In this article, I will be describing pragmatist thinking in the frame of pragmatism and presenting its main tenets for possible use in artistic research. Pragmatism often seems confusingly common sense, with terms that sound familiar, such as interaction, action, practice or aesthetic experience. In many respects, it is a clearly defined philosophy of “common sense” as defined in the subheading of Pentti Määttänen’s Toiminta ja kokemus (Määttänen 2009). However, when we dig deep into the interactive and functional nature of phenomena, common sense also opens up flows of thought that are unexpected and require maturation. In addition, it is likely that the adoption of pragmatist thinking might be hampered by the ancient dualistic tradition of thinking, which boils things down to two categories. It is also reflected in everyday thinking and language use. It takes a great deal of effort to change one’s own mindset.

I was already well into the winding research process that eventually led to my doctoral degree when I took Pentti Määttänen’s pragmatic philosophy course at the end of the 1990s. Thanks to that course, I began to find a solid foundation and sustainable structure for my research. Based on the principles of so-called naturalistic pragmatism (naturalism), I was gradually able to consolidate my thoughts on all the theoretical and research methods I was using. My doctoral dissertation on teaching stage movement Hikeä ja harmoniaa is committed to the tradition of scientific research (Kumpulainen 2011). My background as a teacher of movement and physical expression drove me to familiarize myself with, in particular, the evolutionary aspects of pragmatism, corporeality and the embodied mind. Pragmatism has strengthened and deepened my understanding of the conditions and practices for movement and theatre-making that are tied to corporeality. It has also significantly extended my understanding of the relationship between humans and their accomplishments and nature.

Pragmatic thinkers and researchers have been broadly interested in human being as part of nature, as a communal and social creature. Perhaps currently the most well-known pragmatist philosopher John Dewey (1859–1952) reflected on expansive phenomena in his vast output, which still feels surprisingly topical. These phenomena included democracy, politics, education, religion, research and the nature of art. I believe that pragmatist thinking, such as John Dewey’s reflections on aesthetic experience and the essence of art, also resonate in artistic research processes. Pragmatism praises the achievements of art and creative imagination as perhaps the most important capital of humanity, and is able to place culture in an interesting context of nature and human embodiment.  

The aspect of pragmatism that appeals to me is its exploratory, scientific attitude. Its philosophical principles and ways of thinking are made more specific due to increased research data. Examples of research covered in this text are often revolutionary discoveries made in the late 19th and early 20th century, such as Darwin’s nature of evolution or William James’ theories on emotion. Their main message in this context is that they demonstrate how pragmatic philosophy has developed at the same pace as discoveries made in science. The latest developments in research must thus still be updated, when necessary, based on research reports from different fields of research.

An important general principle of pragmatism is examining things in a problem-oriented manner. Määttänen encapsulates that all methods that can be expected to produce useful information for solving a given problem can be used (Määttänen 2009, 19). It is typical in pragmatism that knowledge acquisition and the experience through which knowledge is acquired are examined from the perspective of doing. Knowledge is not acquired as perceptual experience through external observation, but as a result of action taken (Määttänen 2009, 16).

Naturalistic pragmatism

Introducing a few key concepts, I will now focus mainly on naturalistic pragmatism, also known as soft naturalism. (I do not discuss “hard naturalism” here, which reduces the essence of humanity to biology, brain functions, etc.) Pragmatic thinking is based on the understanding of human-nature relationships addressed in Darwin’s Theory of Evolution. Soft naturalism stems from the fact that humans are part of nature, including the culture developed by humans. The philosopher John Dewey, one of the founders of pragmatism, strongly criticizes any philosophical thinking which forgets that human thinking is also an integral part of nature, a natural function whose essential feature is uncertainty. According to him, the pursuit of theoretical certainty in philosophy has led to a situation wherein the issues being addressed are divided into actual and apparent reality. The artificially sharp distinction between subject and object, physical and mental, ideal and actual has led to unresolved problems in thinking (Dewey 1929, 244).

