Pragmatism and The Good

The American Pragmatist William James distinguishes between two approaches to philosophical questions: rationalism and empiricism. Rationalism starts with a grand idea or first premise (although different philosophers start with different premises) and derives, by logic or some other method, a system that purports to include the whole world in its conceptual scheme. This camp includes Descartes, Kant, Leibniz, Hegel and many others. Empiricism starts with our experience and builds up its conceptual scheme from observation of regularities of behavior of the things we see, hear and touch, and from the commonalities and differences we find among them. This camp includes Locke, Berkeley, Hume, Bacon and others. In the ancient world the distinctions were not so pronounced, but Plato is more on the rationalistic side, and Aristotle, more on the empirical.

James calls the rationalists “tender-minded” and the empiricists “tough-minded” and he clearly prefers the tough-minded approach.(1) The tender-minded, says James, favor ideas that seem appealing, and tend to be monistic and dogmatic. They start with an explanatory principle and interpret everything in light of it. The tough-minded favor facts and tend to be pluralistic. They are not dogmatic; instead they are open to new evidence and are skeptical of having final answers. They make sense of the world via their perceptions and build up explanatory principles rather than starting with them.

The subtitle of James’ book Pragmatism is “a new name for some old ways of thinking,” but Pragmatism is more than just a new name. The old ways he speaks of are those of the empiricists, whose tough-minded approach relies on abstracting general principles—the laws of nature—from experience, not on positing general principles prior to experience. What’s new in Pragmatism is a method for helping the empiricists understand what they are talking about.

Pragmatic Method

Pragmatism started out as a method for determining what concepts mean. The Pragmatic Maxim, first defined by James’s friend and colleague C.S. Peirce, is this:

Consider what effects, that 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.(2)

James’ formulation is similar:

The pragmatic method in such cases [of settling metaphysical disputes] is to try to interpret each notion by tracing its respective practical consequences.(3)

Both formulations are theories of the meaning of concepts by appeal to effects and consequences. Peirce gives some examples: To call a thing hard simply means that it is not easily scratched. To call something heavy simply means that it will fall unless something gets in its way. These are fairly trivial, but consider the concept of force. Some think force is some kind of entity or energy that causes motion. Peirce says that such an idea is superfluous. There are precise mathematical methods for describing the changes in motion that come about through the application of various forces. Peirce says that that’s all there is to the concept of force. We don’t need to posit some other mysterious entity behind the effects. There is nothing to the concept other than the mathematically describable effects of changes in motion.

Says Peirce,

The idea which the word “force” excites in our minds has no other function than to affect our actions, and these actions can have no reference to force otherwise than through its effects. … If we know what the effects of force are, we are acquainted with every fact which is implied in saying that a force exists, and there is nothing more to know.(4)

James applies this method to the concept of substance. We think of substance as something separate from its attributes, something in which the attributes inhere, but James says that’s a mistake. A piece of chalk, for instance, is white, cylindrical, friable (easily crumbled into pieces so it leaves marks on the blackboard) and insoluble in water. But what is chalk itself, apart from these attributes? James says “nothing;” the collection of attributes that cohere together is all there is to chalk. More generally, concerning anything material, he says

Matter is known as our sensations of colour, figure, hardness and the like. They are the cash-value of the term. The difference matter makes to us by truly being is that we then get such sensations; by not being, is that we lack them. These sensations then are its sole meaning.(5)

So Pragmatism is a theory of meaning. Both Peirce and James went on to develop theories of truth, but in this paper I don’t discuss those further developments. Instead I want to look at the meaning of another concept, that of goodness. What I am about to say is not found specifically in Peirce or James but is an application of their pragmatic method.

Historical Conceptions of the Good

Let’s start by considering a purely rationalistic account. Plato, in The Republic, speaks of The Good as a perfect, eternal, and changeless Form or Idea (Greek eidos), existing outside space and time, in which particular good things, such as knowledge, share.(6) (The term “idea” here does not mean something merely mental as it does in modern English. It means something like a mental idea but subsisting on its own.) The Idea of good, he says, is what “gives … truth to the objects of knowledge and the power of knowing to the knower,”(7) but it is beyond both known and knower.

