What is Pragmatic Philosophy?
Pragmatic is a word that describes a person or situation who is concerned more with practical considerations than ideas or ideals. A pragmatic person, for example, would think twice about giving her four-year-old daughter a unicorn for her birthday. Pragmatic is also a philosophy that advocates for taking a practical approach to things instead of letting emotions or ideology guide decisions.
The main figure in the history of pragmatism is John Dewey (1859-1952), who was the first major American philosopher to make a splash abroad as well as at home with his wide-ranging, widely acclaimed writings. After Dewey, pragmatism lost momentum and prestige in American intellectual life, as more and more of his followers fell prey to the self-consciously rigorous import of analytic philosophy. Although Quine (1908-2000) and a few other analytic philosophers (such as Nelson Goodman, Rorty, and Wilfrid Sellars) embraced some elements of pragmatism, most mainline analytic philosophers ignored it.
A key aspect of pragmatism involves pragmatics, which is the study of language use in context. Unlike other areas of linguistic study, such as semantics, syntax, and semiotics, pragmatics looks beyond the literal linguistic meanings of expressions and examines how physical or social contexts determine how they are used.
For example, when someone says “gosh, look at the time,” they never mean the literal meaning of ‘look at the clock’; they usually mean to get away from a conversation. The study of pragmatics allows us to understand how a statement can have different implied meanings that are not explicitly written down or spoken, which is crucial in understanding communication.
Another part of pragmatics is the idea that truth is not a fixed property of reality, but rather is an abstract concept based on people’s experiences and beliefs. As such, there is no objective way of knowing if something is true or not, because even the most unbiased and inquisitive minds will still be subject to their own perceptions of the world around them.
A final aspect of pragmatics is that nothing in the world is ‘absolutely true’ or ‘absolutely false.’ This is important to remember when trying to make a decision, because it means that we should not let our own biases cloud the truth. Instead, we should try to understand the reality of the situation as best we can and consider all possible options for our actions and responses before deciding what is the most sensible course of action to take.
In this way, pragmatics can be a useful tool for navigating the sometimes-confusing and murky waters of philosophical inquiry. However, just as the sage advice of Oscar Wilde (“only shallow people judge by appearances”) can be taken too far, so too can a pragmatic approach to philosophical questions. It is always important to evaluate the consequences of our actions and the implications of our beliefs. Only then can we ensure that our philosophical choices are based on the highest standards of rationality.