In his book The Quest for Certainty (1929), Dewey describes how the structure of ancient societies had a decisive impact also on the formation of philosophical thinking. At the top of society’s hierarchy were free men who did not perform manual labor. The philosophers who emerged among them ended up placing the “certain truths” attained through thinking at the highest level of knowledge in the hierarchy, separating them from corporeality, practical skills and everyday life. According to that line of thinking, philosophical thinking structures, such as the world of Plato’s ideas, or mathematics and geometry, revealed something certain and permanent about the world, to counterbalance a precarious and ever-changing everyday life. This created the idea that certain knowledge could only be obtained through the power of thought. “It is not to be inferred that Greek Philosophy separated activity from knowing. It connected them. But it distinguished activity from action – that is, from making and doing (Dewey 1929, 17).” Slaves, like sculptors, builders and artisans, did all the practical work, and the skills required for manual labor were considered of lesser value, just like those doing the work, and unsuitable for free men. According to Dewey, this division into certain and uncertain knowledge was transferred to, for example, the structure of Christianity by emphasizing, among others, the permanence of the heavenly and the uncertainty of secularity, the impermanence of the body (Dewey 1929, 3–25). In my opinion, the current educational structure, from comprehensive school to university, also reflects this hierarchical stance on the separation of skills and knowledge, although it has also been influenced by many other factors.

The problem of dualisms

In pragmatism, the dualistic, bipolar thinking described above is seen as a problem in perceiving reality. Many of the structures based on dualism in philosophy and, for example, Christianity also have established conceptual pairs in everyday thinking structures and language, such as internal – external, soul – body or mind – body, brain – body, reason – emotions, nature – culture, scientific – unscientific (Pihlström 2014). Dualisms have also been strongly gendered, such as man woman, masculine reason versus feminine emotion. Dualisms have led and can lead to multilevel problems when it comes to explaining a reality that, as has been said, is much more complex and multilevel than the bipolar conceptual pairs suggest. According to Pihlström, the theory of pragmatic research, knowledge, skills and learning attempts to do away with, for example, the sharp division between opposing pairs, such as thought – action, knowledge – skill, learning – doing or theory – practice. He states that it is still possible to use them, as long as we bear in mind that such divisions are not so clear-cut. This is because the terms are always context-specific and to some extent imprecise. In addition, in Pihlström’s words, thought only occurs in functional contexts in the sense that “acquiring knowledge requires research activities that are regulated by skills” (Pihlström 2014). In other words, it is simply a question of how a person acquires knowledge about the world. Thinking is also on the same continuum as doing.

Interaction, action, practice, thought

Here is how the four essential concepts of pragmatism, interaction, action, practice and thought are interlinked. According to Dewey, thought must also be described as an action. Thought should be linked more broadly to the pragmatic perception of the human mind as an action, not as a separate human characteristic. In other words, meaningfulness is more a characteristic of an action in which the means at hand are used intelligently and prudently in order for the person to achieve the desired outcomes. Dewey also talks about minding things and examines the ways in which minding manifests itself in our actions. He analyses the meanings of the English-language verb to mind, stating that, intellectually, it may be about noticing something and, emotionally, it may be about caring and considering something meaningful. Practical decision-making involves making appropriate choices (Kivinen & Ristelä 2000, 79).

According to Dewey, in simplest terms, the need for thought arises when some primary function results in problematic situations. Both the formation of thought and its development require such problematic situations. If an action which has been tried and then consciously reflected upon (thought about afterwards) is not taken again in the expected way, it will result in confusion. This, in turn, elicits new reflection, thus promoting the development of thought in an operational context (Dewey 1981, 29, 61). Putting thought into action prevents us from ending up reflecting on reflection, i.e., an absurd continuum with an endless number of thought levels and where a higher level of thinking would control a lower level of thinking.

As a basis for philosophical thought, Dewey proposed a model offered by experimental empirical research, according to which action is a means of solving a problematic situation. Action, on the other hand, is a form of a common aspect of nature, interaction. There is constant interaction at all levels, from cellular reactions to social interaction (transaction). According to Dewey, awareness, thought, is also a reality-altering action whose value lies in the consequences of this change. He also underscored that, as a result of scientific achievements, we are aware of the role that the body plays in all mental functions (Dewey 1929, 244–245).

