in Education

Pragmatism as a candidate methodology

This is is the first draft of a section for my Ed.D. thesis; please don’t quote it as it’s not the final version.

The bibliography relating to the referenced literature can be found at http://dougbelshaw.com/thesis (I’ve blogged more about my thesis at http://dougbelshaw.com/blog


To recap, a methodology suitable for this thesis must be:

  1. Recognised and respected as sound.
  2. Well-suited to the research area and aims of the thesis.
  3. Allow for results that will make a difference to a research area.

So far we have rejected Cybermethodology, Grounded Theory, Critical Theory and Post-Structuralism. The next candidate methodology to consider is Pragmatism. We shall find that this methodology is especially suited to the current thesis as it fits the three criteria set out above.

As William James explained through the title and content of Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking, there is little ‘new’ in the philosophy of Pragmatism other than its name. Indeed, although it was Charles Sanders Peirce coined the term ‘Pragmatism’ – later switching to ‘Pragmaticism’, “a term “ugly enough to be safe from kidnappers” (Collected Papers, 5.414) – the ideas it represents have older origins and wider usage. Ralph Waldo Emerson, for example, demonstrated his adherence to a proto-Pragmatist project, stating:

Our life is an apprenticeship to the truth that around every circle another can be drawn; that there is no end in nature, but every end is a beginning; that there is always another dawn risen on mid-noon, and under every deep a lower deep opens. (Emerson, R.W., ‘Circles’ in Goodman, R.B., 1995:25)

Pragmatism has evolved over the last century and a half and therefore has many definitions. We shall explore the nuanced views of Pragmatist philosophers such as Peirce, Quine and Rorty in the next section, but start here with a definition by the populariser of Pragmatism, William James:

Pragmatism, on the other hand, asks its usual question. “Grant an idea or belief to be true,” it says, “what concrete difference will its being true make in anyone’s actual life? How will the truth be realized? What experiences will be different from those which would obtain if the beliefs were false? What, in short, is the truth’s cash-value in experiential terms?

The moment pragmatism asks this question, it sees the answer: True ideas are those that we can assimilate, validate, corroborate and verify. False ideas are those we cannot. That is the practical difference it makes to us to have true ideas; that, therefore, is the meaning of truth, for it is all that truth is known-as. (James, 1995, p.77)

In this sense, it is already clear that Pragmatism is well-suited as a methodology that fits the third of the criteria specified above. Pragmatism is focused on a ‘difference’ making a difference in practice – with truth being defined by James elsewhere what is “good in the way of belief” (James, 1995, p.30). Pragmatists reject the Correspondence Theory of truth, which holds that a statement is true if and only if it accurately describes (i.e. corresponds with), that being described in the external world. This causes a problem in terms of verification; how can we know whether our ideas are true? Pragmatists answer this question by reference to a ‘community of inquirers’ rather than individuals. Truth becomes what is “expedient in our thinking” (James, 1995, p.86) and dependent upon discussion and debate within society:

The ‘absolutely’ true, meaning what no farther experience will ever alter, is that ideal vanishing-point towards which we imagine that all our temporary truths will some day converge… Meanwhile we have to live to-day by what truth we can get to-day, and be ready to-morrow to call it falsehood. (James, 1995, p.86)

We shall explore in the next section how Pragmatism has been developed by philosophers such as Dewey, Quine, Davidson and Rorty but, for now, we must examine whether the core of Pragmatism constitutes a sufficient basis – and meets the set criteria – as a methodology for this thesis. Having established already that the third criterion is satisfied by Pragmatism, we turn to the first and second criteria to see if they, too, can be satisfied.

Pragmatism is a philosophy that, in its present form, is around 150 years old but with roots that go back further. Several research journals a dedicated to the field and three of the best-known philosophers of the 20th century, William James, John Dewey and Richard Rorty, were all Pragmatists. It is a coherent approach taught in modules in high ranking and respected universities. Academic papers and books based on the Pragmatist method contribute to the world’s body of knowledge every day. It is safe to say, therefore, that Pragmatism can be deemed an approach that is ‘recognised and respected as sound’.

As for the second criterion, I would argue that Pragmatism is well-suited to postmodern world, particularly suited to research in the digital sphere, and especially suited to research on Digital and New Literacies. The reasons for this suitability are threefold. First, Pragmatism is what John Dewey calls a ‘practical fallibilism’ (Biesta & Burbules, 2003, p.13). This uncertainty is not because of a gap between mind and matter but “stems from the fact that we can never be certain that the patterns of action that we have developed in the past will be appropriate for the problems that we will encounter in the future” (ibid.). In terms of Digital and New Literacies, we cannot be sure what kinds of ‘texts’ (and therefore what kind of literacy practices) will be necessary in the future. As a result, although we may do our best to make provision for what we see on the horizon, Pragmatists cannot be certain that past patterns of action will suit future problems.

Second, Pragmatism does not constitute a “recipe for educational research and educational researchers” being “as much a way of un-thinking certain false dichotomies, certain assumptions, certain traditional practices and ways of doing things” (Biesta & Burbules, 2003, p.114). Given that the central question of this thesis is “What are digital literacies?” it seems particularly appropriate to explicitly analyse the boundaries of literacy practices as well as question dichotomies, assumptions and traditional practices.

Third, Pragmatism does not aim to close the book and end the story by reference to definitions and postulating static theories. Instead, theories have a ‘cash-value’ and are tools:

But if you follow the pragmatic method, you cannot look on any such word [such as 'God' or 'the Absolute'] as closing your quest. You must bring out of each word its practical cash-value, set it at work within the stream of your experience. It appears less as a solution, then, as a program for more work, and more particularly as an indication of the ways in which existing realities may be changed. (James, 1995, p.21)

It is us who impose categories on the world, argues the Pragmatist, and ‘truth’ is a process of assimilation – not of discovery.

Pragmatism, therefore, is a philosophy that provides a sound methodology on which to base this thesis. In the next section I shall give an overview of the development of Pragmatism as a theory in order to define what shall be referred thereon as a form of shorthand as ‘The Pragmatic approach’ or ‘Pragmatism’.


  • Biesta, G.J.J. & Burbules, N.C. (2003) Pragmatism and Educational Research (Rowman and Littlefield, Lanham, MD)
  • Goodman, R.B. (ed.) (1995) Pragmatism: A Contemporary Reader (Routledge: London)
  • James, W. (1995) Pragmatism (Dover: London)

If you liked this post, you might want to subscribe to my newsletter and explore my ebooks!

Share a Comment

Comment