Pragmatic Philosophy for the Workplace

Pragmatic is the branch of philosophy that focuses on the use of language and the ways in which people communicate with each other. It encompasses the study of social, cultural, and situational factors that affect how we understand and use language. Pragmatics is what allows us to politely hedge a request, cleverly read between the lines, negotiate turn-taking norms in conversation, and navigate ambiguity in context.

Unlike semantics, which is the study of literal meaning, pragmatics is concerned with how we use language in a practical way to achieve our goals. As a result, the study of pragmatics relies heavily on other disciplines like sociology and anthropology, which are concerned with human societies and their development. This is why pragmatism has also been referred to as an empirical philosophical position, since it seeks to test its theories in real-world situations and with real people.

The term “pragmatism” was first pressed into service by American philosopher William James in 1898. But he scrupulously swore that he was simply describing the doctrines of his friend Charles Sanders Peirce, who had coined the phrase “pragmatism” to describe his own outlook three decades earlier.

Classical pragmatists emphasized the “plastic” nature of reality and the practical function of knowledge as an instrument for adapting to and controlling reality. They were most critical of moral and metaphysical doctrines that relegate change to the sidelines. They were also suspicious of doctrines that exalt action and change to nearly metaphysical status, calling such beliefs into question as to their practical value.

Modern pragmatists have formulated a number of methodological principles to guide research in organizational settings. The three most influential are: 1) that inquiry in the context of practice is more relevant to theory development than research in a laboratory setting; 2) that the process by which people perform their work, rather than a fixed “research protocol”, is the best model for understanding organization and change; and 3) that it is essential for a researcher to be able to move from the world of practice to the world of theory and back again, in order to develop meaningful theories of organizational processes and to ensure that those theories have utility in the workplace. These three pragmatic principles form the underlying framework for all of the project examples described below. Click on the links to learn more about each principle in detail.