What is Pragmatic Philosophy?

Pragmatic is a philosophical tradition which – very broadly – understands knowing the world to be inseparable from acting within it. This general idea has attracted a rich and often contradictory range of interpretations, including the belief that all philosophical concepts should be tested via scientific experimentation, that a claim is true if and only if it can be demonstrated to be useful (the so-called pragmatic maxim), that human experience is transacting with rather than representing nature, that articulate language rests on a deep bed of shared cultural practices and that the self is irremediably social.

Pragmatism has also been applied to the study of how languages are used and understood. In the context of linguistics, it is the study of how pragmatic factors such as context, cooperative principle and conversational maxims like Grice’s implicature determine meaning. For example, a gesture that might be completely normal in your country could be considered offensive in another (see BuzzFeed’s list of 19 Simple Gestures That Might Be Highly Misunderstood Abroad). Pragmatics is also the name of a research methodology which draws on principles of pragmatism to design studies with more flexible and responsive methods.

For more on the background and philosophy of pragmatism, see Introduction to Pragmatism.

In the early 20th century, a first generation of classical pragmatists (Charles Sanders Peirce, William James and Josiah Royce) focused much of their philosophical efforts on theorising inquiry and the nature of meaning, although in different ways. Their work gave rise to an original a posteriori epistemology. This approach to knowledge and reality has remained influential ever since, with many liberatory projects in areas such as feminism, ecology and Native American philosophy seeing the pragmatist tradition as their philosophical home.

More recently, neopragmatism has become a prominent new force in contemporary philosophy, drawing on the legacy of classical pragmatism but with a much stronger focus on philosophical problems such as metaphilosophy and the philosophy of language. This has sometimes led to neglect of value theory, one of the central concerns of classical pragmatism, although a number of recent attempts to develop a pragmatist metaethics have been influenced by this philosophy (Brandom 2011).

Other current applications of pragmatism include educational action research and the development of a new science called ‘cognitive anthropology’ which seeks to analyse the ways in which people use the technologies of their time. It also informs the emerging field of pragmatist computer science. In a related way, it is now common for philosophers to incorporate pragmatist ideas in the design of philosophical and theoretical models that can be used in experimental and observational settings. These ‘pragmatic models’ are designed to be both accurate and robust and can be a valuable tool in understanding how complex systems function. They can be used for both prediction and explanation of behaviour, particularly in the context of systems such as health care, education, and public policy. This approach also offers a valuable alternative to the analytical and continental traditions that dominate contemporary philosophy.