What is Pragmatics?

Pragmatics is a philosophical discipline that studies the ways in which language is used. It is a subfield of semantics, and it differs from semantics in that semantics concerns the meanings that are conventionally attached to individual words or phrases; pragmatics is concerned with how these meanings can change according to different contextual factors. In particular, it is interested in how one and the same sentence can express different propositions depending on whether they are said in a familiar versus a strange context, if they are said in a formal versus a casual manner, or if they are said in a speech act that is either obligatory or permissive. It is also concerned with how some linguistic features such as ambiguity and indexicality can affect the interpretation of a given phrase.

Different types of pragmatics are pursued by different theorists. Those who advocate a form of Gricean pragmatics – that is, a theory in which the meaning of an utterance depends on the way it is construed by speakers and listeners – typically argue that there are two kinds of lexical items: referential and nonreferential. Referential indices such as names and numbers encode referential meaning, while nonreferential indices, such as affixes indicating sex or age, do not. The nonreferential indices encode pragmatic meaning.

Some theorists take a more sophisticated approach to pragmatics, in which it is thought that the meaning of an utterance cannot be determined solely from its literal truth conditional meaning. They propose that there are additional semantic properties that can give a sentence its pragmatic meaning, and that these semantic features can be worked out by using the principles of logical analysis. This type of pragmatics is sometimes referred to as “logical semantics.”

Other theorists have taken a more practical view of pragmatics, and have proposed specific rules for matching up sentences with their pragmatic meanings. They have often viewed pragmatics as a subfield of semantics, rather than a separate discipline, because they believe that it is a natural extension of the work of semantics to describe how a language works in practice.

A pragmatic view of life is a way of looking at the world that emphasizes what is useful, or what will get you the most bang for your buck. For example, if you’re trying to decide whether or not to invest in a new business, a pragmatic approach would be to look at the company’s track record and what their goals are for the future.

Pragmatism was developed as a revolt against the overly intellectual and somewhat fastidious systems of idealism that were dominant in 19th-century philosophy. Idealist philosophers viewed all of reality as a fabric that unified in the mind, woven from parts that cohered by their internal relations to each other. This fabric was interpreted in the abstract and fixed intellectual categories of metaphysical ideas. In contrast, pragmatists believed that the nature of the real world was pragmatically defined by how the social world worked.