The objects of knowledge not only receive from the presence of the good their being known, but their very existence and essence …, though the good itself is not essence but still transcends essence in dignity and surpassing power.(8)

Plato’s model of knowledge is based on our apprehension of unchanging abstract entities such as geometrical forms. We have an idea of a pure right triangle, with perfectly straight lines and an angle of exactly 90 degrees, even though every existing triangle has slight irregularities. We can define the right triangle precisely, and every time we think of it, it is the same. Plato finds this constancy so appealing that he models all of reality on it. There is a realm of Ideas or Forms that is perfect and unchanging. That realm is superior to our everyday world, which is constantly changing. We recognize things in the world because they somehow inhere in or partake of or imitate the realm of Forms. We recognize good things because they partake of the Form of the Good. The Form of the Good is what’s really real, says Plato, and all the good things we come across are only derivatively so.

The problem with this notion of the good is that it doesn’t give us any practical advice on how to find or create or produce good outcomes. It has no predictive power. From a pragmatic point of view, it is entirely vacuous.

Plato’s student Aristotle has a more down-to-earth view. Instead of some perfect Form of goodness, he asks what is good for human beings. He is like Plato in a way because he asks about the highest good for human beings, but he goes about his inquiry by looking at actual people rather than contemplating abstract ideas. Aristotle claims that, as a factual matter, human beings seek happiness (eudaimonia, sometimes translated as “flourishing”) above all else since “we always choose it because of itself, never because of something else.”(9) We seek good food, health, pleasant company, intellectual stimulation and the like because they make us happy. But we don’t seek happiness because it leads to anything else. It is a final goal or end for us. Aristotle’s account of goodness is much more useful than Plato’s, because we can actually investigate the matter and find out what leads to our happiness or flourishing.

With that historical background, let’s take a look at what the concept of goodness entails pragmatically. What are the practical effects of something’s being good? What difference does being good, as opposed to not being good, make?

Goodness Considered Pragmatically

There are actually quite a number of meanings of the term “good,” quite a number of language games we can play with it, as it were. One dictionary lists over 50 definitions!(10) Here I focus on one of the most common, captured in the phrase “good for.” I do not deal with goodness in a moral sense, as in good vs. evil.

What is good in this sense has to do with benefits. Something that benefits something or someone is called good for that thing or person. We can think of this instrumentally or biologically. Instrumentally, a hammer is good for pounding nails, and what is good for the hammer is what enables it to do so well. Biologically, air, water, and food are good for living beings.

Instrumentally, what is good for a thing enables that thing to serve its purpose. To make sense, an instrumental usage requires reference to someone’s purpose or intention. Thus, a hammer is good for pounding nails, and we pound nails in order to build things such as furniture or housing. Our intention is to acquire the comfort and utility these things afford us. That is our goal, or end, and the good is what helps bring it about.

The instrumental usage is expressed in terms of usefulness or utility for achieving a purpose or intention. Some hammers are better than others in that they have better heft or weight or balance and thus can be used to pound nails more effectively.

The instrumental usage leads to the biological usage. Why is it good for human beings to have comfort and utility? Because comfort and utility nourish us and keep us alive.

The biological good has to do with health and well-being. Biologically, what is good for an organism is what helps it survive and thrive, what nourishes it. Some things are better for us than others in this respect. For instance, a diet of whole grains and vegetables is better, in the sense of providing better health for humans, than a diet of simple carbohydrates and fats. Another example: some plants need full sunlight to thrive, and others need shade; thus, full sunlight is good for the former, and shade is good for the latter. The good, in this sense, is that which enables a thing to function well, that is, to survive, thrive and reproduce. Unlike the instrumental usage, the biological usage does not require reference to conscious purpose or intention.

As an aside, the notion of function is non-trivial, and I have dealt with it elsewhere. Here I just want to say that the function of a living thing is, intrinsically, to survive and reproduce.(11) Living things also have functions external to themselves in their habitat or biosphere, such as to provide shelter or nutrients or other goods to other living things, but here I mean function in the intrinsic sense.

The instrumental usage intersects the biological when we consider what is good for something that is itself good for achieving a purpose or intention. For instance, keeping a hammer clean and sheltered from the elements is good for the hammer; if it gets too dirty to handle easily or too rusty to provide a good impact on a nail, it is not useful as a hammer. So we can talk about what is good for the hammer in a way that is analogous to what is good for a living being. The good, in this sense also, is that which enables a thing to function well. “Function” in this case means what the hammer is designed to do.

