Pragmatics is the study of the implicatures (or conversational implications) that a speaker implies to a listener and the inferences that a listener makes from these implicatures. It focuses on a range of aspects of conversation, including language structure (syntax), meaning, and communication styles.
The history of pragmatics can be traced back to the 1870s when a group of philosophers met in Harvard to discuss metaphysical questions, including Charles Peirce and William James. They developed the ideas that became known as ‘pragmatism’, and they achieved prominence through public lectures by James in 1898.
Although pragmatists often disagreed over how to define truth, they shared certain ideas that remain fundamental today. For instance, they view truth as the outcome of a practical decision or hypothesis that maximizes productivity, rather than as an abstract property that can be defined by metaphysics alone.
They also accept that it is possible to hold false beliefs, so long as they are not too rigid and do not become outdated over time. They believe that it is a good idea to drop old ideas as they lose their relevance and adopt new ones when they become useful.
These ideas are reflected in many of the major works of American philosophers such as John Dewey, William James, and Charles Sanders Pierce. They are also the foundation for a number of liberatory philosophical projects in areas such as feminism, ecology, Native American philosophy, and Latin American philosophy.
Pragmatists have also been a strong influence on modern philosophers from other countries, particularly in Europe. One of the most influential figures in this respect is the Frankfurt School philosopher Jurgen Habermas. He has brought together analytic philosophers’ goal of systematically theorising language with a neo-Marxian and hermeneutic critique of modernity, whilst drawing on Mead’s pragmatist analysis of the self as irremediably social.
He has also contributed to an emerging movement in normative pragmatics, whose central concept is communicative action. This reorients analytic philosophy towards the ‘lifeworld’, and its inherent conflict with instrumental rationality.
In particular, his work provides a critical account of the way in which modern philosophy has increasingly colonised the human ‘lifeworld’, with a view to achieving its aims through instrumental means and with a resolutely instrumentalist perspective on the nature of knowledge.
While this has led to a resurgence of interest in pragmatism, it has also contributed to the rise of other philosophical trends. As a result, the term ‘pragmatism’ is now used in a variety of ways to describe different types of thought and activity.
The ‘Pragmatic Maxim’
The pragmatic maxim is a method of inquiry that pragmatists apply to the problem of understanding a conception in a fruitful way. It equates any conception to the general extent of the conceivable implications for informed practice of its effects, and it is an important aspect of pragmatist thinking.