Pragmatic Philosophy

Pragmatic is an adjective that describes someone who is concerned with practical consequences, rather than idealistic principles. It’s often contrasted with idealistic, as in “being pragmatic versus being idealistic,” and it’s also used to describe a philosophical position that puts practicality above strict adherence to rules. Pragmatism is a type of realist philosophy that emphasizes practical results over rigid adherence to principle.

Pragmatic can also refer to the branch of linguistics that studies pragmatics, which is the study of how context influences the meaning of a sentence. There are different schools of pragmatics, but most focus on three things: lexical semantics, discourse analysis and conversational implicature. Some schools take a more theoretical view, while others have a more descriptive approach.

The first school of pragmatics takes a narrow, functionalist view of language that considers a sentence’s features, particularly its context, to determine what proposition it expresses. This includes factors like speaker, place and time (what Kaplan calls the ‘narrow context pragmatic’), but it also considers other things that are not necessarily present in any given utterance: a speaker’s plan, a hierarchy of intentions, ongoing topics of conversation, causal chains and more. This school of pragmatics is sometimes called pragmatism or pragmatic theory.

A second school of pragmatics focuses on how the meaning of a sentence can be determined by considering what the implication is. It’s often considered a more pragmatic alternative to traditional semantics, which looks at the meaning of words and sentences as being independent of their context. This type of pragmatics is sometimes referred to as conversational pragmatics or communicative semantics.

Lastly, there’s the third school of pragmatics, which is sometimes referred to as ‘referential pragmatics’ or ‘Gricean pragmatics.’ Gricean pragmatics is the most recognizable form of this school, and it involves a series of principles relating to the ways that a sentence is understood. The main concept is that of presupposition, which is the notion that a speaker might not explicitly say what they mean but instead convey some of the information needed to understand them by implying something else.

Most contemporary pragmatic theories fall into one of the two models discussed above. Literalists think that semantics is autonomous and that there should be little ‘pragmatic intrusion’, while contextualists, such as Relevance Theory, believe that pragmatic considerations are crucial at every level of articulation. In between are Critical Pragmatics, which is a kind of minimalist approach. In this view, the idea of a sentence’s semantic content is replaced by the concepts of utterance-bound content and referential content, which are both determined exclusively by conventions of meaning, precisification and disambiguation. Other factors, such as the relevance of the context of utterance and reference fixing, are quantified. This is the radically minimalist approach of Critical Pragmatics. A more detailed discussion of this approach can be found in this article by Korta and Perry.