Overhearing a Sentence: Recanati and the Cognitive View of Language

Pragmatics and Cognition 12 (219):251 (2005)
Abstract
Many pragmaticians have distinguished three levels of meaning involved in the comprehension of utterances, and there is an ongoing debate about how to characterize the intermediate level. Recanati has called it the level of ‘what is said’ and has opposed the idea that it can be determined semantically — a position that he labels ‘pragmatic minimalism’. To this end he has offered two chief arguments: semantic underdeterminacy and the Availability Principle. This paper exposes a tension between both arguments, relating this discussion with Carruthers’s cognitive view of language, according to which some thoughts are, literally, sentences of our natural language. First we explain how this view entails minimalism, and we construct an argument based on semantic underdeterminacy that shows that natural language sentences do not have the compositional properties required to constitute thoughts. Then we analyze the example of a subject’s overhearing a sentence without an interpretive context, arguing that in the light of the Availability Principle the corresponding thought can be regarded as a natural language sentence. Thus, semantic underdeterminacy and availability pull in different directions, and we claim that there is no characterization of the latter that can relieve this tension. We contend that Recanati’s availability shares with Carruthers’s introspectivism an overreliance on intuitions about what appears consciously in one’s mind. We conclude, therefore, that the Availability Principle ought to be abandoned.
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