Some Remarks on Objectivity in Pragmatics

Samuel Lewin
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.


I have been aware of this debate at least since my first, undergraduate reading of Recanati’s Literal Meaning, and I have been thinking seriously about it since. I am what Capellen and Lepore might call an “impure, contaminated student” (see their 2005a: 1); I find the arguments in favour of radical contextualism quite convincing. But I don’t want to revisit them here. Rather, I want to plumb the idea of communication that seems to me to underlie the whole debate. I am impressed, namely, by an apparent consensus that knowledge of a word’s meaning (whether this is understood to be a sense or something less than a sense) is fungible, and that what a speaker says is public, objective. This is implicit, of course, in the unavoidable expression “what is said”. Given that pragmatics occupies a “remedial” position in the history of linguistics and philosophy (so descibed, for example, in the preface to Levinson 1983), it is hardly surprising that this sort of objectivity is a virtue; the constitutive idealizations of Chomskyan linguistics and formal semantics were simply carried over in various articulations of the new discipline. This is a matter for intellectual history. Yet objectivity is still presupposed in the Fragestellung of the debate, in the very way that questions about saying are asked, and so both sides skirt epistemological problems, such as the status of speakers’ assumption that they share a language (see Davidson 2001). I want to turn to such problems here, in order to complicate the picture somewhat.

It is easy to see how objective meaning figures in a minimalist view of communication. If grammar drives context-sensitivity, then two speakers of the same language will just recognize what is said. Despite its largely begging the question of what communication consists in, the simplicity of this picture is often suggested as an argument supporting minimalism. A telling example can be found in Capellen and Lepore’s ingenuous chapter ‘Objections to Radical Contextualism (II): Makes Communication Impossible’. They object that, “[i]f RC were true, it would be a miracle if speakers in different contexts were ever able to agree, disagree, or more generally, share contents” (my emphasis, 2005a: 124). The chapter is valuable because the authors’ position rests openly on their intuition that communication is the dressing and undressing of thought in words. Their response to the very possibility of uncertainty in communication is simply to say “it’s not a bullet we would like to bite” (2005a: 126-27). Reading this, I am reminded that “[a]ll epistemology begins in fear” (Daston and Galison 2010: 372). If the expectation that communication is content-sharing turns out to be unwarranted, they feel, then we simply can’t be communicating. It seems to me that this way of thinking is quite common, although it is seldom so conspicuous.

Another reason for thinking that saying is objective is that this seems to be required by the adoption of Grice’s account of intentional communication (I assume that this is reasonably familiar to anyone interested in pragmatics). I want to focus on this. For a word to mean something is, pace Grice, for it to be involved in an intentional communicative act; for a speaker to mean something is for the speaker to intend an utterance “to produce some effect in an audience by means of the recognition of this intention” (1957: 220). If saying is to be recognizable, then the speaker’s intention has to be overt, public, which is guaranteed by the language. This view is enshrined in Recanati’s Availability Principle, “according to which ‘what is said’ must be analysed in conformity to the intuitions shared by those who fully understand the utterance” (2004: 14). The difficulty for Recanati is that, as others have argued, pervasive context-sensitivity allows at least for the possibility that intuitions are not shared. At this point, radical contextualism strains against the ideal of content-sharing (and see chapter 8 of Recanati 2004). Recanati can maintain that full understanding is shared only by equating what is said with “what a normal interpreter would understand as being said”. The normal interpreter “knows which sentence was uttered, knows the meaning of that sentence, knows the relevant contextual facts” (2004: 19- 20). The normal interpreter is able to recognize the speaker’s intention.

But this is contrived. It’s not at all clear what normal interpretation is supposed to cover. Donald Davidson writes:

If we ask for a cup of coffee, direct a taxi driver, or order a crate of lemons, we may know so little about our intended interpreter that we can do no better than to assume that he will interpret our speech along what we take to be standard lines. But this is relative. In fact we always have the interpreter in mind; there is no such thing as how we expect, in the abstract, to be interpreted. (my emphasis, 1986: 170)

This fact is neglected in the rush to secure what is said, at both poles of the debate. Consider this little story, told by Grice:

I was listening to a French lesson being given to the small daughter of a friend. I noticed that she thinks that a certain sentence in French means “Help yourself to a piece of cake,” though in fact it means something quite different. When there is some cake in the vicinity, I address to her this French sentence, and as I intended, she helps herself. I intended her to think (and to think that I intended her to think) that the sentence uttered by me meant “Help yourself to some cake”; and I would say that the fact that the sentence meant and was known by me to mean something quite different is no obstacle to my having meant something by my utterance (namely, that she was to have some cake). (1969: 162-63).

