The Pragmatist Philosophical Heritage of Planning Philosophies…

– Bruce Long

There are few fields of scientific, social, and philosophical discipline during the last two centuries that have not been influenced by American philosophical pragmatism. Town and Urban planning are included in this by fiat due to the influence worldwide of American culture and technology, but also because the story of the philosophy of planning is largely a story about the contention between scientistic logical positivism that excludes subjective experience as important, and constructivism that regards a more Popperian-cum-neo-pragmatist approach to the discipline as preeminent.

Popperian here refers to the philosophy of science of Karl Popper, who suggested that deduction by experiment is guided by hypothesis (which approach has been labelled hypothetico-deductive) and who coined the term ‘falsifiability’ to refer to a property that scientific findings must have: that they can be proven false using material experimental means. The theory that a supernatural god exists, for example, is not falsifiable according to Popper: it cannot be proven false by material experimentation and is therefore not scientific. Falsifiability is related to the idea of defeasibility: that scientific theories change according to new information and findings.

image01Popper was a revisionist pragmatist, and one of the hallmarks of his philosophy is that hypothetico-deductivism is not positivistic: it does not see experiment and experimental hard data as the sole starting point of a scientific theory. It regards hypotheses based on such things as common sense as the starting point for many scientific investigations. This fits with the overall observation about urban and city planning – that it is far from a positivistic hard science. It is instead an art and a science with elements of organic growth (a metaphorical reference to unplanned or spontaneous development) and is at best a collection  of soft sciences mediated by the aesthetic in something like the same way as one of its subdisciplines: architecture.

 Philosophical pragmatism is one of the most explored philosophies in the 20th and 21st century. Despite its young age – its originator was the brilliant and eccentric Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914) – it has had perhaps more influence in the digital age than any other philosophical tradition from history. Charles Sanders Peirce  was a paragon of American uniqueness. A savant with a probable mood disorder and an unfortunate and painful facial twitch (trigeminal neuralgia), Peirce was only marginally theistic (with a naturalistic and non-religious conception of what the religious call God) and married a gypsy.

Peirce’s life long nemesis was his boyhood housemate John Newcombe. Peirce’s father (a lecturer and academic) welcomed the poverty stricken but brilliant Newcombe into the Peirce household in his youth. Something (no one is quite sure what) went very wrong there between Newcombe and Peirce, and it is known from Newcombe’s posthumously published diary and letters that he pursued Peirce with an obsessive, and apparently jealous, vengeance for the rest of his natural life: a fact to which Peirce was oblivious. Newcombe wrote to his influential contacts on the boards of at least two universities during Peirce’s lifetime, blocking Peirce’s progression and all but destroying his career. Peirce died in financial ruin and relative obscurity, his writings becoming famous only after his death. His marriage to his wife – a known Gypsy who by all accounts Peirce loved dearly – did not help his cause socially.


Peirce’s lifetime was not all loss and tragedy, however. His sparring partner and fellow philosopher William James  is probably the most influential American pragmatist in terms of social influence in the pragmatist tradition. ‘Probably’ is not a handwaving term here, because James’ pragmatic contemporaries and successors were both vaunted and daunting. The other early American pragmatists – apart from the astounding Peirce – were John Milton Keynes, George Herbert Mead (a founder of social psychology) and John Dewey.  Peirce and James set the scene for the relevance of pragmatism to the philosophy of disciplines from education and politics to town planning with the contention about the relative importance of objective empirical data and subjective experience.

 Peirce was a devout mathematical scientist (and a superbly achieved one), inventor, and experimenter. His conception of pragmatism was essentially a description of how to adduce truth about and from nature by doing science most effectively. His approach was to deploy practical and common sense considerations in approaching experimentation and problem solving, but with rigorous empirical measurement and mathematically governed enquiry at the core. His approach to science was to emphasise the reasoned handling of empirical data obtained by measurement and with an economical systematic approach, with mathematics de rigeur as the (metaphysically real and truth-supporting) mooring of it all.

 James was not the hard scientist that Peirce was. James was a devout Protestant, probably a Mason, and an achieved psychologist (he wrote one of the most influential and groundbreaking texts in the field in his lifetime). His father was a Swedenborgian (following the teachings of Universalist Emmanuel Swedenborg) theologian. James’s statement of Peirce’s doctrine was not scientistic, but about the synthesis of a new philosophical disposition that would accommodate science and religion. James expressed this binary in terms of the ‘tough mind’, which he characterised as pessimistic and materialistic, and the ‘tender mind’, which he characterized as more optimistic and human. It is little wonder that his philosophy had appeal against the background of a New World (albeit one born of a mass genocide) where the ideals of self determination and manifest destiny lay at the heart of cultural consciousness.

