What is Pragmatics?

Pragmatics is the study of language use that focuses on speakers’ communicative intentions and how these intentions are communicated through speech acts, rhetorical structure, conversational implicature and the management of reference in discourse. The term pragmatics is often used to contrast it with semantics, which refers to the study of what signs denote (Morris 1938). It can also be seen as a more general way of referring to the ways in which people interpret and understand each other.

The idea of pragmatism emerged from discussions in a so-called Metaphysical Club in 1870, primarily between Charles Sanders Peirce and William James. Peirce and James differed in their understandings of pragmatism and its application to philosophical questions. In particular, they differed in their approaches to clarifying the concept of truth and identifying empty disputes.

Both of them, however, shared a commitment to an essentially functional approach to philosophy. This led to the development of a ‘third way’ between analytic and continental (Continental) philosophy. This was a philosophy that emphasized practicality in inquiry, a commitment to non-reductionist theories of meaning and a ‘pluralism’ in defining truth.

Although pragmatism has had a number of significant lapses in popularity, since the 1970s it has experienced a remarkable revival. This has been due partly to Richard Rorty’s (1931-2007) bold and iconoclastic attacks on mainstream epistemology for its naive conceiving of language and thought as mirroring the world, and it has also been fuelled by a number of defenders of classical pragmatism who have aimed to rehabilitate its ideals of objectivity.

One of the most important aspects of pragmatics is the distinction between the’reflexive content’ and the’referential content’ of an utterance. The reflexive content is the’meaning’ that an utterance expresses, as determined by conventional meanings of words and modes of composition. The referential content, on the other hand, is a set of facts about a speaker’s intentions and actions which supplement the conventional meanings to get us from reflexive to incremental meaning.

The most basic and intuitive of these facts are the contexts in which an utterance occurs. These are typically the linguistic contexts of a statement, but they may also include extra-linguistic circumstances such as the existence or absence of a painting, the presence or absence of other persons and the availability of various means of accessing a given location in the world. This is a fundamental aspect of communication that can be described in terms of Grice’s ‘four general pragmatic rules’, which are commonly known as the Cooperative Principle.