You are on page 1of 13

RUTH MANOR

ON THE OVERLAP OF PRAGMATICS AND SEMANTICS

1. MAN VS . PATCH

In this paper I wish to consider the distinction between semantics and pragmatics and to point out some difculties that arise within the position that takes the distinction to be sharp and exclusive. I suggest that there are good reasons for the distinction, but there are no good reasons pointing to essential features of language and requiring the distinction to be sharp. General considerations suggest that there could and maybe even should be a fragment of natural language whose semantic analysis includes pragmatic inferences. I start from the position that there is a distinction between semantics and pragmatics, based on both the difference in subject matter and in the methods they use. But treating the distinction as a strict division results in imposing certain constraints on natural language, which may not be justied. Natural language is rich, exible and constantly evolving. This dynamic is possible in part due to the fact that though language involves systems of rigid rules (e.g., certain semantic rules), it also involves mechanisms (e.g., Gricean processes), yielding that certain actions which violate some rules may still carry expressive meaning. I apply this idea to the semantics/pragmatics distinction and conclude, as a rst hunch, that there should be some linguistic phenomenon that makes communicative use of the breaking of the neat distinction. A natural place to look for such an example is related to vagueness. I have argued elsewhere1 that the vagueness of predicates such as is bald and is yellow is not the result of a failure to be precise but it serves an important expressive function, and that the nature of the context dependency of vague predicates puts their meaning analysis within the overlap of semantics and pragmatics. I will not repeat this argument here. Rather, I look into an important use of certain vague predicates, which are used to create new objects out of the background. Thus I look at nouns like: patch, smear, stain, whiff, region, period, slice, part, and the
Synthese 128: 6373, 2001. 2001 Kluwer Academic Publishers. Printed in the Netherlands.

64

RUTH MANOR

like. These are not merely vague predicates like is dark or is bald. What characterizes them is that they refer to a part of the surroundings or the world, but their exact identity depends on the discourse. While a dark patch in a painting has existence as a part of the painting it is identied as a specic object, as an it, only in virtue of the discourse. More specically, if we use the term with the denite description, as in (1) The dark patch,

then the description can be used not merely to refer to an existing element in the context (when such exists) but to determine an object in the given context. Consider the sentence (2) The dark patch in the skies of van Goghs Starry Night is full of movement.

According to the classical semantic analysis (whether Russellian or Strawsonian), the description fails if there is no unique dark patch in that drawing. But what is a patch? Patches are not well dened things. They are not things that we can go look in the picture to see if there is a unique one that ts the description (of being dark and in the skies . . . ). Patch, part, etc., are terms that enable us to consider a part of the world and treat it as an object under discussion. In a sense, we take a part of the background and bring it into focus by molding it into an object, which can then be referred to and discussed. What we really do in grasping the claim (2) above is consider (or imagine) the painting, choose a portion of the skies which is relatively dark and whose exact boundaries are unimportant, and we take it to be the referent of the description. Rather than refer to an existing object, we in a sense create the referent, based on the description and the context, and that referent might not have been identied as an object in the world until a sentence like (2) was uttered. Thus, there is a difference between things like patches and, say, kings. Consider the famous (3) The present king of France is bald.

We may follow the classical approach and claim that sentence (3) semantically presupposes the unique existence of a king of France, and that when (3) is uttered in a context in which the presupposition is false, the sentence itself is untrue (false or gappy.)

