Pragmatism is a philosophical movement in the early 20th Century (the first quarter) which had wide influence on the academic and professional way of thinking especially in the United States. It was even said that this movement must have been the States' prime contribution to philosophy.
However, like all movement, it is difficult to pin down what pragmatism generally means and stands for. This is because we have no way of defining the ideas of pragmatism in a way that would satisfy all of its proponents. Each pragmatic thinker would conceive of pragmatism in a different way--and would handle the problematic of the movement uniquely.
We know, for one, that the term "pragmatism" was first used by Charles Pierce to refer to a kind of method of looking at reality. He was concerned on how we can be able to discern what is true and what is false1. What he needed was a theory of meaning2. This summarises Pierce's pragmatic thought.
Scholars of pragmatism usually associate the development of a theory of meaning in the movement on Pierce while a theory of truth on William James. Moreover, it was through James that the world came to know pragmatism--systematically. However, what interests us in William James (taking aside the critique of his pragmatism as unfaithful to what Pierce first conceived it to be) is a shift in focus3. Along with this is the understanding of pragmatism4.
We have just encountered two proponents of pragmatism. So, what then is pragmatism. Now we realise the problem we were just talking about previously. We find the difficulty of pinning down pragmatism. We see two proclaimed pragmatists in their own right and yet, two totally different strains of thought. What makes pragmatism what it is?
Fortunately for us, the answer lies deeply buried and intertwined with the problematic of modern philosophy--the concern on the tension between scientific knowing and moral values.
1 - Actually, he was more concerned about fixation of belief. Where should we ground belief so as not to fall in doubt when it is threatened? In this, he conceived of belief as the state of stability where one is comfortable in what one believes. However, when belief is threatened, doubt ensues. His concern was the grounding of this belief such as that we not be threatened and fall into doubt on the threat of belief; this he calls the fixation of belief. There are many methods that fix belief, however, science--for him--has an advantage over others because it helps us arrive at beliefs which is reasonably true. Other methods run with the spirit of modern philosophy--the concern for meaning (how reality appears before MY consciousness)--that suspends the concern for Truth (what reality really IS). Pierce definitely had this in mind when he thinks of science as having an advantage over methods. This is much important in taking into consideration of how other pragmatists conceive a vision of religion as an "endlessly self-correcting community of inquiry."
2 - For this, he managed to come up with a method of deciding and ruling upon the meaning of beliefs, ideas, and uses of language. He proposed to ascertain and formulate the distinct empirical consequences that result from using, experimenting, and/or acting on a given idea in certain circumstances. Whatever these results are, these are to be considered the whole of what one knows of that idea (i.e., its meaning). This he calls the "pragmatic significance" of an idea.
3 - While Pierce concerned himself of a theory of meaning--the explication of ideas and its proper place in the general schema and formulae of possible action, James concerned himself with the function of ideas in experience. For this, he shifted pragmatism not only to focus on the distinct contributions of ideas in specific human actions. Thus, it was experiential or (more precisely) sensational experience. Pierce summarises this difference in this quote: "[James] in defining pragmatism, speaks of it as referring ideas to experiences, meaning evidently the sensational side of experience, while I regard concepts as affairs of habit or disposition, and of how we should react."
4 - Pierce invoked the Kantian difference between the practical and the pragmatic while James used the Greek conception of the pragma in that the Greek term eventually refers to "action" and "practice." James did not only thought of pragmatism as a method of clarifying ideas and a theory of meaning but also a theory of truth (i.e., how ideas bring influence to what is and not only how action makes ideas clear and distinct). Moreover, he turned pragmatism towards the description of the actual process of much of our thinking--thus, it was then necessary for pragmatism to look into its psychological foundations. This brings James into the confrontation with his general theory of thought and action. Hence, he conceives the mind as always aiming towards ends (teleological). For him, the emotional and practical interests "are the real a priori elements of cognition."