Just as good is defined in relation to an end, the value of the end is defined in relation to another end. As mentioned above, a hammer is good for driving nails. Driving nails is good for building houses. We build houses to have shelter and warmth. And we desire shelter and warmth because they sustain our life.

Now here is a point that will become important shortly. This chain of goods and ends stretches in both directions from wherever we arbitrarily start looking. A hammer is good for driving nails. Driving nails is good for building things. That’s one direction. The other is what is good for the hammer, which is whatever enables it to perform its function. It is not good to leave it out in the rain; it is good to handle it carefully, swing it accurately with grace and force, and put it away safely.

Pragmatically, both the instrumental and the biological usage give meaning to the term “good” by referring to the consequences or effects of an action or event. That whole grains are good for humans means that the effect of eating them is healthful. That a hammer is good for pounding nails means that using it for that purpose is likely to have the effect you want, namely that the nails go in easily and straight.

Some synonyms for “good” are “helpful,” “nourishing,” “beneficial,” “useful” and “effective.” Some synonyms for “bad” are the opposites of those terms: “unhelpful,” “unhealthy,” “damaging,” “useless” and “ineffective.”

Goodness is contextual, and there are degrees of goodness and its opposite, badness. Some plants, sunflowers for instance, need full sunlight to thrive; and others, such as violets, need shade. Full sunlight is good for the former and not so good for the latter. If the context is raising sunflowers, then full sunlight is good; if the context is raising violets, then it’s bad, and shade is better. Goodness is not absolute. What is good for the hawk is not so good for the mouse.

The good in this sense is a feature of the natural world. One of the benefits of this empirical and pragmatic approach to goodness is that we can tell what’s good by observation. Benefits and harms are publicly observable, and judgments about what’s good are objectively verifiable. We can do studies of the effects of diet on health, for instance, studies that provide factual evidence, so the recommendation to eat vegetables is not just someone’s opinion. In particular, our knowledge of goodness does not depend on some kind of mystical intuition of a supersensible Form existing outside space and time. The evidence is not hidden; it is there for all to see.

I’ve been speaking about goodness-for. I want to mention briefly a related sense of the term “good,” to be good at. Being good at something means to be proficient, accomplished or skilled. For instance, a horse can be good at running, and one that is superlatively good at running will win races. A person can be good at any number of things such as music or tennis or mathematics or philosophy. The connection between goodness-at and goodness-for is that what something is good at gives us clues to what is good for it. I have said that what’s good for a person or a thing enables that person or thing to function well. We can think of what we are good at as our function, or at least one of our functions. Functioning well means doing what we are good at and doing it in a way that promotes and enhances our ability to do it.

Practical Import

The practical import of all this is that we now have a way to achieve what Aristotle calls eudaimonia. We experience eudaimonia, that is, happiness, fulfillment or flourishing, when we function well. So if we want to flourish then we need to find out what our functions are—that is, what we are good at—and learn to do them effectively.

There are things that some of us are good at and others are not. Some have special talents for sports, for instance, or mathematics or music, but not everyone does. On an individual level, we each need to find out what we are good at personally, or idiosyncratically, and pursue and develop those talents.

There are also things that everybody is good at, by virtue of being a human being. The philosophical task is to find the function of human beings in general. As Aristotle puts it,

Perhaps we shall find the best good [i.e., happiness] if we first find the function of a human being. For just as the good … for a flautist, a sculptor, and every craftsman, and in general, for whatever has a function and <characteristic> action, seems to depend on its function, the same seems to be true for a human being, if a human being has some function.(12)

The Greek word for “function” is ergon, or work, from which we get our term “ergonomics.” So what is the function, the characteristic work, of human beings in general, just as human beings? I’m not going to answer that question here, as I have written a whole book about it, but clearly it would be useful to find out.(13)

Interconnected World

To conclude, I want to mention one more idea from William James. In one of his essays he applies the pragmatic method to the question of whether the world as a whole is one or many. Obviously, it contains many things, but can they be considered altogether as one? Pragmatically, one way in which it is meaningful to say that the world is one is that the world contains causal connections and networks of influence that bind each separate thing to others. James says,

Everything that exists is influenced in some way by something else. … all things cohere and adhere to each other somehow, and … the universe exists practically in reticulated or concatenated forms which make of it a continuous or ‘integrated’ affair. Any kind of influence whatever helps to make the world one ….(14)

In another place he says

There can be no difference anywhere that doesn’t make a difference elsewhere.(15)

James is making a metaphysical point here, asserting a characteristic of all of reality, that everything is connected to everything else.

