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Review of  Context as Other Minds

Reviewer: Kerstin Fischer
Book Title: Context as Other Minds
Book Author: T. Givón
Publisher: John Benjamins
Linguistic Field(s): Pragmatics
Cognitive Science
Issue Number: 17.579

Discuss this Review
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Date: Thu, 16 Feb 2006 13:41:34 +0100 (MET)
From: Kerstin Fischer
Subject: your review of Context as Other Minds

AUTHOR: Givón, Talmy
TITLE: Context as Other Minds
SUBTITLE: The Pragmatics of Sociality, Cognition and Communication
PUBLISHER: John Benjamins
YEAR: 2005

Kerstin Fischer, University of Bremen

The main point of the book, as I understand it, is to show that
speakers constantly take into account their interlocutors' supposed
mental models. Givón argues from an evolutionary point of view that it
makes sense to constantly monitor the other's mental states because
in this way the behaviours of others can be predicted, which has an
adaptive value. He suggests that we know other minds because we
know our own minds, and by feature association we can transfer
knowledge of ourselves to the others, which makes sense in a society
of intimates, in which we are taken to have lived until about 8000
years ago. Givón holds grammar to exhibit the function to anticipate or
influence the others' minds in many respects. Grammar is thus
proposed to have evolved as a perfect adaptation to our need to
induce others to comprehend what is in our mind.


Chapter 1 discusses the notion of context and context-dependency on
the basis of ''recurrent themes'', such as relevance, analogy and
metaphor, and from a historical perspective, illuminating the
relationship between categorisation and context in works by Plato,
Aristotle, Kant, Peirce, and Wittgenstein, among others.

In chapter 2, Givón lays the foundations for the rest of the book by
establishing particularly three important concepts:

Firstly, he argues that organisms in order to survive need to represent
most tokens of the same type in the same way and to recognize
deviant tokens as exceptional (p. 39). That is, an organism needs to
develop context-sensitive adaptive responses. He argues that the
tension between typical examples and exceptions is mirrored in the
core vs. periphery distinction, the discrete vs. gradual distinction
associated with Plato and Wittgenstein respectively, generative
grammar vs. emergent grammar, and logical AI vs. semantic networks.
Moreover, it corresponds to the rapid, repetitive, robust processing of
the bulk versus the slow and error-prone contextual discrimination,
which however is taken to have a high adaptive value.

Secondly, he introduces the mechanism of feature association as a
form of abductive reasoning (p. 59).

Thirdly, he argues that until recently (from an evolutionary point of
view) we have mostly been living in societies of intimates in which we
shared the cultural, situational and individual background with our
interlocutors. By feature association we thus construct the others'
minds as like our own, as a prototype-based category (p. 62).

In chapter 3, Givón outlines his model of communication and
discusses metaphor in some detail. The cognitive representation
system is divided into the lexicon, propositions, and discourse.
Communicative codes are divided into sensory-motor and grammatical
codes. Sensory-motor codes comprise phonetics, phonology, and
neurology, where the phonetic/phonological codes encode the
lexicon. Grammatical codes (which should in principle also be
encoded phonologically) encode discourse coherence, which is
equated with communicative intention (p. 69).

The chapter continues with a discussion of metaphor, especially of
Lakoff's notion of conceptual metaphor. Givón criticises that
conceptual metaphors are identified out of context, whereas the
felicity of metaphors crucially depends on the serendipity of the
context (p. 75). In contrast, he shows how conceptual metaphors can
be activated in discourse (p. 81).

Chapter 4 addresses in more detail the notion of the other mind. On p.
91, Givón shows how other minds are constructed by feature
association from self. He continues by exploring the three cognitive
representation systems introduced in the previous chapter:
semantics/lexicon, grammar, and discourse. The lexicon in this view
corresponds to what is generically, culturally shared. Grammar
represents the particular interlocutors' mental models at particular
times that constitute conventionalized, i.e. grammaticalized, common,
recurrent, and adaptively relevant types of contexts (p. 92).

These three kinds of representation are taken to correspond to three
kinds of memory (p.101):

shared generic network (lexicon) = permanent semantic memory
shared speech situation = working memory/attention
shared current text = early episodic memory

Givón then discusses the issue of consciousness, which brain areas
are most likely involved and what kind of consciousness is necessary
for a representation of other minds.

He argues that the ability to forecast the behaviour of others is the
most important adaptive capacity for a social cooperating species (p.
120) and that ''the systematic on-line construction of mental models of
the current epistemic and deontic states of one's interlocutor is the
central adaptive motivation for the evolution of grammar'' (p. 121).

