What is Pragmatics?

Pragmatics is a specialized branch of study in the fields of linguistics (the study of languages) and philosophy of language that focuses on understanding the interaction between natural language and its users. It has a number of distinguishing characteristics that set it apart from linguistic semantics, syntax and semiotics. In general, pragmatics focuses on conversational implicatures–that which is implied by the way an utterance is said rather than explicitly stated.

Often, the word pragmatic is used to describe a person who has a matter-of-fact approach and is focused on getting results rather than ideals. The word is also sometimes used to describe someone who is willing to sacrifice their own principles for the good of an organization or cause.

The concept of pragmatics has a long history in the philosophical literature. It has been studied from a variety of angles, including its interaction with grammar, meaning and truth, and communication. The emergence of pragmatics as an independent field of study has led to a wide range of theories. One of the most important distinctions is between what is referred to as far-side and near-side pragmatics. This refers to the fact that different pragmatic concepts have varying degrees of impact on how an utterance is interpreted.

There are various schools of pragmatics, with some philosophers embracing Grice’s idea of communicative intention as the basis for their theory, and others focusing more on the lexical and grammatical details involved in interpreting an utterance. Most contemporary pragmatics, however, falls into a category called Relevance Theory, which combines elements of both far-side and near-side pragmatics.

For example, the implication that an utterance is a conventional implicature is part of the far side of pragmatics, but the context in which it is heard determines whether or not the implication is conventional. The meaning of the utterance is therefore determined by both the context in which it is spoken and the conventions that govern its meaning.

In some cases, this can blur the line between the far side and the near side of pragmatics. For example, if you see the phrase “Luggage must be carried on the escalator” on an airport sign, it is obvious that the implication is conventional. However, if you were not familiar with the conventions that govern the sign’s meaning, you might misinterpret it as a command to everyone in the airport to rush over to the escalator and carry their luggage on it. This would be a violation of the conventions of the sign, and it would be considered to be near-side pragmatics rather than far-side pragmatics.

The distinction between near-side and far-side pragmatics is a crucial one, since different theorists have emphasized the role of the far-side versus the near-side in the process of determining meaning. Some theorists, such as Recanati and Bach, consider themselves to be minimalists in this respect–they do not deny that contextual facts and pragmatic reasoning are needed for the determination of an utterance’s meaning, but they assert that they do not have to invade the domain of autonomous semantics, which is usually conceived as the home of conventional sentence meaning. Other theorists, such as Speech Act Theory and the notion of illocutionary force, go even further in this direction by treating conventional sentence meaning as being a kind of implicature rather than an element of semantic content.