For example, acting, actor studies and the teaching of movement and physical expression provided in connection with it can be defined pragmatically as an interactive human function, extensive concentrations and layers of established ways of doing things, practices, i.e., habits of action the nature of which is examined using different research approaches (Kumpulainen 2011, 27–49). The same applies naturally, for example, to dance, scenography, or light and sound design, as well as to literature and music or performance art. The main thing is that, by introducing the concepts of pragmatic thinking, it is possible to cross boundaries that have arisen for inherently understandable reasons, such as when defending areas of dance art, sports or physical activity.

The recurrence of the process, whether we are talking about cellular reactions or deliberate action, creates the established practices (habits, habits of action) described above. An established habit of action can also be considered a belief. This makes the habit of action meaningful in that it usually fulfils a certain aim when repeated. For example, opening a door by pressing the door handle before pushing the door open is an established practice. It can also be thought of as a belief. Based on previous attempts, it can be assumed that the door will usually open by pressing the handle, even if there are exceptions. It can also be said that established habits of actions are beliefs in themselves. A habitual way of acting (habit of action) as a belief is therefore a property of the interaction, not of the individual. 

The description above is an example of pragmatist thinking. One example of accuracy in the use of concepts is that Kivinen and Ristelä (2000) translate the word habit into inclination. On the other hand, Määttänen advocates using the word habit because, according to him, inclination can too easily be understood as a human characteristic. In this case, the idea that a habit can only exist through interaction between the individual and the environment becomes blurred (Määttänen 2008, 234–237).

The previous reflection may also be a good example of how pragmatism draws attention to the interaction between humans and the environment as a basis for being. In the fairy tale about a girl who grew up in a barrel, the girl would develop hardly any physical, much less mental capabilities when closed up in a barrel. Humans develop into humans only through interaction with their surroundings. It is therefore important to note that the mind and experiences must also be included as characteristics of this interaction.

Experience, development of experience, learning

According to Dewey, experiences convey a functioning person’s relationship with the world. Indeed, Alhanen (2013, 14) refers to Dewey as ecological philosopher of experience. Humans engage in comprehensive interaction with nature and are an integral part of it. Dewey sees humans and everything that they have developed as a result of evolution, as part of nature. This also applies to religion, art and culture as a whole. In Dewey’s thinking, experience is a mechanism between a human and the world, conveying the world to the individual. Dewey’s research focused at large on the development of experience from the perspective of living beings (Alhanen 2013, 14).

It is important to realize that the experience is not found in the brain inside the head – it is created between humans and the world through actions, whereupon the experience conveys the world to individuals. Humans function as a whole with their brains, limbs and organs. Experience is an aspect of interaction that takes place in that situation, and people perceive it either consciously or subconsciously. The experience of humans (along with other living beings) develops when certain actions are repeated. In other words, it is a learning process. According to Dewey, learning takes place through established habits, habits of action. Established ways of doing things, i.e., habit of actions (practices), that are created when repeating certain actions are human ways of interacting with their environment. Ultimately, when learning takes place, the entire way of living changes. Dewey also held that the environment also changes as a result of a given action. In this sense, learning is a change in actions (Kivinen & Ristelä 2000, 155–158).


A simultaneously familiar and unexpected statement for common sense is, perhaps, that a habit of action, an established way of doing things, is the same thing as meaning, which is formed in action, in the process of experiencing. According to Määttänen, the definition of the “broad theory of meaning” may be both linguistic and independent of language. A uniting factor for both areas, which are often considered separate, is to consider meaning as a habit of action(s), as mentioned above. The meaning of some matter or object lies in what kind of established habits of actions it involves. “The primary task of meaning is that linking it to a sign vehicle that serves as a marker makes it possible to disengage from the immediate relationship with the observed reality. Meaning brings cognitive distance to the prevailing situation.” (Määttänen 2009, 116–117) My interpretation of this is that the meaning of a particular phenomenon can be dealt with at the level of thought afterwards, or when planning for the future based on what has been experienced before. For example, seeing a hammer brings to mind what things it can be used for at another time, in another place, if you have used a hammer or seen it used to hammer nails into a piece of wood before.

