Pragmatic Philosophy

Pragmatic is a philosophical approach that stresses the importance of understanding the context and purpose of language. This is often considered a more hermeneutic method of studying texts, rather than one that focuses on truth or grammar. The term pragmatic is also used to describe a philosophical position that seeks to be middle-of-the-road and takes arguments from both sides of an issue into consideration.

The classic pragmatists (Peirce, James, Dewey, Mead) all developed their ideas at the University of Chicago, where they shared an interest in the development and refinement of human thought. Their common outlook on knowledge, epistemology, philosophy of science, social sciences, and the philosophy of race helped to shape the philosophies of those who came after them.

At the core of the pragmatist doctrine was Peirce’s Pragmatic Maxim, which argued that hypothesis and theory should be evaluated in terms of their practical consequences: what they do in the world in specific situations. This led to a distinctive epistemological outlook, characterized by a fallibilist and anti-Cartesian explanation of the norms that govern inquiry. In the social sciences, pragmatist perspectives were extended by Mead into anthropology and sociology, while Dewey was influential in educational philosophy.

Despite its success in American academia, by the 1940s pragmatism had lost some of its luster. In the wake of the great Deweyan era of progressive philosophizing, new movements like analytic philosophy began to thrive, and many pragmatists found themselves attracted to the more rigorous imports of Moore, Russell, Wittgenstein, and the Vienna Circle. The legacy of the pragmatists continued to be reflected, though, in the work of such figures as C. I. Lewis and Sidney Hook.

In addition to epistemology and philosophy of science, pragmatism has contributed richly to the fields of ethics, metaphysics, history, art, and aesthetics. In the latter half of the twentieth century, a number of philosophers with different backgrounds and approaches have revived pragmatism as a viable approach to philosophy.

The most recent pragmatists include Jurgen Habermas, who brings the Frankfurt School tradition to bear on topics such as history, the nature of rationality, and philosophy of language. Pragmatics also finds an important role in computational and natural language processing. A subdiscipline of that field is computational pragmatics, which seeks to enhance computer systems’ abilities to understand ambiguous human input by using contextual information to better approximate the ways in which humans process linguistic and other forms of human communication. For example, the technique is employed in reference resolution, which involves determining when two words or objects mean the same thing. In doing so, it helps computers to avoid the kind of misunderstandings that could lead to satire or sarcasm. The pragmatics of language and cognition are thus a major concern of contemporary philosophy.