What Is Pragmatics?

A pragmatist is someone who puts practicality first when it comes to making decisions. Their approach is to decide what the best outcome would be for the situation and then go with that solution. This way of thinking is very different from idealism, which believes in only following the path that is ideal and not accepting any compromises along the way.

Pragmatics is an area of philosophy that focuses on the context-dependence of various aspects of linguistic interpretation. It incorporates elements of semantics (the study of meaning) with modal linguistics, which is concerned with the possible or probable implications of an utterance. Other areas of pragmatism include speech act theory, which deals with the way we use our words, and conversational implicature, which involves how a statement’s context can affect its meaning.

The term pragmatic was originally coined by Charles Sanders Peirce, who used it in discussions at the so-called Metaphysical Club that took place in Harvard around 1870. Peirce and William James were both pragmatists, though they had very differing interpretations of the concept.

Dewey’s pragmatism was particularly influential during the decade he spent at the University of Chicago, where he developed his ideas in conjunction with G. Herbert Mead and other pragmatists. By the 1940s, however, the Deweyan era had ended and analytic philosophy had emerged as the dominant methodological orientation in most American philosophy departments. Nevertheless, there were still a number of pragmatists working in diverse fields. For example, pioneering African-American philosophers W.E.B Du Bois and Alain Locke developed pragmatist perspectives on the relations between self and community.

In the world of politics, pragmatics has become increasingly popular among voters who are tired of partisan bickering and want to find a candidate who is willing to work with both sides to achieve common goals. Pragmatics is also a popular approach to economic policy, with many economists adopting a pragmatist perspective. Instead of worrying about how much an economic system should benefit the economy, they focus on what works in practice to produce a positive result.

An important distinction between pragmatism and other philosophical approaches is that while idealism prioritizes what should be, pragmatism looks at what is actually happening and then chooses the best solution to that situation. It’s a bit like trying to play an intense game of soccer with the other team while they’re all sitting in the goal, not knowing what their strategy is until they hit the ball and see how it flies.

For a more abstract example, let’s say you are in a group of friends who are trying to split a check. If you take the idealism approach, each of you might decide that you deserve half of the money based on what you think you contributed. If you take the pragmatic approach, each of you would look at what is actually happening and then divide the money accordingly. The latter approach is more fair and less likely to cause a major argument in the end.