The Importance of Pragmatics

The study of human actions and thought from a practical point of view is called Pragmatics. This study looks beyond the literal meaning of a human utterance to consider the implied meanings, the process of negotiating meaning between speaker and listener, and the power of a linguistic utterance to convey information. Pragmatics is important to our understanding of language and communication, without which we would have limited understanding of the nature of meaning and the way people communicate with one another.

Pragmatic philosophy traces its roots to the early nineteenth century, when Harvard-educated men met in Cambridge for informal philosophical discussion. Members of the Metaphysical Club included future Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes and proto-positivist Chauncey Wright. Other notable figures of this period included Charles Sanders Peirce, a logician, and William James, a moralist and medical professor. These thinkers were influential in shaping modern philosophy.

This approach to pragmatics places semantics on the near side of the boundary. Relevance theory focuses on the meaning that transcends what a speaker says. However, this perspective is more limited, since it considers the perspective of the listener. In practice, relevance theory requires that a speaker use the same vocabulary in different situations and contexts. Hence, it is necessary to choose one theory over another. The debate over the nature of meaning is essential for us to know whether a particular language is ‘pragmatic’ or not.

However, the focus of pragmatic studies on individuals is on consequences and results. They begin by identifying the problem and its broader context. The next step is a research inquiry to understand how people respond to that problem. The outcome of this research is usually a policy recommendation or a social change. But how can we distinguish between the pragmatic and the idealistic? Fortunately, there are a few examples of both. The most famous example of pragmatic thinking is the study of pragmatism and its history.

The history of philosophy reflects the influence of various pragmatists, from Karl Popper to Richard Rorty. Nonetheless, while the two schools are often considered the same, the philosophical approaches to pragmatics vary. Brandom, however, owes more to the work of Wilfrid Sellars and Richard Rorty, as well as to the historical readings of thinkers like Kant and Hegel.

Children with pragmatic language deficits may be hard to identify. They may appear to be perfectly social, but they may have difficulty forming close friendships, playing team sports, or working with groups. These children may be passed over for job opportunities due to the presence of more charismatic peers with stronger social skills. While pragmatic language is not a specific diagnosis, it is often associated with an autism spectrum disorder or other intellectual, developmental, or learning disabilities.

Contemporary pragmatism has experienced a resurgence in popularity, with some high-profile philosophers exploring its broader implications. Among these are neo-pragmatists such as Richard Rorty and Hilary Putnam. The pragmatists also include Robert Brandom and Cornel West. Some of the key books on pragmatism can be found in The American Philosopher, Volume One.