What is Pragmatics?

If you’re not sure what the term ‘pragmatic’ is, it’s the study of the practical aspects of human behavior and thought. This theory looks beyond the literal meaning of a single utterance to consider implied and implicit meanings and the use of language as an instrument of interaction. Pragmatics considers the meaning potential of an utterance, and it serves as the foundation for all language interactions. Without pragmatism, we would have very little understanding of language and its use.

The term “pragmatism” is a philosophical school of thought that has been used since the mid-19th century. It emerged from a group of Harvard-educated men who met for informal philosophical discussions in Cambridge, Massachusetts. They included proto-positivist Chauncey Wright, future Supreme Court justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, and logician Charles Sanders Peirce. Ultimately, the idea spread throughout the world, and it helped shape modern philosophy.

As the discipline continues to grow in popularity, its intellectual center of gravity is shifting from North America to Asia and South America. New and vibrant research networks have emerged in central Europe, Scandinavia, and China. A growing number of researchers and students are experimenting with new ways to approach practical issues and problems. So far, North American pragmatism research is dominated by academics. This should not be a surprise, given the recent expansion of the field.

The key ideas of pragmatism emerged from Harvard Metaphysical Club discussions around 1870. Peirce developed these ideas in the 1870s. James further popularized pragmatism in a series of public lectures in 1898. James also used the term “pragmatism” in reference to his own position. It was a term that would not have been used by James if he hadn’t changed the name, “ugly enough to be safe from kidnappers”.

Some philosophers, such as Jacques Derrida, have said that some of the work under the Pragmatics umbrella is aligned with his program. Similarly, Emile Benveniste argued that “you” and “I” are fundamentally different from other pronouns and, therefore, unique in creating a subject. This is an important aspect of Pragmatics, because it allows us to talk about the things we want to say.

A pragmatist’s definition of truth is not necessarily true. The difference between a true opinion and a useful hypothesis is the degree of utility they confer upon the idea. While James and Dewey said that truth is essentially what “works,” pragmatists argued that true opinions are those that an inquirer will accept at the end of the investigation. This contrasting view of truth and utility makes pragmaticism difficult to apply to a variety of contexts.

A classic example of pragmatics is the sign “I have two sons.” This sign does not necessarily carry ambiguity, but the meaning may change based on the context. In the same instance, “Do you have any daughters?” changes its meaning when asked in a different context. The sign’s ambiguity is resolved by pragmatics. By incorporating context, pragmatics allows us to make clearer and more precise statements. The meaning of a sign is determined by the context that surrounds it.