Pragmatics is a branch of philosophy that examines the practical aspects of human thought and action. It looks at the implied and literal meanings of a word, as well as the relationships between utterances and contexts. Among other things, it’s the study of how we do something – the tiniest details, from the way we raise our hands in class to the way we address the doctor.
In the late nineteenth century, Charles Sanders Peirce proposed a new school of thought known as pragmatism. He also used the term as a name for the method he was using to analyze words. Rather than attempting to build a big coherent system of truth, pragmatists prefer the simpler approach of testing their ideas in the real world, where they are most likely to be useful.
Another of the earliest examples of pragmatists was William James, who used the phrase pragmatism to describe a principle he had formulated. However, Peirce and James were not unified in their understanding of pragmatism. They disagreed on the extent of pragmatism, and the renaming of pragmatism to pragmatics was a result of this dispute.
In addition to being a philosophy of language, pragmatics is also a branch of linguistics. It focuses on how we use words in social contexts, and on the various ways we can construct and imply meaning. For example, it explains the difference between ‘you have two sons’ and ‘I have two sons’. The former is a logically correct statement that means nothing more than “I have two sons”; the latter is ambiguous and implies that the speaker only has two sons.
While pragmatism focuses on the implied meaning of words, semantics looks at the actual words. Semantics is important because it looks at the relationship between a sign and its use. This is an important aspect of a linguistics textbook because it helps the student understand how words are used in conversations.
The coherence theory of truth argues that an accurate description of the world must not conflict with other facts. A related theory is that every utterance conveys enough relevant information.
Pragmatics has come a long way since Peirce first introduced his ideas in the 1880s. Recent developments have centered on neopragmatism, a form of pragmatism that attempts to rehabilitate classical pragmatism. Neopragmatism is based on the work of such philosophers as Huw Price, Hilary Putnam, and Robert Brandom.
Although pragmatism has gained popularity in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, it still faces challenges. Some pragmatists have criticized the correspondence theory of truth, arguing that it confuses correlation with causation. Other pragmatists have opposed the claims of representationalism, which suggests that everything is a relic of a past time.
Despite these controversies, pragmatics continues to be an important part of the study of language. In fact, without pragmatism, we would not know what a “literal” or “pragmatic” meaning is.
Besides examining the smallest details, pragmatists also consider the largest implications of their theories. When a pragmatist drops an idea, he or she is not saying that it is wrong, but that the idea has lost its importance.