Pragmatic is a philosophy of action based on real world situations and the ability to adapt. The term pragmatic is derived from the Greek word pragma which means “deed” or “practical.” A pragmatic person would be someone who cares more about practical applications of ideas than abstract notions. Think of your four-year old who wants a unicorn for their birthday. They are not being very pragmatic!
Like other philosophical movements, pragmatism has experienced ebbs and flows over the years. At one time, many American philosophers called themselves pragmatists, and some of them were quite influential. But with the rise of self-consciously rigorous analytic philosophy influenced by Wittgenstein, Russell, and Moore, pragmatism began to fade from view.
Unlike other areas of philosophy such as semantics which studies relationships between words and their meaning, or syntax which studies the way words are assembled into sentences, pragmatics attempts to understand the ways in which languages are used to convey ideas. It does this through a set of concepts such as context, reference, modality, utterance-bound content, and the meaning of utterances. Pragmatics has been a major area of interest for philosophers of language and communication, but it also has important implications for social work and research.
There are several schools of pragmatic philosophy, and each approach has its own strengths and weaknesses. The main school of pragmatic philosophy is classical pragmatism, formulated by Charles Sanders Peirce and William James. Classical pragmatism is an action-oriented philosophy that requires the detection of a socially situated problem and adequate action to resolve it. Dewey’s five steps of inquiry illustrate this process (Biesta 2010; Morgan 2014a).
Other schools of pragmatic philosophy include near-side and critical pragmatism. Near-side pragmatics focuses on the immediate, near-term implications of an utterance, while critical pragmatics analyzes the social-political implications of an utterance, and also considers its impact on other individuals, groups, or cultures.
Another important pragmatist school is neopragmatism, which has been influential in the United States and other countries with rapidly growing economies. It combines elements of classical pragmatism with a number of ideas from analytic philosophy and the social sciences, particularly sociology. Neopragmatists argue that pragmatism is a philosophical natural home for liberatory projects such as those in the fields of feminism, ecology, and Native American philosophy. It does not assume that it has the ultimate political perspective, or even the true knowledge-generating method, but rather that it provides an ethics-based framework for achieving democracy, equality, and justice for all. (Brandom 2011). Increasingly, pragmatism’s intellectual centre of gravity is moving outside North America, with vibrant networks appearing in South America, Scandinavia, and most recently central Europe. This movement is fueled by an increasing awareness of the necessity for ethical and justice-oriented research, and its potential to address the pressing problems of global poverty and inequality.