Pragmatic Philosophy

Pragmatic is a philosophical movement that advocates a pragmatic approach to life, meaning – unlike the Cartesian picture of reality, which posits an unchanging world with no interaction between the physical and mental realms – that we make sense of things through the interaction between the world around us and our actions within it. It argues that an ideology or proposition is true only if it works satisfactorily, and that unworkable ideas are to be rejected. It originated in the United States during the latter quarter of the nineteenth century and has significantly influenced non-philosophers, particularly those involved in law, education, politics, sociology, psychology, and literary criticism. However, it is most often considered a branch of philosophy and has been used in the philosophy of language, ethics, metaphysics, social theory, and aesthetics.

The term “pragmatism” was first pressed into service in print by William James in 1898; James, however, scrupulously swore that he had only relabeled doctrines propounded by his friend C. S. Peirce a few years earlier. A generation later, the movement was revitalized by Charles Sanders Mead (1861-1928), who incorporated James’s pragmatism into his own philosophy and argued that the true meaning of a proposition is its functional value. Other important pragmatists include Herbert Spencer (1820-1903), John Dewey (1859-1936), and Richard Rorty (1931-2006).

Philosophical pragmatics is the study of how we interpret utterances in context. There are different ways of approaching this issue, and it is useful to distinguish between what we might call near-side and far-side pragmatics. Near-side pragmatics, which we might consider the core of classic pragmatism, centers on the nature of the facts that are relevant to what is said in an utterance. Far-side pragmatics, on the other hand, is concerned with what happens in the process of utterance interpretation and how these modals might influence our understanding of the utterance.

A key idea in classical pragmatism is that what we say is a kind of message that carries a communicative intention whose fulfillment consists in being recognized by the addressee as being true. This idea is known as the cooperative principle and is the basis for Gricean maxims, which are four general pragmatic rules that seem to apply in most situations: be informative (be clear), be polite (be friendly), be concise (be brief), and be sincere (be honest).

Modern analytic philosophers have tended to ignore pragmatism, although Quine showed some qualified enthusiasm for parts of its legacy. More recently, however, a number of high-profile philosophers have begun exploring and selectively appropriating the themes and theses of pragmatism in their work. Hilary Putnam, Nicholas Rescher, Jurgen Habermas, Susan Haack, and Robert Brandom are among those who are considered to be neo-pragmatists. In addition, there has been an explosion of pragmatic studies in other disciplines such as linguistics and experimental philosophy, which is based on the idea that we can learn something about how our utterances are interpreted by observing people’s behavior. These studies provide valuable clues about the ambiguities that are inherently present in language.