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Review of  Pragmatics: Critical Concepts

Reviewer: Maarten Michiel Leezenberg
Book Title: Pragmatics: Critical Concepts
Book Author: Asa Kasher
Publisher: Routledge (Taylor and Francis)
Linguistic Field(s): Pragmatics
Issue Number: 12.2673

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Kasher, Asa, ed. (1998) Pragmatics: Critical Concepts, vol. I.
Routledge, xxv+154pp, Routledge Critical Concepts series.

Michiel Leezenberg, Department of Philosophy, Faculty of Humanities
University of Amsterdam

[This is the third in a series of reviews of the six volumes that
comprise Pragmatics: Critical Concepts. The first two may be found at: (Vol. IV) (Vol. VI) --Eds.]

Asa Kasher's imposing six-volume collection of pragmatics papers promises to
constitute a standard source of easy access to a good many of the
established classics of the field. The first volume presents a slightly more
general and introductory overview of the development and delineation of
pragmatics; it also features a full listing of the articles included in the
other volumes. The present review focuses on the first volume, but also will
make some remarks on Kasher's undertaking as a whole.

Volume I: Dawn and Delineation

Part 1, 'Dawn', opens with a short Introduction. Kasher here argues that the
preconditions for a definitive history of pragmatics have not been
fulfilled: it has not achieved a general acceptance of a core of problems,
methods and achievements (i.e., paradigm status in Thomas Kuhn^�s sense), or
the 'maturity' that requires or allows a perspective of its own past. Kasher
does not raise the question why syntax and semantics, which in their present
forms are hardly older, do seem to have achieved this scientific

1. C.W. Morris, 'The scope and import of semiotic' tries to clarify the
pragmatics-semantics-syntax triad, where pragmatics is initially defined as
the study of the relation of signs to interpreters. Morris then redefines
pragmatics as dealing with the origin, uses, and effects of signs within
behavior. This forms part of his broader characterization of semiotics as
the metalanguage for linguistics: it involves the study of signs rather than
grammatical categories. Morris's formulation here betrays a wish for the
unification of linguistics and other sciences, a program initiated by the
Vienna Circle to which Carnap also belonged, and to whose project of an
'Encyclopedia of Unified Science' Morris also contributed. Fifty years
onwards, this aspiration has de facto if not de jure disappeared from
linguistics practice.

2. R. Carnap, 'Semiotic and its parts', defines pragmatics as the
investigation of language which explicitly involves to the user of a
language. In practice, however, this amounts to taking the speaker as just a
contextual variable on a par with place and time of utterance. Although this
definition excludes such later developments as speech act theory and
implicature, both of which crucially involve speaker's intentions, Carnap's
definition has proved immensely fruitful for the development of formal
semantics, including Richard Montague's 'indexical semantics' and Kaplan's
theory of indexicality (see volume III).

3. Y. Bar-Hillel, 'Indexical expressions' is another classical statement
arguing for the development of tools for the rigorous analysis of sense,
reference, and truth values of indexical expressions. Sentence types
containing indexial expressions, like 'I am hungry', do not have a truth
value, he argues; only their tokens do. Bar-Hillel also raises the question
of whether it is the sentence token that 'refers to' a proposition, or
rather the person that does so by uttering the token. Like Carnap,
Bar-Hillel abstracts away from the speaker as a locus of communicative goals
and intentions, and instead treats the speaker as a feature or parameter of
the context. He also raises the philosophical question of whether all
indexical expressions can be interdefined, and subsequently eliminated, as
some logical empiricists (like Russell) had hoped to do. In later years,
this question has largely been abandoned as irrelevant for empirical
pragmatics. Likewise, he raises the problem of whether logical analysis can
help solve philosophical pseudo-problems. Such questions may be of less
importance nowadays, but they clearly show that the philosophical roots of
pragmatics partly lie in the formalist tradition of logical analysis of
natural languages as a means of (dis-) solving philosophical problems.

4. R. M. Martin, 'Different levels of pragmatics', distinguishes different
kinds of pragmatic relation between a language and its users, viz., those of
the acceptance, assertion, utterance, and belief
of a sentences at a time t. More than the authors discussed above, Martin
seems aware of the crucial role of intentional notions in characterizing
pragmatics; otherwise, however, his characterizations have not gained as
wide a currency of Carnap and Morris. All these authors, then, still grope
for, or move towards, clear distinctions between levels and concepts, like
sentences, statements, propositions, etc., - distinctions which we nowadays
tend to take for granted.

In a postscript, the editor discusses the features of these four early and
programmatic views on pragmatics.
He could have drawn more attention to another strand of sources, however,
those of Ordinary Language Philosophy, which was largely contemporaneous
with this more formalist approach to natural language. It was this less
formalist and reformist approach to natural language out of which such
subsequently core areas of pragmatics as implicature and speech act theory
emerged; Austin, Grice, and Searle all studied or taught at Oxford, the
epicenter of Ordinary Language Philosophy. These authors are included
elsewhere in the collection; but they would have deserved a place in this
section as well. One may well doubt, with Kasher, whether a definitive
history of pragmatics is feasible; it is a different thing altogether to
exclude uncontroversially major influences from a discussion of its
formative stages.

