As I explained in Part 1, there are nine texts informing Critical Systems Heuristics (CSH). Three by C. West Churchman (1968, 1971, & 1979), one by Charles Peirce (1878), one by William James (1908), one by John Dewey (1925), and three by Jürgen Habermas (1972, 1984, & 1987). The previous blog post dealt with those by Churchman, and his thoughts on systems thinking (as well as a brief overview of the history of systems thinking courtesy of Peter Checkland).
In this post I look at the texts relating to practical philosophy. More specifically, those dealing with philosophical pragmatism. These are:
- How to make our ideas clear by Charles Peirce (1878)
- Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking by William James (1908)
- The development of American pragmatism by John Dewey (1925)
(For an illustrated breakdown of the theoretical frameworks of CSH, refer to Figure 1 in Part 1).
Philosophical pragmatism (as Charles saw it)
The original text by Charles Peirce, first published in 1878*, is quite dense. That is to say, there are some parts more difficult to make sense of (for me) than, for example, one of Werner Ulrich‘s more recent papers on CSH.
Nevertheless, it for this text that Peirce was bestowed the title, ‘Founder of Pragmatism’. While he never used the word in this particular text, Peirce outlined some key concepts that would later become the building blocks for pragmatism.
(Note: Peirce did write a later piece on pragmatism, but only after William James had published his work in 1908. More on this later.)
For Peirce (1878), “the whole function of thought is to produce habits of action; and that whatever there is connected with a thought, but irrelevant to its purpose, is an accretion to it, but no part of it” (Peirce, 2013, How to Make Our Ideas Clear: Chapter II, par. 7).
To develop a thought’s meaning “we have … simply to determine what habits it produces, for what a thing means is simply what habits it involves” (Peirce, 2013, How to Make Our Ideas Clear: Chapter II, par. 7).
The most important piece from the article however, is what Werner Ulrich calls the pragmatic 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, 2013, How to Make Our Ideas Clear: Chapter II, par. 10).
This maxim does not refer to utilitarian or popular pragmatism, where truth is what is useful. Rather, it is refers to a clarity of thinking, obtained through clarity of purpose, taking into consideration all practical implications of a proposition, and not just what is useful. This requires “a comprehensive effort to bring to the surface and question the implications, the actual and potential consequences that our research may have” (, p. 11).
In this regard, the pragmatic maxim asks us to be critical. However, this is no easy task, because it gives rise to theoretical and normative issues. As Ulrich put it, “[W]hat can [theoretically speaking] be the empirical scope of our research? … [W]hat should we [normatively speaking] consider to be relevant ‘practical implications’?” (, p. 11).
So, how do we resolve these issues? For Peirce, it was simple: all we have to do is consider all conceivable implications. I agree with Ulrich when he said that this presupposes we are gods, because being so comprehensive, so as to have considered all the conceivable implications of our propositions is simply “beyond the reach of ordinary researchers” (, p. 11).
“Why is it beyond our reach?” I hear you ask. Well, even if we could conceive of all the implications our propositions may have (which we cannot), we would then have the job of deciding which of them are practically relevant. This ‘selection’ depends on, what Ulrich called, our boundary judgements. We ‘ordinary researchers’ will always be delimiting the situation of concern by deciding which ‘facts’ (observation) and ‘norms’ (valuation standards) are relevant or not. And that’s fine, as long as we recognize it .
The idea outlined above was one of the crucial starting points in Ulrich’s development of CSH. As I mentioned in Part 1, I will be blogging in a separate post about CSH itself. What is important for now is knowing that CSH is an attempt to interpret and operationalize the pragmatic maxim of Peirce, by linking it to systems thinking (Part 1) and critical social theory (Part 3 – coming soon!).
*While the original text was published in 1878, I am referencing from a more recent Kindle edition, published in 2013 by The Perfect Library. This publication presents a collection of 12 works by Charles Sanders Peirce. It is available here.
Philosophical pragmatism (as William saw it)
I definitely cannot, in a single blog post, summarize William James’ book, Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking. Instead I will describe how James understood, and reintroduced, Peirce’s maxim to the world, and the relevance of his (James’) work to CSH.
At the time of Peirce’s article being published in 1878, philosophical circles were very much under the influence of neo-Kantian idealism. It thus went unnoticed for approximately twenty years. William James reintroduced the concept of pragmatism in 1898 when he “inaugurated the new pragmatic movement in an address entitled, “Philosophical Conceptions and Practical Results”” (Dewey, 1925, par. 8).
