Pragmatic is a branch of the philosophy of language, focusing on the social and contextual meaning of our words. In contrast to semantics, which focuses on literal meaning, pragmatics aims to understand how our words are used in specific situations. This knowledge allows us to politely hedge a request, cleverly read between the lines, or navigate turn-taking norms in conversation.
Though it has a long history, the first self-consciously pragmatist philosophers were members of an informal group known as The Metaphysical Club. This club included proto-positivist Chauncey Wright (1830-1875), future Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes (1841-1935), and two then-fledgling philosophers who went on to become the first self-conscious pragmatists: Charles Sanders Peirce (a logician, mathematician, and scientist) and William James (a psychologist armed with a medical degree).
The Metaphysical Club challenged prevailing Positivist orthodoxy with new ideas that were both practical and philosophical. This led to a debate that raged for decades among American Philosophers, and ultimately brought about the gradual professionalization of philosophy as a specialized academic discipline. Despite the fact that a number of analytic philosophers like Quine (1908-2000) drew on pragmatism, mainstream analytic philosophy tended to ignore pragmatism until the early 1980s.
The defining feature of pragmatism is that the truth value of a statement depends on its utility. This means that statements are judged on their ability to help us solve problems, make decisions, and achieve our goals. For this reason, pragmatics is often referred to as the “practicality” of philosophy.
One of the most important ideas in pragmatics is the Gricean Maxims. These are four general rules that seem to hold in most situations and most languages. They are: Be courteous, Be brief, Be truthful, and Be relevant. These maxims form the foundation for much of our everyday pragmatics.
A key issue for pragmatists is the way that our experiences shape and influence our beliefs. They believe that our thoughts and beliefs are not simply the product of our experience, but actually a direct result of it. Essentially, our experiences mold and shape our beliefs, which in turn affect our actions.
The earliest pragmatists were quite clear on this point, and the idea still resonates today. Ultimately, this is what distinguishes pragmatism from more traditional forms of philosophy. This is what makes it such a valuable tool for those of us who are seeking to live a life of integrity and authenticity. It is a philosophy that offers hope and guidance for anyone who is searching for the way forward in our increasingly complex, interconnected world. The road ahead is not easy, but pragmatism can offer us a path that will get us to where we want to be. It’s a roadmap that will help guide the way to happiness and success. And it starts with a positive attitude and a willingness to take a leap of faith.