Pragmatic Philosophy

Pragmatic is the study of context-dependent meaning, focusing on how words and sentences are interpreted in a given situation. It has many branches including conversational implicature, speech act theory, and the theory of ambiguity and indexicality. It is often contrasted with semantics, which is the study of word meanings, and metaphysics, which concerns the nature of reality. Pragmatism is a school of philosophy that is most prominent in American thought, though it has also had some traction in Western Europe.

The pragmatist tradition can be traced to the Metaphysical Club, a group of Harvard-educated men who met for informal philosophical discussions in the 1870s. This group included proto-positivist Chauncey Wright, future Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, and two of the first self-consciously pragmatists, Charles Sanders Peirce and William James. These three philosophers influenced a number of subsequent thinkers, and pragmatism became an important feature of the American philosophical landscape.

A central idea of pragmatism is that human knowledge is not intrinsically valid or true, but instead has value only insofar as it helps humans achieve their goals. It is a pragmatic philosophy that holds that it is the struggle of intelligent organisms with their environment that gives their beliefs meaning and relevance.

While pragmatism has roots in various traditions of philosophy, it is often associated with the analytic school of thought. In the 1940s, Richard Rorty developed a complex analytic version of pragmatism that is now seen as one of the main pillars of contemporary analytic philosophy. Other influential analytic pragmatists include Donald Davidson and Wilfrid Sellars.

Despite the analytic prominence of pragmatism, it has never enjoyed the broad acceptance of its rivals. For example, Russell Quine’s famous article “Two Dogmas of Empiricism” (1951) challenged positivist orthodoxy, but it is clear from the text that he had some reservations about pragmatism. Other analytic philosophers, such as Ludwig Wittgenstein and Karl Popper, tended to ignore pragmatism until the early 1980s.

Today, philosophers can be classified by their view of the distinction between semantics and pragmatics. Those who take a “literalist” approach see semantics as basically autonomous, with minimal pragmatic intrusion; those who take a ‘contextualist’ view are more likely to accept the basic outlines of Relevance Theory’s emphasis on pragmatics, while perhaps demurring on some of its details and psychological orientation. A third position, called Critical Pragmatics, combines features of both of these approaches. A key aspect of this approach is the notion that there is a’reflexive’ and’referential’ content of an utterance, where the referential content is determined by the actual facts about what is being said. The reflexive content is the’meaning-bound’ or’reflexive’ content of an utterance, while the reference is its ‘locutionary’ or’referential’ content. It is this latter concept that is the focus of Critical Pragmatics.