Context ex Machina

In Zoltan Gendler Szabo (ed.), Semantics Versus Pragmatics. Oxford University Press. pp. 15--44 (2005)


Once upon a time it was assumed that speaking literally and directly is the norm and that speaking nonliterally or indirectly is the exception. The assumption was that normally what a speaker means can be read off of the meaning of the sentence he utters, and that departures from this, if not uncommon, are at least easily distinguished from normal utterances and explainable along Gricean lines. The departures were thought to be limited to obvious cases like figurative speech and conversational implicature. However, people have come to appreciate that the meaning of a typical sentence, at least one we are at all likely to use, is impoverished, at least relative to what we are likely to mean in uttering it. In other words, what a speaker normally means in uttering a sentence, even without speaking figuratively or obliquely, is an enriched version of what could be predicted from the meaning of the sentence alone. This can be because the sentence expresses a “minimal” (or “skeletal”) proposition or even because it fails to express a complete proposition at all.1 Indeed, it is now a platitude that linguistic meaning generally underdetermines speaker meaning. That is, generally what a speaker means in uttering a sentence, even if the sentence is devoid of ambiguity, vagueness, or indexicality, goes beyond what the sentence means. The question is what to make of this Contextualist Platitude, as I’ll call it. It may be a truism, but does it require a radical revision of the older conception of the relation between what sentences mean and what speakers mean in uttering them? Does it lead to a major modification, or perhaps even outright rejection, of the semantic-pragmatic distinction? I think..

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Kent Bach
San Francisco State University

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