What is Pragmatics?

Originally conceived as a term used by William James and Charles Peirce, pragmatics is a study of practical aspects of human thought and action. It is concerned with the construction of meaning, the negotiation of meaning between speaker and listener, and the physical and social contexts of language.

Pragmatics is also concerned with the relationship between intention and linguistic means. It has become a broad field of study, covering the natural and social sciences. It has been used to examine such phenomena as the semantico-referential meaning of a sentence, and the problem of referential descriptions. It has also been associated with such formalizations as the semantics of indexicals and the illocutionary forces.

The first generation of pragmatists was based in the United States, and included Charles Sanders Peirce, William Edward O. Lewis, and George Herbert Mead. These philosophers devoted their work to inquiry, the nature of truth, and the community. These ideas were also influenced by the scientific revolution around evolution. In the late nineteenth century, pragmatists also turned their focus toward politics and education.

In the second generation, pragmatism became a more politicized philosophy, focusing on the nature of truth and the role of the individual in the community. This led to a broader, more comprehensive view of the self and society. Such philosophers as John Dewey, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Cornel West, advanced prophetic pragmatism and contributed to the study of race.

In the 1970s, pragmatism experienced a significant revival. The pragmatists who contributed to this revival include Richard Rorty, Hilary Putnam, and Robert Brandom. These pragmatists have argued against representationalism, and have sought to rehabilitate classical pragmatism.

In a nutshell, pragmatics argues that the language we use is used for purposes that are not explicitly clear. The linguistic meaning of an utterance is very different from the meaning of other possible forms. For example, a statement like “I have two sons” can be true, but it is not ambiguous. However, the same sentence can be changed to mean something completely different with the question, “Do you have any children?” The answer is no, but it changes the meaning of the sentence.

The idea of pragmatics as a field of study originated in the 1870s. During this period, Peirce developed his ideas. He used the concept of the “Pragmatic Maxim” to dismantle problematic Cartesian certainty-seeking strategies. He also applied a non-logical argument to undermine spurious metaphysical ideas.

The word pragmatics is derived from the Latin word pragmaticus. It is the basis of all language interactions. As such, it is a complex discipline, and linguists studying it have agreed on a general point of view: that language is an essential aspect of human action.

The term neopragmatism was coined in the 1990s to describe the new philosophical movement that tries to revive the legacy of classical pragmatism. During the same decade, the intellectual center of gravity of pragmatism was shifting from North America to Europe and central Asia. This movement was further sparked by the attacks of Richard Rorty. Other pragmatists have objected to Rorty’s work.