Part 2, 'Delineation', features some of the major attempts of the 1970s and
1980s to draw a borderline between pragmatics and other fields, especially
semantics. By this time, the situation had changed drastically in comparison
with the 'dawn' years, as in both semantics and pragmatics some impressive
results had been booked.

5. R. Stalnaker, 'Pragmatics', sketches a program for the development of a
formal pragmatics using the tools of possible worlds semantics. Stalnaker
distinguishes syntax as the study of sentences, semantics as the study of
propositions (i.e., the language-independent entities that might be true or
false), and pragmatics as the study of linguistic acts and contexts of
performance. That is, he characterizes pragmatics in terms of the contextual
determinants of propositions, which subsequently may be evaluated as to
their truth value. Stalnaker's work has proved tremendously fruitful in the
development of theories of presupposition and assertion, and foreshadows
more recent (semantic) theories of context change, like Discourse
Representation Theory, File Change Semantics, and Dynamic Semantics.

6. In their editorial of volume 1 of Journal of Pragmatics, H. Haberland &
J. Mey take a rather different view of pragmatics: they tend to see it not
as a component or subdiscipline of linguistics on a par with semantics and
syntax, but rather as a distinct perspective on language. The former view
has led to the more theoretical approaches in pragmatics, the latter to a
convergence with sociolinguistics and the sociology of language. In their
postscript, Haberland & Mey note the persisting cleavage between highly
philosophical and theoretical papers, and detailed and descriptive empirical
studies included in the Journal, between the two of which there appears to
be little common ground. Kasher's collection as a whole clearly tilts
towards the former of these two groups.

7. A. Kasher, 'What is a theory of use?' like Davis's subsequent paper,
approaches the delimitation of pragmatics in a more Chomskyan vein. Kasher
proposes to look at theoretical pragmatics as the study of the competence of
language use, in an adaptation of Chomsky's competence-performance
distinction. Rather than confining pragmatics to the study of performance as
Chomsky himself had done, Kasher sees the goal of pragmatics as the
specification and explanation of the constitutive rules of the human ability
to use language successfully,- a bit along the same lines as Searle's 1969
attempt (equally motivated by Chomsky's ideas) to characterize the
constitutive rules for specific speech acts, such as promising. Thus,
Kasher hopes to open up the way for pragmatics as a rigorous discipline
capable of similar progress as Chomsky's highly successful research program.

8. S.Davis, 'Speech acts, performance, and competence' attempts to
generalize Chomsky's competence-performance distinction to illocutionary
acts; these are governed by constitutive rules that any competent language
user should know. Illocutionary acts, Davis continues, should not be seen as
objects of study in linguistics, however, but rather of anthropology or
psychology, as they are culture- rather than language-specific. It should
perhaps be added that in later years, few people working in pragmatics have
followed the Chomskyan lead offered by authors like Searle, Kasher, and
Davis. It has also proved extremely difficult to give a full and
satisfactory characterization of other kinds of illocutionary act.

9. J. Allwood, 'On the distinctions between semantics and pragmatics', in
contrast to most other authors in this volume, argues for abandoning the
very distinction between semantics and pragmatics, in favor of a more
context-sensitive combined semantico-pragmatic approach, which no longer
would take semantically odd phenomena like vagueness and metaphor as
derived, exceptional or unimportant. Such attempts at a more monolithic view
of meaning (also discussed in e.g. Levinson 2000) are not without interest,
but they have to account for the rather different inferential behavior of
e.g. semantic entailment, presupposition and implicature.

10. In the Introduction to his book Meaning and Force, F. Recanati comes
closest to what seems to be the predominant view at present (perhaps not
entirely coincidentally, since his is by far the most recent selection
included in the volume), viz., that pragmatics is not a homogeneous filed of
research. It involves conventional aspects of meaning as well as
speaker-based, intention driven ones, such as conversational implicatures.
Fields like speech acts, implicature, and less unequivocally presupposition
and indexicality are all considered core areas of pragmatics, but they
resist reduction to any common scheme.

In his postscript to this part, Kasher raises the question why pragmatics
has failed to establish a coherent research program (or paradigm) in the
philosophical sense of the word, such as, e.g., Chomskyan syntax has
undoubtedly managed to do. After a summary of yet a few more views on the
delineation of pragmatics as presented in some recent pragmatics textbooks,
Kasher presents five dimensions of possible convergence or divergence
regarding a research program of pragmatics. These are the dimensions of
cognition, context, communication, the semantics-pragmatics distinction, and
programmes,- clearly, a rather mixed bag of possible topics for discussion
and debate rather than a systematic list of relevant features to assess the
viability of a given approach to pragmatics.

Some of the articles included have long been classics, while others remain
as controversial as when first published. Hence, I will not discuss the
merits (or lack thereof) of each contribution, but rather focus attention on
the choices their inclusion in the volume reflects. I will partly focus on
the first volume, but also make some comments on the series as a whole.

