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Pragmatic Accounts of Communication
By Steve Hoenisch
Last updated on Feb. 3, 2005, in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
Copyright 1996-2004 www.Criticism.Com
Table of Contents
1 How Do We Communicate More than We Literally Say?
1.1 Speech Act Theory
1.2 Conversational Maxims and Implicatures
1.3 Meaning Based on Intention
1.6 Indexical Expressions
2 Related Pages
The prominent mechanisms that enable conversationalists to communicate more or different information than is literally said include the following:
Communication itself, quite apart from mere speaking alone, often goes beyond the bounds of what is literally said. To account for the gap between what is said and what is communicated, several of the pragmatic theories that I will outline below make general appeals to the conventions and assumptions that trigger inferences, to intentions, or to shared knowledge and beliefs. All the theories are concerned with situated communication. Quite generally, communication, Georgia M. Green says in Pragmatics and Natural Languague Understanding, presupposes achievement of the intended effect of verbal action upon the addressee, whereas simply speaking does not, making communication "the successful interpretation by an addressee of a speaker's intent in performing a linguistic act" (Green 1989: 1).
Note: Given the profoundly nuanced thought with which the philosophers below address the complexities inherent in communication, these short answers may not be complete, or completely accurate. I suggest you address these questions with the full weight of your own critical thought.
Speech Act Theory, formulated by the philosopher John L. Austin and later amended by John Searle, is expressly concerned with the performance of such linguistic acts. Speech act theory accounts for how we communicate more and/or different information than we literally say by maintaining that utterances are used to perform acts. As Austin puts it in How to Do Things with Words (1962: 6): "The issuing of an utterance is the performing of an action." Austin begins his theorizing by analyzing a kind of sentence he calls an explicit performative, examples of which are "I wish you a happy new year," "I hereby promise to pay you back," and other sentences that employ performative verbs like warn, bet, declare, dub, object, bequeath, assert, vote, deny, etc. Such sentences, Austin points out, are used not so much to say things, but to do things. Further: They do not describe or report anything. Therefore, explicit performatives, Austin argues, cannot be true or false but can go wrong.
To succeed, performatives must meet what Austin terms felicity conditions, which are specifications for appropriate usage that address matters of conventional procedures and effects as well as suitable circumstances, feelings, and intentions. Failure to meet felicity conditions result in problems of uptake (that is, understanding or ratification), abuses, misfires, insincerities, and so forth. As such, performative sentences achieve their corresponding actions because there are specific conventions linking the words to institionalized procedures. This link is one way in which more is communicated than literally said.
Austin extends his argument beyond explicit performatives, however. He argues that a wide class of utterances, if not all, are implicit performatives, and in expanding his argument to include implicit performatives, he shifts his focus to illocuationary acts, which is "the making of a statement, offer, promise, etc., in uttering a sentence, by virtue of the conventional force associated with it or with its explicit performative paraphrase" (Levinson 1983: 236). The illocutionary act is what is directly achieved by the conventional force associated with the issuance of a certain kind of utterance in accord with a conventional procedure. Illocutionary acts, in addition to covering such explicit performatives as promising, also include statements. The illocutionary act carried out by an utterance enables the saying of something to convey more than what is literally said. And, in a point that I will return to in the final section of this essay, if Austin's view is correct, the illocutionary act is one aspect of language that makes it difficult to free a truth-conditional semantics from pragmatic considerations: Performative sentences, whether explicit or implicit, can scarcely be analyzed without taking into account speaker and hearer, intention and understanding.
The theory of speech acts has been expanded and revised by, among others, John Searle, who deals with indirect speech acts. Time constraints prohibit addressing the many nuances of speech act theory that have been proposed since Austin.
Conversational Maxims and Implicatures are the foundation of H.P. Grice's pragmatic account of communication. To account for the distinction between what is directly said and what is conveyed by an utterance, Grice proposed that in conversing, participants proceed according to an implicit assumption that he terms the cooperative priniciple: "Make your conversational contribution such as is required, at the stage at which it occurs, by the accepted purpose or direction of the talk exchange in which you are engaged." Another set of assumptions, called conversational maxims, underlie the cooperative priniple:
1. Quality: Try to make your contribution one that is true. (1) Do not say what you believe to be false. (2) Do not say that for which you lack adequate evidence. 2. Quantity (1) Make your contribution as informative as is required for the current purposes of the exchange. (2) Do not make your contribution more informative than is required. 3. Relation: Be relevant. 4. Manner: Be perspicuous. (1) Avoid obscurity of expression. (2) Avoid ambiguity. (3) Be brief (avoid unnecessary prolixity). (4) Be orderly.
Grice demonstrates that conversational participants convey meanings beyond that which is said if they assume that the other is adhering to the cooperative principle and its maxims. Conversationalists can deal with the maxims in several ways: They can follow them, violate one of them, opt out of one of them, sacrifice one to the other if they clash, or flout them. Lying, for example, violates the maxim of quality. The maxims derive their explanatory power from what happens when behavior appears not to conform to them.
