What Is Pragmatism?

A philosophy that focuses on practical solutions, prioritizing action over abstract theorizing. Pragmatism also encourages open-mindedness and flexibility when it comes to beliefs and ideas. It can be especially useful in fields like engineering or medicine, where results are more important than theoretical concepts. It also has many applications in business, such as agile project management or lean startup methodology.

A key concept of pragmatism is that truth is determined by what works, rather than a fixed body of knowledge or set of principles. It’s a flexible, practical approach that can be applied to any situation. For example, a company might develop a new product that’s not necessarily the best or most efficient solution, but it’s what customers want and need. In that case, the company would prioritize bringing it to market over making perfect or optimal decisions.

William James was one of the first self-aware pragmatic philosophers, defining pragmatism in his 1870 essay “The Varieties of Religious Experience.” His view was that something is true only to the extent that it produces an effect in reality. This could mean a psychological effect, such as soothing feelings or providing comfort. It could also apply to a scientific or philosophical theory. For instance, a belief that prayer is heard is plausible on a psychological level, but it’s unlikely to bring about the desired physical outcome.

Another important component of pragmatism is that the real world is the most important source of knowledge. It’s why pragmatists are often proponents of experiential learning in the classroom. Students are more likely to retain information when they’re actively engaged in it, and it can help them become more critical thinkers. It’s also why many businesses rely on pragmatic strategies, such as agile project management or lean startups.

The study of pragmatics is closely related to semantics, syntax and semiotics, although it’s more concerned with non-literal expressions and their meaning in a specific context. The core of pragmatics is an understanding of the goal of communication: to be understood. One of the most prominent theories in pragmatics is that of Paul Grice, who formulated four principles known as the Gricean Maxims, which are basic rules that seem to work in most contexts and languages.

Computational pragmatism is a subfield of pragmatics that applies to the design of computer systems that process natural human language and information. It involves ensuring that the systems are as effective as possible in terms of speed and accuracy, by tracking syntactic and contextual clues to determine meaning. Reference resolution, for example, the process of determining whether two objects are the same or different, is one of the most important issues in computational pragmatism. It’s an area of research that’s rapidly gaining momentum, with the potential to greatly improve the way humans interact with computers. Pragmatic thinking is also used in the field of artificial intelligence to make computers better mimic human behavior. It’s one of the primary reasons why machine learning is so promising.