The normal interpreter would be helpless. Clearly, what matters is that Grice can correctly guess what the girl will take him to mean in using that certain French sentence. This depends not on shared linguistic knowledge, but on Grice’s having observed her using it in interacting with her environment. As Davidson argues, the preponderance of such examples gives us good reason to think that we have different interpretive theories for different speakers (1986: 171). Communication is possible in such cases because speakers and hearers agree massively in their knowledge of the environment, in their extra-linguistic knowledge. Davidson goes on to acknowledge that, “if we do say this, then we should realize that we have erased the boundary between knowing a language and knowing our way around in the world generally” (173). Now, I admit, this is a far more radical view than I suspect Grice would allow, yet this is where the general import of something like his Cooperative Principle becomes most evident. If communication depends on general principles for rational interaction, as Grice clearly thinks it does, then there is no need for an autonomous notion of what is said. Word meanings, especially, do not need to be fungible, as we can converge on words’ use in other ways.

Let’s return, finally, to Travis’s kettle. Abstracting a little, I feel that the category in question – “black kettles”, say – is a Streitgegenstand, is up for grabs, rather than being given in context. Surely, communication succeeds when two people can jointly agree that something counts as a member of that category, which in no way depends on there being an established fact of the matter about what they have said. This is assuming, too, that they have the kettle in front of them. Without the kettle in front of them, it seems obvious to me that two people who hear or read “The kettle is black” will have different – and differently black – kettles in mind. Moreover, there’s simply no need for them to agree. If we view communication as motivated by principles of cooperation, or charity, rather than sheer linguistic agreement, cases like this don’t pose anything like the problems that they seem to. This gives us reason enough to doubt whether the objectivity of what is said is necessary to communication, and, therefore, what place it deserves in linguistic and philosophical theory. This is also a good place to stop, as the present line of thinking carries us well beyond the bounds of the debate and into a reconstruction of linguistic semantics (for which, see Peregrin 1999). As I said before, however, I do feel that radical contextualism strains in that direction.


Austin, J. L. (1979): ‘The Meaning of a Word’. Philosophical Papers, Oxford University Press: 55-75.

Cappelen, H. and E. Lepore (2005a): Insensitive Semantics: A Defense of Semantic Minimalism and Speech Act Pluralism, Blackwell.

Cappelen, H. and E. Lepore (2005b): ‘Radical and Moderate Pragmatics: Does Meaning Determine Truth Conditions?’. Semantics Versus Pragmatics. Z. Szabo, Oxford University Press: 45- 71.

Daston, L. and P. Galison (2010): Objectivity, Zone Books.

Davidson, D. (1986): ‘A Nice Derangement of Epitaphs’. Philosophical Grounds of Rationality: Intentions, Categories, Ends, Clarendon: 157-74.

Davidson, D. (2001): ‘Radical Interpretation’. Inquiries into Truth and Interpretation, Oxford University Press: 125-39.

Frege, G. (1993): Logische Untersuchungen, Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht.

Gazdar, G. (1979): Pragmatics: Implicature, Presupposition, and Logical Form, Academic Press.

Grice, P. (1957): ‘Meaning.’ The Philosophical Review 66(3): 377-88.

Grice, P. (1969): ‘Utterer’s Meaning and Intention’ The Philosophical Review 78(2): 147-77.

Levinson, S. (1983): Pragmatics, Cambridge University Press.

Nerlich, B. (2006): ‘Pragmatics: History’. Encyclopedia of Language and Linguistics, Elsevier.

Peregrin, J. (1999): ‘The Pragmatization of Semantics’. The Semantics/Pragmatics Interface from Different Points of View. K. Turner, Elsevier: 419-42.

Recanati, F. (2004): Literal Meaning, Cambridge University Press.

Recanati, F. (2010): Truth-Conditional Pragmatics, Oxford.

Szabo, Z., Ed. (2005): Semantics Versus Pragmatics, Oxford University Press.

Travis, C. (1985): ‘On What Is Strictly Speaking True’. Canadian Journal of Philosophy 15(2): 187- 229.

Travis, C. (1997): ‘Pragmatics’. A Companion to the Philosophy of Language. B. Hale and C. Wright, Blackwell: 87-107.

Turner, K., Ed. (1999): The Semantics/Pragmatics Interface from Different Points of View, Elsevier.

How to cite this post:

Lewin, Samuel. 2015. Some Remarks on Objectivity in Pragmatics. History and Philosophy of the Language Sciences.

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Posted in Article, Linguistics, Philosophy, Pragmatics, Semantics

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