The Special Issue of Pragmatics

Pragmatic is the study of a speaker’s intention in the context of an utterance, and how that interaction influences meaning and interpretation. It explains how it is possible that often more is communicated through an utterance than what is actually said, and why that occurs. It also describes how contextual aspects can influence the meaning of words, and how a speaker’s purpose and audience affects what is said and how it is understood.

Various forms of Pragmatic have emerged, and the term itself was first used in print to denote a philosophical outlook by William James (1842-1910) during an 1898 lecture at Harvard University. He scrupulously swore that he had not coined the word but rather adopted it from his fellow Harvard graduate student Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914), who in turn emphasized his own pragmatist views in his 1879 essay, “Philosophical Conceptions and Practical Results.”

A pragmatist is one who is committed to pragmatic theory and its applications, but who may differ from other pragmatists in specific ways. For instance, while all pragmatists recognize the importance of empirical research and of the scientific method in philosophy (and the other social sciences), many pragmatists also believe that there is an important role for philosophic analysis of human concepts, and they see this analytical work as complementing and sometimes even superseding empirical inquiry.

Another important difference is the relationship between pragmatism and other philosophical positions. Most pragmatists are critical of the claim to ultimate truth that is made by many formal philosophers, and they tend to favor a broader range of logical tools. They also generally accept the view of pragmatism as articulated by Peirce and James, though they disagree about how to interpret it.

The field of pragmatics is a large and diverse one, and as the papers in this special issue attest, questions about its nature and development have no easy answer. In particular, it is not clear how to connect pragmatic mechanisms with semantic and cognitive ones that are involved in individual phenomena, and the large literature on pragmatic development has long resisted a tidy synthesis.

Nonetheless, the papers in this issue make a number of interesting observations and developments, both old and new. They demonstrate the continuing vitality of pragmatic studies, and suggest that a good place to start new research in this area would be to look for precise, theoretically motivated connections between pragmatic mechanisms on the one hand, and the cognitive and semantic processes they interact with on the other. In other words, to find out how children learn to use language pragmatically. This is a challenging task, but it may be the key to understanding the way in which children use language to communicate with each other. In doing so, we might come closer to achieving the goal of “pragmatic wisdom,” as Oscar Wilde put it: “only shallow people judge by appearances.” (Baldwin 1991; Bloom 2000).