Pragmatic is a word that describes an attitude or approach that is realistic and reasonable. People who are pragmatic tend to take the middle ground in political debates, for example, taking arguments from both sides into account before coming to a decision. This pragmatic approach to problem-solving is often compared with idealism, the opposite extreme of pragmatism that focuses on ideals rather than reality.
Pragmatism emerged as a philosophy in the late 1800s and early 1900s. William James and Charles Sanders Peirce were the principal classical pragmatists, but many others have made important contributions to the pragmatic tradition, including John Dewey, George Herbert Mead, and William Morris. Sociology and anthropology have also played large roles in the development of pragmatism.
A key concept in pragmatism is that of relevance. This idea, inspired by Peirce’s ideas about implicature and Grice’s principles of communication, holds that speakers convey a lot of information in their words even if the meaning of those words is not explicitly stated. A listener will track the syntactic clues in an utterance and determine what it means, or more specifically, the pragmatic meaning of the utterance.
In pragmatism, “meaning” is not a fixed entity but something that evolves over time. This idea is not new; the concept of meaning is central to a number of philosophical traditions, including ancient Greek philosophy and medieval philosophy.
Another key aspect of pragmatism is that knowledge comes from experience, and that knowledge must be applied in order to gain useful results. Peirce was a strong advocate of this view, and later pragmatists expanded it to include all forms of experience, including the experiences of science, art, and politics.
A common theme among pragmatists is that metaphysical and epistemological disputes should be settled by asking what concrete difference it would make if the disputant’s theory were true or false. This question, called the pragmatic maxim, is the central feature of the pragmatist approach to epistemology and metaphysics.
In practice, pragmatics is an attempt to clarify what we mean when we use language and how we understand the messages we receive. It seeks to answer questions about the relationships between semantics (the literal meaning of words) and utterance-bound semantics (which is determined by the context in which they are spoken), the relation between an utterance’s truth conditions and its propositional content, and the relationship between meaning and the socially construed context of the utterance.
The term pragmatic is also used in a figurative sense to describe people who are focused on real-world issues and problems, as opposed to idealistic people who want to change the world with grand plans. Many people find that their lives work best when they strike a balance between pragmatism and idealism, and sometimes rely on both the pragmatic and the idealistic to guide their decisions and actions.
If you are interested in reading more about pragmatism, this bibliography of primary texts by classical pragmatists may be helpful. It contains a selection of books that contain collections of the writings of both Peirce and Dewey. In addition, the bibliography includes a few more general books on pragmatics.