What Is Pragmatics?

Pragmatics is the study of how we understand language in its many facets and contexts. It is different from other areas of linguistic study such as semantics, syntax and semiotics in that pragmatics deals with how meaning is constructed, not the literal meaning of words or symbols. It also deals with the ways we use language in our daily lives, such as interpreting messages from others and understanding what they are trying to tell us.

This approach to philosophy was popularized by American philosophers Charles Sanders Peirce and William James in the first half of the 20th century. They emphasized that truth is a function of how helpful a belief proves to be in inquiry and action, not some elusive metaphysical property that might allegedly attach to a given proposition.

In contrast to idealism, pragmatism is not necessarily amoral. Although it does typically lack the a priori moral commitments of idealism, pragmatics can take into account moral considerations of consequences for all parties involved. For example, while it might seem pragmatic for you to kill your creditor and avoid having to pay your debt, it may be immoral to do so because you would be depriving your community of a productive citizen. Similarly, while you might feel it is pragmatic to kill one person in order to save millions, this does not justify murder because the lives of those murdered are no longer valuable to you.

As a philosophical movement, pragmatism is rooted in the Metaphysical Club, an informal discussion group that began meeting in 1870 in Cambridge, Massachusetts and included proto-pragmatist Chauncey Wright, Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, nativist economist Charles Babbage, skeptic Chauncey Garfield and future pragmatic philosophers Peirce and James. It was during this time that Peirce developed his theory of pragmatism, which emphasizes experimentational mental reflection and arriving at conceptions in terms of conceivable confirmatory and disconfirmatory circumstances.

He also developed a maxim — “Every conception is a practical consequence of its objects’ effects” — which equates any object’s overall implications for informed practice with its corresponding concept of the object. This pragmatic maxim has since become a core principle of pragmatism, and is often used to differentiate pragmatism from mere instrumentalism or hedonism.

The journal publishes full-length original articles, invited reviews and discussion papers, replies and rejoinders, and book reviews of books not more than five years old. A single author may submit no more than one non-book review manuscript at a time. Non-book review manuscripts submitted while a decision has not been made on a previous submission will be returned without review. All contributions to the journal must be written in impeccable English. The Journal of Pragmatics adheres to the standards set forth in the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association.