Pragmatics and Philosophy (and the Semantics/Pragmatics Debate)

  • Alessandro Capone
Part of the Perspectives in Pragmatics, Philosophy & Psychology book series (PEPRPHPS, volume 22)


In this book, I shall argue that there is a close relationship between pragmalinguistics and philosophy and that pragmalinguistics not only takes into account empirical investigations based on language use, but also takes advantage of a more philosophical approach to language, where a number of a priori considerations can be applied to the formation of a theory of language. While there is no reason to deny (and there is every reason to assume) that abstract structures of language are operative in selecting meanings, pragmatics usually provides additional theoretical baggage and allows language users to expand on their limited resources, thus allowing them to be open to new uses which then, eventually, become part of the semantic/syntactic heritage. These expansion processes can be seen both at the semantic and at the syntactic level (see Huang 1994, 2000, 2014; Levinson 2000; Ariel 2008 on the syntax/pragmatics debate). Surely there are a number of controversial points in pragmatics. Are the conversational maxims a priori principles? Are they innate or are they learned? Are they derived from innate predispositions, where, ultimately, they are propagated, transmitted and inherited at the level of language use? These are important theoretical questions, on which a philosophical approach has some bearing. However, in this book I will not concentrate on these questions, but I will broach more modest topics. One of the topics I will confront is whether explicatures (or at least the pragmatic components of explicatures) are cancellable or not. This topic is concatenated with the more heavily theoretical topic of Grice’s circle, a theoretical difficulty noted by Levinson (2000) which basically amounts to the claim that pragmatics takes input from semantics. However, the camp of contextualists has shown that (propositional) semantics cannot be independent of pragmatics, given that it is accepted that, in numerous cases, we must assume pragmatic intrusion into truth-conditional meaning. Thus, it follows that not only is it the case that pragmatics takes input from semantics, but that semantics takes input from pragmatics. There may be two ways of breaking out of this circle. One is to argue, as I have done so in the past, that the circle is not pernicious given that explicatures (that is, the engine of the semantics/pragmatics debate) are after all, in principle and de facto, not cancellable. Thus, the pragmatic contributions that intrude into semantics acquire some of the features of semantics (like entailments, they cannot be cancelled on pain of contradiction or logical absurdity). The other is to reduce the circle and to state that there are indeed (many) cases of pragmatic intrusion; however, we should not be so pessimistic as to claim that in all cases semantics needs to be augmented by pragmatics. There are sentences which can be fairly well understood even independently of pragmatics and, furthermore, there are sentences where limited amounts of pragmatic intrusion can occur and where such intrusions can be somehow ignored, since the truth-conditional content of the sentence can be grasped by making abstract substitutions such as X did Y (for example, in the sentence ‘He did this’). Such abstract substitutions are compatible with the spirit of semantics and capture a minimally augmented truth-conditional meaning, while one does not need to state that such cases cannot be understood without recourse to drastic pragmatic intrusion (Take as an example what happens during a grammar lesson. The teacher writes the sentence ‘Mary is clever’ on the blackboard. The students will not try to anchor ‘Mary’ to a referent, as they are well aware that this is an example).


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© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  • Alessandro Capone
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of Cognitive ScienceUniversity of MessinaMessinaItaly

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