ON THE OVERLAP OF PRAGMATICS AND SEMANTICS

65

But patches and parts are entities of a type different from kings. Sentence (2) does not presuppose the existence of a unique dark patch. It does presuppose that the color of the skies is uneven, but it does not presuppose the existence of a unique dark patch. Indeed, in impressionists paintings patches do not appear uniquely. Typically, there are many ways to outline the dark patch, and then the uniqueness assumption as such is untrue. In such cases, the typical pragmatic considerations do not enable us to pick one rather than another outline of the patch as the speakers reference. Unlike the classical approach, when there are many such dark patches in that picture, the sentence does not fail to be true. Rather, the use of the description serves to create a new (abstract) object by identifying a portion of it as the dark patch. It both determines the existence of a part of the picture as a specic object and it characterizes that part as the dark patch in the skies of the van Goghs Starry Night. Since the dark patch created can be drawn in a variety of ways as a precise gure, the patch is not identied with either of them. It is a unique object with undetermined boundaries. It can be viewed as an abstraction of all the possible ways to draw distinct gures that precisify the dark patch in the van Gogh skies. The existence of this object, the dark patch, is not presupposed. Rather, this abstract entity, the dark patch, comes into existence and is added to the world under discussion as a result of the utterance of the description in the discourse. One may object and claim that patches really have precise boundaries, and the description the dark patch . . . is either ambiguous (as fuzzy logic would claim) or it is epistemically underdetermined and we do not know where those boundaries lie (as Williamson claims)2 . In the case of ambiguity, the sentence will really lack a truth value, while in the case of the lack of knowledge, the sentence has a denite truth value which is unknowable. But these approaches appear to make sentences about patches and parts useless, because why would speakers assert sentences which lack a truth value or their values are unknowable? Hence, the process of determining the patch in the picture involves a pragmatic process based on considerations of cooperation. This may suggest that the reference of the dark patch is a form of speakers reference and obtained by a process similar to the one described by Kripke (1979). Consider Donellans (1966) example (4) The man with the Martini.

As suggested by Kripke, this description (4) has a semantic reference only in contexts where there is a unique man with the Martini. That it can be used successfully to refer to a man holding a club soda does not

66

RUTH MANOR

change its semantic reference. Rather, the speakers reference, deduced using pragmatic considerations, is distinct from the semantic reference. I believe that this analysis will not work for patches (regions, parts, periods, etc.), because they are different from men. (In most contexts) we cannot say that a man has proper parts that are also men. Patches are entities of the type, which can be drawn in different ways because they have proper parts that are also patches. One can view a patch as a set of precisely drawn gures, or as one patch with undetermined boundaries. We cannot similarly look at a party where there are many men holding Martinis and view them as one man with undetermined boundaries, because there is no overlap between the men. It is the meaning of man that determines that when (4) is used in a party where there are many men holding Martinis, the description would fail. The speakers reference may be deduced along the lines suggested by Kripke, but the existence of this reference is a matter of reality. Uttering the description did not create an abstract man which generalizes over many overlapping precise man-gures in the party. The difference between the two descriptions lies in the meanings of the terms. The reference of man is an object in the world. The reference of patch reects how we slice the world in the present discourse. It is the meaning of patch that allows the description the dark patch . . . to determine a new object whose boundaries are undetermined and which is some abstraction of the multitude of precise patch-gures. It is in this sense that I claim that pragmatics is built into the semantics of the dark patch. It should be noted that the above view of the meaning and use of the dark patch may be supported by ontological considerations having to do with ordinary objects. Consider for instance Eddingtons desk, which is composed of molecules moving in a certain region in space and therefore whose boundaries and molecular components may not be completely determined. Eddingtons desk is composed of molecules, but like the patch it could be outlined in many different ways corresponding to slightly different collections of molecules. That Eddingtons desk is a unique desk is taken as given and independently of its molecular structure. Given this assumption, we can view the desk as an abstraction of the different collections of molecules. But there is a price for assuming both that there exists a unique object, the desk, and that its own components and its environments components are molecules. We then have to accept the possible indeterminacy of whether a specic molecule is a part of the desk or part of its surroundings and that the desk is a foggy object with undetermined boundaries.

