What is Pragmatics?

Pragmatics is the study of linguistic meaning and interpretation, and how language is used in specific contexts. It is different from the other areas of linguistic study, such as semantics, syntax, and semiotics.

Semantics, on the other hand, examines how a word or expression has a literal linguistic meaning. Pragmatics looks at how words and phrases have nonliteral linguistic meanings that depend on the context in which they are used.

The key proponents of pragmatics were American philosophers such as Charles Peirce, William James, and John Dewey. While their ideas were significant in philosophy, they also influenced non-philosophers in law, education, psychology, sociology, and literary criticism.

First generation pragmatists such as Peirce and James developed their ideas in the late nineteenth century in a Harvard group known as the Metaphysical Club (Menand 1998). The club included philosophers, psychologists, and lawyers.

One of the key pragmatist theories was that all ideas should be grounded in practical consequences. This meant that any idea should have a practical and positive effect on people, rather than being just another abstract concept.

During the later part of the twentieth century two currents in neo-pragmatism emerged. The first was a theory that flirted with relativism. The second, a more realistic theory, was based on the belief that ideas should reflect reality and prove their worth in inquiry and action.

Relativism – or the idea that everything is true because it is true for everyone – has been a controversial issue in recent years. Some neo-pragmatists, such as Rorty, argue that it is not important to know what the “truth” is.

However, this view is unsupported by the historical evidence. It has been criticised as a “soft theory” that is unable to distinguish between truth and merely accurate or fair representations of facts.

The neo-pragmatic approach, on the other hand, aims to be more than an alternative to relativism; it is a theory of how truth is used. It tries to describe how we use the concept of truth, including how we make generalizations (“everything you said is true”), how we commend (“so true!”), and how we caution (“what you said is justified, but it might not be true”).

This neo-pragmatic view differs from earlier pragmatic accounts of truth in several important ways. The first is that it is able to draw on and to draw parallels with a variety of well-developed non-correspondence theories of truth, which were not available to the early pragmatists.

In addition, the neo-pragmatic approach recognizes that, while it is possible to be both truthful and fair in one’s presentation of facts, not all such facts are equally relevant to understanding what a person actually means by their statements. This is because, although a statement may be true in the sense that it can be verified, it could also be false, or even incorrect.

The neo-pragmatic perspective on truth was influenced in part by Paul Quine’s (1908-2000) landmark article, “Two Dogmas of Empiricism”. In his work, Quine developed a complex analytic version of pragmatism that included many concepts and arguments from the original pragmatists.