Pragmatic Philosophy

Pragmatic is an adjective that means “concerned with practical matters, rather than theories and ideas.” The word pragmatic has been in use since at least the 1610s, although its root goes back to the Latin pragmaticus (“relating to civil affairs”), from Greek pragmatikos (active, versed in business or law), from prassein/prattein (“to do”). Its meaning changed in the 1830s to “business-like, matter-of-fact, treating facts systematically,” based on the notion that a pragmatist treats things purely as they are. In philosophy, the term has come to refer to a particular philosophical tradition that stresses the practical value of truth.

Pragmatism grew out of American philosophy and was most prominent in the works of Charles Sanders Peirce (1870-1924). He was a logician, mathematician, philosopher and scientist who is considered one of the founders of modern statistics. His philosophies are still highly respected today for their clarity and usefulness.

To a pragmatist, knowledge is valuable, but it is not always possible to know the absolute truth. Partial truths, often referred to as grey areas, may be just as useful as a complete truth. A pragmatist will also take into account the cost of increased accuracy in determining whether it is more beneficial to act with imperfect knowledge than to wait until it is absolutely certain.

A pragmatist will not hesitate to change course when faced with new information. In fact, he or she will seek out new information that might help them to make a better decision.

Unlike some other philosophical traditions, pragmatists believe that human beings do not have direct access to reality without the mediation of concepts and descriptions. To this end, pragmatists have argued that all theories and worldviews are theory-laden and thus cannot be verified through observation alone. In contrast, a Kantian approach to the problem of epistemic inquiry would hold that intuitions without concepts are blind, and it is only through the application of ideas that we can gain any knowledge of the world around us.

The pragmatists were undone by the same force that brought about their rise: the progressive professionalization of philosophy as a specialized academic discipline. The reputations of James and Dewey suffered in the wake of an influx of self-consciously analytical thinkers from the likes of Moore, Russell, Wittgenstein and the Vienna Circle, and the pragmatic approach to truth was eclipsed by a more scientifically rigorous alternative. Nonetheless, a number of pragmatists—including Sellars, Rorty and Davidson—have continued to produce important work. Today, the pragmatic tradition is alive and well in linguistics, where it is called ‘pragmatics’. In this specialized area of study, pragmatics is concerned with what are known as utterance contexts, such as conversational implicatures. There are two main branches of pragmatics: near-side and far-side pragmatics. Near-side pragmatics focuses on the nature of some facts that are relevant in determining what an utterance means, whereas far-side pragmatics is more focused on the effects of saying something and how it is perceived.