What is Pragmatics?

Pragmatics is the study of how people use language to convey meaning and communicate with each other. It includes linguistic semantics and phonology, but also considers pragmatic factors like inferencing, social dynamics, and the negotiation of meaning between speakers (the concept of ‘implied’ meaning). Pragmatics has been a central concern of pragmatic philosophy and the philosophical debate over language since its early days.

While the work of classic pragmatists has had wide influence, it is not clear whether a single ‘pragmatism’ exists as an overarching doctrine, or even a core set of principles. It seems that what makes a philosopher a pragmatist is more a matter of the specific concerns and interests he or she brings to bear on the problem. The following list of ideas, however, is a rough sketch of the sort of themes and theses that have loomed large in pragmatist thought.

A pragmatist is one who believes in ‘realistic, down-to-earth, clear thinking and practical answers’. This might seem a limiting definition, but it is one that has stood the test of time. Pragmatism is not a system of beliefs or a set of conclusions; rather, it is a method for making sense of the world and a framework for evaluating arguments. It allows for a diversity of opinions and solutions. It can be applied to the solution of problems in a wide range of areas from philosophy and science to law and business.

One of the key tenets of pragmatism is that something is only true insofar as it works. This does not necessarily mean that pragmatism is antithetical to religion: it may be more appropriate to view religious claims as psychologically soothing than to take them as literally true. It does, however, leave the door open for a metaphysical position that leaves room for the ontological claims of religions.

Another important tenet is that the only way to judge an idea is by its usefulness in a particular situation. Thus, pragmatism has an implicit metaphysics that enables us to make sense of the world and our place within it. In this sense, pragmatism is an alternative to naturalism and agnosticism.

The philosophical roots of pragmatism can be traced back to the so-called ‘Metaphysical Club’ which held discussions in Harvard in the 1870s and 1880s. The work of Peirce, James, Dewey and Davidson has had a significant impact on philosophy in America. Its ideas have also been embraced by thinkers in other countries. The emergence of vibrant research networks in South America, Scandinavia and more recently central Europe and China is indicative of the growing international importance of pragmatic ideas.