Määttänen summarizes that both Peirce, a renowned pragmatist, and Wittgenstein, a renowned language philosopher, agreed on the dictum made famous by the latter: Meaning is use. As Dewey describes it, both the hat as an object and the word that defines it get their meaning from being used in a certain way. A hat is worn on the head and the word hat (i.e., the string of letters or combination of sounds) is used when the hat or any action involving it are described in the text or speech. You can therefore say that both words and objects each have their meaning (Määttänen 2009, 116–117). Meanings are established habits of action for using objects or words. In a broader sense, the carrier of meaning can be any object: a word, article, color, tone of voice or position. This idea also makes it easy to understand how, depending on the context, the same word can be used as a carrier of numerous meanings when the meaning is linked to an action the component, tool, of which the word is used as, in different situations.

On aesthetic experience

The starting point for pragmatist aesthetics is that beingness, experiences and awareness of humans are tied to the body (Määttänen 2012, 6). In Dewey’s later philosophy, the concept of aesthetic experience became a central concept. Understood in Dewey’s terms, it acts as a facilitator between, for example, art and research (Dewey 2005, 14). What is essential for Dewey is that culture and the diverse richness of art forms are also part of nature. According to Dewey, phenomena occurring in nature, and human development and life as a part of it, form the foundation for the development of human faculty for aesthetic experiences, which should not be restricted within art alone. (Dewey 2005, 11–13)

An organism achieves a state of balance that life necessitates only through balanced interaction with its environment. When this stable interaction is achieved after phases of disarray and stability, there arise seeds of a sense of fulfilment similar to an aesthetic experience. Emotional states that evolved in humans through evolution are part of the process. However, mere emotional states alone are not enough.

Through shifting phases of disarray and stability which produce different emotional states, humans learn to reflect on their situation, and to form meanings. The desire to restore a balanced relationship with the environment leads humans to become interested in objects that can help them achieve harmony. The result of achieving balance is that meanings are attached to the objects and action used in the situation as a result of reflection.

(Dewey 2005, 14, 15)

Rhythm in the structure of aesthetic experience

Generally speaking, Dewey states that any interactions that bring stability and order to the turbulent flow of change are rhythms. This applies to temporal ordering, such as heartbeats alternating between rest and pulse or, likewise, rhythms of the spatial state, such as coastal shoals formed by the surging of the sea. A being living in the world repeatedly loses and achieves a balance with its surroundings, whilst also experiencing life at its most intense when moving from a state of disturbance to harmony. The experience of aesthetics arises precisely from this combination of real-world movement and peaks, disruptions and new connections. Harmony is also achieved on this “objective” basis. Internal harmony can only be achieved when getting along with the environment by some means of action. (Dewey 2005, 14, 15)

Dewey sees the processes of both an artist and a scientifically oriented person as similar, in that both also possess the prerequisites for aesthetic experience (and for transferring it). He sees a difference in how the process is approached. According to Dewey, particularly important for the artist is the phase of experience in which a connection – balance – is achieved. Since the artist cares in a peculiar way for the phase of experience in which union is achieved, he does not shun moments of resistance and tension. He rather cultivates them, “not for their own sake but because of their potentialities, bringing to living consciousness an experience that is unified and total” (Dewey 2005, 14). In scientific efforts, however, the point of focus is on situations where there is considerable tension between the substance of observation and thought. However, in research the solution to the problem only serves as a foothold later research. (Dewey 2005, 14)

In Dewey’s view, the aesthetic and the intellectual thus differ only in what they emphasize in the constant rhythmic variability that characterizes the interaction between a living creature and its surroundings, as discussed above. Ultimately, the content and general form of both types of experience are the same. “The thinker has his esthetic moment when his ideas cease to be mere ideas and become the corporate meanings of objects” (Dewey 2005, 14). The scientist uses symbols, words and mathematical characters. In this sense, their goal is more distant than that of an artist, who is equally forced to think about the issues they encounter in their work, but their thinking is more embodied in the object. (Dewey 2005, 14) (Dewey was probably thinking of a conventional visual artist.)

Emotions as part of interaction and aesthetic experience

According to Määttänen, it is probably common in everyday thinking to regard emotions as body states, like that fear is felt in the stomach. This is the result of the clear-cut, dualistic distinction between the internal and external discussed above. In pragmatist thinking, emotions are an integral part of the interaction between the individual and the environment (Määttänen 2012, 87). Emotions are also an essential part of Dewey’s aesthetic experience, which happens in interaction with the environment. The emotional pleasure experienced in interaction supports and strengthens the goal of restoring the balance and harmony in interaction, which has been developed through evolution. It should be noted that this example is a simplification. In practice, balance can only be achieved momentarily, and not all needs can be met at the same time (Määttänen 2012, 101).

