Pragmatic Philosophy

Pragmatic is a word that describes a person who is concerned with the results and consequences of actions. A pragmatic person is concerned more with what works than with theories that have not been proven to work or to have value in real life. This person is willing to change his or her beliefs to find the best approach for a situation. This pragmatic approach to thought is a central theme of the philosophical movement known as Pragmatism.

Pragmatism began in the 1870s among a group of Harvard students that gathered informally to discuss philosophy. This group, which became known as The Metaphysical Club, included proto-positivist Chauncey Wright (1830-1875), future Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes (1841-1935), and two fledgling philosophers who would become the first self-consciously pragmatists: Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914), a logician, mathematician, and scientist; and William James (1842-1910), a psychologist and moralist armed with a medical degree.

The pragmatists influenced a wide range of fields and were influential in their own right. The founders of anthropology, George Herbert Mead (1863-1931), and sociology, Sidney Hook (1902-1989) developed pragmatist perspectives upon the relations between individuals and groups of people. The pragmatists also influenced the philosophy of race through the work of W.E.B Du Bois (1868-1963).

As the world entered the 20th century, the pragmatists found their influence waning as analytic philosophy rose to prominence in American departments. This was not because of any disapproval by the pragmatists themselves; the likes of C. I. Lewis (1883-1964) and the late Sidney Hook were still highly influential in their fields. However, as the world moved to a post-pragmatist era and the United States became increasingly involved in the Cold War, analytic philosophy lost interest in the pragmatists’ many different projects.

Nevertheless, some analytic philosophers continued to embrace parts of the pragmatist legacy. For example, a number of analytic pragmatists are epistemological relativists and endorse a form of empiricism that includes, but is not limited to, forms of falsificationism, verificationism, and a Quinean naturalist metaphilosophy. Some, such as Brandom (1998), are interested in both far-side and near-side pragmatics; in other words, they seek to reintegrate analytic and pragmatist philosophy.

Pragmatics is the study of how people use language in actual social contexts and how that usage differs from the theoretically idealized way in which language should be used. Unlike syntax, which studies sentences and semantics, which studies propositions, pragmatics is concerned with the ways in which the meaning of a sentence is determined by its linguistic context rather than by a particular language’s grammar or rules of interpretation. Pragmatics also examines the ways in which people manage to communicate with one another in the face of ambiguity, irony, and a variety of other linguistic phenomena. Moreover, pragmatics is concerned with the way in which speech-acts are structured to be communicative. Thus, a major goal of pragmatics is to develop a theory of meaning and communication. Various aspects of this are discussed below: the speech act; rhetorical structure; conversational implicature; and the management of reference in discourse.