Pragmatic Philosophy

Pragmatic is an approach to philosophy that argues that the truth or meaning of a statement is to be measured by its practical (i.e. pragmatic) consequences. This is a philosophical position held mostly by American philosophers such as John Dewey and William James. Pragmatism is often presented as a way to clarify and even dissolve intractable metaphysical and epistemological disputes. Down-to-earth pragmatists insist that bickering metaphysicians should get in the habit of posing the question “what concrete practical difference would it make if my theory were true and its rival(s) false?”

Pragmatism is also used to refer to a specific methodology or approach to research and learning, particularly in education. The pragmatist approach to educational theory and practice emphasizes the development of skills in an environment that promotes the growth of social competence, including the ability to interpret and respond appropriately to various types of social cues. This includes the ability to take turns, interpret nonverbal communication, and understand social expectations.

The pragmatic perspective is also applied to the study of language and communication. This is referred to as pragmatics, which examines the ways that speakers use words to convey meaning. The study of pragmatics also includes the examination of the relationship between a speaker’s intention and their behavior as well as the particular circumstances surrounding an utterance.

In the field of cognitive science, a large literature has emerged on the nature and growth of pragmatics. The papers in this special issue offer a variety of empirical topics, methods and perspectives. Collectively, they reveal that pragmatics is a complex intention-recognition system that interfaces with both linguistic and cognition in several different ways. The resulting body of evidence indicates that the Herculean task ahead for pragmatics is to establish precise, theoretically motivated connections between linguistic and cognitive mechanisms on the one hand, and individual pragmatic phenomena on the other.

Although pragmatism is an important part of philosophical thought, it has never been popular in mainstream analytic philosophy. It did enjoy some initial traction as a counter-argument to positivist orthodoxy. Quine’s article, Two Dogmas of Empiricism, challenged positivist dogma with an approach that drew on some elements of pragmatism. However, Quine and other analytic philosophers tended to ignore pragmatics until the early 1980s. It is only recently that a resurgence has occurred in the interest in pragmatism, partly due to the work of philosophers such as Nelson Goodman, Richard Rorty, and others. Today, a wide range of analytic philosophers are re-examining the insights of classical pragmatists such as Dewey, Charles Sanders Peirce, and William James. The resurgence in pragmatic studies has coincided with an increase in empirical research in this area as well as growing awareness of the importance of pragmatic issues in social contexts. Consequently, a pragmatic synthesis is beginning to emerge. This synthesis will likely include elements of far-side and near-side pragmatics, and may incorporate features of a pragmatic theory of inference. It will be interesting to see how these diverse pragmatic perspectives come together in the future.