In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Pragmatics

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews and Histories
  • Textbooks and Anthologies
  • Ordinary Language Philosophy and Pragmatics
  • Speaker Meaning
  • Presupposition
  • The Pragmatic Determination of What is Said
  • Pragmatic “Paradoxes”
  • Emerging Topics

Philosophy Pragmatics
Mitchell Green
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 June 2011
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 June 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0146


Pragmatics is a branch of the philosophy of language as well as a field of linguistics. Pragmatics is to be distinguished from pragmatism, which is a doctrine concerning the nature of truth and knowledge. Whereas proponents of pragmatism are pragmatists, students of pragmatics are pragmaticists. Imagine a communicative interaction among two or more parties. Pragmaticists generally study that part of what is communicated that is left over after the conventionally determined, literal meaning of any words used has been subtracted out. (This is in contrast to what remains after the conventionally permitted, literal meaning has been subtracted out—see The Pragmatic Determination of What is Said) In part because pragmatics falls within the ambit of linguistics, it has an empirical, indeed an experimental dimension. Topics comprising pragmatics include speech acts (a special case of which are performatives), implicature, indexicals, presupposition, speaker meaning, and the pragmatic determination of what is said. A topic that has recently received intensive discussion and is of obvious importance to pragmatics is the very delineation of semantics from pragmatics. Other topics that have received less extensive scrutiny include expression and expressiveness and the relation of illocutionary force to semantic content and grammatical mood. In addition to the topics comprising the field, the value of pragmatics as an explanatory enterprise may be gauged by its ability to illuminate familiar communicative phenomena: among these are metaphor, irony, the significance of epithets and other “charged” language, the distinction between lying to and misleading an audience, facial expression, communicative properties of intonation, and so-called pragmatic paradoxes. Theoretical discussions of pornography have also been influenced by pragmatics. Aside from linguistics, logical theory also has a stake in pragmatics insofar as the notion of good reasoning cannot be captured simply with the notion of soundness. (A circular argument, for instance, can be sound.) Further, on the strength of certain ways of drawing the pragmatics/semantics boundary, some phenomena traditionally in the purview of semantics have been construed as pragmatic instead: among these are Frege’s distinction between sense and reference and the phenomenon of non-referring proper names. Certain semantic strategies, then, have a stake in pragmatics.

General Overviews and Histories

Dummett 1994 offers a brief historical reconstruction of the 20th-century analytic philosophy of language through its origins in 19th-century German (and Austrian) idealism and empiricism. That reconstruction helps to relate pragmatics to semantics. Nerlich and Clark 1994 offers a “prehistory” of pragmatics, while Smith 1990 focuses on early 20th-century precursors to better-known research; both are useful historical resources. Tsohatzidis 1994 collects many prominent and extensive articles on speech act theory and contains a detailed bibliography. Horn and Ward 2006 is the most extensive and updated survey of the field currently available. Korta and Perry 2006 offers an overview of pragmatics that is compressed (and so not the best primary source for novices to the field) but detailed.

  • Dummett, M. Origins of Analytic Philosophy. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1994.

    Relates analytic philosophy of language to its origins in 19th-century German philosophy and explains the modern division of semantics and pragmatics.

  • Horn, L., and G. Ward, eds. The Handbook of Pragmatics. Oxford, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2006.

    DOI: 10.1002/9780470756959

    Contains thirty-two specially commissioned articles on important topics in the field. Includes overview of Relevance Theory by Wilson and Sperber, as well as articles on the relation of pragmatics to other fields such as computational linguistics and language acquisition.

  • Korta, K., and J. Perry. “Pragmatics.” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by Edward N. Zalta. 2006.

    Insightful and compressed overview of pragmatics.

  • Nerlich, B., and D. Clark. “Language, Action and Context: Linguistic Pragmatics in America and Europe, 1800–1950.” Journal of Pragmatics 22 (1994): 439–463.

    DOI: 10.1016/0378-2166(94)90077-9

    Useful “prehistory” of pragmatics.

  • Smith, B. “Toward a History of Speech Act Theory.” In Speech Acts, Meaning and Intentions: Critical Approaches to the Philosophy of John Searle. Edited by A. Burkhardt, 29–61. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1990.

    Likely the best history of the subject currently available.

  • Tsohatzidis, S. L., ed. Foundations of Speech Act Theory: Philosophical and Linguistic Perspectives. London: Routledge, 1994.

    With a detailed introduction and contributions from many perspectives on a great variety of topics, this is the most comprehensive extant overview of speech act theory. Includes a detailed bibliography.

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