Recall that I said that just as goodness is defined in relation to an end, the value of the end is defined in relation to another end, and that the chain of goods and ends stretches in both directions from wherever we arbitrarily start looking. Following James, I assert that there is no finality to the chains of goods and ends, no summum bonum (highest good) in which all chains culminate or from which all goods are derived. The world is a web, not a hierarchy.

Assuming that we seek to flourish, the fact of being embedded in such a web has implications for how we should conduct ourselves. Since everything is connected, our actions not only have an effect on our surroundings, but in turn our surroundings rebound and have an effect on us. Hence, it is prudent to have a good effect on our surroundings.

The underlying principle, taken from Permaculture, a study of systems theory applied to ecosystems, is that an element of a system thrives when the system as a whole is healthy, and a system as a whole is healthy when its constituent elements thrive. Human beings are elements in a variety of systems, most notably our natural environment and systems of other people, or communities. If, in situations of conflict, we can find ways to benefit all concerned, then we ourselves will be benefited. If conflict is resolved so that everyone is satisfied, then the solution will be likely to last, leading to further benefit for ourselves. Short-sighted egotistical selfishness is self-defeating. The advice here is to seek goodness for as many concerned as possible. Doing so is a strategy based on enlightened self-interest.

If we want to thrive, to maximize our own good, it makes sense to try to maximize the good for all concerned in whatever situation we find ourselves. Another way of saying this is that it is good to be of service, to help everybody, as best we can. As we maximize the good of everybody and everything in the environment, we thereby promote our own health as well

The advantage of the Pragmatic approach to goodness is that now we know what goodness is. If we are smart enough to choose to do so, we can maximize it for all concerned.


(1) James, “The Present Dilemma in Philosophy,” Pragmatism, Chapter One.

(2) Peirce, “How To Make Our Ideas Clear.”

(3) James, “What Pragmatism Means,” Pragmatism, Chapter Two.

(4) Peirce, “How To Make Our Ideas Clear.”

(5) James, “Some Metaphysical Problems Pragmatically Considered,” Pragmatism, Chapter Three.

(6) Wikipedia, “Form of the Good.”

(7) Plato, The Republic, 508d-e.

(8) Idem., 509b.

(9) Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics I.7, 1097b 1. The term “eudaimonia” literally means being accompanied by a good spirit, sort of a guardian angel, but Aristotle uses the term figuratively.


(11) Foot, Natural Goodness, pp. 31-32.

(12) Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics, I.7 1097b 22-29.

(13) Meacham, How To Be An Excellent Human.

(14) James, “The One and the Many,” Pragmatism, Chapter Four.

(15) James, “What Pragmatism Means,” Pragmatism, Chapter Two.


Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics, trans. T. Irwin. In Readings in Ancient Greek Philosophy: From Thales to Aristotle, Fourth Edition, ed. S. Marc Cohen et. al. Indianapolis: Hackett, 2011. “Good.” Unabridged (v 1.1). Random House, Inc. online publication as of 19 December, 2008.

Foot, Philippa. Natural Goodness. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.

James, William. Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking. New York: Longmans, Green, & Co., 1907. Available online at as of 22 June 2020.

Meacham, Bill. How To Be An Excellent Human. Austin: Earth Harmony, 2013. Available at

Peirce, Charles Saunders. “How To Make Our Ideas Clear.” Popular Science Monthly, Vol. 12, pp. 286-302 (January 1878). In Charles S. Peirce: Collected Writings (Values in a Universe of Chance), pp. 113-136. Ed. Philip P. Wiener. New York: Dover Publications, 1958. Online publication as of 26 July 2020.

Plato. The Republic. Tr. Paul Shorey. The Collected Dialogues of Plato. Ed. Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns. New York: Pantheon Books, 1963.

Wikipedia. “Form of the Good”. Online publication as of 28 July 2020.

How To Be An Excellent Human

Mysticism, Evolutionary Psychology and the Good Life by Bill Beacham, Ph.D.

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