Pragmatics – The Study of Language and Communication

The study of language and communication is called pragmatics. Pragmatics focuses on the way in which speakers use language to convey their intentions and the ways that context determines these intentions. For some philosophers the ‘pragmatics’ in pragmatics refers to a broad range of issues such as speech acts, rhetorical structure, conversational implicature and the management of reference in discourse. Others take the term more literally, focusing on the linguistic and extra-linguistic contexts that utterances come in contact with and the ways in which the interaction of those contexts shapes the interpretation of an utterance.

The concept of ‘pragmatics’ first emerged as a philosophical outlook about a century ago when William James (1842-1910) put the name on a doctrine that he and his colleague Charles S. Peirce had developed as a counterweight to the overly intellectual and somewhat fastidious systems of idealism that dominated 19th-century philosophy. The pragmatists expanded the notion of experience and interpreted reality as an ever-changing, evolving fabric of interconnected parts that cohered according to their internal relations with one another rather than being fixed in preconceived, rigid intellectual categories.

As time went by, pragmatism lost much of its initial momentum, partly because philosophy became more of a specialized discipline and the pragmatists found themselves among the ranks of rank-and-file philosophers, subjected to all the usual pressures that beset any academic field. But in recent times there has been a resurgence of interest in the ideas and principles that were articulated by the pragmatist triumvirate of James, Peirce, and Dewey. Some of the more prominent modern ‘neo-pragmatists’ are Hilary Putnam, Nicholas Rescher, Richard Rorty, Jurgen Habermas, and Susan Haack.

Some of the most important distinctions in pragmatics are ‘near-side’ and ‘far-side’ pragmatics. The near-side pragmatics involves the nature of certain facts that are relevant to determining what an utterance means, while the far-side pragmatics deals with the effects of these facts: what speech acts are performed, what implications are generated, and so forth.

Generally speaking, near-side pragmatics is focused on what is actually said or written by the speaker while far-side pragmatics is concerned with the broader consequences of that saying and how they shape the meaning of an utterance. Those who are focused on the broader implications tend to be ‘contextualists’ and those who are more interested in the underlying psychological motivations of speakers and their strategies for interpreting utterances tend to be ‘pragmatic theorists’. Often there is some overlap between the two approaches. For example, the ‘Literalists’ in pragmatics take a broadly literalist view of semantics and argue that there is little to no ‘pragmatic intrusion’ into what is said; whereas the ‘Richardsonians’ tend to take the basic outlines of Relevance Theory but demur on many of the details and the psychological orientation. In any event, the neo-pragmatists all share the conviction that the practical or real-world dimensions of utterance interpretation are more important than either the ‘truth-functional’ or the’semantic’ aspects of the utterance.