What is Pragmatic Philosophy?

Pragmatic is a philosophical movement that emphasizes the practicality of knowledge, language, and thought. The pragmatic view is that most philosophical issues, including concepts like truth and reality are best viewed as tools for prediction, problem solving, and action rather than for accurately describing or mirroring the world. Pragmatism is often seen as a third alternative to analytic and continental philosophy, and was first developed in the United States by Charles Sanders Peirce and William James.

In the early 1900s, Peirce and James identified a fundamental and seemingly irresolvable clash between two ways of thinking: the ‘tough-minded’ empiricist commitment to experience and going by ‘the facts’, and the ‘tender-minded’ preference for a priori principles that appeal to reason. They promised that pragmatism would provide the way forward.

Unlike many other philosophical movements, pragmatism has spread beyond its initial North American enclave and continues to be active in a wide range of disciplines. Its methods have influenced the fields of sociology, psychology, and history, and it has been applied to a number of important social problems, such as education, politics, and religion. Pragmatism is also influential in feminism (Seigfried 1996), ecology, Native American philosophy, and many other liberatory projects.

In addition to its contributions in philosophy, pragmatism has given rise to the field of pragmatics, which studies the contextual nature of meaning and communication. Pragmatics, as a branch of linguistics, analyzes how context alters the semiotics of verbal expressions, and reveals how the resulting utterance has different semantic and functional meanings. It is also concerned with the interplay between language and other forms of communication, such as non-linguistic gestures.

When the term ‘pragmatic’ is used or abused, it stifles innovation and creativity within project management. Abuse of the word pragmatic can be seen in short response ideas that fail to take into account present risks and available resources or in proposals for quick fixes, based on limited and sometimes outdated data, without regard to potential repercussions. True pragmatism involves a balance of vision and practicality that is driven by the right mix of risk and benefit, learning from the past while embracing opportunities for growth and improvement.

The articles in this special issue highlight the breadth of topics to which pragmatism has contributed and suggest that future progress in pragmatics will be achieved by developing precise, theoretically motivated connections between pragmatic mechanisms on the one hand, and the semantic and cognitive mechanisms that underlie them on the other. This will require collaboration among researchers from across the disciplines to create a toolkit of individual differences measures that follows best practice and integrates theory-driven methods. This will provide a basis for achieving more objective, reliable, and valid pragmatic outcomes.