Thursday, September 14, 2006

Minimal semantics and Gricean pragmatics

Suppose that Cappelan and Lepore's minimal semantics is right. This means that most of the things we say are false. No utterance of "I am tall" is ever true (at least on this planet). No utterance of "That is flat" is either. Lots of things we say won't be literally true. This means that most of what goes for what-is-said is not true either.

There's the rub. If most of your propositions expressed as what-is-said are not true, then the maxim of quality goes right out the door. I suppose that one could reason like this: he said "I am tall" but since that isn't true, there must be a further proposition that is relevant that he wanted me to understand. There are two problems with that. One is that there are a lot of propositions in the neighborhood of the one expressed by my "I am tall". A whole lot of them. You'd be hard-pressed to pick out the right one just given that I have expressed something in that semantic neighborhood. Additionally, this would turn most acts of understanding into implicature recovery. I suppose that Kent Bach would be happy with this since his position isn't too far from this line. Actually, I suppose that the relevance theorists wouldn't mind this either since they think that some amount of inference is done in every communicative act. They don't use the maxim of quality though. This might indicate that going minimal about semantics pushes one to abandon canonical (or even neo-?) Gricean pragmatics. There are a lot (most?all?) of details that would need to be filled in before the connections (or lack thereof) between minimal semantics and Gricean pragmatics can be made explicit. It seems telling that Cappelan and Lepore aren't Griceans; and the minimal semantic project is designed to be bolster Davidson's program and Davidson was very much not a Gricean.


Brit Brogaard said...

But they do defend speech-act pluralism, which I think can account for the data equally well.

Shawn said...

How are you understanding their claim about speech act pluralism? It looks to me like they are giving a no-theory theory about what speech acts are generated whenever a speaker makes an utterance. They give some good examples of how one utterance generates a lot of speech acts and how these account for the extra messages conveyed by the utterance. However, they don't offer any story about why it is those speech acts that are generated. This makes it seem like they can account for the data, in the sense of listing a bunch of speech act contents, but not explain the data in the sense of why those and not other speech acts were made.

I'm just starting to wrap my head around non-Gricean pragmatics, so I might be missing a key step in their account.