Thus, as Green (1989) explains, since speakers assume that hearers adopt the cooperative principle and its maxims for interpreting speech behavior, the speaker is free to exploit it, and to speak in such a way that his behavior must be interpreted according to it. If the speaker's remark seems irrelevant, the hearer will attempt to construct a sequence of inferences that make it relevant or at least cooperative. This exploitation of the maxims is the basic mechanism by which utterances are used to convey more than they literally denote, and Grice called it implicature. Other scholars have refined Grice's approach. Sperber and Wilson (1986), for instance, have reduced the Gricean framework to relevance. Time limitations prevent the summation of their views here.
Before proceeding to presuppositions, it is worth noting that Grice also proposed a notion of meaning based on intention that further helps account for how different or more information can be communicated than is literally said. Grice describes his notion of intentional communication as non-natural meaning, or meaningnn, characterizing it as follows, with "S" standing for speaker, "H" for hearer, "uttering U" for the utterance of a linguistic token, and "z" for roughly some belief or volition invoked in H:
S meantnn z by uttering U if and only if: (i) S intended U to cause some effect z in recipient H (ii) S intented (i) to be achieved simply by H recognizing the intention (i).
The above characterization by Grice states, according to Levinson (1983), that communication consists in the speaker intending to cause the hearer to think or do something just by getting the hearer to recognize that the speaker is trying to cause that thought or action. Other issues and problems aside, Grice's theory can explain the difference between what is literally said and what is conveyed through intention. For example, "mathematics is fascinating" said ironically may be intended, despite its literal meaning, to communicate that "mathematics is rather boring" and to produce the effect that the speaker stops talking about mathematics.
Metaphors are another mechanism by which more can be communicated than literally said. Green (1989) maintains that metaphors like "Eric is a pig" and "that's a half-baked idea" are interpreted figuratively because the speaker and hearer both know that the literal interpretation of such utterances would be nonrational, a view that accounts for metaphorical uses of language under the cooperative principle and its maxims. Both hearer and speaker know that Eric cannot be a pig, so both assume that Eric is somehow like a pig. "Thus the referring functions inferred in the interpretation of metaphors involve the referring function `like x'" (Green 1989: 120-121).
Presupposition, which like conversational implicature is another kind of pragmatic inference, refers to propositions whose truth is taken for granted in the utterance of a linguistic expression. The presupposed propositions enable more to be conveyed than is literaly said. Morevoer, presuppositions may communicate more or different information from what is literally said because they involve not just a single implication but a "family of implications," which derives from the fact that the presupposition is background, as Chierchia and McConnell-Ginet point out (1990: 24). Several cases of presupposition have been distinguished. A few representative cases and brief illustrative examples follow. Existence presupposition in definite descriptions, expressions like "The present king of France is bald," pressuposes that there exists a king of France.
Factive presupposition are typically associated with expressions that take a sentential subject or object: The object complements of such epistemic factives as know, realize, and the subject complements of mean, prove, be obvious are considered to be presupposed true, as are the complements of such emotive factives as regret, be glad, be surprised, and amaze, among others. Inchoative verbs also have complements presupposed to be true. Example: "Kyle forgot that Stan admires Kari" presupposes that Stan admires Kari. Wh-questions, cleft constructions, and iterative participles are also often associated with presuppositions, as are the counterfactive verb pretend and the counterfactual conditional of if-then constructions. Limitations of time prevent the presentation of examples for all these possibilities.
The connotations of certain lexical items may also reflect presuppositions. Such connotations enable more to be conveyed than is literally said because of the properties that language users attribute to the presumed intended referents of the words. A classic example of a connotation presupposition is assassinate. Saying "John assassinated Kennedy" presupposes that the killing was intentional, that Kennedy had political power, and that removing Kennedy from that power was the motivation behind the killing.
Indexical expressions, including deictic reference, also play a role in accounting for how either more or different information is conveyed than literally said. In his classic 1954 paper, Bar-Hillel argued that indexicality is an inherent property of language and that many of the declarative sentences people utter are indexical in that they involve implicit references to the speaker, hearer, time or place of utterance, etc., or the use of demonstratives, time adverbs, and tenses. The reference of indexical expressions containing words like I, me, you, here, then, now, this, etc., cannot be determined without taking into account the context of the utterance. Minimally, the context required for the interpretation of indexical expressions includes the time, place, speaker, and topic of the utterance.
The argument from "Two Dogmas" supplies the "missing" argument in the case for the inderminancy of translation. The argument plays a role in the indeterminacy thesis because Quine's reason for thinking that independent controls do not exist in translation takes its force from the argument that there are no linguistically neutral meanings. The absence of linguistically neutral meanings is a prerequiste for the indeterminacy of translation.
Throughout the essay, I will argue a hard line: the exact meaning of a speaker's utterance in a contextualized exchange is often indeterminate. Within the context of the analysis of the teacher-pupil exchange, I will argue for the superiority of interactional linguistics over speech act theory because it reduces the indeterminacy and yields a more principled interpretation, especially when the interactional approach is complemented by elements from other sociologically influenced methods, namely the ethnography of communication and Labovian sociolinguistics.
In Harris and Taylor's chapter on Plato's "Cratylus" in Landmarks in Linguistic Thought, Cratylus takes the position that the form and meaning of a word are inextricably related. For Cratylus, "everything," including Hermogenes, "has a right name of its own, which comes by nature" even though some people, like Hermogenes, are named incorrectly (Cratylus 383, as quoted in Harris and Taylor, p. 1).