University of Sydney
Let me start with some background. In recent decades, linguists and philosophers have debated the role played by context in determining what we say, as opposed to what we imply or otherwise mean, when we utter a sentence. The debate hinges on whether the grammar of a sentence is sufficient to establish something truth-valued, granting, of course, that some context-sensitivity is grammatically mandated – the reference of personal pronouns, for example. The way theorists answer this question dictates their initial conception of pragmatics (viz. narrow linguistic pragmatics; for a broader historical picture, see Nerlich 2006). Take Gazdar’s formulation:
Pragmatics has as its topic those aspects of the meaning of utterances which cannot be accounted for by straightforward reference to the truth conditions of the sentences uttered. Put crudely: PRAGMATICS = MEANING – TRUTH CONDITIONS (1979: 2)
In this picture, truth is the crucial semantic notion. Words in a sentence are paired with meanings (usually assumed to be senses) that combine, according to the rules of the language, to produce something truth-valued, a proposition or thought. Apparently, we can understand an astonishing number of novel thoughts because the sentences that express them decompose into familiar elements. This wouldn’t be possible, in Frege’s venerated words, “wenn wir in dem Gedanken nicht Teile unterscheiden könnten, denen Satzteile entsprächen, so daß der Aufbau des Satzes als Bild gelten könnte des Aufbaues des Gedankens” (1993: 72).
At one pole in the current debate, then, the minimalist takes the view that saying is sensitive to context “only when this is necessary to ‘complete’ the meaning of the sentence and make it propositional”, whereby necessary context-sensitivity extends to only a limited number of context-dependent expressions, like “I” and “yesterday” (my usage here follows Recanati 2004: 7-8). As minimalists Herman Cappelen and Ernie Lepore put it, “context interacts with meaning only when triggered by the grammar of the sentence” (2005b: 70). If this is right, the proper object for pragmatics is what speakers mean, imply, suggest, over and above what they say. To revisit Gazdar’s useful crudity, PRAGMATICS = MEANING – TRUTH CONDITIONS.
At the opposite pole lies radical contextualism, the view that context-sensitivity is pervasive (I am again following Recanati’s usage; for a survey of intermediate positions, see his 2004). Charles Travis calls this “the pragmatic view”:
It is intrinsically part of what expressions of (say) English mean that any English (or whatever) sentence may, on one speaking of it or another, have any of indefinitely many different truth conditions, and that any English (or whatever) expression may, meaning what it does, make any of many different contributions to truth conditions of wholes in which it figures as a part. (1997: 87)
If this is right, then truth can’t be a purely semantic notion. I’ll illustrate this by reproducing one of Travis’s examples, an utterance of “The kettle is black”. Suppose this is said when “the kettle is normal aluminum, but soot covered; normal aluminum but painted; cast iron, but glowing from heat; cast iron, but enameled white on the inside; on the outside; cast iron with a lot of brown grease stains on the outside; etc.” (1985: 197). Without knowing what will count as a black kettle on a given occasion, which is by no means self-evident, it remains unclear how I am supposed to ascribe truth-conditions to “The kettle is black”. This seems to suggest, to quote Austin, that “the apparently common-sense distinction between ‘What is the meaning of the word x’ and ‘What particular things are x and to what degrees?’ is not of universal application by any means” (1979: 74). To maintain that “black” contributes identically to what is said whenever someone uses it, the minimalist has to argue for a context-insensitive notion of something like blackness. How such a notion might figure in communication is, at best, opaque. It is preferable, the radical contextualist argues, to generalise context-sensitivity, and to allow that “black” can contribute variously to what is said, just like expressions traditionally acknowledged to be indexical, context-dependent. Truth, then, is necessarily also pragmatic. For the radical contextualist, pragmatics cuts across the distinction between what a speaker says and what she means. But so much for background.
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