As James understood it, for Peirce, the meanings of thoughts were related to the conduct that they (the thoughts) produced, and that to have clear thoughts of something, one needed only to consider the practical implications of that something. James illustrated this more clearly using a simple anecdote:
A squirrel and a man stand on opposite sides of a tree trunk, out of view from one another. The man moves rapidly around the trunk in the hope of glimpsing the squirrel. However, the squirrel always moves equally fast in the opposite direction to the man, thus always remaining out of sight. The question: Does the man go around the squirrel or not?
As James explained, it depends on what one means, practically, by going ‘around the squirrel’.
As they move around the trunk, the man passes from being north of the squirrel to being east of it, then to being south of it, west of it, and once again north of it. In this sense, yes, the man goes around the squirrel.
However, if one means that first the man is in front of the squirrel, then to its left, then behind it, then to its right, and once in again in front of it, then in this sense, no, the man does not go around the squirrel.
Once an understanding of ‘going around’ is decided upon, there is no reason for further debate.
In this way, James showed pragmatism to be “primarily a method of settling metaphysical disputes that otherwise might be interminable” (James, 1908, p. 45).
In addition to this, James demonstrated, by applying pragmatism to the controversy between theism and materialism, the prospective nature of practical implications:
Imagine two people, one of a theistic disposition, the other a materialistic one, debating the origins of humankind. Two people, each with a different view/explanation of how we came to be. Two propositions: A and B. Do either of these propositions have any practical implications?
Well, the short answer is yes, and no. Let me explain.
Debating the origins of humankind has no ‘conceivable practical bearings’ (implications) on the present moment. We are here, in this moment. How we got here does not change that we are here. Arguing about how this came to be (whether it was through path A or B) bears no practical implication to the present moment because it cannot change it. Nor can it change the past.
However, with regards to this moment forward i.e. the future, debating the origins of humankind definitely has practical implications. As much as it remains a debate about our history and origins (i.e. the past), each proposition, should we accept it, indirectly prescribes a unique way forward. In other words, each proposition (A and B) has a unique set of practical implications moving forward.
Much like the squirrel example, once we know what we practically mean by something, answering (otherwise interminable) metaphysical questions becomes easier.
In summary, there are two things I take from these examples by James:
- We need to have clarity of thought with regards to our propositions, by considering their practical implications (or what we mean, practically); and
- We need to acknowledge that the practical implications of our propositions exist only with regards to the future i.e. that they are prospective.
So, what is the relevance of James’ work to CSH?
Well, although Ulrich does not explicitly spell out James’ contribution, he does refer to it (along with the works by Peirce (1878) and Dewey (1925)) as the one of the main traditions which CSH draws upon. The pragmatic perspectives of practical philosophy mean that CSH “is oriented towards practical rather than theoretical ends … [and that it] employs an action-theoretical framework, that … looks at situations from the point of view of an agent rather than an observer” (, p. 247).
That said, I found a passage in another of Ulrich’s books that seems to speak to/draw upon James’ examples more directly:
“The planner needs to identify the phenomena of social reality not merely in terms of their location and extension in space and time, but rather in terms of their meaning, i.e., their location and significance in the spectrum of intentionality” (, p. 239, emphasis in original, colors added).
If we replace ‘the planner‘ with ‘he or she who makes a proposition‘, and ‘plan‘ with ‘proposition‘, it is easy to connect the dots. The colors may help too.
Answering the question “Does the man go around the squirrel or not?” required that we identify the phenomenon in terms of what we meant, practically, by it i.e., in terms of its location and significance in the spectrum of intentionality. The phenomenon‘s meaning was, in turn, defined in terms of space and time (North of, South of, in front of, behind of etc.).
While slightly more abstract, determining whether or not either of the propositions regarding the origins of humankind (A or B) had any practical implications required, once again, that we identify the phenomena in terms of what we meant, practically, by them. And this meaning was, again, defined in terms of space and time.
In this latter example, the phenomena were the practical implications of each proposition. By practical implications we meant the unique ways of life that each proposition indirectly prescribed, were we to accept A or B. And these indirect prescriptions, being prescriptions, are defined spatiotemporally (i.e. in terms of space and time), from this moment forward.
Again, this is simply me connecting dots. Whether or not Ulrich explicitly based the above piece of text on James’ examples, I do not know. A more likely explanation for the strong similarities is that Ulrich, and the three practical philosophers mentioned in this post, were all influenced by the works of Immanuel Kant.