Määttänen uses the well-known example of the nature of emotions proposed by William James. According to James, we don´t run away because we are afraid – we are afraid because we run away. This turns the familiar idea of the “internality” of emotions on its head. The reason for running is not an internal feeling, but an external threat. Emotion is linked to the same interaction process as experience or meanings. They are contributing factors of the same functional interaction. In James’ words, emotions are qualifications of action. Fear defines the relationship between an individual and a threatening situation. This leads to flight, even though fear is perceived as an internal feeling (Määttänen 2012, 87).

Dewey uses the work of a visual artist as an example of how thinking is tied to action and corporeality. He states that the artist thinks using the same tools with which they work. The means of expression used by the artist are so close to the object they produce that they become one with it (Dewey 2005, 14, 15). It can also be said that, in a broad sense, emotions, emotional charging, and feelings demonstrate the values associated, for example, with the artist’s interactive situation in painting. The artist accepts and rejects, they are anxious and delighted about the brush strokes they make as they try to move towards the moment when they feel the work is ready to be shown to others.

In my opinion, this can also be translated into a description of an actor’s practice. The actor practices their character’s role, in a staged space with props, together with a director and co-actors (if any), ultimately expressing emotionally charged moments related to action and interaction and the changes occurring in them. The result is a performance, an interactive situation in which the recipient (viewer) also experiences the outcomes of the practice and gets to experience them as a whole. It could be said that the means of expression used in such a theatre piece are also so close to the object, the output performed by the actors, that they are immersed in it, even the actors, through their corporeality, merged into the work.

The essence of pragmatism is the conclusion of everything expressed earlier in this article. An artwork equals the special experience arising both between the author or authors of a given work and each individual recipient of the work, and the work itself. The whole includes the entire potential of expression produced by evolution and culture for humans to generate, transmit and receive meanings in interactive situations. In summary, this also serves as starting points for doing artistic research supported by pragmatism.

On artistic research

In his doctoral dissertation, visual artist Mika Karhu is committed to the tenets of pragmatism. He states that it is only when problems arise and established habits and routines no longer work, new knowledge and art can emerge. When faced with problems, both humans and communities are forced to try out better approaches. At the same time, these experiments change the environment to which the experiment applies. The changing world constantly generates new problems and leads the forms of intellectual life into a constant state of transformation and development. Karhu defines the key task of art “to serve as an expression of social experiences”. According to him, the artist offers “the expression, interpretation and translation of their social experience to be seen and experienced without any compelling ritualistic and ceremonial expression controlled by sociality, which conceals everything that is important and interesting.” (Karhu 2012, 7)

In my own research, it was very important for me to consider the scope of knowledge gained through research. In my opinion, I managed to define the prerequisites and reservations with which my findings and conclusions on the research material can be considered reliable. Information on the teaching of stage movement was, for the most part, only available through various interviews, as there were very few written texts on, for example, the planning of teaching. In addition, I was an important supporter of knowledge as a long-term teacher at the Theatre Academy. The so-called “Turkka Era”, which lasted from the beginning of the 1980s until 1988, caused particular headaches. It was a period of disruption and intense emotion. The availability of reliable information on this period was complicated by the fact that, for example, parties embroiled in disputes (I was often one of these) occasionally did not interact with each other at all. The same situation could be seen in almost entirely opposite ways. Pragmatist thinking was the foundation, based on which I described and defined, in the course of my research, what kind of knowledge could be obtained from this setting, and under what conditions. I did my best to ensure that the philosophical concepts I used, and the numerous concepts and definitions related to the research methods I used were logical. (Kumpulainen 2011)

It was noted before that knowledge gained, that which is analyzed as known, based on the results of tests conducted in research, depends on all elements of the research process, both physical objects and theoretical knowledge. The test arrangements and research process as a whole determine the validity of the knowledge obtained and, at the same time, the context in which the knowledge acquired can be used. In social sciences and especially in historical research, the validity of knowledge is assessed, for example, by the accuracy of source criticism. Critical interaction within the research community also plays an important role in evaluating the validity of knowledge. From the perspective of pragmatism, a common feature of the scientific areas described above is that the validity of the acquired knowledge can be assessed in relation to all actions taken to produce it and the relations between the interactions.

