Pragmatics is the study of how people use language to communicate with one another. It focuses on meanings that go beyond the literal words spoken, looking at their context and focusing on implied meanings. It is also the study of how a speaker’s intentions and a listener’s reactions are determined by those words.
It is important to note that pragmatics differs from other areas of linguistics, such as semantics, syntax and semiotics. While semantics deals with rules that determine the literal linguistic meanings of words, syntax focuses on the way we combine words into sentences with specific meaning and semiotics focuses on how signs or symbols are used to convey information.
In a more general sense, pragmatics focuses on the social rules that govern turn taking, eye contact, body language and the way in which people reference one another during a conversation. While most children pick up these pragmatics from their parents or other family members, it is not true that everyone is born with a natural ability to understand these rules. Pragmatics tries to explain these social rules and how we learn them.
There are a number of different schools within pragmatics and there are many different theories that have been proposed. One of the most popular and influential is the theory of Grice’s Laws of Pragmatics which outlines six principles that describe how people should interact with each other during a conversation. These principles are:
It is also worth noting that the field of pragmatics has expanded to include research into the ways in which we interpret non-linguistic signals and how we process information. There is also a great deal of research being carried out on the relationship between individual differences in pragmatics and linguistic or cognitive development.
Pragmatism has a long history in philosophy and it was first introduced by the American philosopher William James in 1907. He described the history of philosophy as being to a large extent the history of a clash between two types of thinking: the tough-minded empiricists who are committed to the empirical method of going by ‘the facts’ and the tender-minded who prefer a priori principles that appeal to reason. He promised that pragmatism would bridge the gap between these two different approaches to thinking.
Pragmatism has become a part of mainstream analytic philosophy since Quine’s landmark article “Two Dogmas of Empiricism” (1951). It is also important to note that the school of pragmatism has grown in popularity outside of North America and now has vibrant centres in South America, Scandinavia and more recently central Europe and China.