Pragmatic Philosophy


Using language to convey meaning in context is an essential skill for human communication. However, for people with autism and other developmental disabilities, pragmatic language skills are difficult to learn. Various theories have been developed to assist in teaching pragmatic language. These include using visual supports, role playing and social stories. Additionally, teaching the concepts of time and location is also important. The word pragmatic comes from the Greek root pragma, which means “to do.” A person who is pragmatic is concerned with the real-world application of ideas rather than abstract notions. For example, a four-year-old who asks for a unicorn for his birthday is not being pragmatic, as unicorns are very rare and most likely unobtainable.

Pragmatism has a long history in philosophy, and today it presents a growing third alternative to analytic and continental traditions worldwide. The first generation of pragmatist philosophers were led by Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914) and William James (1842-1910). Peirce and James were both influenced by the scientific revolution then underway around evolution, of which they were keen observers and sometimes participants.

Later, pragmatism found a home in American cultural studies. For instance, the social psychologist George Herbert Mead (1934) developed a rich pragmatist perspective on the relations between self and community, while the sociologist W.E.B Du Bois (1868-1963) was a fervent defender of a pragmatic philosophy of race (Putnam 2004).

More recently, the field has been broadened by the development of experimental pragmatics. This is a subfield of cognitive science that attempts to bridge the gap between linguistic-semantic and intention-recognition mechanisms. This research has been aided by the advent of computer technology, which has allowed for detailed measurements of the behavioral effects of specific pragmatic phenomena. In addition, many psycholinguists have found inspiration and even testable hypotheses in the work of experimental pragmaticists.

The authors of the papers in this special issue share a number of valuable recommendations for the future of pragmatics. These include the need to develop a deeper understanding of the cognitive presuppositions that are associated with specific pragmatic phenomena, a toolkit of individual differences measures that follows best practices in the field, and a theory-driven way of connecting the two. In this way, pragmatics may move forward in its effort to provide a robust account of the nature and growth of human language. We look forward to the contributions of the next generation of pragmatists to this endeavor.