I now return to reflecting on Dewey’s concept of aesthetic experience as a common thread in my research. Dewey’s thinking, of which a broad understanding of the aesthetic experience is one example and the avoidance of dualism another, helped to break numerous boundaries in the research material, such as sports, movement, physical expression, actor work, acting, teaching. Dewey suggests that the development of aesthetic experience has evolutionary roots, which are related both to the physiological development of human organs, for example, and the ability to sense certain experiences as fulfilling, full, as a result of interaction with the environment. This is therefore a question of something much bigger than the ability to enjoy a beautiful artwork or harmonious music (Kumpulainen 2011, 27–35). In the broadest terms, one reflects on the development of the human experience over the course of an entire life, in a continuous cycle of integration and disintegration. The capability for aesthetic experiences at the moment of integration, and persistence in striving for balance and problem solving in the moment of disintegration is a fundamental driving force in the process of life (Alhanen 2013).

The knowledge acquisition and research model proposed in pragmatism would seem to be also suitable as a starting point for artistic research, when the artistic process is used to study an initially outlined area of interest. However, the final conclusions can only be drawn after the process has been completed, and it is explored through reflection on what kind of knowledge was achieved. What is also considered is the advantages or shortcomings that can be identified in the components of the research process, and what kind of limits can be imposed, based on the overall assessment of the research process, on the conclusions reached by the research. The whole consists of an entity of preconceptions, research process and conclusions, so that theory and practice are in a continuous interaction during the process. The aim is not to obtain definite knowledge, but knowledge that can be considered valid within the prevailing conditions in its acquisition. It is the case of process-like intertwining of previously acquired research findings and the practical research process.

Stanislavski as the predecessor of artistic research

To conclude, let me briefly and interpreting freely discuss Konstantin Stanislavski as a distant predecessor of artistic research in the field of theatre. Stanislavski developed acting technique and training methods for much of his life. In the first stage, Stanislavski developed a technique around the concept of “Emotional Memory”. At a later age, he eventually ended up developing a system of exercises later called “The Method of Physical Actions”. This development was based on both practical observations made in the theatre studio and the latest research findings of his time, for example, on the physiological basis of emotions. (Roach 1985, 119–217)  The concept of emotional memory is based on the idea of an inner storage of an individual’s (emotional) experiences, from which emotional memories can be drawn through rehearsal, to be used as emotions of the role the actor is playing (developed further in the USA under the title The Method). In the Method of Physical Actions (the name came from the Soviet Union), on the other hand, the actor strives to produce, through rehearsing, established habits of action in the character of the role. It is, habits of action which are meanings as such, as discussed above. Rehearsal enables the actor to play a psychologically credible role, with genuine emotions, and repeat the performance night after night. In pragmatist terms, an actor’s role work is a continuum of habits of action. It can also be said that these habits of action convey the meanings which the actor wants to convey to the audience. In other words, the actors’ habits of action are meanings. (How the audience react, and what meanings individual audience members experience when watching an actor’s work is another story.)

According to Carnicke, Stanislavski’s followers have “The Method” in the United States, and “The Method of Physical Actions” in the former Soviet Union, as stamps on the finished product. At the same time, it might not be fully understood that Stanislavski tried his whole life to uncover the principles of human action related to acting, and explore them (Carnicke 2003, 1–2, 66–69). I would also like to stress that Stanislavski thoroughly sifted theory and techniques from practical experiments conducted within decades of work. He gained experience with acting, directing and teaching in practical artistic work, but he was also curious about the latest research findings of his time. Stanislavski was well versed in what was then the latest research, and his thinking was in an ongoing process. Theory and practice were in a constant dynamic relationship, intertwined with each other (Kumpulainen 2011, 35–42).


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Seppo Kumpulainen

Professor emeritus, Doctor of Arts in theatre and drama Seppo Kumpulainen has taught stage movement and physical expression at the Theatre Academy of Uniarts Helsinki since 1983 (he retired in 2018). He defended his dissertation on the subject in 2011. Kumpulainen’s work at theatres and in teaching, as well as exploring pragmatist philosophy, is still ongoing, along with diligent painting activities.