Pragmatic Philosophy

Pragmatic is a philosophical tradition that advocates the view that most questions concerning language, knowledge, meaning, and action are best understood in terms of their practical uses and applications. Its adherents believe that, unlike other philosophy of language theories, it is possible to see that most philosophical topics, such as the nature of language, concepts, and meaning, are better addressed by looking at their practical uses, successes, and failures rather than their abstract forms.

Many of the different philosophical approaches to pragmatics are classified by the way in which they treat the concept(s) of context. For example, some pragmatists (such as Dewey and James) see the notion of context as a form of functionalism. This means that something is true only if it works, in a particular social context, to accomplish some task. Thus, a statement that prayers are heard, for instance, may be considered to be true only insofar as it helps to ease one’s fears. This position is often seen as a reworking of logical positivism.

Other pragmatists, such as Grice and Searle, are less concerned with functionalism and more interested in an analysis of the role of pragmatic principles in communication. These pragmatic principles include, among others, the principle of recursive interpretation (the implication that an utterance can have more than one meaning, or that it can express more than one proposition), the theory of conversational implicature, and the notion of a hierarchy of intentions in speech acts.

The theory of the semantics of a natural language also falls under the umbrella of pragmatism. That is because the principle of recursive interpretation provides a way to explain how one and the same sentence can be interpreted in a variety of ways. Semantics is often seen as the study of the rules that match up sentences with the propositions that they express, but some philosophers argue that it is incorrect to categorize this as part of pragmatism. They suggest that semantics studies the structure of sentences, while pragmatics is concerned with the contextual factors that determine which meaning a sentence has.

A further distinction is that between ‘near-side’ and ‘far-side’ pragmatics. Near-side pragmatics focuses on the properties of a particular utterance. This includes the linguistic context of the utterance, the lexical and conceptual contexts in which it occurs, and the extra-linguistic contexts that surround the utterance. For example, the linguistic context of an utterance that refers to an object by name is the utterance’s reference whereas its ‘contextual implicatures’ are what it does in and around the utterance, for instance, referring to that object by name.

Many applied fields, such as public administration, political science, management studies, leadership studies and research methodology have incorporated the tenets of pragmatism. This is because pragmatism emphasizes the connection between thought and action. It also views logic as a tool to be used rather than an ultimate truth. While a few pragmatic philosophers, such as Quine and Carnap, were also proponents of logical positivism, most pragmatists do not see a link between pragmatism and formal logic.