Pragmatism and Reference

Pragmatism and Reference

By David Boersema

An argument that a pragmatist approach to reference offers a corrective to the prevailing analytic views on the topic.





An argument that a pragmatist approach to reference offers a corrective to the prevailing analytic views on the topic.

Despite a recent revival of interest in pragmatist philosophy, most work in the analytic philosophy of language ignores insights offered by classical pragmatists and contemporary neopragmatists. In Pragmatism and Reference, David Boersema argues that a pragmatist perspective on reference presents a distinct alternative—and corrective—to the prevailing analytic views on the topic. Boersema finds that the pragmatist approach to reference, with alternative understandings of the nature of language, the nature of conceptualization and categorization, and the nature of inquiry, is suggested in the work of Wittgenstein and more thoroughly developed in the works of such classical and contemporary pragmatists as Charles Peirce and Hilary Putnam.

Boersema first discusses the descriptivist and causal theories of reference—the received views on the topic in analytic philosophy. Then, after considering Wittgenstein's approach to reference, Boersema details the pragmatist approach to reference by nine philosophers: the “Big Three,” of classical pragmatism, Peirce, William James, and John Dewey; three contemporary American philosophers, Putnam, Catherine Elgin, and Richard Rorty; and three important continental philosophers, Umberto Eco, Karl-Otto Apel, and Jürgen Habermas. Finally, Boersema shows explicitly how pragmatism offers a genuinely alternative account of reference, presenting several case studies on the nature and function of names. Here, he focuses on conceptions of individuation, similarity, essences, and sociality of language.

Pragmatism and Reference will serve as a bridge between analytic and pragmatist approaches to such topics of shared concern as the nature and function of language.


$36.00 X ISBN: 9780262026604 296 pp. | 6 in x 9 in


  • Boersema's Pragmatism and Reference is a most intelligent compendium on the analysis of reference ranging over a remarkably varied 20th-century literature, bent on assessing with clarity and precision the effective superiority of pragmatist accounts over the better-known analytic theories. Boersema makes a compelling case. I'm not aware of a better overview. Readers will revisit its very sensible argument and appreciate the abundance and convenience of the texts Boersema has collected.

    Joseph Margolis

    Department of Philosophy, Temple University

  • Boersema shows that pragmatism provides the resources for a valuable critique of and a viable alternative to currently dominant theories of reference. Drawing on the work of the classical pragmatists and their American and European heirs, such as Putnam, Rorty, Habermas, and Apel, he argues that reference is social rather than individual, and forward looking rather than backward looking. His scholarship is fair-minded and astonishingly comprehensive. He seems to have read and synthesized the entire corpus of each of the philosophers he discusses.

    Catherine Z. Elgin

    Harvard University