What is Pragmatic Philosophy?

Pragmatic is a way of thinking about communication that emphasizes how context influences what we think and understand. For example, the meaning of a gesture might be different when you’re in Greece than when you’re in America. Similarly, language learners need to understand the pragmatic implications of a word or phrase that might be understood one way in the US but another in another culture.

The term pragmatic is derived from the Greek word for “deed.” As such, it describes a philosophy that is concerned more with real-world application of ideas than with abstract notions. A pragmatic person might be described as someone who is sensible, grounded and practical, like the four-year-old who doesn’t want a birthday party filled with unicorns. Historically, pragmatist philosophers have sought to apply concepts such as logical relations, truth and reference to a variety of areas including language, ethics, politics and sociology.

During the ‘Classical Pragmatics’ period (1890-1910), Peirce and James worked to develop a more clear definition of the concept of pragmatic maxim. This helped to bring the idea out of the realms of metaphysics and into linguistic and social sciences, and paved the way for a more transitional era (‘near-side’ pragmatics).

As the century progressed, Dewey continued his work on human experience and science while developing new perspectives upon religion, sociology and aesthetics. George Herbert Mead contributed a pragmatist perspective upon the relations between the self and society, and W. E. B Du Bois brought a pragmatic perspective upon the problems of race in America. But the greatest impact on pragmatic philosophy was arguably made by philosophers such as Habermas, who adapted Dewey’s concept of discourse ethics and developed a pragmatist theory of truth that he argued was free from distortions of power and ideology.

A large body of literature on pragmatic communication has emerged since this time. This field includes research on:

Pragmatics is also related to a number of other fields in psychology, linguistics and cognition. For example, a growing area of interest is the understanding of how babies learn language, and the role that pragmatics plays in their development. Moreover, there is a strong connection between pragmatics and human reasoning and action, with a number of pragmatist ideas helping to explain these issues.

Because of the rich and varied nature of pragmatic communication, the study of it has resisted neat synthesis. However, there is an increasing recognition of the need to develop a more sophisticated theoretical approach that brings together the various elements of pragmatic research. In addition, there is a need to develop precise and theoretically motivated links between pragmatic mechanisms on the one hand, and semantic and cognitive processes that underlie individual phenomena on the other. This issue of the Forum contains a range of contributions that attempt to do just this. We hope that they will inspire further work in this important area of inquiry.