Pragmatic is a branch of philosophy that studies the relationship between the meanings of words, their specific contexts and the way that these can influence what they convey. In other words, it aims to explore how a speaker’s intention can be communicated through their use of language, and the different ways that meaning is conveyed from one person to another, depending on the particular situation.
Pragmatists tend to be critical of metaphysical doctrines that relegate the world to an immutable state and insist that only actions count. They prefer to view the world as a “plastic” environment that can be changed for the better by means of human action and in the service of a moral purpose. They are also critical of the idealism that tries to view reality as an unchangeable entity that must be accepted as it is.
They are adamant that the only real criterion for determining truth is how it works in practice and that all beliefs should be subject to periodic revision in the light of new experiences. As originally conceived by Peirce, this pragmatism embraced the Pragmatic Maxim which states that the only way to determine a hypothesis’s truth is by tracing its practical consequences in experience. This produced a distinctive epistemological outlook that was both fallibilist and anti-Cartesian, and which has come to be known as ‘pragmatism’.
However, as a philosophical movement pragmatism has had a wide variety of articulations and interpretations. Early pragmatists divided on the issues of whether to conceive of pragmatism as a scientific philosophy with a narrow alethic monism about truth or as a broad-based pragmatic pluralism (following James and Dewey).
Despite this division, many philosophers today view pragmatism as a valuable resource for contemporary problems and questions that cannot be resolved by any other method. A number of liberatory philosophical projects such as feminism, ecology and Native American philosophy look to pragmatism as their home. For example, the pedagogy of ‘problem-centred learning’ which advocates the active participation of students in the process of inquiry and that this be structured according to a pragmatist theory of inquiry has its origins in pragmatism.
Pragmatics owes much to the work of philosophers such as Charles L. Seigfried, Ronald W. Bach and others, and a ‘pragmatic revival’ is in progress. Among its emphases is the concept of’reflexive content’ and’referential content’, which are two ways to think about the structure of the content of an utterance that goes beyond the conventional meanings of the words used and their modes of composition. It is this concept that underlies the pragmatic theory of reference and ambiguity which is an important component of Critical Pragmatics. It argues that, while semantics deals with the facts that are encoded in what is said, pragmatics goes further to identify factors that supplement conventional meaning to get us from reflexive content to incremental meaning. These are the facts that help to resolve ambiguity and referential content. These are called extralinguistic factors.