The collection is primarily based on the Anglo-Saxon tradition in pragmatics.
For the most part, the selections derive from the analytical philosophy of
language (both ordinary language philosophy and the more formalist
approaches of Carnap and others). Some of the selections are rather
surprising, though certainly defensible. Remarkably, no less than three
papers or book chapters by Michael Dummett have been included, although
Dummett, unlike, e.g., Austin, Grice and Searle, has exerted little direct
influence on the development of empirical pragmatics (as opposed to the
philosophy of language). There are other such idiosyncrasies, such as a
slight but venial Tel Aviv bias (not to mention the inclusion of three
articles by the editor himself).

Also relatively uncontroversial perhaps is the fact that the collection does
not include work on pragmatics in the broader sense, like the German
tradition of 'transcendental' or 'universal' pragmatics (as initiated by
Apel and Habermas), which has been influential in the social sciences; but
even here, more recent developments like Robert Brandom's 1994 program for
pragmatically informed 'inferentialist semantics', might have merited

The collection covers most, though by no means all, of the canonical
pragmatics topics. Thus, topic-focus structure is not represented, nor (at
least in the volumes at my disposal) is its absence motivated. Likewise,
politeness (which nowadays is something of an industry in pragmatics) is
represented by just two articles. More in general, it is unclear why the
collection features hardly any contributions from sociolinguistics (for
example, highlights from the extensive literature on social deixis might
have been included in either the volume on indexicality or in the section
dealing with pragmatics and sociology). Questions regarding the interface
between on the one hand pragmatics and on the other fields like semantics,
language acquisition, psycholinguistics and sociolinguistics, are discussed,
but feature less prominently in the selections. Likewise, the collection
silently passes by important recent (and not-so-recent) work on the border
line between semantics and pragmatics, like Discourse Representation Theory
(Kamp 1981), Dynamic Semantics (Groenendijk & Stokhof 1991), and
game-theoretical and optimality-theoretical approaches (e.g. Blutner). In a
field that is not characterized by a coherent research program or by clearly
marked boundaries with neighboring disciplines, such interface questions are
of more than passing relevance. Good cases for the inclusion of such
traditions can be made, especially in a collection that runs into six
volumes and features over 100 articles.

Disappointingly, neither the introduction nor the introductions to the
respective sections are very explicit on the criteria for inclusion in the
volume. The collection features only a handful of selections from the early
1990s (apparently, most of the editing was done around 1995). Early
philosophical statements, like those of Frege and Russell, have not been
included, presumably for belonging to the pre- rather than the proto-history
of pragmatics. Likewise, the collection contains disappointingly few
articles on the running controversy between Relevance Theory, neo-Gricean,
and more imperialist varieties of semantics encroaching on pragmatic

These shortcomings (or more neutrally, idiosyncrasies) may be the result of
some specific methodological assumptions of the editor. The foreword
stresses the importance of understanding the problems 'within the
theoretical frameworks of this area'. It is less explicit, however, about
how to go about topics where the framework itself is contested. For example,
Kasher does not address (at least not in volume I or III) the fierce
criticisms of Speech Act Theory that may be heard from the circles of
Conversation Analysis (see e.g. Levinson 1981). The selection and ordering
of articles, then, appears to be based on a not entirely warranted
assumption that pragmatics by now consists of a number of discreet and
well-established subfields, which are for the most part mutually compatible
or complementary. Less attention is given to the fact that these subfields
may rise and disappear, merge or split up. Thus, speech act theory, despite
its enormous historical importance, nowadays no longer seems to inform much
empirical pragmatic research.

In the acknowledgments, which give the bibliographical references of the
articles, items no. 71 through 86, covering some 12% of the selections and a
considerable part of volumes IV and V, are oddly lacking. This omission
would easily have been detected and avoided if each volume had featured a
separate list of references for the papers it contains.

In short, Kasher's massive collection largely dwells on the theoretical
rather than the empirical side of pragmatics; but even here, it by no means
reflects the current state of the art or most uncontroversial core of the
field. To some extent, given the lack of consensus about the nature, aims
and borders of pragmatics, this may be inevitable; but it also depends on a
number of assumptions and preferences which could, and should, have been
made more explicit.

Brandom, R. (1994) Making it Explicit: Reasoning, representing, and
discursive commitment, Harvard University Press
Groenendijk, J. & Stokhof, M. (1991) Dynamic Predicate Logic. Linguistics &
Philosophy 14.
Kamp, H. (1984 [1981]) A Theory of Truth and Semantic Representation. In J.
Groenendijk a.o., Truth, Interpretation, and Information, Foris.
Levinson, S. (1981) The essential inadequacies of speech act models of
dialogue. In Parret, R. a.o. (eds.) Possibilities and limitations of
pragmatics, Benjamins
Levinson, S. (2000) Presumptive Meanings, MIT Press

Michiel Leezenberg teaches Philosophy of Science at the University of
Amsterdam. His research interests include the semantics-pragmatics
interface, the foundations of the social sciences and the history and
ethnography of linguistic thought. Among his recent publications are
Contexts of Metaphor (Elsevier Science 2001) and a Dutch-language textbook
on Philosophy of Science for the Humanities, co-authored with Gerard de
Vries (Amsterdam University Press 2001).


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