The adjective pragmatic describes people and things that take a realistic approach to life and problem-solving. It is usually contrasted with idealistic, and it’s not uncommon to hear that someone needs to be more pragmatic (or less idealistic). This article will explore the philosophy of pragmatism and some of its most famous proponents.
The word pragmatic comes from the Greek pragma, meaning “deed.” Pragmatics is the study of practical consequences, and it has long been concerned with real-world applications of ideas. For example, a four-year-old who wants a unicorn for her birthday isn’t being very pragmatic. In the context of philosophy, pragmatics examines how beliefs and solutions actually work in practice and what their limits are.
Pragmatism is a philosophical school that promotes the view that truth is what works. Its most famous proponents include the American philosophers William James and John Dewey. It’s also possible to read into pragmatism a kind of metaphysical skepticism that rejects the idea of any fully satisfying and complete explanation of reality.
For James and Dewey, something is true insofar as it proves useful to human beings. Thus, a belief like “prayer is heard” might be true if it has some psychological effect on believers. But a pragmatic view of truth doesn’t deny the ontological claims of religions, as some have suggested.
A pragmatic philosophy of science emphasizes the importance of observing and measuring how things work, rather than relying on theoretical assumptions about their nature. This is in contrast to scientific realism, which advocates an uncritical acceptance of observations as statements about the nature of reality.
Other topics explored by pragmatic philosophers include the role of belief in representing reality, and the relation between the emergence of new knowledge and its reliance on existing information. In particular, pragmatists are often critical of the correspondence theory of truth that assumes that a belief represents some part of reality. They might also argue that all human knowledge is fallible, but this doesn’t necessitate a global skeptical attitude.
Pragmatics is also studied in computer science, where it’s referred to as computational pragmatics. This field of study attempts to model the complexity of human language and information processing in order to design computer systems that more accurately mimic human behavior. Reference resolution, which is how computers decide when two objects are the same or different, is a key concern in computational pragmatics.
Other areas of linguistics that are sometimes referred to as pragmatics are semantics, syntax, and semiotics. Semantics is the study of rule systems that determine the literal linguistic meanings of expressions; syntax studies how words are combined to form sentences; and semiotics examines the way we communicate with visual, verbal, and tactile symbols. These fields are related to pragmatics, but they have different objectives. They are all important in the development of natural language processing and artificial intelligence. In fact, the goal of pragmatics in AI is to develop computer systems that can understand natural human language and respond to it with as much accuracy as possible.