ON THE OVERLAP OF PRAGMATICS AND SEMANTICS

67

This outlines the example. I will now turn to explain how it can be viewed as a counter-example to the view that there is a sharp distinction between semantics and pragmatics, and to the view that semantics is completely independent of pragmatics. But rst let us consider some reasons for preferring a sharp distinction between semantics and pragmatics.
2. THE SEMANTICS FIRST VIEW

1. A good place to review the semantics/pragmatics distinction is Steven Davis introduction to his reader Pragmatics.3 There he opens the book by characterizing semantic knowledge as including the theory of meaning as well as a satisfaction theory. Pragmatic knowledge includes knowledge of how to use the language. This initial outline characterizes semantics as context free. Yet, since some expressions such as indexicals and demonstratives may not have any semantic reference, we need to reason from the speakers intention and the context in order to deduce the speakers reference. Thus, according to Davis, pragmatics and satisfaction theory share the use of the speakers intentions. While satisfaction theory uses these only to determine the reference of terms when conventional semantics is insufcient, pragmatics is mainly concerned with the strategies the hearer employs to determine what the speakers intentions and acts are. Presumably, these pragmatic strategies depend on both the semantic meanings of the expressions used as well as on other contextual information. Hence, this view imposes an order on the analysis of the meanings of fragments of discourse: we determine the semantic meaning rst and use it to determine the speakers meaning. 2. More generally, there are two general methods in which we may determine the speakers reference as distinct from the semantic reference of an expression. First, it is possible that the semantic information may be insufcient. This is the case when the expression used is ambiguous, or when it includes indexical expressions where the referent is a function of the context. There may be other cases, but they share in general the feature that the referent of the speech-act is not identied by the semantics and it is identied via contextual considerations. Second, it is possible that the semantics determines sufciently the reference, but that creates a conict with the principle of conversational cooperation, which is resolved by assigning the speaker a reference different from the semantic reference. It appears that according to Davis (and this is probably also consistent with Kripke, 1979), the only way satisfaction theory employs consideration of the speakers intentions is in using the rst method, that is, the

68

RUTH MANOR

speakers reference is a function of the context. The other method, that involving resolving the conict between the semantic reference and conversational cooperation is not a part of the semantics and is essentially pragmatic. In any case, both methods require that the semantics be given rst, which suggests the more general semantics rst hypothesis that semantics could and should always be done rst and independently of pragmatics. This raises the question of whether this ordering can be generalized: Could (and should) semantics be always independent of pragmatics? It seems clear that Davis does not like the idea that the semantic/pragmatic distinction may not be disjoint and that there may be an overlap between their domains of facts. He says
The problem is that if truth theoretic semantics were to refer to speakers intentions, it would cross the boundary between pragmatics and semantics . . . . The result would be that the distinction between semantics and pragmatics would be blurred, and we would not have a separate domain of facts for semantics and pragmatics. (Davis 1991, pp. 89)

He does not specify any reasons why he deems an overlap between the elds so undesirable. I believe that it would indeed be nice if the elds were utterly disjoint, because we could impose a very clear order on the analysis of the meaning of discourse fragments, and hence on its research. Pragmaticists and semanticists could then work separately. Semanticists could develop their theories independently or almost independently of pragmatics, while pragmaticists can assume the semantics as given and proceed from there. Let me call this view the semantics rst view. One may suggest that the advantage of assuming a sharp division between semantics and pragmatics goes beyond, and is more essential than merely permitting us a neat division of labor. It may enable us to account for the dynamic nature of language. I will say a little more on this subject below. In any case, one important reason for viewing semantics and pragmatics as disjoint elds may be the fact that in general they use different methods of analysis. In particular, where semantic meaning is compositional and follows the syntactic structure, it is formalizable. Pragmatic reasoning, on the other hand, involves inferences from the context and from conversational maxims. If these rules are at all formalizable, then the formalism needed is probably very different from the one employed in semantics. But surely this general difference in methods does not prevent the existence of a language fragment in which the two elds overlap and where even paradigmatic pragmatic considerations are used as a part of the semantic analysis.