Chapter 5 is concerned with referential coherence, i.e. with the
grounding (strangely without any reference to Clark's work) of
referents in the universe of discourse, which is equated with
working/episodic memory. He shows how anaphoric and cataphoric
linguistic devices are used to indicate continuity versus discontinuity
with previously grounded referents (pp. 136-143) and ''to anticipate
the epistemic mental states of the interlocutor'' (p. 133) respectively.

Chapter 6 addresses epistemic and deontic modality, tense, aspect,
and evidentiality. ('deontic' is taken to mean ''matters of desirability,
preference, intent, ability, obligation, manipulation or power'' (p. 149))
Givón concludes that these ''propositional modalities'' display a ''fine-
tuned sensitivity on the part of the speaker to the informational and
social reality around them, most conspicuously to the constantly shifting
epistemic and deontic states of their interlocutors'' (p. 177).

Chapter 7 is concerned with discourse. According to Givón, discourse
coherence is established by the grammatical cues discussed in
chapters 5 and 6, which together constitute ''an elaborate system of
cues that speakers give hearers about highly specific mental
structures and operations'' (p. 193).

Chapter 8 is an essay in the philosophy of science. It is related to the
rest of the book by means of the question: who is the scientist's
relevant interlocutor? The answer is of course the community of
scholars (p. 196). First Givón discusses the two positions of
deductivism and inductivism. Against this background, he
establishes ''the pragmatics of empirical science'', by which he
understands contextual, abductive reasoning (p. 205). Abductive
reasoning can be illustrated by the following example (p. 207):

a. Puzzling facts F are incompatible with theory T,
b. But facts F are fully compatible with Hypothesis H,
c. whose truth value is yet to be determined.
d. That is, if Hypothesis H were the case,
e. then facts F would be explained as a matter of course.
f. Therefore Hypothesis H must be the case.

Abductive reasoning is taken to be contextual because it means to
place ''erstwhile disparate facts in a wider context'' (p. 209). In his
model the community of scholars plays important roles, for instance,
regarding their ''deontic commitment to the status quo'' or as ''deontic
resistance against the new hypothesis'' (p. 218), or regarding criteria
of falsification (p. 219).

Chapter 9 concerns the concept of self. Givón argues that until
recently (from an evolutionary point of view), an essentialist theory of
self was ''highly predictive and adaptive'' (p. 223). He discusses
different perspectives on the self and argues that schizophrenia and
autism are caused by problems with the controlling self (p. 234).

Chapter 10 addresses the role of 'other minds' in martial arts, which is
peculiar since the 'interlocutor' here is an adversary. The chapter can
be read as an introduction to Confucian thinking and as a defence of
Tai Chi Chuan as a martial art which ''as a discipline founded upon the
presence of a real, on-line adversary-interlocutor, whose constantly-
shifting epistemic and deontic states, and concomitant actions, must
be anticipated'' (p. 254) should be practised as a martial art (and not
as a physical exercise).


Givón's 'Context as Other Minds' is certainly an interesting book.
However, I would think that in order to answer the question whether
context consists of representations of other minds, we need to invoke
evidence on whether speakers really build up such representations,
what these representations consist of (especially if speakers cannot
infer the others' mental models on the basis of their own), and under
which conditions speakers make use of these representations.

Recently, much work has been devoted to the question whether
speakers build up models of their interlocutors, what these models
consist of, whether speakers display attention to this kind of
information and how interlocutors contribute to it. Thus, many sources
of information are available to the researcher interested in the
questions raised by Givón. In particular, there is currently a lively
discussion in psycholinguistics on whether speakers rely on
knowledge about their hearers and under which conditions (see
Schober & Brennan 2003 or Horton & Gerrig 2005 for overviews).
Moreover, there is conversation analytic work showing participants'
orientation to subtle cues with respect to information processing and
topic development (e.g. Gardner 2001). Furthermore, there are
numerous linguistic studies on how people talk to communication
partners who are in some ways different from the speaker, such as
children, retarded adults, or even computers. Finally, work in
pragmatics has shown that speakers do not only orient to epistemic
and deontic modality, as Givón suggests, but that they also model
their interlocutors' attitudes and evaluations in their utterances (for
discussion, see Nemo to appear).

