Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Propositional content in relevance theory

On my vacation I read a bunch of stuff since travelling affords one so much time for reading while also removing so many distractions.

I finally read Relevance by Wilson and Sperber. I got much of the same feeling from it that I did from Recanati's Literal Meaning. At times, both books seemed to be talking more about cognitive science or psychology than pragmatics per se. To put it a different way, at times it seemed more like cognitive science than philosophy of action. This is not a criticism but an observation of a difference in approach. One nice thing about the book was that its bibliography featured several articles on disambiguation and pragmatics, a topic that I could not find much philosophical literature on previously.

The final chapter of Relevance is about speech acts and relevance theory. Wilson and Sperber adopt the Frege-Searle propositional content hypothesis I've talked about before, but they put a twist on it. The representations they talk about have logical parts and conceptual parts (they might use the term "propositional," I don't remember and I don't have the book handy to check). Entailment is a relation based on the logical content of an utterance. It is not defined for the propositional part, but they use examples like: "A dog ran" entails "Something ran." This makes it kind of hard to see the demarcation between the propositional and the logical. I believe when they introduce these terms they say that it isn't a rigorously defined distinction. The propositional part is the fully semantic part of the utterance. They then go on to endorse the idea that "The door is shut," "Shut the door," and "Is the door shut?" all have a common propositional component while differing in force. Now, they seem to be in the position to accept states of affairs rather than propositions as the common content. They don't however. They insist on the common content being truth-apt. I'm not clear on why. They are fairly clear on this when they (briefly) talk about polar questions. They say that the questions have a complete logical form and a complete propositional form, where propositions are described as truth-apt when complete. They (roughly) echo Frege on the reason for this: an answer would be an assertion or a denial of the proposition. They also don't characterize the relationship between, e.g., the above assertion, imperative, and question. I think the line they give is roughly Searle's, i.e. obviousness. Is the propositional content hypothesis a dogma of pragmatics?

Offhand, I don't remember if they discuss non-'yes-no' answers to polar questions; if not, I will return to that topic later.

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