ON THE OVERLAP OF PRAGMATICS AND SEMANTICS

69

3. Let us now return to the example of the dark patch and see how it is supposed to conict with the sharp distinction and the semantics rst views. Suppose that I am right and we may use the denite description (1), The dark patch, to create a new abstract object added to the world under discussion. What is used in this process of creation is not merely some properties of the context (as in the case of indexicals) but the paradigmatically pragmatic strategies involving the assumption of conversational cooperation. Thus, the present example counters Davis implicature that the distinction, as drawn by him, is sharp. What I want to conclude from it is not that he drew incorrectly a justied distinction. I believe that his characterization is correct. I prefer the conclusion that the two elds may overlap. Admittedly, this example of expressions used to create new objects by speech acts involving a special use of the denite descriptions with specic predicates like patch is very complex. So much so that it is probably easily objected to. I should say rst that this story about patches was not cooked as an ad hoc solution for the overlap thesis, but it is supported independently by considerations of the communicative function of vagueness. Second, even if this specic example does not complete the job successfully, it points out that the existence of a fragment whose semantic analysis presupposes a paradigmatically pragmatic process may be possible. The question arises what other general methodological considerations may favor the overlap view.

3. MORE IN FAVOR OF AN OVERLAP

1. One of the administrative advantages of having a sharp semantics/pragmatics distinction lies in the possibility of separating two elds of research. Semanticists can continue to use pragmatics as its garbage can, as Bar-Hillel put it, as the place where we semanticists send all the difculties we do not want to deal with. At the same time, pragmaticists can assume semantics as given, unquestioned, and outside their realm of responsibility. Thus, classical semanticists can argue that classical conjunction captures well the literal meaning of the term and in all its different uses, while the fact that some of these uses are non-commutative is explained away as a mere pragmatic difference. For instance, that (5) They got married and had a baby

has a different meaning (and truth conditions) from (6) They had a baby and got married

70

RUTH MANOR

can be claimed by semanticists as a pragmatic difference in the use of and and not in its literal meaning. They thereby send the problem of explaining this difference to the pragmatics department. Pragmaticists, on the other hand, are not obligated to accept the semanticist view. They can argue forcefully that the issue is of semantic ambiguity, and should be treated by semanticists. Can such a debate be solved empirically? I am not sure. The debate concerning the attributive and referential uses of denite descriptions is, following Kripke (1979) an argument motivated by methodological considerations rather than a question of empirical fact. My point is not merely that we are wasting time in arguing that the problem is outside our jurisdiction instead of trying to solve it. Rather, that the apparent advantage of dividing the meaning issues neatly into two departments turns out to give rise to a new set of methodological problems. It is possible that in treating semantics and pragmatics as separate elds of research we slice the problems of meaning too thinly and shift too much of the meaning research into administrative questions concerning where we study what. Indeed, what is left of semantics as a eld? If semantics is to be taken as logicians do, as an analysis of the meaning of abstract components underlying the meanings of the natural-language terms, then we semanticists could claim that anything underlies that meaning, and our claims could not be checked empirically without supplying the missing pragmatic link. Thus, the claim made by some logicians that conjunction is the basis for the meaning of any natural language and cannot be conrmed nor refuted without attaching to it the pragmatic theory that connects one to the other. If, on the other hand, semantics has to do with the literal meaning of natural language expressions, as Kripke suggests, then presumably the semanticists claims can be tested empirically. Thus, we can simply ask native speakers of English and they will tell us whether and is or is not commutative. If they say that the commutativity of and depends on the context, we can conclude that and is ambiguous and then it is not clear whether we can nd a semantic meaning common to all uses of and in English. I.e., in this case, the kind of semantics advocated by logicians may be useless. But surely we should not dismiss this eld on the mere administrative grounds of a view like the semantics rst view. We may instead doubt that view. 2. I have suggested earlier that one advantage of having two systems that participate in forming the meanings of expressions lies in explaining changes in meanings. Of particular interest are changes in the literal meaning. The problem can be described roughly as follows: Semantic theory associates meanings with syntactic structures. Hence, it may allow that a

ON THE OVERLAP OF PRAGMATICS AND SEMANTICS

71

terms semantic reference at time t1 is different from its reference at t2, but it does not by itself explain how and why a certain term changes its meaning through time. Once we assume that pragmatics can determine part of the meaning by a different set of rules, semantic shifts can be explained. Thus, after introducing the distinction between semantic reference and speakers reference, Kripke expresses the hope that the distinction could explain semantic shifts:4
. . . I nd it plausible that a diachronic account of the evolution of language is likely to suggest that what was originally merely speakers reference may, if it became habitual in a community, evolve into semantic reference. (p. 91)

