First published Tue Nov 28, 2006
When a diplomat says yes, he means ‘perhaps’;
When he says perhaps, he means ‘no’;
When he says no, he is not a diplomat.
When a lady says no, she means ‘perhaps’;
When she says perhaps, she means ‘yes’;
When she says yes, she is not a lady.
Voltaire (Quoted, in Spanish, in Escandell 1993.)
These lines — also attributed to H. L. Mencken and Carl Jung — although perhaps politically incorrect, are surely correct in reminding us that more is involved in what one communicates than what one literally says; more is involved in what one means than the standard, conventional meaning of the words one uses. The words ‘yes,’ ‘perhaps,’ and ‘no’ each has a perfectly identifiable meaning, known by every speaker of English (including not very competent ones). However, as those lines illustrate, it is possible for different speakers in different circumstances to mean different things using those words. How is this possible? What's the relationship among the meaning of words, what speakers mean when uttering those words, the particular circumstances of their utterance, their intentions, their actions, and what they manage to communicate? These are some of the questions that pragmatics tries to answer; the sort of questions that, roughly speaking, serve to characterize the field of pragmatics. ________________________________________
Pragmatics deals with utterances, by which we will mean specific events, the intentional acts of speakers at times and places, typically involving language. Logic and semantics traditionally deal with properties of types of expressions, and not with properties that differ from token to token, or use to use, or, as we shall say, from utterance to utterance, and vary with the particular properties that differentiate them. Pragmatics is sometimes characterized as dealing with the effects of context. This is equivalent to saying it deals with utterances, if one collectively refers to all the facts that can vary from utterance to utterance as ‘context.’ One must be careful, however, for the term is often used with more limited meanings. Different theorists have focused on different properties of utterances. To discuss them it will be helpful to make a distinction between ‘near-side pragmatics’ and ‘far-side pragmatics.’ The picture is this. The utterances philosophers usually take as paradigmatic are assertive uses of declarative sentences, where the speaker says something. Near-side pragmatics is concerned with the nature of certain facts that are relevant to determining what is said. Far-side pragmatics is focused on what happens beyond saying: what speech acts are performed in or by saying what is said, or what implicatures (see below for an explanation of this term) are generated by saying what is said. Near-side pragmatics includes, but is not limited to resolution of ambiguity and vagueness, the reference of proper names, indexicals and demonstratives, and anaphors, and at least some issues involving presupposition. In all of these cases facts about the utterance, beyond the expressions used and their meanings, are needed. We can divide these facts into several categories. For indexicals such as ‘I,’ ‘now,’ and ‘here’ basic facts about the utterance are required: the agent, and when and where it occurred. For other indexicals and demonstratives, speaker intentions are also relevant. While it seems the referent of ‘you’ must be a person addressed by the speaker, which of several possible addressees is referred to seems up to the speaker's intentions. Within syntactic and semantic constraints, anaphoric relations seem largely a matter of speaker's intent. Speaker's intentions and the way the speaker is connected to the wider world by causal/historical ‘chains of reference’ are relevant to the reference of proper names. Far-side pragmatics deals with what we do with language, beyond what we (literally) say. This is the conception...