What is Pragmatics?

Pragmatics is the study of language use that focuses on speakers’ communicative intentions, their uses of language in context, and hearers’ strategies for understanding them. Pragmatics is sometimes regarded as the antithesis to referential, truth-functional or grammar-based theories of language and meaning. A person who takes a pragmatic approach to problems is described as pragmatic (from the Greek word pragma, ‘deed’). However, pragmatics has also been used to describe a philosophical perspective that is concerned more with real-world applications of ideas than with pure abstract notions. A four-year-old who wants a unicorn for her birthday isn’t being very pragmatic, in fact.

There are many different approaches to pragmatics, but most share the basic premise that some kind of intentionality must be at play in any attempt to understand an utterance. It is possible to distinguish a wide range of views about the nature and content of that intentionality, from the communicative intention of Grice’s model to more recent pragmatic theories, such as relevance theory.

The central idea in the philosophy of pragmatics is that there is a line between what an utterance says and what it actually conveys, which is usually drawn around issues such as ambiguity, reference, underdetermination, etc. Some philosophers, especially those who are influenced by the work of Grice, argue that a lot of what is said can be conveyed without mentioning any explicit truth-conditions at all. This is often called the ‘code model’ of language. Others, including many neo-Griceans, disagree. They are generally known as ‘Gricean pragmaticists’, although they may differ on whether the code model should be considered fundamental to language.

Most contemporary pragmatics is influenced by Relevance Theory, with its emphasis on the role of context in interpreting an utterance. But there are different general tendencies: ‘Literalists’ believe that the core of language is basically autonomous, with little pragmatic intrusion; ‘contextualists’ follow the outlines of Relevance Theory, but perhaps demur on some of its details and psychological orientation; and ‘Critical Pragmatics’ is a more modest view that seeks to incorporate aspects of contextualist thinking into the traditional turf of semantics.

In addition to the philosophical debate about the ‘line between semantics and pragmatics’, there is a wide range of disciplinary and methodological disagreement about what pragmatics consists of. The most important differences revolve around the concepts of context and conventional meaning. Various scholars have proposed different ways to divide context into categories, such as linguistic and extra-linguistic. The notion of conventional meaning is controversial. Some see it as a subset of what is said in an utterance, while others think that some conventions are simply irrelevant to the meaning of an utterance, and hence belong in semantics rather than pragmatics. Those who subscribe to the latter view are generally known as ‘pragmaticians’.