What Is Pragmatic Philosophy?

The word pragmatic is usually used to describe a person who’s practical and down-to-earth. When a four-year-old wants a unicorn for her birthday, you could say she’s being pragmatic and isn’t concerned with whether or not a unicorn would be suitable in the real world. This sense of the word is rooted in the Latin phrase pragmaticus, meaning “skilled in business or law.” But there’s another way to use pragmatic, and that’s to refer to a philosophy that’s practical and realistic. Pragmatic pragmatists, such as Peirce, James, Dewey, and Rorty, believe that we can’t just dismiss a belief or a theory because it doesn’t have a logical foundation. Instead, they rely on the notion that our experience is always theory-laden and that we can’t verify theories or worldviews by simply comparing them with some raw, unsullied sensuous “Given.”

One of the central ideas of pragmatics is that it’s important to make distinctions between what philosophers call “near side” and “far side” pragmatics. “Near-side” pragmatics focuses on the nature of certain facts that help determine what someone actually means when they utter a particular statement. “Far-side” pragmatics, on the other hand, focuses on what happens after a speaker says something: what speech acts are performed in or by saying that thing, what implicatures (meanings that go beyond what the speaker says) are generated, and so on.

There’s been a resurgence of interest in pragmatics lately, and many high-profile contemporary philosophers are known as pragmatists (though they don’t necessarily all subscribe to the whole package of pragmatism). Richard Rorty is perhaps the most prominent neo-pragmatist, but there’s also Hilary Putnam, Nicholas Rescher, Jurgen Habermas, Susan Haack, Robert Brandom, and Cornel West.

As with any philosophical movement, pragmatism has had its critics. Some have argued that pragmatists haven’t been clear about what they mean by pragmatics. That’s because pragmatists aren’t a unified group of thinkers; they have differing views about major issues like truth, realism, skepticism, perception, justification, fallibilism, and so forth. In fact, a close examination of pragmatism’s history reveals that it’s not at all clear what exactly the pragmatists agree on. This diversity has been seen as a weakness, and some have argued that it’s a sign that pragmatism doesn’t really stand for anything at all. Others, however, have argued that the diversity is a strength because it suggests that pragmatism has an open-ended character and is not merely a narrow doctrine. This view has been referred to as the ‘pragmatist paradox.’ The pragmatist paradox is that, even though the pragmatists are all in broad agreement about what pragmatism is, they disagree vehemently about how to extend and develop it. For example, a debate about what the pragmatist paradox is has often focused on how to incorporate new ideas or concepts into pragmatism without diluting its integrity.