Pragmatism and the Progressive Era

Pragmatism is a concept developed by Charles Pierce, John Dewey, and William James which simply states that Pragmatists rejected all forms of absolutism and insisted that all principles be regarded as working hypotheses that must bear fruit in lived experience (Burke, 2007). George Mead always believed that the role of the scientist was to solve problems, and pragmatism adopted this same focus; that of the scientist whom is interested in generating ideas that help to solve the problems within society.

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According to George Ritzer, pragmatism directly relates to Mead’s sociological theory based on the fact that pragmatists believe that truth and reality are actively created through individual and social acts, the use of reflective consciousness allows people to base their knowledge of the world on what has proven useful to them in the past, and that our understanding of actors should be based on the actor’s conduct in the world (2011, p.422). The pragmatists rejected all forms of absolutism and insisted that all principles be regarded as working hypotheses. To Mead, pragmatism reflected the triumph of science and the scientific method within American society and their extension into the study of the social world belief in the superiority of scientific data over philosophical dogma and all other types of knowledge (Ritzer, 2011, p. 422). Mead insisted that City Hall would be the center of the reform movement and actively tried to reconcile research with political engagement (Shalin, 1988, p. 923).

According to Shalin, Mead agreed with the author, Le Bon, about the fact that socialist teachings tended to become dogmatic as it lays claim to a priori validity. Mead renounced all versions of socialism that sanctioned violent means, and expressed skepticism over Marx’s economic analysis, which he found at odds with economic and political realities of the time (1988, p. 925). Mead believed that social democrats had taken over the quest for justice. They denounced revolutionary violence and instead became progressive reformers with an emphasis on pragmatism and opportunism. By the early 1900s Mead had moved away from Socialism and was identifying himself with the Progressive creed, which was basically an unswerving commitment to societal reform through non-violent constitutional methods (Shalin, 1988, p. 926).

This credence is easily identified in a publication of Mead’s during his time at the University of Chicago, The Working Hypothesis in Social Reform (1899). In this document we see how Mead’s theories based on behaviorism and the mind are inextricably intertwined with the notion of pragmatism and progressive social reform: In social reform, or the application of intelligence to the control of social conditions, we must make a like assumption, and this assumption takes the form of belief in the essentially social character of human impulse and endeavor (Mead, 1899, p. 370) and What is the function of reflective consciousness in its attempt to direct conduct? The common answer is that we carry in thought the world as it should be, and fashion our conduct to bring this about (Mead, 1899, p. 371).

The use of science to solve societal issues was an important part of Mead’s work in social reform. What he said in The Working Hypothesis in Social Reform shows clearly his belief in pragmatism and necessary reform: A conception of a different world comes to us always as the result of some specific problem which involves readjustment of the world as it is, not to meet a detailed ideal of a perfect universe, but to obviate the present difficulty; and the test of the effort lies in the possibility of this readjustment fitting into the world as it is. Reflective consciousness does not then carry us on to the world that is to be, but puts our own thought and endeavor into the very process of evolution (Mead, 1899, p. 371).

According to Mary Jo Deegan, Professor of Sociology at the University of Nebraska, although Mind, Self, and Society is considered to be Mead’s most famous work, much of his work and writings, which contributed to social reform of his time, had been neglected (1978, p. 362). Deegan also asserts that, the examination of the biological basis of man, the evolution of society which is mirrored in the development of the self, and the use of science as a method for the individual to change society and, in effect, to change the generalized other, are all componential aspects of Mead’s view of man, his mind and self. (1978, p. 363).

Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr created Hull House in 1889 on the South side of Chicago, Illinois after being inspired by visiting a similar settlement in London called Toynbee Hall. Addams and Starr believed that by living as neighbors to the impoverished residents of Chicago’s ninth ward they would be able to better learn, understand, and help the residents. They found that the women of the ninth ward were in need of childcare and began their work by opening a kindergarten and nursery, as well as creating adult classes. Soon, other educated women had begun to join Hull House, including Julie Lathrop, Florence Kelley, Edith Abbott, Charlotte Perkins, and others. Addams, as a pragmatist, valued real life experience over theoretical generalizations and her methodology consisted of participant observation alongside empirical data and placed great importance on the vantage point of an issue. Her research was practiced through what she called the neighborly relation, which is an authentic, caring relation between the researcher and the subject of the research (Ritzer, 2011, p. 307).

According to Ritzer, Following the pragmatic creed of testing the truth of ideas by experience, Addams drew on her Hull House work to develop a sociological theory based on the conviction that people had now to begin to work collectively and cooperativelywhich meant learning to tolerate differences (2011, p. 309). Although Addams clearly identified with particular groups (pacifists, socialists, feminists, etc.), she refused to be labeled as such. This refusal was pragmatic rather than ideological. Addams’ commitment to social cohesion and cooperation prompted her to eschew what she perceived as divisive distinctions. Active democratic social progress was so essential to Addams that she did not want to alienate any group of people from the conversation or from the participation necessary for effective inclusive deliberation (Hamington, 2018).

Addams was considered a practitioner of radical meliorism in her time; she challenged the existing structures of current pragmatism by advocating for the betterment of all society, rather than simply social progress. She termed this lateral progress; meaning that social advancement could not be declared through the breakthroughs or peak performances of a few, but could only authentically be found in social gains held in common (Hamington, 2018). Mead and Dewey held the progressive stance that poverty was a result of faulty organization of society, not the fault of the individual (Shalin, 1988, p. 930). Addams was of the same mind. She argued that the poor were often victims of circumstance and that it is the responsibility of society to develop a means for their participation in lateral progress.

