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  • Stephen Scheidell

Introduction to Ethics of Language: Pragmatics

As a large-scale "Ethics of Language" article is in the works, it seems worthwhile to set up the piece by offering explanations of some key terms in the fields of linguistics and philosophy of language that will be in play. Ideally, the final product will be intelligible to both specialists (a.k.a. my fellow nerds) and to non-specialists (a.k.a. folks with real jobs).


Pivotal to my studies and my project is a concept known as pragmatics. Were one to search online for a definition, the results would most likely leave one even more confused. At first glance are unclear lines about "language in use" or "how context contributes to meaning." I study this stuff, and even I find that unhelpful. And this is without getting to technical terms used in many of these definitions.


You'd think folks who study language would be better at using it, but here we are: an erudite archetype of superfluously agglomerating a plethora of obfuscations.


Simply put, "pragmatics" is what we do with words and sentences. The classic example, going back to How to Do Things with Words from 1962, is when a priest or pastor "pronounces" a married couple at the end of the wedding ceremony. By pronouncing two individuals a married couple at the wedding ceremony, he makes them a married couple. It's not just indicating their marriage but in fact making it officially so.


A personal favorite example of doing something with a sentence goes like this. Imagine a husband and wife having breakfast with their young kids. The mom says, "Christmas is coming soon!" Now, in this example she's actually doing two different things with one statement. To the kids, she's getting them excited about the holiday—and of course the gifts. To the husband, she's reminding him that he needs to get the gifts in time to wrap them and place them under the tree before the 25th.


The concept of pragmatics is crucial for me precisely because this is the entry point, so to speak, of asking ethical questions about language. Pragmatics focuses attention on what our talking does with the world around us, to the world around us, and to the people around us. By way of studying pragmatics, moral concepts and questions can be applied to what we do with words.