What is Pragmatics?

Pragmatics is a discipline that studies language and the way people use it. It focuses on the context of use rather than reference, truth, or grammar. This is the opposite of semantics which concentrates on the meaning of words or ideas.

Often when you hear the word pragmatics you might think it means someone who is a hardheaded person, but it is actually a positive term. It can refer to any person who is sensible and practical. It is important to keep in mind that there are differences between pragmatists and the other types of philosophers such as those who specialize in philosophy.

Semantics versus Pragmatics

Many pragmatists view truth in terms of what creates practical outcomes. It is not necessary that a theory of truth be based on a scientific model or aligned with other theories to be considered pragmatic, but it does require that facts are consistent and that they serve a useful purpose in the real world.

Coherence in factual theories

The correspondence theory of truth states that if facts accurately describe the world, they will be correlated. This can be a useful way to test whether a theory is true, but it is also prone to errors such as misrepresenting correlations with causation.

Formal Pragmatics

Informal and formal pragmatics are different but both have the goal of studying language use in its context. They use the methods and goals of formal semantics to examine the influence that a given context can have on the meaning of a sentence or phrase.

Narrow Context versus Wide Context

The two main kinds of contextual theories are those that focus on the speaker, place, and time; and those that are wider in scope. The latter includes information about the causal and informational chain of an utterance, ongoing topics of conversation, and much else.

Most pragmatists will focus on the first type of contextual theories, but there are also a number who focus on the second. These include those who are more like neo-Griceans than classical ones; those who focus on the relation between linguistics and psycholinguistics; and those who focus on the interaction of linguistics with other disciplines, such as cognitive science.

Some pragmatists, such as Grice, see the core of language as an autonomous realm studied by semantics. Others, such as Carston (1999), have taken a more empirical approach.

In both cases the main problem is to determine what linguistic acts and speech products are performed or made relevant to determining what is said by a given speaker. Then, the resulting implicatures (as Stalnaker 1970 called them) can be used to determine what the speaker intended to communicate and how it was intended.

What is more, if there are other things that can help the hearer determine what is being said, then these other facts must be considered. Some pragmatists will say that these are part of the pragmatic content of an utterance, while others will insist that they are not and are not relevant to the meaning of a sentence.