Difficulties in Freeing Semantics from Pragmatics

Steve Hoenisch

The Truth-Conditional Approach Goes Awry

Question: Why does the truth-conditional approach to semantics make it difficult to free semantics from pragmatic considerations?

As Fasold (1990) points out, truth-conditional semantics cannot be freed from pragmatic considerations because establishing the truth of a proposition often crucially depends on identifying the referents involved. In some cases, like "grass is green," the identification of the referents is straightforward, and the truth-conditional approach can handle it easily. But in others cases, it's not so straightforward: "He is the Prime Minister of France." To whom does the deictic reference "he" refer? When was it uttered? It is only through the introduction of context, and therefore pragmatics, that the truth conditions of such a proposition can be evaluated.

Indeed, the truth conditions of expressions using such indexical items as personal pronouns, demonstratives, tenses, and time adverbs typically cannot be determined without an indication of their context. The same can often be said of sentences containing anaphoric reference. Some deictic references, too, cannot be explicated by truth conditions alone. The interpretation of indexical expressions typically requires an estimate of the speaker's beliefs and intentions, often at the time and place of the utterance.

Tautologies and contradictions also make it difficult to free truth-conditional semantics from pragmatics. The phrase "war is war" seems absurd analyzed within the domain of truth-conditional semantics. Yet, given a smidgeon of context, it can quickly become meaningful, even insightful. The same is true of some apparent contradictions, like "Kyle couldn't do it even if he could." The proposition is simultaneously false in one sense and true in another. Issues of deixis aside, a truth-conditional semantics cannot account in any significant way for the meaning of such sentences without appealing to context or shared assumption. In fact, such sentences are often meaningful only in context, and thus a semantic approach that deals with sentence meaning outside context obviously cannot handle them.

All presuppositions seem to be closely related to context because they depend on what people know or believe about the world, making it difficult to account for them in a context-free system of truth-conditional semantics.

It seems wise to take Chierchia and McConnell-Ginet caveat to heart: "Since direct experience with interpretation of language is experience with interpreting uses, however, we cannot always be sure in advance which phenomena will fall exclusively in the domain of semantics and which will turn out to require attention to pragmatic factors as well" (Chierchia and McConnell-Ginet, 1990:5). A truth-conditional approach to semantics that proceeds without taking account of pragmatic considerations dooms itself to being an inadequate theory of meaning. More: A truth-conditional approach to meaning that does not rely heavily on pragmatics would, it seems, leave unexplained the meaning of most sentences, a problem foreseen by Austin.

By the end of How to Do Things with Words, Austin has expanded his argument beyond explicit performatives to include all kinds of utterances, including statements, for "stating," he says, "is performing an act" (p. 139). Austin sums up his argument with the following conclusion: "The truth or falsity of a statement depends not merely on the meanings of words but on what act you were performing in what circumstances" (p. 145). The truth conditions of explicit and implicit performatives cannot be analyzed without taking into account the speaker's intentions and the hearer's understanding of the use of such a form. The strong claim of Austin's theory of speech acts is that all sentences are essentially acts -- performatives -- leaving them unexplainable by truth conditions alone. Such a view, if correct, makes it difficult to free semantics from pragmatic considerations; otherwise, the truth-conditional account would apply to only a very limited set of sentences, leaving the meaning of most unexplained.

Philosophy of Language Questions and Answers. 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. Read more ...

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