What is Pragmatics?

Pragmatics is a philosophical subfield that evaluates how context contributes to meaning in language. Linguists who specialise in pragmatics are known as pragmaticians. Pragmatics differs from semantics, which deals with the conventional or literal significance of words and sentences, and is thus influenced by semantic rules and grammatical structures. Pragmatics, by contrast, also considers the broader significance of an utterance, incorporating elements such as speech act theory, conversational implicature, and other pragmatic ambiguity phenomena.

Several different types of pragmatics exist, and there is no consensus among philosophers about what is at the heart of pragmatism. Some see it primarily as a method or principle for clarifying hypotheses by tracking their practical consequences, in particular their implications for experience (Peirce’s Pragmatic Maxim). Others focus more on a specific kind of pragmatics, the communicative intention of an expression as reflected by its use, as conceived by Grice. Still others link pragmatism with various other philosophical ideas, such as empiricism and fallibilism, or a Quinean naturalist metaphilosophy. In addition, a number of liberatory philosophical projects in areas such as feminism, ecology, Native American philosophy and Latin American philosophy currently look to the pragmatist tradition as their philosophical home.

In the past, a significant portion of pragmatism’s philosophical debate took place over its epistemological and metaphysical tenets. Initially, the pragmatists split significantly over the nature of inquiry and the concept of truth, with Peirce advocating a fallibilist epistemology based on his maxim and James and Dewey favoring an alethic pluralism. Some pragmatists went further and combined their pragmatic approach with a form of empiricism, fallibilism or verificationism to produce a variety of pragmatic approaches to epistemology.

Contemporary pragmatism has a broad range of applications, with some philosophers arguing for a pragmatic interpretation of the philosophy of science (e.g., Brandom). Others have worked to place pragmatist ideas in a broader Western philosophical landscape, tracing connections with 19th century idealism (e.g., Apel 1974) and a neo-Marxian critique of instrumentalist rationality (e.g., Habermas 1981).

Other scholars have applied pragmatism to problems in the philosophy of religion and spirituality (e.g., Seigfried 1996, 2001), and others have used it as an alternative to the foundationalism of continental philosophy. In addition, a number of scholars have developed critical pragmatics, a school that stresses the need to distinguish between conventional meaning and its incremental development from the standpoint of speakers, while arguing for a normative pragmatism that combines analytic philosophers’ desire for a systematic theory of language with Mead’s pragmatist analysis of human action and a hermeneutics-based theory of the self (Koopman 2007). Still other pragmatists have focused on the role of linguistics in communication (e.g., Pappas 1998). Finally, there is a group that takes up the core of classical pragmatism and focuses on the ‘ethical pragmatist’ project of making language and culture more responsive to the needs of society. This is referred to as the New Pragmatist movement. These neo-pragmatists have been particularly influential in philosophy of language and discourse studies.