Pragmatism is perhaps the only peculiarly American school of philosophy. The name denotes a concern for the practical, taking human action and its consequences as the basic measure of truth, value, etc. This translates to experimentation not merely as a method of scientific investigation but as the primary way humans engage each other and the world around them. Different pragmatists have different models of experimentation--some are basically scientific (Charles Sanders Peirce), others so pluralistic and relativist (William James) as to be almost anti-scientific. However, all pragmatists embrace some process(es) of ongoing inquiry and transformation of knowledge as part of the basic task of human societies.
A useful general account of pragmatism's origins during the late 19th and early 20th centuries is Menand's The Metaphysical Club. According to Menand, pragmatism took form largely in response to the work of Charles Darwin (evolution, ongoing process, and a non-epistemological view of history), statistics (the recognition of the role of randomness in the unfolding of events, and of the presence of regularity within randomness), American democracy (values of pluralism and consensus applied to knowledge as well as politics), and in particular the American Civil War (a rejection of the sort of absolutizing or dualizing claims (i.e., to Truth) that provide the philosophical underpinnings of war).
Some pragmatists and related thinkers:
- Immanuel Kant (for the category of "practical knowledge")
- Charles Sanders Peirce (note: pronounced "SAWN-ders PURSE": coined the term, though because he was so widely hated and seldom read, was not a prominent figure during his lifetime; he eventually distinguished his own philosophy from James's by calling it "pragmaticism." Peirce also invented semiotics)
- William James (influential psychologist and theorist of religion, as well as philosopher. First to be widely recognized for the term, though he would have preferred "humanist")
- John Dewey (American philosopher, key thinker in philosophy of education, referred to his own philosophy as "instrumentalism")
- George Herbert Mead (philosopher and social psychologist)
- Willard van Orman Quine (pragmatist philospher, concerned with language, logic, and philosophy of mathematics)
- Wilfrid Sellars (broad thinker, attacked foundationalism in the analytic tradition)
- Richard Rorty (controversial neo-pragmatist)
- Cornel West (important thinker on race, politics, and religion; operates under the sign of "prophetic pragmatism")