What is Pragmatic Philosophy?

Pragmatic is the study of how language is used in context. It differs from other areas of linguistic study, such as semantics (the study of rule systems that determine literal meanings of words and sentences) and syntax (how words combine to create meaning) and semiotics (the use and interpretation of signs and symbols). Instead, pragmatics focuses on how social, cultural, and situational factors influence the use of language.

A person who is pragmatic tends to be concerned more with what works than what might work. This kind of thinking allows them to navigate ambiguity in conversation, politely hedge a request, cleverly read between the lines, and negotiate turn-taking norms in conversations. It also enables them to navigate the complex web of pragmatic clues that make up the “cooperative principle” – an idea first introduced by Paul Grice in 1970. The cooperative principle posits that speakers aim to communicate enough relevant information for their listeners to put effort into understanding and responding to them. It’s one of four general pragmatic rules that have come to be known as the Gricean Maxims.

The other two maxims are that an utterance should be concise and truthful, and that it should avoid obscurity or ambiguity where possible. Pragmatic theory has evolved in various directions since then, but all theories of pragmatics share a commitment to context-based utterance interpretation. In the case of experimental studies, this means that researchers need to acknowledge the specific participants and tasks in which their research is conducted. There is no neutral point of view or task-free environment from which utterances can be understood without pragmatic context-specific influences.

This pragmatic perspective on philosophical topics has been endorsed to varying degrees by notable figures including Ludwig Wittgenstein, Charles Peirce, and Rudolf Carnap. However, it has never gained wide acceptance among analytic philosophers.

Despite the challenges that pragmatics has faced, it remains a viable philosophical approach and is still influencing linguistics research. For example, in the ongoing replication crisis that is rocking many areas of psychology, pragmatics scholars have emphasized the need for researchers to publish results that are likely to be replicated and to be interpreted broadly. Pragmatics has also contributed to a more nuanced understanding of the ways that people interpret and use linguistic communication.

Moreover, pragmatics is a highly practical discipline that can be applied to many real-world situations. For instance, studies by Wildner-Bassett and Tateyama et al have shown that pragmatic routines are teachable to beginning foreign language learners, showing that pragmatic knowledge can be acquired in the same way that grammar and vocabulary are. It’s no wonder that pragmatics is often viewed as a key to the success of second-language learning!