What is Pragmatic Philosophy?

Pragmatic is the study of what speakers and writers mean when they use language. It is a form of semantics that goes beyond semantic meaning to consider social, cultural and situational context in communication and understanding.

It was developed in the 1930s by the American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce and the Russian linguist Vladimir Vygotsky. It was a response to the neo-positivist linguistic philosophy of the era. Peirce argued that language is not simply a system of signs for meanings, but rather the way in which a person functions with those symbols. He also argued that thought and action are intertwined. This view of pragmatics was influential in the development of communicative grammars and the theory of sign systems.

Classical pragmatism’s progressive social ideals lived on in some quarters. For example, George Herbert Mead, who influenced the sociology of education, wrote on the pragmatist perspectives upon relationships between people and society (Mead 1934). And, in the philosophy of race, Cornel West advanced a pragmatist approach called ‘prophetic pragmatism’ that combined Christian, Marxian and Du Bois-inspired ideas (West 1989). But, with the passing of the Deweyan era and the arrival of self-consciously rigorous analytic philosophy, classical pragmatism faded away. It has survived, however, as a third alternative to both analytic and continental philosophical traditions worldwide.

Modern pragmatists work to place the idealism of Peirce in an earlier philosophical context, tracing a debt with Kant and 19th century idealism, for example (Apel 1974, Gava 2014). They develop a new pragmatism of logic that sees formal logic as one tool among many in the toolkit for reasoning and problem-solving, rather than as an absolute standard of truth and validity (C. I. Lewis 1958).

They also extend pragmatist thinking to non-linguistic communication, such as gestures and body language. They work on the idea of the ‘cognitive environment’ and argue that our actions are governed by a set of pragmatic principles, such as the principle of the maximization of utility (Grice 1935).

A notable contemporary pragmatist is the American philosopher Richard Rorty (1931-2004), who defended the aims and legacy of classical pragmatism and sought to bring it into closer rapprochement with Continental philosophy. He argues that, despite the apparent failures of enlightenment philosophy to resolve fundamental dichotomies, we can still hope for a ‘pragmatist enlightenment’ that will bring new insight into how we learn and know what we do. His work on pragmatism combines with a distinctively liberatory vision that has found expression in such diverse fields as the philosophy of religion, ethics, ecology and Native American philosophy. He also authored the influential Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature. It was this book that introduced the pragmatist perspective to a wide readership. He was a great friend of John Dewey and his philosophy influenced his own. In particular, he is credited with the elaboration of the concept of an ‘agent-environment’ relationship that is central to pragmatism.