded in by experience.” -Francis Bacon, ‘Of Studies’ (1597, 1625)

Also consider that the famous adage ‘knowledge is power’ originated from his essays. He actually wrote “ipsa scientia potestas est” (“knowledge itself is power”) in 1597, in the first version of the work.


Pragmatism emerged out of nineteenth-century America — perhaps the best century in the United States to have been a philosopher. Pragmatism, as a philosophy, is defined as “The idea that beliefs are identified with the actions of a believer, and the truth of beliefs with success of those actions in securing a believer’s goals; the doctrine that ideas must be looked at in terms of their practical effects and consequences.” The most notable names attached to this movement are William James, Charles Sanders Peirce, and John Dewey. Future Supreme Court justice Oliver Wendell Holmes was also associated with the philosophic movement through his membership in the short-lived Metaphysical Club (1872).

Charles Sanders Perice (1839–1914) was a philosopher and mathematician (better-known in his day for the latter). He developed the pragmatic maxim in 1878 and made it much clearer by 1902 (see both below):

“ It appears, then, that the rule for attaining the third grade of clearness of apprehension is as follows: Consider what effects, that 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, 1878

“Pragmatism. The opinion that metaphysics is to be largely cleared up by the application of the following maxim for attaining clearness of apprehension: Consider what effects, that 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, 1902

Peirce went back several times to refine his thoughts with regard to his pragmatic maxim. The father of American psychology William James (1842–1910) did much to popularize Pragmatism. In 1907, he wrote a best-selling book on the subject.

“No particular results then, so far, but only an attitude of orientation, is what the pragmatic method means. The attitude of looking away from first things, principles, ‘categories,’ supposed necessities; and of looking towards last things, fruits, consequences, facts” -William James, ‘Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking’ (1907)

Pragmatic Humanism

Now, then, the time has come for a new philosophy for this new millennium — a practical one grounded in developing the excellence of the individual. The dynamic cultural and technological landscape of the world in 2019 is such that only the self-conscious and resourceful individual will be capable of rescuing the stultifying and increasingly blind institutions from themselves and their bloated, bureaucratic nature. The toolbox of the individual must include a solid philosophic element — Pragmatic Humanism, an articulated expression of the human condition as it relates to individual development, action in the world, and guiding moral system. The Pragmatists developed their philosophy with reference to the then-recent findings in evolutionary biology — particularly the work of Charles Darwin. Human nature was finally, firmly grounded in biology and man situated among the other animals of nature. The scientific method trumpeted by Francis Bacon had achieved heights unknown during the age of the Pragmatists. But science itself still has to be properly situated in a human-centered perspective.

The ways of perceiving the world (as a forum for action and as a place of things) was described by psychologist Jordan Peterson in his magnum opus Maps of Meaning at the end of this last century.

“The world can be validly construed as a forum of action, as well as a place of things. We describe the world as a place of things, using the formal methods of science. The techniques of narrative, however — myth, literature and drama — portray the world as a forum for action. The two forms of representation have been unnecessarily set at odds, because we have not yet formed a clear picture of their respective domains. The domain of the former is the object world-what is, from the perspective of intersubjective perception. The domain of the latter is the world of value-what is and what should be, from the perspective of emotion and action.” — Jordan Peterson, ‘Maps of Meaning (1999)

The singular philosophic perspective of Pragmatic Humanism that I propose has the following elements:

  • emphasis on values as expressed through myth as a foundation for future articulations of moral systems (bottom-up, and from the engaging hero stories and mythologies depicting successful pro-social behavior to the more abstract notions of the realm of philosophical speculation
  • emphasis on developing individual excellence through a Classically-based Liberal Arts education grounded in grammar, logic, rhetoric, moral philosophy, and history
  • individual development from action to articulated reasoning — influenced by the Piagetian Genetic Epistemological perspective
  • free and unimpeded speech as the key path toward gaining insights about the human condition and how one relates to the rest of the world
  • grounding knowledge in the concrete and recognizing abstract reasoning first and foremost as a useful tool for navigating the complexities of the world
  • recognizing that the meaning and value attached to things and events is both relative to what precedes and succeeds it as well as the perceiver.
  • human ethics are grounded in the necessity of survival and reproduction
  • the proper standard level of analysis is determined by the situation of the perceiver and the experience (ie: a car as a simple object to go from point A to point B when working but becoming a much more complicated object when not working (at least for someone with little to no knowledge of how to fix a car)

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