What is Pragmatic Philosophy?

Pragmatic is a field of philosophy that explores how context influences communication. This is achieved by analysing utterances, the meaning of words, the context in which they are said, and the underlying intentions of speakers. It is a vast field, covering topics from philosophical rigour and theory building to behavioural science and the analysis of spoken language.

Pragmatism is often contrasted with idealism. Pragmatic people are more interested in what can actually be done than idealistic people, who often have high principles and ideals that they want to live by. Pragmatic people are often told to think of the real world circumstances and what can realistically be accomplished, rather than just thinking about the perfect course of action that they would love to see take place.

A number of well-known philosophers have been associated with the pragmatist movement. These include Peirce, who argued that beliefs are rules for action; James, whose teleological understanding of the mind was heavily influenced by Darwin; Dewey, who argued that knowledge must be experienced; Popper, who mocked the ‘bucket theory of the mind’; Wittgenstein, who refused to view the mind as Nature’s mirror; Rorty, who argued that relativism is a threat to science; and Davidson, who argues that truth has a pragmatic basis in experience.

In more recent times, a number of linguistics scholars have applied pragmatic analysis to the study of speech and text. These researchers have utilised tools such as contextual interpretation, the cooperative principle and the conversational maxims of Grice to analyse the way in which people use language. This research has led to the development of many pragmatic models, such as relevance theory (Dan Sperber and Deirdre Wilson), which aims to help listeners track the relevant clues in an utterance, and implicature theory, which draws on Grice’s ideas about the implications of a speaker’s words.

Increasingly, philosophers are looking to the pragmatic analysis of human language as a tool for evaluating and criticising the ways in which we organize society and conduct business. This is largely due to the success of social media and other technologies, which have enabled people from around the world to connect and interact in unprecedented ways. In a society that is increasingly globalised and digital, these connections and interactions can have serious consequences for the ways in which we understand each other, work together and make decisions.

The aim of the papers in this issue of Philosophy & Culture is to provide a wide range of pragmatic perspectives on these issues. They show that the future of pragmatics lies in developing precise, theoretically motivated links between semantic and cognitive mechanisms on the one hand and pragmatic phenomena on the other. This will involve a deeper understanding of the cognitive presuppositions of specific pragmatic phenomena, and a toolkit of individual differences measures that follows best practices in the field and is driven by a theory of interaction between these two. Ultimately, this should lead to more meaningful and effective applications of pragmatics in the real world.