Pragmatic Philosophy

Pragmatic is a philosophical outlook that views truth as a function of its utility. It is a movement within philosophy that originated during the last quarter of the nineteenth century and has significantly influenced non-philosophers, including those in law, education, politics, sociology, psychology, and literary criticism.

Philosophers who are pragmatic hold that a belief is true only if it can be tested in real life and that unpractical beliefs are to be rejected. A pragmatic approach is also a view that the purpose of philosophy is not to make abstract arguments but to help people understand the world around them.

The term pragmatism was first used in print to designate this viewpoint by William James (1842-1910), although he scrupulously claimed that it had been coined three decades earlier by his colleague C. S. Peirce (1839-1914). The pragmatists argued that the only test of a philosophical theory was its ability to work in the real world, not some idealized or theoretical test.

Applied to human language, pragmatics studies the relationships between words and their social contexts. It differs from linguistic semantics (the meaning of individual words) and semiotics (the study of signs). The field is sometimes referred to as conversational pragmatics.

Pragmatists are best known for their rejection of the Cartesian picture of knowledge, in which perception is unaffected by concepts or descriptions and is able to access reality without bias. Those who are pragmatic in this sense are easy to caricature as old-time empiricists, although their defenders include Sellars, Rorty, Davidson, and Putnam.