What is Pragmatic Thinking?

Pragmatic is the study of how people communicate with each other in everyday language. It goes beyond the literal meaning of an utterance and looks at the implication of an utterance, how language is used and what can be inferred from a speaker’s tone of voice or the way they phrase something. Without pragmatics, it would be difficult to understand each other and communicate effectively.

The word pragmatic is derived from the Greek word praxis, which means “to do.” A person who is pragmatic is concerned more with what actually happens than with what could or should happen. A pragmatic person can see that the most practical solution to a problem may be rejected or not implemented, and therefore is willing to choose the next best solution that has a better chance of being accepted and implemented.

A key element of pragmatism is that truth is an emergent property of inquiry and action. In other words, a belief is deemed to be true if it proves useful in coping with the environment, even if that fact has no bearing on the truth of the belief itself. This idea has led some scholars to develop pragmatic theories of truth, arguing that the truth of an assertion is a function of its use in inquiry and action.

One of the most famous pragmatists was William James, who developed his ideas on pragmatics in discussions at a metaphysical club in Boston in the 1870s. He, along with Charles Peirce and others, defended these ideas in a series of books, many of which are reprinted in the Pragmatics box sets (see below).

These pragmatists focused on topics such as truth, inquiry and the nature of reality. A second generation turned pragmatism more explicitly towards politics, education and other dimensions of social improvement under the influence of Dewey and Jane Addams. The third generation, including Habermas, took pragmatism into areas such as discourse ethics, philosophy of law and the philosophy of religion, amongst other things.

Modern pragmatism continues to evolve and is now found worldwide. It is particularly prominent in Singapore, where a pragmatic approach to business has been highly valued for decades. Other places where pragmatic thinking is popular include South America, Scandinavia and central Europe, as well as the United States. It is a philosophy that values the most effective ways to achieve goals, and it is often found where powerful and influential leaders are located, such as Deng Xiaoping and Charles Koch.