The four P’s of pragmatism

In a 2006 book, Healing Psychiatry: Bridging the Science/Humanism Divide, David H. Brendel notes that psychiatry “is torn by opposing sensibilities. Is it primarily a science of brain functioning or primarily an art of understanding the human mind in its social and cultural context?” He sees the divide between science and humanism as a sickness of psychiatry, one that makes it difficult to heal the emotional conflicts and wounds of patients.

To address the divide, he turns to the pragmatism of Charles Sanders Peirce, William James, and John Dewey. He presents pragmatism in a simple formula (the four P’s) that could apply to most other domains (e.g., Shields, 2008):

  1. the practical dimensions of all scientific inquiry;
  2. the pluralistic nature of the phenomena studied by science and the tools that are used to study those phenomena;
  3. the participatory role of many individuals with different perspectives in the necessarily interpersonal process of scientific inquiry;
  4. and the provisional and flexible character of scientific explanation. (Brendel, 2006, p. 29)

Any such formula has its limitations, but this one seems remarkably effective at capturing salient aspects of pragmatism. The first p, practical, emphasizes pragmatism’s insistence on considering the consequences of any concept, to steer away from abstractions and idealizations that have no conceivable effects in our ordinary experience. The second p, pluralistic, reflects the fact that pragmatism is not so much one method or theory, but rather, an approach that considers any tools that may increase understanding, thereby achieving better practical consequences. It also reflects the assumption that interesting phenomena are unlikely to be captured within a simple category or single way of viewing. The third p, participatory, follows from the second in that multiple perspectives, Peirce’s community of inquiry, are needed to accommodate a pluralistic understanding. And the fourth p, provisional (cf. fallibilism), acknowledges that in a complex and ever-changing world, any understanding is subject to change as we learn more or as events occur.


  • Brendel, David H. (2006). Healing psychiatry: Bridging the science/humanism divide. Cambridge, Ma: MIT Press.
  • Shields, Patricia M. (2008, March/April). Rediscovering the taproot: Is classical pragmatism the route to renew public administration? Public Administration Review, 68, (2), 205-221. Washington, DC. (PAR Interview)