Philosophical pragmatism (as John saw it)
The purpose of John Dewey’s The Development of American Pragmatism (the third of the three ‘CSH texts’ pertaining to philosophical pragmatism) was to “define the principal theories of the philosophical movements known under the names of Pragmatism, Instrumentalism, or Experimentalism” (Dewey, 1925, par. 1). The part I am of course interested in is the first: Pragmatism. Dewey’s gave a summary of both Peirce’s and James’ work and the developmental links between them.
Dewey on Peirce:
As pointed out, Peirce, James, Dewey, and Ulrich were all influenced by the philosophies of Immanuel Kant. Thus, it is not surprising that, while most people assume it to be an exclusively American conception, the term ‘pragmatic’ was in fact, suggested to Peirce whilst studying the works of Kant. As Dewey pointed out, there “is a remarkable similarity” (Dewey, 1925, par. 6) between Peirce’s How to Make Our Ideas Clear and Kant’s doctrine.
In a later piece of writing entitled Pragmatic and Pragmatism, Peirce acknowledged the influence of Kant, stating that he “was led to the [pragmatic] maxim by reflection upon Kant’s Critic of the Pure Reason” (Peirce, 2013, Pragmatic and Pragmatism, par. 4).
Origins and influences aside, the major contribution made by Peirce (in Pragmatic and Pragmatism) were, for Dewey, in clearing up “two errors which are commonly committed in regard to the ideas of the founder of pragmatism” (Dewey, 1925, par. 6). These two errors are:
- The belief “that it [pragmatism] makes action the end of life”; and
- That it “subordinates thought and rational activity to particular ends of interest and profit” (Dewey, 1925, par. 6).
While Peirce’s pragmatic maxim does imply a relation to action, the role of this action is intermediary. To attribute meaning to concepts, we must apply them to existence, and it is action which makes this application possible. The resulting modification of existence is what constitutes the true meaning of concepts. Pragmatism is thus “far from being … action for its own sake” (Dewey, 1925, par. 6).
In addition, there exists “a scale of possible applications of concepts to existence, and hence a diversity of meanings. The greater the extension of the concepts, the more they are freed from the restrictions which limit them to particular cases, the more is it possible for us to attribute the greatest generality of meaning to a term” (Dewey, 1925, par. 7).
In this way, Peirce’s maxim opposes restricting a concept’s meaning to simply one ‘means to an end’ or personal aim, and, even more so, the notion that reason or thought be reduced to serve pecuniary (financial) or narrow interests.
Dewey on James:
According to Dewey, William James both narrowed and extended Peirce’s pragmatic method.
He extended it by substituting particular consequences with a general rule or method for the future (see the example debate between theistic and materialistic human origins described earlier). For James, the whole point of philosophy was to understand the modification our existence would undergo if “one or the other formula of the universe were true” (Dewey, 1925, par. 12).
This very extension however, introduced the narrowing because it “destroyed the importance attached by Peirce to the greatest possible application of the rule, or the habit of conduct – its extension to universality” (Dewey, 1925, par. 9).
Additionally, James’ point of view appeared to refer to teaching philosophy rather than constructing it. In other words, it implied that all the ‘formulas of the universe’ had already been created, that the work of creating them was already complete, and that all that remained was to “define the consequences … of [accepting] one or the other of these formulas as true” (Dewey, 1925, par. 12).
In contrast, the whole point of philosophy for Peirce was “to give a fixed meaning to the universe by formulas which correspond to our attitudes or our most general habits of response to the environment … [and that the] applicability of these formulas to specific future events” (Dewey, 1925, par. 13) determined their generality.
In other words, from Peirce’s point of view, the meaning of ‘God’ and ‘matter’ (to use the theism vs. materialism debate) would have to be fixed before attempting to understand the value of believing in one or the other. Explaining their differing point of views, Dewey simply stated that “Peirce wrote as a logician and James as a humanist” (Dewey, 1925, par. 14).
Another way in which James advanced pragmatism, according to Dewey, was his theory of the will to believe (later called the theory of the right to believe). It took into account “those motives … which play a greater role in our choice of a philosophic system than do formal reasonings” (Dewey, 1925, par. 15). Because, for James, a belief is influenced by the fact that it, the belief, has consequences, he thought “openly recogniz[ing] the motives which inspire us” (Dewey, 1925, par. 15) would help maintain philosophical sincerity.
In other words, we have the right to believe in what we want, but we should acknowledge its influence on our philosophic point of view.
“[M]an [has the right] to choose his beliefs not only in the presence of proofs or conclusive facts, but also in the absence of all such proof.” (Dewey, 1925, par. 15)
James later applied the pragmatic method to the problem of the nature of truth, a bigger deal than you might initially think. Let me explain.
