The pragmatic maxim, also known as the maxim of pragmatism or the maxim of pragmaticism, is a maxim of logic formulated by Charles Sanders Peirce. Serving as a normative recommendation or a regulative principle in the normative science of logic, its function is to guide the conduct of thought toward the achievement of its purpose, advising on an optimal way of "attaining clearness of apprehension". Here is its original 1878 statement in English[2] when it was not yet named:

It appears, then, that the rule for attaining the third grade of clearness of apprehension is as follows: 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.

(Peirce on p. 293 of "How to Make Our Ideas Clear", Popular Science Monthly, v. 12, pp. 286–302. Reprinted widely, including Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce (CP) v. 5, paragraphs 388–410.)

Seven ways of looking at the pragmatic maxim

Peirce stated the pragmatic maxim in many different ways over the years, each of which adds its own bit of clarity or correction to their collective corpus.

Pragmatism. The opinion that metaphysics is to be largely cleared up by the application of the following maxim for attaining clearness of apprehension: 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.

(Peirce, 1902, "Pragmatic and Pragmatism" in the Dictionary of Philosophy and Psychology, including quote of himself from 1878, "How to Make Our Ideas Clear" in Popular Science Monthly v. 12, pp. 286-302. Reprinted in CP 5.2).

Pragmaticism was originally enounced in the form of a maxim, as follows: Consider what effects that might conceivably have practical bearings you conceive the objects of your conception to have. Then, your conception of those effects is the whole of your conception of the object.

I will restate this in other words, since ofttimes one can thus eliminate some unsuspected source of perplexity to the reader. This time it shall be in the indicative mood, as follows: The entire intellectual purport of any symbol consists in the total of all general modes of rational conduct which, conditionally upon all the possible different circumstances and desires, would ensue upon the acceptance of the symbol.

(Peirce, 1905, from "Issues of Pragmaticism" in The Monist v. XV, n. 4, pp. 481-499, see p. 481 via Google Books and via Internet Archive. Reprinted in CP 5.438.).

To ascertain the meaning of an intellectual conception one should consider what practical consequences might result from the truth of that conception—and the sum of these consequences constitute the entire meaning of the conception.

(Peirce, 1905, CP 5.9.)

Pragmatism is the principle that every theoretical judgment expressible in a sentence in the indicative mood is a confused form of thought whose only meaning, if it has any, lies in its tendency to enforce a corresponding practical maxim expressible as a conditional sentence having its apodosis in the imperative mood.

(Peirce, 1903, from the lectures on Pragmatism, CP 5.18, also in Pragmatism as a Principle and Method of Right Thinking: The 1903 Harvard 'Lectures on Pragmatism', p. 110, and in Essential Peirce v. 2, pp. 134-5.)

The doctrine appears to assume that the end of man is action - a stoical axiom which, to the present writer at the age of sixty, does not recommend itself so forcibly as it did at thirty. If it be admitted, on the contrary, that action wants an end, and that that end must be something of a general description, then the spirit of the maxim itself, which is that we must look to the upshot of our concepts in order rightly to apprehend them, would direct us towards something different from practical facts, namely, to general ideas, as the true interpreters of our thought.

(Peirce, 1902, from "Pragmatic and Pragmatism" in the Dictionary of Philosophy and Psychology. Reprinted CP 5.3, 1902).

The study of philosophy consists, therefore, in reflexion, and pragmatism is that method of reflexion which is guided by constantly holding in view its purpose and the purpose of the ideas it analyzes, whether these ends be of the nature and uses of action or of thought. It will be seen that pragmatism is not a Weltanschauung but is a method of reflexion having for its purpose to render ideas clear.

(Peirce, 1902, CP 5.13 note 1).

This employment five times over of derivates of concipere must then have had a purpose. In point of fact it had two. One was to show that I was speaking of meaning in no other sense than that of intellectual purport. The other was to avoid all danger of being understood as attempting to explain a concept by percepts, images, schemata, or by anything but concepts. I did not, therefore, mean to say that acts, which are more strictly singular than anything, could constitute the purport, or adequate proper interpretation, of any symbol. I compared action to the finale of the symphony of thought, belief being a demicadence. Nobody conceives that the few bars at the end of a musical movement are the purpose of the movement. They may be called its upshot. But the figure obviously would not bear detailed application. I only mention it to show that the suspicion I myself expressed after a too hasty rereading of the forgotten magazine paper, that it expressed a stoic, that is, a nominalistic, materialistic, and utterly philistine state of thought, was quite mistaken.

(Peirce, 1906, CP 5.402 note 3).


  1. ^ Brent, Joseph (1998), Charles Sanders Peirce: A Life, 2nd edition, Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press (catalog page); also NetLibrary.
  2. ^ The article containing it was originally written in French as "Comment rendre nos idées claires" in 1877 for Revue Philosophique, which published it in its Volume VII in January 1879. There the maxim appeared on p. 48 as "Considérer quels sont les effets pratiques que nous pensons pouvoir être produits par l'objet de notre conception. La conception de tous ces effets est la conception complète de l'objet.". Curiously, the Revue Philosophique version omits the article's last one and a half paragraphs.