What Is Pragmatic Philosophy?

Pragmatic, which derives from the Latin word pragmata, has the same root as praxis, which means “to do.” It is a common term in philosophy, and people who are described as pragmatic tend to take a more matter-of-fact approach when making decisions. Often, they also prioritize reaching a goal over being philosophically pure. People who are not as pragmatic may be criticized for having their heads in the clouds or for taking risks without thinking about the consequences.

Traditionally, the distinction between semantics and pragmatics has been that the former concerns what meaning is conventionally attached to words or phrases, while the latter focuses on context-dependent interpretation of language. However, different philosophers have focused on various aspects of this relationship. Some have focused on a narrow definition of pragmatics that includes the resolution of ambiguity and reference, while others have defined it as a more general theory of how to work out significance that lies beyond what is said and does not depend on the conventional or literal meanings of the expressions used.

The most widely used definition of pragmatics, according to Carston, is that it refers to extralinguistic information that helps to determine what a speaker intends to communicate in an utterance, in the same way that semantics is concerned with the meanings of words and phrases. This information is generated by a speech act or other communicative behavior, rather than being encoded in the linguistic elements of an utterance itself. The relevant information can be derived by a process of inference that uses the linguistic contribution and other readily accessible contextual information to reach a confirmed interpretive hypothesis about the speaker’s informative intention.

For most philosophers, the distinction between near-side and far-side pragmatics is a useful one. Near-side pragmatics deals with factors that are relevant to determining what is actually said, including the resolution of ambiguity and reference; it also includes the reference of proper names, indexicals and demonstratives, and anaphors. Far-side pragmatics, on the other hand, involves theories such as speech act theory and conversational implicature that do not involve a direct linguistic analysis of what is actually said.

Some philosophers have suggested that the difference between near-side and far-side pragmatics does not make sense, and they have argued that both types of pragmatics should be incorporated into a unified theory of linguistic interpretation. The idea here is that a unified theory will provide a complete account of the conditions under which an utterance can be understood.

For some, the problem with this suggestion is that it would introduce a whole new set of concepts into linguistic theory. This is because many of the things that are considered to be parts of semantics, such as the concept of truth and the notion of propositional meaning, are also thought to be part of pragmatics. The unified theory could also be seen as introducing an additional layer of complexity into the linguistic processing that takes place in the brain, which has already been complicated enough by the fact that it must deal with a vast amount of other information that is not directly linguistic.