What is Pragmatics?

This is a very brief introduction to pragmatics, intended to whet your appetite and encourage you to want to know more.

Pragmatic investigations cover the fields of both linguistics and philosophy.
I shall cover the area of linguistics, the study of how language works, first.

Pragmatics and How Language is Used.

In language studies, pragmatics is a very wide field. It examines our use and our understanding of the language we speak and hear, read and write. Pragmatics examines the importance in language studies of our general knowledge, and the importance of common-sense knowledge of our world.

When we use language, we unconsciously assume that we are talking to somebody who has grown up in the same sort of world as us. Somebody who thinks like us. This can lead to confusion in conversation, especially between people from different countries or social backgrounds.   We have to learn the pragmatic rules of language, we are not born with them.  Small children will often say 'he' or 'she' to refer to a person without giving a name. The child, already 'knowing' who 'she' refers to might say to an adult: "She won't let me read her book." She who? The adult often cannot know. There is an element of unshared knowledge in the attempt at communication.

I will now jump to the other extreme - academic writing. Something that really irritates me is when the writer of a book inserts a quotation in a foreign language without a translation. It is not at all common now, but science writers in the late 19th and early 20th century would just throw in phrases like 'as Socrates once said "."
I have seen this in many English authors' books using Latin, Greek, French, German, Italian and even Chinese! These writers could not have been dependent on book sales for their incomes. Alienating readers doesn't help to sell books.  (The bit of nonsense above reads: 'waffle waffle waffle it's all Greek to me')

Pragmatics is about the shared knowledge that we all must use as a tool to understand words. Most English readers do not read Latin, Greek etc. They will not understand a single word of what is written if they have no knowledge of the language. If an author wants to show a foreign text, he or she, out of courtesy to the intended reader must give a translation.

Another example. If, during a conversation, I casually, and without explanation, use the word 'theory', a non-scientist will understand this as 'just an idea'. Without a shared world view, I cannot communicate to my listener that I mean by theory 'a well constructed set of logical arguments that can be tested by experiment to determine their scientific value'.

Pragmatics, in the language sciences, is the study of how real-world and shared knowledge impacts on the way we think we understand each other.

Pragmatics and Philosophy.

Pragmatic philosophy overlaps nicely with pragmatic language studies, so there should be no confusion between the two uses of the one term. Where language study focuses on our shared knowledge as a component of how language works, the pragmatic philosopher asks about the true value of knowledge.

Now, many philosphers, if they were reading this, would at this point be saying to themselves "True value? Surely he means truth value." No I don't. By truth value, a philosopher usually means the factual value (as a complete grammatical statement) of an assertion such as this:
All pink elephants are grey.
A pragmatic philosopher doesn't give a red hot gosh darn whether or not that sentence is in any way factual. He or she simply asks "What is the true value of making that assertion?" Do you not see the value of my printing that sentence? I merely want to encourage you to think about how language works. The 'truth value' as against the 'true value' lies in the stepping back, or up, getting the bigger view and making what might be called a hyper-assertion. (Ahigher level assertion about a lower level or inner assertion) 
Given the purpose 'instruction', I assert that the statement: 'all pink elephants are grey' is a valid construction in words and that it is fit for the intended purpose.

The pragmatic philosopher looks at what we think we know. She or he then looks to see if a particular belief has any use in the real world. If the idea can be used as a 'tool', if it is productive, if it 'gets results', then, says the pragmatist, I accept the idea as true.

The pragmatist doesn't feel a need to dig deeper and find out what true means. It is usually staring us in the face. The bottom line of philosophical investigation is, for me as a pragmatist:
"If it ain't broke, don't fix it."


Linguistic Pragmatics, or Pragmatism, is the study of language in use, in action.
Philosophic Pragmatics is the study of practical truth.

Further study:
A free download of W. James Pragmatism e-book.
For a good in-depth explanation of both varieties of pragmatics, this is an excellent resource.