What is Pragmatic Philosophy?

Pragmatic is the philosophical theory of language that focuses on what people really mean when they speak. It’s not to be confused with semantics, which is about the literal meaning of words and sentences. Pragmatics is about what is actually said or done. It includes such things as turn-taking norms in conversation, navigating ambiguity and negotiating context.

The philosophy of pragmatism is an American school that emerged from the Metaphysical Club, a group of Harvard-educated men who met for informal philosophical discussions during the early 1870s. It was in this milieu that the first self-consciously pragmatists emerged, including Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914), logician and mathematician; and William James (1842-1910), psychologist and moralist with a medical degree.

Peirce defined pragmatism as “the doctrine that truth consists in what works and not what one thinks ought to work.” This he regarded as the most fundamental principle of all practical wisdom. James elaborated on this idea in his book, Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking (1907), in which he identified ‘The Present Dilemma in Philosophy’, an apparently irresolvable clash between empiricist commitment to experience and more traditional a priori principles that appeal to reasoning. He promised that pragmatism would resolve the conflict.

Among the other central ideas in pragmatics is the notion that all propositions (statements) have a pragmatic value, and that this value lies in their utility. Specifically, they are useful in their capacity to make sense of the world and to help humans achieve practical goals.

As a result of this, pragmatists believe that true statements are meaningful and that their validity is dependent on the ways in which they are used by individuals and groups. This is a key distinction between pragmatism and other, more theoretical philosophical positions such as idealism and rationalism.

It is for this reason that pragmatics focuses on the concrete, everyday reality that surrounds us, rather than on abstract and intellectual ideals. The goal of pragmatics is to communicate as clearly and effectively as possible, so that the listener or reader is understood and is able to apply what they have learned. This is why it is often called’realist’ or ‘practical’ philosophy.

Modern pragmatic philosophers, such as Richard Rorty and Robert Brandom, continue to develop and refine the pragmatic approach. They have extended the scope of pragmatics to include other issues such as ambiguity, logical relations and the nature of reference. They have also reworked the pragmatist commitment to avoid dogmatism and to incorporate the insights of other philosophical traditions such as analytic philosophy, continental philosophy, and existentialism. In addition, a number of liberal philosophical projects such as feminism, ecology and Native American philosophy have looked to the pragmatist tradition for inspiration. This is a sign of the continuing relevance of pragmatics in our daily lives.