What is Pragmatic Philosophy?

Pragmatic is a philosophical perspective on language, action and communication. It focuses on the real world and how it works, rather than on ideas or theory. Pragmatic is a term often used in business or in political debates to describe people who are able to get results instead of sticking to abstract and idealistic principles.

The word pragmatic comes from the Greek pragma, meaning “to do,” and the Latin verb praxis, which means “to act.” Pragmatic is about how we live in the world, how we use language and what we can achieve in the real world versus what we might imagine the perfect situation would be like.

Classical pragmatists include Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914), William James (1842-1910) and Josiah Royce (1855-1916). These pragmatists were part of the cultural and scientific revolution taking place in evolutionary theory at their time. They viewed themselves as a third alternative to the analytic and continental philosophical traditions.

Unlike other branches of philosophy, such as metaphysics, pragmatism has no set logical system or methodology that is required to be followed in order to be considered a pragmatist. In fact, there are a number of ways to be pragmatic and still have no logical system at all. The key element in being a pragmatic thinker is that you are more interested in what works and what has the best chance of working than in theories or ideas that might never be proven.

In the field of linguistics, pragmatics is the study of meaning in utterances. It examines the context, the particular circumstances in which an utterance takes place, what the speaker intends and what they manage to communicate. In a broader sense, the field also looks at how we understand each other when communicating. It is the bridge between the ‘near side’ of semantics (the actual meaning of words) and the ‘far side’ of semantics (the implications that are implied by the context).

The far side of semantics is highly dependent on culture – what might be a completely normal gesture in America could be seen as insulting in Greece. The near side of pragmatics includes such things as the resolution of ambiguity and vagueness, indexicals and demonstratives.

The most well-known of the neopragmatists is William Brandom, who takes a classical pragmatic approach to language and philosophy, while also being a strong critic of analytic philosophers who neglect pragmatic concepts. Other neopragmatists such as Richard Rorty have applied a pragmatist lens to other parts of philosophy, including the social sciences and epistemology. Jurgen Habermas is another prominent neopragmatist who has managed to combine a pragmatist analysis of language with a hermeneutic and neo-Marxian critique of modernity. As pragmatism continues to grow as a philosophical movement, it is increasingly being applied outside of North America, with vibrant research networks emerging in South America, Scandinavia and most recently central Europe and China.