What Is Pragmatics?

Pragmatics is the study of how people use language in social interactions. It is a cross-disciplinary field that addresses the meaning potential of an utterance as it is conveyed in different social contexts and cultures. It also addresses how people negotiate the meaning of what is said to each other.

The word “pragmatic” is often associated with business and politics, but a more accurate and less pejorative way of describing it is to describe someone who is “practical.” This is because a person’s actions are focused on achieving practical goals. Nevertheless, there are many different definitions of pragmatics and no one definition is definitive.

In the philosophical context, pragmatism describes a broad set of attitudes that are characterized by their focus on practicality and utility in human thought and action. It rejects the Cartesian notion of truth that defines a true hypothesis as one that corresponds to reality, and it instead views concepts, hypotheses, and theories as something that can be molded and shaped by people to fit their various purposes. This perspective has been influential in the work of James, Dewey, and other philosophers.

Unlike the other areas of linguistic study, such as semantics, syntax, and semiotics, which focus on rule systems that determine the literal linguistic meanings of expressions and how they can be combined to form sentences, pragmatism looks at both the literal and nonliteral aspects of language in different social and physical contexts. It is this contextual focus that distinguishes pragmatism from other areas of linguistic study.

Although Quine’s (1908-2000) landmark article “Two Dogmas of Empiricism” challenged positivist orthodoxy, many analytic philosophers tended to ignore pragmatic philosophy until the early 1980s. However, a number of analytic philosophers have since developed a qualified enthusiasm for parts of the pragmatist legacy, including Nelson Goodman (1906-1999), F.P. Ramsey (1891-1953), and Wilfrid Sellars (1922-1996).

Nevertheless, a number of pragmatists have also recognized that a pragmatic approach to philosophy can lead to indeterminate and unhelpful results. Thus, a pragmatic philosophy must be complemented by other, more rigorous approaches to philosophy.

In experimental pragmatics, the time is ripe for scholars to embrace the view that task demands are an enduring part of any experimental pragmatic situation. Therefore, pragmatist theories must incorporate this aspect into their research designs. Furthermore, it is important to acknowledge that these varying task demands will impact the outcome of a participant’s performance in an experiment and the theoretical interpretations that scholars offer for these outcomes. This broader vision of experimental pragmatics implies that pragmatics always matters, to some degree, in the human experience of language use. This implication has important implications for the design of experiments and their interpretations. It is also an important reason why experimental pragmatics must be incorporated into the broader paradigm of human language use.