Givón does not discuss any of the above. Of the more than 500
references, only 48 were published within the last five years, 30 of
which are neurolinguistic or psychological papers and seven the
author's own recent work. Only about five references concern recent
work in linguistics or pragmatics.

However, even though Givón does not enter a detailed discussion
with 'the community of scholars', there are many interesting things the
book does do. In fact, Givón himself presents us with a framework in
which to locate his scientific work (ch. 8).

The evidence presented in the book rests on arguments from
evolutionary linguistics and on detailed analyses of grammatical
features (especially ch. 4-7), which show that grammar can be
interpreted as having the function to anticipate and influence the
interlocutors' mental states, or, in Givón's words:

''a dedicated signaling system whose purpose is to induce others to
comprehend what is in one's mind. Not only to comprehend, but
hopefully also to spring into relevant action. Such behavior is
inconceivable without a running on-line mental model, however
subconscious, of the interlocutor's rapidly shifting intentional and
epistemic states.'' (p.120)

Givón's argument can thus be understood as abductive hypothesis

a. there are puzzling facts F on the function of grammar and on the
tasks involved in social behaviour,
b. facts F are fully compatible with Hypothesis H, that speakers
subconsciously model their communication partners' mental states,
c. whose truth value is yet to be determined.
d. That is, if Hypothesis H were the case,
e. then facts F would be explained as a matter of course.
f. Therefore Hypothesis H, that speakers subconsciously model their
communication partners' mental states, must be the case.

Givón not only succeeds in supporting this line of argumentation very
well, he also demonstrates the ubiquity of abductive reasoning and
contributes thus to clarifying the kinds of evidence linguistic theorizing
may rely on.

The book furthermore comprises many shorter discussions to which I
cannot do justice here. One seems to be to clear Aristotle's name of
the suspicion of being objectivist (p. 80), another one is to argue for
the adaptive value of prototype-based reasoning (ch.2), and a third
and fourth ones concern psychiatric diagnoses of mental disturbance
(ch. 9) and Confucian philosophy (ch. 10) respectively. These
discussions are not always as thorough as they could be; for instance,
during Givón's invoking of Freud's model of self, only id and ego are
discussed, super-ego has been dropped, although the super-ego
would be a plausible candidate for the representation of others in our
mind. Also the discussion of prototype theory lacks the depth of, e.g.
the one by Kleiber (1998). Moreover, I would like to cast doubt on the
usefulness of a discussion of ''relevant themes'' in pragmatics that, for
instance, devotes five lines to the notion of relevance (p. 8). However,
the discussions are certainly thought-provoking.

Regarding formal matters, the volume is a treasure for researchers
working on garden path sentences, and it is sloppy with respect to
references (e.g. Firth instead of Frith (p. 232), Fussell & Kreuz are
cited as Fussel & Kreutz (p.108), Sweetser 1990 is cited as 1990 and
1991 on the same page (p. 73), Scherer becomes Schere (p. 257)
etc.) and typos, the most amusing of which are ''sort-term working
memory'' (p. 107) and ''metal representation in the brain'' (p. 92).

Besides its shortcomings, the book is interesting and inspiring and a
useful source for everyone working on the role of the partner in


Gardner, R. (2001) When Listeners Talk. Amsterdam/Philadelphia:
John Benjamins.

Horton, W. S. & Gerrig, R. J. (2005) The impact of memory demands
on audience design during language production. Cognition 96, 127-

Kleiber, G. (1998) Prototypensemantik: eine Einführung. 2. Auflage
Tübingen (= La sémantique du prototype. Categories et sens lexical.
Paris 1990).

Nemo, F. (to appear) The Pragmatics of Common Ground. In Fetzer,
A. & Fischer, K. (Eds.), Lexical Markers of Common Ground.
Amsterdam: Elsevier.

Schober, M. F. & Brennan, S. E. (2003) Processes of interactive
spoken discourse: The role of the partner. In A. C. Graesser, M. A.
Gernsbacher, & S. R. Goldman (Eds.), Handbook of discourse
processes (pp. 123-164). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Kerstin Fischer is assistant professor at the University of Bremen,
Germany. She has been working on recipient design and common
ground for several years, especially between unequal interlocutors,
for instance, in communication with computers, robots, foreigners, or
children. She is co-editor of 'Lexical Markers of Common Grounds', to
appear with Elsevier this year. In the framework of the
SFB/TR8 'Spatial Cognition', she elicits and analyses corpora of
human-robot interaction that differ only with respect to single variables
in order to identify the factors that influence speakers' choices for their
artificial interlocutors.