I agree with Kripke that something like this must happen, and that use may affect the semantic meaning. But this implies that semantics may not always be rst and that the semantic/pragmatic distinction is not sharp, as follows. If we accept the independence of semantics (i.e., semantics rst), then the above account of meaning change is impossible: no knowledge about how people use a term can change the independent fact of what its real semantic meaning is. Moreover, when a term changes its semantic meaning due to the fact that the community has been using that term to refer to something different from its original semantic reference, then this process must be gradual and there is no determined point for the change. Whatever the process is, there cannot be a specic switching point where the community changed the semantics of the term. There cannot be a specic switching point from something being at one moment merely a common reference of the speakers (that is distinct from the well known the semantic reference) for a given expression, and a minute later that speakers reference replaces the semantic reference. So whatever the process, it must be gradual over time. In the period of indecision, there must be some overlap between the semantic and speakers meanings of the expression in question. Hence, if semantic shifts can result from patterns of use, the semantics/pragmatics distinction cannot be sharp. But how could such a shift occur? Lets imagine that a group of people decided to refrain from alcohol and started their new country, Nona. Suppose a famous Nonic comedian used (4) The man with the Martini to refer to a man with a club soda. This has started a Nonic tradition of using that phrase to refer (speakers reference) to men with club sodas, maybe as a form of nostalgia. At some later point a native Nona semanticist may claim that in the Nonic dialect, the Martini semantically refers to a club soda.

72

RUTH MANOR

This tale is in accordance with Kripkes suggestion, and it seems plausible enough. But note that not only did Martini change its semantic reference. The denite description changed its semantic meaning. The man with the Martini refers to a man with a soda, and the description will no longer fail to refer when there is a man holding more than one club soda. But that the denite description could change its semantic meaning as a result of use or context is what Kripke was arguing against in bringing the distinction between semantic reference and speakers reference. More generally and to our point, if patterns of use can affect the semantic meaning of an expression, then semantics cannot be independent of pragmatics and semantics can overlap pragmatics. The picture that emerges is that while the distinction between semantics and pragmatics is helpful and justied in many respects, we should view it as merely a working hypothesis, that may not necessarily apply to all cases. In particular, the semantic meaning of is a patch and is a region is such that they refer to indenite parts of the world that contains the topics of our discourse on the one hand, and on the other these are objects we can talk truly about and refer to. The indeterminacy of the boundaries of these objects lies in the nature of the world and its components. Their objecthood is determined and created by the speech-acts in the discourse.

NOTES
1 Manor (1995, 1997). 2 Williamson 1995 3 Davis (1991), pp. 313. 4 Kripke 1979.

REFERENCES

Davis, S., 1991 (ed.), Pragmatics, Oxford. Davis, S.,1991a, Introduction, Davis (1991), pp. 313. Donnellan, K., 1966 Reference and Denite Description, in Davis (1991), pp. 5264. Grice, P., 1968 Logic and Conversation, in Davis (1991), pp. 305315. Kripke, S.,1979, Speakers Reference and Semantic Reference, in Davis (1991), pp. 77 96. Manor, R., 1995, Pragmatic Considerations in Semantic Analyses, Pragmatics and Cognition, II, 225245. Manor, R., 1997, Only the Bald are Bald, Analyomen 2, Perspectives in Analytical Philosophy, vol. II, Megle, G. (ed.), De Gruyter pp. 178184. Williamsom, T., 1995, Vagueness, Routledge.

ON THE OVERLAP OF PRAGMATICS AND SEMANTICS

73

Kaufmann A., 1975, Introduction to the Theory of Fuzzy Subsets, vol. I, Academic Press. Tel-Aviv University San Jose State University

Reproduced with permission of the copyright owner. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.