Pragmatic is the philosophical tradition that – broadly – understands knowledge of the world as inseparable from agency within it. This general idea has attracted a remarkably rich and often contrary range of interpretations. Some pragmatists have claimed that all philosophical concepts should be tested via scientific experimentation, that a philosophy is true only if it contributes to human progress, that experience consists in transacting with rather than representing nature, and that articulate language rests on a deep bed of shared practices that can never be fully made explicit.
A pragmatic person takes a realistic approach to situations, is willing to compromise in order to achieve a desired outcome and knows that they can’t have everything they want. The word pragmatic comes from the Greek pragma, meaning “deed” and has historically been used to describe philosophers and politicians who were concerned more with practical applications of ideas than with abstract notions.
One of the most widely held views about pragmatism is that a concept or theory is true only if it produces acceptable results. This view has led to some serious problems. For example, telling a child that there are invisible gremlins living in electrical outlets who will bite them if they touch them certainly works. It also has the advantage of generating a coherent explanation for why the child is shocked whenever they do touch an outlet. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work for many of the societal problems that plague us, such as racial and ethnic injustices, slavery, or war.
Other philosophers have criticized this line of reasoning by arguing that it is not sufficient to simply test whether a concept or theory yields satisfactory results, but that the criteria should be interpreted in a particular way and that unworkable concepts should be rejected outright. A notable example is Quine’s (1908-2000) landmark article, “Two Dogmas of Empiricism” (1951), which challenged positivist orthodoxy by drawing heavily on the pragmatist legacy.
The pragmatists have also developed rich theories about the nature of language and communication, and in particular how meaning is generated in natural languages. Their insights are captured in a broad area of study known as pragmatics, which draws on the work of J. L. Austin and Paul Grice, among others, to look at how people use natural language in practice and how ambiguities are resolved.
The most important part of pragmatics is the Cooperative Principle, which states that the goal of communication is understanding and being understood. It is an adaptation of the famous Gricean Maxims, a set of four general rules for understanding and being understood that seem to apply in most situations and in most languages. These include: Be concise, be truthful, be relevant, and be clear. These are the goals that underlie pragmatics and all other areas of philosophy in which rich pragmatist contributions have been made.