What is Pragmatic Philosophy?

Pragmatic is a word that is used both as an adjective and a noun. When it is used as an adjective, it denotes a person who is practical and down-to-earth. When it is used as a noun, it refers to the theory and ideas that underlie pragmatics. Pragmatics is the study of how people use language and the social and cultural contexts in which they operate. The field of pragmatics is a subfield of both psycholinguistics and semantics, and it has become a very important part of cognitive science.

Although the word pragmatic has become quite popular, the ideas that it describes are not new. They were first described by philosophers such as John Locke and Jeremy Bentham in the 17th century, and later reemphasized by philosophers like Charles Sanders Peirce and James Mill. But it was not until the 1950s that a self-consciously pragmatist school of philosophy developed, led by the philosopher W.V. Quine and others who influenced his followers.

The core idea of pragmatism is that truth and knowledge are pragmatically situated, not based on some absolute ontological or epistemological grounding. This view of the world has a number of consequences for how we understand and use language. One consequence is that a lot of what we do with language involves interpreting and negotiating ambiguity. For example, when we read the newspaper headline “A stolen painting was found by a tree,” we may interpret it in two ways. One way is that a tree (perhaps named Tim, for Timber) stumbled upon the painting. The other way is that a robber stole the painting and was caught by police. The second interpretation is more pragmatically situated than the first.

Linguistic pragmatics is the discipline that studies these kinds of ambiguous utterances. It is a very large and diverse field, and its development has been somewhat slow. Among other things, it is difficult to establish a set of guiding principles for research because language use is always contextually situated, and researchers must try to capture that context in their experimental studies.

One major framework for linguistic pragmatics is the Gricean Maxims, a set of principles that Paul Grice formulated in the 1970s. These maxims posit that most language use is driven by the desire to be understood and to convey relevant information.

Other approaches to linguistic pragmatics include reference resolution, turn-taking, and managing the flow of reference. Another framework is relevance theory, which was first proposed by Dan Sperber and Deirdre Wilson. This theory, which is based on Grice’s ideas about implicature, holds that every utterance provides enough relevant information to justify the addressee’s effort to process it.

Another area of pragmatics is computational pragmatics, which is concerned with the ways that humans communicate their understandings of language to computers. This is a challenging area, because it requires that a computer be able to track semantic and syntactic clues about what the speaker meant, but that these are often obfuscated by social context.