What is Pragmatic Philosophy?

Pragmatic is a philosophy centered on the way people use language to communicate. It is a part of the larger field of linguistics, and encompasses many theories about how meaning is derived from context in which words are used, including lexical ambiguity, indexicality, conversational implicature, and speech act theory. Pragmatics is important in human communication because it explains the way we use words to convey a specific meaning, and the impact that different contextual factors can have on the interpretation of those words.

It is not easy to pin down a precise definition of pragmatism. There is no pragmatist creed, a neat list of articles or essential tenets that are endorsed by all pragmatists. However, it is possible to identify certain themes and theses that have loomed large in the pragmatist tradition.

The first such theme concerns the nature of truth and knowledge. For pragmatists, a theory is valid as long as it produces useful results or provides a clear explanation of observed phenomena. A theory that fails to meet this standard is not worth pursuing.

Similarly, the pragmatists believe that knowledge is an ongoing process of acquiring new data and incorporating it into one’s existing understanding. Thus, a scientific theory that fails to yield useful results or clear explanations of observations is not worth further study.

Another pragmatist theme is the role of experience in generating and shaping concepts. This is a reiteration of the point made by James and Dewey, that a theory or concept must pay its way in practical terms. It must produce useful results and solve significant problems in order to be considered valid.

In practice, this means that a theory must be tested against real-world examples. If a theory fails to stand up to this test, it is not worthy of further consideration or debate.

A third pragmatism theme relates to ethics and morality. While most pragmatists are quick to admit that their theory of pragmatics implodes when applied to issues such as morality, this is often not immediately apparent. The reason is that the basic premise of pragmatism — that what “works” is more important than whether it is actually true — becomes dangerously close to relativism.