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It seems like one reason to try to mark off a distinction between pragmatis and semantics is so that one can tell when pragmatics can be used to account for a phenomena and when semantics should be used. A lot of semantic theories (and fragments) seem to treat pragmatics like this buffer that absorbs and accounts for all problems with a semantic theory. It is hard to argue against something if it can always be defended by an appeal to some vague, pseudo-Gricean reasoning. Of course, the distinction between semantics and pragmatics might be theory-relative so that it will be impossible to produce a single, comprehensive distinction.


At least in one tradition, interpreting the meaning of a speaker is involved, in large part, with assuming that she is acting in accordance with the cooperative principle and the Gricean maxims. This is fine as far as conversations go. These are some genearl guidelines for interpretation in those settings. The interpreter tries to identify the speaker’s intentions and combine those with what the speaker said. Doing this puts her in a positiion to apply the normal Gricean reasoning (although she may not even need what is said) to understand what implicatures were meant. What happens when we shift to text? I don’t think the cooperative principle applies to authors. It is even more doubtful that the maxims apply in their normal way either. For one, they are conversational maxims. Secondly, different facets of text seem most relevant for interpretation. I doubt that authors always try to be as informative as possible. Afterall, that is what makes detective novels so exciting. What principles guide textual interpretation? We don’t even have to be talking about literary interpretation (which is probably at the harder end of the scale). Interpreting newspaper articles can be difficult. Are there any general heuristics or maxims for textual interpretation like the ones Grice suggested for conversation?

On Grice’s theory of conversational implicature (Bach’s interpretation thereof), only utterances by a speaker have implicatures. Implicatures are determined by the communicative intention of the speaker. What role does the hearer/interpreter play in this process? Does she constrain the possible implicatures that the speaker can intend? If an implicature is inappropriate for the audience, can the speaker seriously intend for it to be picked up? One thing that makes me uneasy about this picture is that implicature generation seems to be due to the speaker and her intentions while implicature retrieval (my phrases) seems to be due entirely to the hearer. After all, the speaker won’t retrieve her own implicatures; they were for the interlocutor. In what sense is an implicature generated if the hearer doesn’t pick up on it? Further, if the speaker intends the listener to pick up on one implicature, via the maxim of manner for example, but she picks up on a reasonable conclusion drawn via the maxim of quality, is that an implicature? I’ll have to go back through Grice and Bach to figure that out. The latter case might be an impliciture; although, I must confess, I don’t really understand that concept well.

The beginning of Insensitive Semantics is motivated by an appeal to Kaplan’s “Demonstratives” in which they cite the curious fact that he didn’t give a reason for restricting his attention to the set of words that he discussed. I’m surprised that this uncritical interpretation of Kaplan is used for any motivating reason. He was looking at a different problem and had a different goal in mind. The set of words he looked at, which is smaller than many people realize, is just that set that works well in his logic without intentions. This fact cannot be used for any defense of semantic theses. It shouldn’t motivate the project in Insensitive Semantics either.

There are two ideas that seem to come up in tandem often in philosophical theorizing, reflexivity and iteration. The liar paradox if reflexive, while theories of truth that try to deal with it via a hierarchy of truth, with some distinguished class of truths being ‘grounded’, are iterative. Common knowledge is iterative, i.e. all agents know X, they know that they all know it, etc. This is iteration of mutual knowledge. The canonical interpretation of Grice’s theory of implicature posits an iterative hierarchy of communicative intentions. An agent intends for an audenience A to recognize X, intends for A to recognize that intention, etc. Bach put forward an interpretation of Grice’s theory that dispenses with the iterative hierarchy and replaces it with an reflexive intention. The reflexive communicative intention is satisfied by its recognition. I will have to go back to Grice’s articles to see how this squares with what he said, but it is appealing. We can dispense with an infinite hierarchy and replace it with an intention that refers to to itself. Does this create a paradox? The reflexive paradoxes (e.g. the liar) are brought about by conditions that are mutually contradictory. The sentence’s being true implies its falsity, and the converse.. Or, in the case of Russel’s paradox, a set’s containing itself implies that it does not contain itself, and the converse. What happens if we move this to intentionality? If I intend that my intention is satisfied only by its non-recognition, then I would be in trouble. However, it is does not seem like this could be a communicative intention, since at the very least those must be recognized to be satisfied. It looks like Bach’s interpretation is safe from that.

As an aside, both Recanati and Bach provide differing interpretations of Grice that take their views on language to very different places. It would be worthwhile to read through both of their writings and work out exactly how their views differ and how these differences play out in their ideas on, say, pragmatics.

Question for the day: does the semantics/pragmatics distinction carry any implications for the application of logic to conversation or discourse? When will we start talking about disambiguation as an important activity in understanding rather than jumping straight into saturation,etc. in interpretation?


Shawn Standefer, recent Ph.D. in philosophy from Pitt. (More about me)