Pragmatic is the adjective that describes someone or something that takes a realistic approach. A pragmatic person is sensible, grounded and practical — she wouldn’t expect a unicorn for her birthday, for example. The word pragmatic comes from the Greek pragma, meaning “deed; state business,” and it has been used throughout history to describe people who are more concerned with real-world applications of ideas than with abstract notions.
A major goal of pragmatics is the understanding and being understood between two individuals. This is why it’s so important to communicate clearly and effectively in every situation. It’s also why it is so frustrating when a conversation doesn’t go the way you planned. Luckily, there are many ways to improve your pragmatic skills and avoid communication problems.
Semantics is the study of the meaning of words and phrases in their literal context. Pragmatics is the study of how meaning is determined in a given context. The simplest distinction is that semantics focuses on the actual meaning of an utterance, while pragmatics looks at the implication of an utterance.
The classic pragmatists like James, Dewey and Peirce focused on the relationship between ends and means. They also looked at the way that new knowledge and experiences could shape our views of existing truths.
During the early 20th century, pragmatism was a popular philosophy that found wide adherence. However, by the 1940s, with the rise of analytic philosophy and the professionalization of philosophical discipline, pragmatism began to lose its influence. It wasn’t until the 1960s that a new generation of philosophers came to recognize the value and utility of the pragmatic approach, and that led to the current revival of pragmatic philosophy.
While it’s impossible to define exactly what pragmatics is, there are a few general principles that can help us understand how it works. One is called the Gricean Maxims, which are a set of rules developed by the linguist Paul Grice. These maxims are based on the assumption that each utterance conveys enough relevant information to be worth the listener’s effort to process it.
Another principle is called conversational implicature, which is based on the idea that a speaker’s context can change the meaning of an utterance. For example, if you say “John is inside. He told me to greet you,” a listener might infer that the speaker has only two sons. But if you precede that statement with the question, “Do you have any children?” the speaker’s response might change to include daughters as well as sons.
The pragmatics of language and interaction help us to navigate the ambiguities that are so common in everyday communication. Our pragmatic awareness is what allows us to politely hedge a request, cleverly read between the lines, negotiate turn-taking norms in conversation, and more. So if you want to be a more pragmatic person, the first step is to become aware of these pragmatics and develop your own ‘pragmatic maxims’ for living. Then, you’ll be able to better communicate with your peers and make wiser decisions in the workplace.