Pragmatics does not study language as a system of signs, but as a tool. In French, we would say pragmatics deals with le langage not with la langue. Sometimes, this is explained by saying that pragmatic theories seek to explain user-choices. Everyone makes choices while using a language: one pronounces differently, orders words differently, means things differently, interprets things differently etc. The job of pragmatics is to explain these choices – not the reasons behind them, be it psychological, social etc., but the purpose with which they are made. (Notice, here, the relationship with the philosophy of pragmatism which was, broadly speaking, interested in the way processes, meaning-generating processes in particular, were connected to their purpose. The term, going even further back in time, is connected with Kant’s pragmatisch).
The cradle of pragmatic inquiry, whether in hindsight worthy of the current meaning associated with the term “pragmatics” or not, is usually situated in the almost Cartesian project of Morris (1938). Morris’ aim was to come up with a unified theory of signs (semiotics) which would bring together logicians, linguists, philosophers, psychologists, anthropologists, sociologists and others. Morris identified the three actors involved in semiosis and called them “sign (vehicle)”, “designatum” & “interpreter” (the labels are fairly intuitive). Semiosis is then a triadic relation, a correlation of the sign, the designatum and the interpreter which we might call, today, communication. Aside from this observation, six dyadic relations can be abstracted for further inquiry: sign-interpreter, designatum-vehicle etc. Pragmatics is then the relationship between signs and interpreters.
This definition has to be placed in the intellectual context of the emergence of semiotics as a philosophical reflection on the 'meaning' of symbols. often triggered by the use of symbols in science and hence related to developments in the philosophy or theory of science but soon expanded to all other domains of activity involving what Cassirer calls 'symbolical animals', i.e humans. (Verschueren, 2009, p. 3)
Inevitably, pragmatics came out eventually as a tremendously complicated and interdisciplinary endeavour, its roots being connected certain developments in psychology (Mead, Malinowski etc.), philosophy of language (Wittgenstein, Austin, Searle) and social theory (Hambermas). An “anthropological trend” also became visible early on, and here the works of Gumperz & Hymes (1972) Direction in sociolinguistics, Hymes’ (1974) Foundation of sociolinguistics, and Gumperz (1982) Discourse strategies stand as building-bloks. The anthropological approach was driven by the attempt to study discourse in context, without abstracting away from the social, cultural & “institutional” aspects of communication. It is why this approach is sometimes labelled as ethnographical, thus covering the field of conversation analysis (Garfinkel, Sacks, Schegloff etc.) The intuitive notion of context became more and more theory-laden.
The history of these developments can also receive an organization into schools, although many developments would be left aside if this approach were undertaken. The French school of linguistics (Ducrot, Anscombre etc.), the Prague school (Mathesius, Firbas etc.) are some of the more stable approaches.
A more common perspective is that of topics. It is sometimes acknowledged that pragmatics delineated its field as a result of developments in other fields. Some topics, as it were, ended up as constituting the subject-matter of a pragmatic endeavour and this is often referred to as “the wastebasket view of pragmatics”. For instance, the Chomskian distinction between competence & performance, for instance, simply leaves all subject connected to performance “outside grammar & semantics” – thus creating a new subfield as a by-product. (The twofold form vs. use distinction is today very much left as a stepping stone worthy of no more than historical interest). In the wastebasket of pragmatics we find highly interesting yet fairly disconnected subjects or topics (deixis, implicature, presupposition, conversation etc.). Although attempts have been made to unify this set of distinct approaches to distinct issues – Sperber & Wilson’s Relevance theory, Levinson’s (2000) Presumptive meanings – no theory has managed to gain consensus. Morris’ ideal of a unified theory of signs seems more and more an impossible undertaking.
Topical and methodological unity are required criteria if we are to speak of the field of pragmatics, complementary to other fields within the broad domain of linguistics. If there is methodology in logic and grammar – why shouldn’t it be in pragmatics?
Gazdar’s (1979) textbook famously introduced the idea of pragmatics as “meaning minus truth conditions” (alluding to Kempson’s (1975) theory of semantics as the study of truth-conditions) is but one path. The what-is-conventional vs. what-is-non-conventional approach (more or less accepted by Levinson’s (1983) textbook) is another one. Reference to context – i.e. defining pragmatics as the study of meaning in context – is yet another one. Verschueren (2009) observes in these approaches, with some degree of generality, a certain “fear of trespassing into the realm of sociolinguistics and psycholinguistics” (p. 12).
It should be clearly noted that multi- or inter-disciplinarily has not always been seen as an imperfection. Some textbooks even underline the benefits of such a state within a field of inquiry - for instance, one benefit would be the rise of well-structured theories on specific topics (Sperber & Wilson’s 1986 Relevance theory being one example). And, as some have pointed out, so long as agreement on what constitutes proof in pragmatics is not achieved, a grand project might even be to incoherent to be safe. It is then often asked: What counts as empirical evidence in pragmatics?
One way out of this is to refuse the view of pragmatics as a domain (with specific principles of rational and empirical justification) but as a perspective. A perspective on what? On whatever linguists (phonologists, semanticists, etc.) deal with. Some subjects from these fields will lend themselves to being studied from the perspective of pragmatics, some will not. This demarcation does not spoil the unity of the fields/domains/subject-matters in question. Verschueren (2009, p. 16) supports this tactic as follows:
There is at least one essential difference between pragmatics and what we have referred to as components of linguistics. In contrast with phonology with phonemes as basic units of analysis, morphology with morphemes, syntax with sentences, and semantics with propositions or lexical items, pragmatics cannot - without undue oversimplification – be said to have any basic unit of analysis at all […]
Methodological pluralism will arise from the plurality of objects under study and various types of evidence will receive acceptance if the object allows and if an advance of relevant knowledge can be extracted.
As a perspective and a functional one, pragmatics asks What is it to language use? by asking What does using language do for human beings and what do human beings do with language? It is thus part of action theory, where modes of action (one specific mode where others could have very well taken its place) are described and explained.