 Peirce famously rejected James’ pragmatism as a misappropriation and misrepresentation of his own thought. He did so in much the same way as Einstein lamented the deployment of the terms of relativity theory by sociologists and psychologists, and father of information theory Claude E Shannon lamented (in a 1956 editorial titled ‘The Bandwagon’, ) the attempted use of information theoretic postulates in such fields as social theory, linguistics, and literary theory. According to James, Peirce’s worldview was too scientistic and limited. According to Peirce, James was simply confused and allowing his thinking to be clouded by his religionist and psychologistic disposition. Underlying all of this was the central philosophical question of pragmatism: what is truth and how does one determine it, and how does it inform our knowledge about nature and human affairs? 2, 5, 6, 9

 Due to the influence of European scientism and the scientific revolution, the ‘tough mind’ came to rule the West for some time (although of course during the same period the explosion of new religious movements in the USA was unprecedented, with the rise of Mormonism, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Pentecostalism, and Scientology – just to name a few). image00

From the mid industrial revolution to the mid 20th century pragmatism was eclipsed by an empiricist logical positivism that held the world – the Western world at least – in its grip during both of the great wars until at least the 1970s, when the astonishing neo-Leftist (but anti-Stalinist), neo-pragmatist Richard Rorty single handedly revived pragmatism as the mainstay Western philosophical disposition (with some very serious competition from continental postmodern philosophers like Jacques Derrida, Michael Foucault, and Jean Baudrillard).

The spectre of the horrifying success of the atom bomb was enough to silence any dissent from scientism for some time. Postivistic scientism ruled in Europe until Marxist/neo-Marxist continental existentialists such as Jean Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, and postmodernist neo-leftist Jean Baudrillard, reignited interest in subjective lived experience and challenged science as a rigid grand narrative (although the postmodernists challenge religion on the very same basis). To the postmodernists, the shape of religious and scientific explanations of the world and life had taken on the form of enormous purposed, rigid, oppressive, overriding stories incorporating moral dictums and value judgements, but their influence did not arrive in earnest until the late 1980s.

Despite the influence of Wittgenstein, positivistic scientism coupled with Peircian pragmatism arguably ruled in the United States until neo-pragmatist Richard Rorty re-opened the lines of enquiry into pragmatist thought that had originated in the debate between the scientistic (not a derogatory term, but  descriptive one) Peirce and the psychologistic  and religionist James (he was a psychologist, but his views were psychologistic in the sense that they emphasized the subjective experience as central to pragmatic thinking).  With Rorty, however, the embracing of religionism was all but subsumed under the dominance of secular humanistic thinking.

So how does pragmatism influence and fit with planning theory and the philosophy of planning? Postmodernist and neo-pragmatist philosophers alike tend to be squeamish about dialectic and discursive binaries in culture and philosophy. At the same time, scientists and engineers tend to be pragmatists of a more Peircian, scientistic, and positivist disposition. The philosophical underpinnings of the planning world are a surprisingly strong reflection of the debate between logical positivism and neo-pragmatism, and a revival and dialectical reflection of the same debate between  Peirce and James. Planning is a discipline that is realised as a combination of arts, aesthetic disciplines, and special sciences. The special sciences in question are mostly engineering and social-scientific orientated variants: environmental engineering and social psychology, for example.

Planning constructivists embrace a position that resembles, and has a strong philosophical heritage in, Jamesian pragmatism and existentialist-through-postmodernist thought. However, planning constructivism is not simply about tender mindedness and human-centricity. Peirce and scientism have their influence with constructivism too. In philosophy and the philosophy of science, and in the scientific disciplines that inform them: few ideas stand in isolation from each other.

Constructivism in planning is arguably the synthesis of the best of positivistic respect for data-centric empiricism (after all – constructivists do not tend to ignore environmental data and pollution predictors) with the most sensible aspects of social-psychologism and Jamesian neo-pragmatism (social science is increasingly important as a gauge of the suitability of a living space). Constructivisms in philosophy tend to emphasise the subjective and the psychologistic, and the existential. This places them most closely in dialectic and discursive, and philosophical, proximity to Jamesian and Rortian pragmatism, and they are directly and indirectly influenced by both. The truth about the right way to plan a lived space is not based only upon disconnected empirical data, but must take into account the special and soft sciences: social-psychology, psychology, and synthesis of the best reasoning about the human condition with the best of problem solving with tools like simulators.

Richard Rorty was no religionist, but a neo-leftist neo-pragmatist who “sought to integrate and apply the milestone achievements of Dewey, Hegel and Darwin in a pragmatist synthesis of historicism and naturalism”7. His conception of truth converged upon that of constructivists of most stripes. However, Rorty employed the postmodern neo-leftist strategy of deconstruction with respect to the determination of truth. Rortian neo-pragmatism is arguably much further away from the scientism of positivist planning theory than is its sparring partner constructivism, inheriting as it does tenets of postmodernist rejection of the grand narrative and representationalist approach to knowledge of any kind. So constructivism in planning theory is closest to a more traditional Jamesian pragmatism, but with a tip of the hat to the power of science in an age when computer forecasting and simulation enables us to determine certain kinds of truth with greater predictive modeling accuracy than ever before.


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