What is Pragmatic Philosophy?

Pragmatic is the study of language and human interaction in terms of how people respond to each other. It focuses on what is implied rather than explicitly stated, the context and circumstances of a communication and on how meaning can be constructed as well as deduced. In this respect it is closely related to semantics, which is the study of the meaning of words themselves. Although it has been a term of art for almost a century (it was first popularized by William James in a 1898 address at the University of California, Berkeley), its origin lies with C. S. Peirce, who coined it as a way of distinguishing his own approach to philosophy from the neo-Hegelian and Kantian views that were the predominant currents in American intellectual life at that time.

A common view of pragmatism is that it rejects the notion that truth is the correspondence between a belief and an actual state of affairs, or that a theory is true only if it logically follows from antecedent facts. In contrast, pragmatists like James and Dewey have argued that the true test of a theory is its usefulness in the solution of practical problems. Crudely put, it is what “works.”

Similarly, pragmatists like James ferociously rejected the Lockean view that the mind is either a blank slate on which Nature impresses itself or a dark chamber into which perceptual experience streams. They also disagreed with Kant, who believed that the nature of our knowledge is conditioned by our cultural backgrounds.

Instead, pragmatists from Peirce to Rorty have tended to see our knowledge as an unstructured and fallible web rather than a rigidly hierarchical building with foundational beliefs supporting all others. They have generally been suspicious of foundationalist theories of justification, which hold that empirical knowledge rests on a certain class of privileged beliefs independent of all other evidence.

For a long time pragmatists, including James and Dewey, saw pragmatics as being a part of the wider discipline of ethics. The notion that policies and decisions should be weighed by their likely consequences and general welfare is often described as pragmatic, and the character of much American business and public policy can be characterized as pragmatic.

In the last twenty or thirty years, however, a number of philosophical movements have come to view pragmatics as an independent discipline, encompassing issues as diverse as modal logic, the philosophy of mathematics and the philosophy of law. Contemporary pragmatics includes both ‘Literalists’ who believe that the study of semantics should be largely independent of other concerns and ‘contextualists’ who think that every philosophical issue should involve considerations of pragmatic implications. Although there is much debate about the extent to which the different approaches are compatible, most pragmatists agree that a pragmatic analysis should be central to their work. Nevertheless, it is still too early to say whether this will be the case. Certainly the pragmatic approach is a welcome and needed addition to philosophical discourse.