Pragmatic Philosophy

Pragmatic is a word that comes from the Latin, meaning “to do” or “to act”. The pragmatic theory of truth asserts that a proposition’s validity is based on its practical consequences. Developed in the United States during the latter quarter of the nineteenth century, pragmatism has not only significantly influenced philosophers but also many non-philosophers in such fields as law, education, politics, sociology, psychology and literary criticism. This article, however, deals with pragmatism as a philosophical movement within philosophy.

One of the most important pragmatists is Charles Peirce (1839-1914). He used the term “pragmatism” to describe his own philosophy, but it gained widespread use when James pressed it into service in an address at Berkeley in 1898 (James scrupulously swore that he had coined the phrase). Peirce and Dewey became major figures and pragmatism was a significant feature of American intellectual life for a decade.

But as the Progressive Deweyan era passed and analytic philosophy began to flourish, pragmatism receded. Though Dewey had disciples and imitators aplenty, there was no real successor to stand in for him, and so pragmatism gradually lost influence.

As the twenty-first century opened, pragmatism experienced a comeback. Not only were analytic philosophers drawn to it, but liberatory projects in areas such as feminism, ecology, Native American philosophy and Latin American philosophy found in it a home that they had not found in traditional philosophies. In addition, philosophers of language—notably J.L. Austin and Paul Grice—developed a version of pragmatism called “relevance analysis” that focuses on what is conveyed beyond what is said in communication.

In the philosophy of language, relevance is a pragmatist principle that states that words and sentences in communication should be as relevant as possible to the topic at hand. This is why, for example, we say that it is not permissible to introduce a new idea in the middle of an argument, but it is permissible to explain how a change in the wording would affect our understanding of the original idea. It is the idea of relevance that distinguishes pragmatics from semantics, although some pragmatists have argued that pragmatics and semantics are in fact identical. This issue remains unresolved. For now, the study of pragmatics has a strong association with the philosophy of language and with the philosophy of communication.