Pragmatic is the branch of linguistics that deals with the way people use language in real-world situations. It considers things like how to introduce oneself, what is the appropriate way to express a wish, or how to make an apology. It also addresses what we mean when we say “I know” or “you should.” The study of pragmatics incorporates the context of an utterance to determine its meaning. Its goal is to help people communicate effectively in any given situation.
Pragmatism emerged from discussions held by members of a so-called Metaphysical Club that met in Boston around 1870. Peirce and James began to publish their ideas, but the pragmatist movement did not really gain traction until Dewey became well known in the United States in the 1920s. By the 1940s, however, Dewey’s influence was beginning to wane, and pragmatism was widely considered to have lost its momentum. The rise of self-consciously rigorous analytic philosophy, as advocated by such figures as Quine (1908-2000), Wittgenstein (1889-1951), Carnap (1891-1970), and Hans Reichenbach (1891-1953), left little room for pragmatism in the philosophical mainstream.
Two flaws of pragmatism are often cited by its critics. The first is that simply because an idea, theory, or claim generates acceptable results does not mean it is true. For example, it is a plausibility that a child’s belief in the invisible gremlins living in electrical outlets will prevent him from touching them, but this does not imply that gremlins actually exist.
The second flaw is that pragmatism fails to recognize the role of experience in the communication of knowledge. The neopragmatist philosopher Brandom, for example, has focused his attention solely on the linguistic level of experience (as opposed to a more holistic approach) and has ruled that a person’s experiences can be a source of truth, but this is only one possible aspect of an experience.
The pragmatist philosopher William James was well aware of these problems and sought to resolve them by taking a more holistic view of experience. In his book, The Varieties of Religious Experience, he explains that the fact that something works does not necessarily make it true; rather, it is a means of obtaining truth. Thus, while he does not think that the ontological claims of religions are true, he does not deny that some religious experiences are. For this reason, he is not an anti-theist. Moreover, although he is a pragmatist, James also believed that the truth of religions was ultimately determined by the gods. This stance is known as pragmatist theism. To this day, many neopragmatists take this position as well. However, others such as Richard Rorty have criticized James’ metaphysics and have reverted to classical pragmatism. As of this writing, a debate over the future of pragmatics is still being waged. Some see it as a promising avenue for reintegrating analytic and pragmatist philosophy, while others regard it as an outdated movement that has run its course. Regardless, scholars continue to investigate pragmatics in the hope of developing a more complete and useful theory of language.