Pragmatic Philosophy

Pragmatic is the study of the contextual meaning of language, beyond the literal sense. It also focuses on implied meanings and the way that language is used in a conversation. It is a crucial part of human communication and interaction. Without pragmatics, there would be a great deal of confusion and misunderstanding in the world.

Historically, pragmatism has been a third alternative to the analytic and continental philosophy traditions worldwide. Its roots stem from the American pragmatist Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914), who first defined and developed the concept, his close associate William James (1860-1910) and his Harvard colleague Josiah Royce (b. 1855).

Classical pragmatism focused on theorising inquiry, meaning and truth, although Peirce did work on the nature of religion and James turned these themes into a philosophy of education and social improvement. However, pragmatism was often overlooked by the academic philosophers of the time who favoured a more analytical approach to philosophy.

Today, pragmatism is undergoing something of a revival and is becoming an important area of philosophical investigation again. A large number of liberatory projects such as feminism, ecology and Native American philosophy currently look to the pragmatist tradition as their philosophical home. Pragmatism is also making inroads into the world of science and technology, with a significant body of research arising in the areas of information ethics and epistemic justification.

What makes a theory of pragmatics different from other approaches to the philosophy of language is its emphasis on context-dependence of various aspects of linguistic interpretation. In particular, pragmatism takes into account the fact that the significance conventionally or literally attached to words and sentences can differ significantly from context to context because of their ambiguity or indexicality, and that further significance can be worked out from more general principles using contextual information. This is known as ‘pragmatic semantics’.

Pragmatics is also concerned with the role of belief in human knowing and understanding, and asks whether beliefs are really ‘dispositions’ that qualify as true or false depending on how useful they prove in inquiry and action. Its central theme is that, rather than being a window on reality, belief is more like a tool for exploring it. As such, pragmatism has also become the philosophical foundation for a growing body of work in the sociology and psychology of knowledge. This is known as ‘practical philosophy’. This is the approach to knowledge exemplified by people such as John Dewey and Jane Addams. In this view, knowledge is a form of practical skill and can be mastered through practice. It is a matter of learning to recognise the right tool for each job and then using it effectively. This is the ‘art of practical knowing’.