What is Pragmatic Philosophy?

Pragmatics is a philosophical field whose main subject matter is the nature of knowledge and truth. Unlike traditional epistemology, which concentrates on the foundations of belief and justification, pragmatics takes a broad approach to the ways in which concepts, hypotheses, and theories are formed and justified. It has wide implications for the molding of language, thought, and action. It has been characterized by a critical concern with human needs and desires, the role of reason in our daily lives, and the value of achieving practical results over theoretical abstractions.

A prominent pragmatist in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was John Dewey (1859-1952). Dewey was a prolific and influential writer who helped to shape American intellectual life for over a half century. His sweeping philosophizing was largely responsible for bringing pragmatics to the attention of a wider audience. However, the influence of Dewey and the pragmatist movement faded with the rise of the self-consciously analytical philosophy of Moore, Russell, Wittgenstein, and analytic philosophers generally.

While pragmatism has always emphasized that knowledge is not a fixed set of objective facts but is instead a construct of individual experience, there is more to the doctrine than this. For example, the pragmatist view of ideas contrasts with a more conventional notion of ideas as impressions and copies of external objects. Instead, pragmatists regard ideas as instruments and plans for behaviour that function like tools in the sense that they can be efficient, valuable, or harmful, depending on their contribution to successful direction of conduct.

A second feature of pragmatism is that it criticizes the correspondence theory of truth. This theory states that a true proposition is one which corresponds to a real world object or event. However, correspondence theory is insufficient to explain the fact that we often have no idea of what a real world object or event might be.

In response to the criticisms of correspondence theory, pragmatists developed a range of non-correspondence theories of truth. These theories, which were largely overlooked by the classical pragmatists, differ from each other but share the common feature that they rely on the concept of utility. The utilitarian view of truth holds that a true proposition is one which is useful to inquirers in some way.

More recently, a new kind of neo-pragmatism has emerged that attempts to unify the different roots of pragmatics. This neo-pragmatism is sometimes referred to as “linguistic” or “psychological” pragmatics, as it focuses on the way that utterance interpretation works as an inferential process and on how the contents of an utterance are determined by its pragmatic contexts. This neo-pragmatism can be compared to the classical pragmatists, especially James and Peirce (though Putnam and others have resisted such comparison). It has been suggested that the near-side of pragmatics includes semantics and the far-side of pragmatics includes linguistic and psychological phenomena. Bach and Harnish have made a significant contribution to the development of this new approach. They suggest that the term “pragmatic maxim” can be used to describe an underlying principle that any conception of an object is limited by the general extent of its conceivable implications for informed practice, rather than being defined by its linguistic content.