One of the great sociological innovations of Hull House were the methods designed for studying and publicizing the social problems of the time. They redefined these issues from being considered unavoidable and showed that they were subject to social control, social improvement, and social elimination (Ritzer, 2011, p. 313).

John Dewey was a disciple of William James and applied pragmatic thinking to education. He proposed the learning by doing model, rather than simply memorizing facts, and that interest was an intrinsic part of learning. Although Dewey and his colleagues at the University of Chicago were consistent supporters of unionism, they at first limited their labor activism to participating as experts in the movement for educational reform. The movement addressed class issues from the vantage point of the laboring poor (Feffer, 1994, p. 117).

Dewey began his experimental University Laboratory School in 1896. The participants and their activities brought together an extended community of reformers, academics, and parents who shared Dewey’s commitment to ‘democratic’ education (Feffer, 1994, p. 119). His school avoided the regimentation that characterized most schools of the era and instead focused on educating through practical application of the material and the interests and needs of the students.

Florence Kelley came to Hull House in 1891 where she opened an employment center and began conducting research on sweatshops for the Illinois Bureau of Labor Statistics. She was a member of the Socialist Labor Party and brought with her a sense of class-consciousness and conviction for the improvement of working conditions for all. At this point, Hull House became more involved in the labor movement. She advocated for minimum wage, shorter work days, and children’s rights, and was an activist for women’s suffrage and African-American civil rights. During her time at Hull House, Kelley was able to advance her career as it provided her with a network to social organizations while bypassing male organizations in her pursuit of social activism, as at this time women were denied participation in formal politics.

One major difference between early female sociologists and the theorists commonly associated with the pragmatist tradition is vantage point. Addams spoke from the vantage point of women, immigrants, children, and the poor. She addressed women’s issues and women’s suffrage with a conviction that many male pragmatists of the time could not match, even if they were sympathetic to women’s issues. Dewey championed feminine contributions to philosophy: When women who are not mere students of other persons’ philosophy set out to write it, we cannot conceive that it will be the same in viewpoint or tenor as that composed from the standpoint of the different masculine experience of things (Keith, 1999, p. 330).

George Herbert Mead and John Dewey were both active in the suffrage movement and members of Hull House. Mead and Addams worked on a number of projects together including pro-labor speeches, peace advocacy and the Progressive Party, and Dewey often assigned Addams’ books to study in his university courses. Each had an influence of the other’s works, but Addams was often frustrated with the abstractness of the University of Chicago and preferred to theorize about the interchange between theory and practice while actively practicing at Hull House.

During the Progressive Era, pragmatism was associated with professional, academic settings, although part of the premise of pragmatism was ‘practice.’ This is why many women were not considered to be pragmatist philosophers at the time, but progressive reformers or activists. For example, although John Dewey and Jane Addams were both well known and influential in their time, they have been characterized very differently historically. Dewey was considered to be a great intellectual and Addams was considered to be an activist. However, even Dewey himself denied this characterization and credited Addams with assisting with the development many of his important ideas on education, democracy, and philosophy (Bruce, 2015). Addams’ work was mapped onto conventional gender understandings: male philosophers such as John Dewey, William James, and George Herbert Mead were regarded as providing original progressive thought while Addams was seen as brilliantly administering their theories (Hamington, 2018). Contemporary feminist pragmatists view this distinction as classic representations of gender archetypes: The man provides wisdom and the woman provides care. Ida Wells-Barnett was an activist for African-American rights and women’s rights, she helped found the National Association of Colored Women and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (Ritzer, 2011, p. 316). She took an active role by campaigning for change. Beatrice Potter Webb first worked with the poor then used the method of participant observation in her sociological study. She became part of the Fabian Socialists who believed that the way to combat the great social inequalities London was experiencing was by providing accurate information on which a reformist state can be established and make policy (Ritzer, 2011, p. 324).

Charles Pierce, John Dewey, and William James are credited with the development of pragmatism into a philosophy, yet only Dewey used pragmatism in practice. Pierce and James theorized and philosophized on the topic and use of pragmatism, but never used it for more than theoretical discussion, as far as I can tell. For example, James delivered a series of lectures in 1906; in his second lecture, James explained the methodology of pragmatism through a story of a squirrel and a man. In short, a squirrel was on a tree and a man was on the opposite end of the tree. The man continued to run round the tree, trying to see the squirrel, but the squirrel continues to run to the opposite side from the man until they are both circling the tree. The question is, ‘does the man go round the squirrel.’ James determined that whenever you meet a contradiction you must make a distinction; in this case the distinction of the meaning of ‘to go round.’ Technically, the man did go round the squirrel, since he had circled the tree and the squirrel was on the tree; and technically he did not, as the squirrel always had his back opposite the man and the man never went around the squirrel’s back. So, the answer depends on the distinction made. He explained, The pragmatic method is primarily a method of settling metaphysical disputes that otherwise might be interminable (Project Gutenberg, 2004). The difference between traditional pragmatist theorists and early female sociologists, omitting Dewey and Mead, was theoretical and metaphysical versus the actual practice of pragmatism for the betterment of society.

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Pragmatism and the Progressive Era. (2019, Jun 24). Retrieved December 6, 2022 , from

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