Pragmatic is a philosophical viewpoint that places a premium on what works. This stance is most often used to describe an attitude that favors solutions that are practical and useful rather than those that are theoretical or logically sound. It is sometimes contrasted with idealism, which focuses more on moral values and ethical issues.
Pragmatism emerged in the United States around 1870 and presents a growing third alternative to both analytic and ‘Continental’ philosophical traditions worldwide. Its key ideas were initially articulated by Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914) and his close friend William James (1842-1910). Peirce and James shared a common interest in the scientific revolution then taking place, especially evolutionary theory, of which they were keen observers and participants. This first generation of pragmatists also included the Harvard colleague Josiah Royce (1855-1916), who was formally allied with absolute idealism but was a pragmatist at heart.
A key element of pragmatism is its emphasis on the importance of context. As opposed to a purely analytical philosophy, which would concentrate on the meaning of individual words, a pragmatic philosophy would take into account the context in which those words are spoken and how the speaker intends to use them. It seeks to answer questions such as: What is the relationship between the specific circumstances of utterance and what speakers mean when they use those words? The answer to such questions lies at the heart of the field known as pragmatics.
It also aims to avoid the pitfall of over-emphasizing the role of language in communication and understanding. As the philosopher of language Paul Grice (1900-1974) put it, ‘language is the medium through which we negotiate meaning in every area of human activity and knowledge-making’. It is for this reason that pragmatics has a strong focus on the ‘Gricean Maxims’, which are four general pragmatic rules formulated by Grice and based on what he observed in everyday conversation.
Among the most significant developments of pragmatics is its use of the concept of’meaning in use’ to provide a more accurate and complete account of what is really meant when people communicate through speech and writing. This broader approach to the study of language is called critical pragmatism and is currently a major area of research in the philosophy of communication and semantics.
Many liberal and liberatory projects, such as feminism (Seigfried 1996), ecology (Alexander 2013), Native American philosophy (Pratt 2002) and Latin American philosophy (Habermas 1998) look to pragmatism for their intellectual home. This is in addition to the pragmatists themselves who have made major contributions in political philosophy, ethics, philosophy of law and religion.