Formal pragmatics

In the 1950s, Chomsky and his colleagues began attempts to reduce the complexity of natural language phonology and syntax to a few general principles. It wasn’t long before philosophers, notably John Searle and H. Paul Grice, started looking for ways to do the same for rational communication (Chapman 2005). In his 1967 William James Lectures, Grice presented a loose optimization system based on his maxims of conversation. The resulting papers (especially Grice 1975) strike a fruitful balance between intuitive exploration and formal development. Though the work is not particularly formal, it marks the birth of modern formal pragmatics. Pragmatics is central to the theory of linguistic meaning because, to paraphrase Levinson (2000), the encoded content of the sentences we utter is only the barest sketch of what we actually communicate with those utterances. Utterance interpretation involves complex interactions among (i) semantic content, (ii) the context of utterance, and (iii) general pragmatic pressures (of which Grice’s maxims are one conception). The starting point for a formal pragmatics is the observation that speakers agree to a remarkable extent on the interpretations of the utterances they hear, suggesting that there are deep regularities across speakers, utterance contexts, and sentence types in how (i)–(iii) interact. An overarching challenge for pragmatic theory is that semantic content and the context of utterance influence each other. It is common, for instance, to find that the meaning of a sentence is crucially incomplete without contextual information. Indexicals and demonstratives are paradigm cases: ‘I am here now’ doesn’t have a fully specified denotation without information about who the speaker is, when he is speaking, and where he is speaking. Similarly, modal auxiliaries like must admit of a wide range of interpretations..
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