Pragmatic is a philosophical term that refers to the ways in which an idea works in a specific context. It is the opposite of dogmatic, which is an idea that holds firm beliefs regardless of the facts. Pragmatic ideas are flexible and workable in the sense that they are easy to change or drop if they prove useless. This makes them useful in a business or political environment, where ideas are constantly changing and being replaced with new ones. The word is derived from the Latin pragmaticus, meaning “a person skilled in business and law,” and is also related to the Greek verb prassein, which means “to do, to act.”
Pragmatists believe that truth must be defined by what works in real life, not simply what has been observed. This idea is known as practical relativism and it tries to avoid the problem of philosophical paradoxes that afflict other models such as deductivist rationalism or inductivist empiricism. For instance, a story or myth that isn’t technically true may still be useful in a particular situation, such as a parachute that fails to open if not properly checked before jumping out of an airplane.
In order to achieve this goal, pragmatists like Peirce develop pragmatic maxims. For example, his idea of inquiry as a process that arrives at conceptions in terms of their conceivable confirmation and disconfirming circumstances is the heart of pragmatism’s pragmatics. This approach is a definite departure from the standard foundational alternative between deductivist rationalism and inductivist empiricism.
Classical American pragmatism tended to reject what is now seen as a fundamental mistake in modern philosophy, which is the belief that concepts and worldviews must be rooted in some raw, unsullied experiential “Given.” Those who were classical pragmatists, such as John Dewey and Richard Rorty, believed that this view of experience was flawed by confusions of concept and description, making it impossible to verify theories or worldviews by comparison with some sort of uncontaminated empirical evidence.
A key part of pragmatism is that knowledge is a consequence of the struggle between intelligent organisms and the surrounding environment. According to James, this struggle is what defines reality, and a belief qualifies as “true” if it helps to survive the process of discovery and action. This is a very different view of the nature of truth than the correspondence theory that sees only a direct connection between a statement and its underlying fact.
In more recent times, the philosophical field of pragmatics has become a bit more diverse. There are now ‘literalists’ who believe that semantics is basically autonomous with little ‘pragmatic intrusion’; ‘contextualists’ adopt the basic outlines of the Relevance Theory and embrace its importance at every level of discourse, while perhaps demurring on many of the details and psychological orientation; and ‘critical pragmatics’ takes a more radically minimal view of the pragmatics of speech, with emphasis on linguistic and cultural features that cannot be fully determined by semantics.