Pragmatism looks “away from first things, principles, ‘categories,’ supposed necessities; and [looks] … towards last things, fruits, consequences, facts” (Dewey, 1925, par. 16).
In the natural sciences, truth is identified through observation. Theories or notions remain hypotheses until verified by observable facts. For empirical philosophers who wish to find truth through such empirical methods, finding particular cases from which generalizations can be made is essential. It is through experience, through observation, that examples of what is called truth are found. In other words, truth ‘means’ verification, or, verification is the definition of truth.
Combining the above notion with James’ prospective pragmatic method leaves classical theories of truth wanting. Classic theories of truth are “in terms of the coherence or compatibility of terms” (Dewey, 1925, par. 17). But as mentioned, a mental coherence (theory or notion) of something remains hypothetical until experimentally verified. Only by passing “over into the realm of action and by noting the results which it yields” (Dewey, 1925, par. 17) can a theory or notion’s proposed correspondence to reality be confirmed. And it is only a confirmation “when it [the theory or notion in action] leads to the facts which are its consequences” (Dewey, 1925, par. 17). And, as mentioned, all of this occurs through the intermediary of experience.
What this all means, pragmatically speaking, is that all knowledge is prospective in its results. While it presents itself as an extension of empiricism, pragmatism offers one fundamental difference:
“[Pragmatism] does not insist upon antecedent phenomena but upon consequent phenomena; not upon the precedents but upon the possibilities of action. And this change … is almost revolutionary in its consequences” (Dewey, 1925, par. 18)
It is revolutionary because:
“[Empiricism] is content with repeating facts already past [and] has no place for possibility and for liberty. It cannot find room for general conceptions or ideas, at least no more than to consider them as summaries or records. But when we take the point of view of pragmatism we see that general ideas have a very different role to play than that of reporting and registering past experiences. They are the bases for organizing future observations and experiences. Whereas, for empiricism, in a world already constructed and determined, reason or general thought has no other meaning than that of summing up particular cases. [I]n a world where the future is not a mere word, where theories, general notions, rational ideas have consequences for action, reason necessarily has a constructive function.” (Dewey, 1925, par. 18)
As Dewey pointed out, consequences for action and the constructive function of reason are highly valuable in that they ensure the future is taken into consideration when we form general ideas:
“If we form general ideas and … put them in action, consequences are produced which could not be produced otherwise. Under these conditions the world will be different from what it would have been if thought had not intervened. This consideration confirms the human and moral importance of thought and of its reflective operation in experience” (Dewey, 1925, par. 19). This, of course, also means that we acknowledge that the world is still in the making and not already constructed and determined, as in an empirical world.
In a nutshell then, James’ contribution to philosophical pragmatism is his “revision of English empiricism, a revision which replaces the value of past experience, of what is already given, by the future, by that which is as yet mere possibility” (Dewey, 1925, par. 19).
The article by Dewey definitely gave me more insight into the texts by Peirce and James than reading the texts themselves. The links between philosophical pragmatism and CSH are becoming more and more apparent. All three texts are quite extensive, and I recommend that anyone more interested in them, read them, and not take what I have written above as the entire picture.
Next on the list, and coming in Part 3, is critical social theory… Oh boy!
The Nine Texts
- Churchman, C.W. (1968). The Systems Approach. New York: Delta/Dell Publishing.
- Churchman, C.W. (1971). The Design of Inquiring Systems: Basic Concepts of Systems and Organizations. New York: Basic Books.
- Churchman, C.W. (1979). The Systems Approach and its Enemies. New York: Basic Books.
- Dewey, J. (1925). The development of American pragmatism. Studies in the History of Ideas2(Supplement), 353–377.
- Habermas, J. (1972). Knowledge and Human Interests. London: Heinemann.
- Habermas, J. (1984/87). The Theory of Communicative Action. 2 Volumes, Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.
- James, W. (1907). Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking. New York: Longman.
- Peirce, C.S (1878). How to make our ideas clear. Popular Science Monthly 12 (January), 386–302.
- : Ulrich, W. (2001). The quest for competence in systemic research and practice. Systems Research and Behavioral Science, 18(1), 3-28.
- : Ulrich, W., & Reynolds, M. (2010). Critical systems heuristics. In Systems approaches to managing change: A practical guide (pp. 243-292). Springer London.
- : Ulrich, W. (1983). Critical Heuristics of Social Planning: A new approach to practical philosophy. J. Wiley & Sons.