What Is Pragmatic?

Pragmatic is the study of how people interpret and use language in real-world situations. It is important because many things we say and do in everyday conversation are not merely semantic, but have other contextual implications. For example, the person who says, “I’m sorry” does not necessarily mean that she is apologizing for her behavior. This is where pragmatics comes in, because it allows us to understand the nuances of how we use language and why.

The word pragmatic stems from the Greek root pragma, which means “to do what works.” Often used as an adjective, it describes sensible and practical people and ideas. For example, someone who expects a four-year-old to want a unicorn for her birthday is not being pragmatic. It can also describe a person’s approach to a problem, as in the saying, “Let’s be pragmatic and find a solution that will work.”

A major philosophical movement of the late nineteenth century, pragmatism asserted that a proposition was true only if it worked in practice, and that unpractical ideas were to be rejected. A broad range of scholars from many fields—including psychology, sociology, anthropology, education, and philosophy—have contributed to the development of pragmatic theory.

Despite the wide-ranging influences of Dewey and James, classical pragmatism lost traction after the advent of self-consciously rigorous analytic philosophy in American academia. However, a number of later philosophers (including Quine and Wittgenstein) developed qualified enthusiasm for parts of pragmatism’s legacy, and their successors have continued to explore pragmatic issues in a variety of contexts.

In experimentation, the typical pragmatic study presents individual participants with a large set of stimuli and asks them to respond in some instructed manner. Statistical analyses then calculate averages of people’s responses across the many conditions, in order to capture some general tendency about how they behave in pragmatically relevant situations. This approach is problematic for a couple of reasons.

First, it overlooks the fact that people rarely participate in experimental studies without some kind of explicit or implicit goal in mind. Second, it ignores the fact that within-individual variations in pragmatic performance are important to characterizing the role of pragmatics in people’s behavioral response to the stimuli they encounter.

Fortunately, there are alternative approaches to studying pragmatics in the laboratory. One way is to look at how people respond to specific kinds of utterances, using methods that measure the amount of cognitive effort needed for certain types of figurative linguistic meanings. Another is to examine how the time it takes for people to process a particular kind of pragmatic meaning, using techniques like moving-window and eye-movement measures. While these techniques cannot fully tap into all of the facets of pragmatics, they can be useful in showing how different aspects are influenced by task demands.