What is Pragmatic Philosophy?

Pragmatics is a theory of meaning in context. It is what allows you to politely hedge a request, cleverly read between the lines in a newspaper article, and negotiate turn-taking norms in conversation. It is also what allows you to make sense of ambiguity in context.

Pragmatism is a growing third alternative to analytic and continental philosophical traditions worldwide. Its first generation, known as the ‘classical pragmatists’, included Charles Sanders Peirce and his Harvard colleague William James, who both developed and popularized their ideas. They focused their attention primarily on theorising inquiry, meaning and the nature of truth, although James put pragmatist ideas to work in exploring truth in religion.

A second generation of pragmatists turned their attention more specifically to issues in politics, education and other dimensions of social improvement, under the influence of John Dewey (1859-1952) and his friend Jane Addams (1860-1935). A significant subset of the neopragmatist movement has embraced these classical pragmatist themes and expanded on them with their own distinctive ideas.

Modern pragmatists are not interested in the search for ‘the ultimate political perspective or true social theory’, but rather in pursuing an ethics-based pursuit of democracy, equality, justice and freedom for all. They often emphasise the centrality of action and experience, but also draw inspiration from Peirce’s ideas on logic, philosophy of science, and naturalism, as well as from other philosophers in the pragmatist tradition including Richard Rorty (1931-2007).

The neopragmatists have also developed their own distinct theory of meaning in language, drawing on insights from the late pragmatic philosopher of language Paul Grice. They have also developed their own versions of the ‘Gricean Maxims’, which are four general rules that seem to apply to most languages and situations:

Despite its relative lack of historical popularity, pragmatism continues to attract an enthusiastic following in the present day. Its emphases on the connection between thought and action, for example, have made it a particularly attractive philosophy in applied fields like public administration, management studies and leadership research.

More broadly, pragmatism has been recognised as offering a powerful critique of mainstream epistemology’s crucial mistake, which is its naive assumption that language and thought are entirely natural phenomena without any need to be justified or explained. Its emphasis on the importance of context and the way in which meanings can be interpreted has led to its being seen as providing an important antidote to the idealism of traditional analytic philosophy and the realism of continental philosophy. It has therefore become a key influence in such diverse areas as philosophy of law, cognitive psychology and educational philosophy. In addition, a number of liberatory philosophical projects in such fields as feminism, ecology and Native American philosophy look to pragmatism as their philosophical home.