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Faculty of Modern and Medieval Languages and Linguistics


Summary and Objectives

Rethinking Being Gricean: New Challenges for Metapragmatics

Funded by Cambridge Humanities Research Grant Tier 2: Standard Grant

1 February – 31 July 2018


Summary and Objectives


The foundational influence of Paul Grice on contemporary pragmatic theory has its roots in the combination of focus on intentions in their role of explanantia for meaning in discourse with the rigidity of the truth-conditional approach upon which his theory of communication is built. Forty years on, post-Gricean pragmatics is still the most influential, successful and methodologically most rigorous approach to utterance meaning. However, it has become necessary to ask what ‘being Gricean’ means in the current Anglo-American, truth-conditional contextualist paradigm: how much, and on what identifiable dimensions, one can depart from his program and still remain ‘post-Gricean’. In the past four decades, ‘being Gricean’ used to be associated with a well-focused, fairly unidirectional inquiry into meaning: neo-Gricean or post-Griceans tended to question the plausibility of the semantics/pragmatics boundary that emerges from his writings, progressing to questioning the need for semantic ambiguity, to begin with in the domain of negation captured in the Atlas-Kempson thesis, in support of semantic underdetermination and the associated intrusion of pragmatic information into the truth-conditional content. But the current state-of-the-art with ‘being Gricean’ appears to be very different. The term ‘Gricean pragmatics’ appears to have been diluted to such an extent that it is difficult to tell what criteria one ought to adopt to delimit this orientation.


The label has generated very different challenges on several new dimensions. First, the role of inferential meanings has been questioned in that communication has since been envisaged as mostly direct and non-inferential (Recanati). Next, the explanatory role of intentions has been denied in an attempt to reinstate the idea of multiple semantic ambiguities in lieu of the Gricean meaning-underdetermination, with the aim of supposedly aiding computational, formalizable accounts of discourse meaning (Lepore and Stone). This reopened the question as to what kind of content, and how much of it, is attributable to grammar, following up on an earlier proposal of the grammatical origin of some pragmatic meanings that were standardly classified as implicatures (Chierchia).   Along yet another dimension, the cooperative interaction and proposition-based theorizing have been replaced with a focus on strategic communication and dialogue (Asher and Lascarides). Most importantly, the Gricean cline of meaning construction (sometimes called ‘the pipeline picture of meaning’) has been questioned within situation and game-theoretic semantics (Lewis, Barwise and Perry) and recently in Equilibrium Semantics (Parikh). It has been argued that discourse meaning is not constructed following the steps from logical form (the output of syntactic processing) through modulations, to additional inferred meanings (implicatures) but rather follows the principles of interaction or a language game in which the players simply strive for an equilibrium. Default Semantics (DS, Jaszczolt) that belongs to the post-Gricean camp also questions the utility of this cline and opts for a conceptual representation that merges information from different sources, arrived at through different interacting processes, that is not constrained by the Gricean ‘pipeline picture’. This has already led to discussions as to whether DS is ‘still Gricean’. Next, the modular approach to meaning has been questioned and replaced with general cognitive mechanisms that are also allegedly responsible for implicatures (Goodman and Lassiter). Finally, there is also a U-turn in denying the truth-conditional status of pragmatic modifications in so-called semantic minimalism (Borg).


The metapragmatic question arises as to what qualitative and associated quantitative criteria current pragmatic theory has to fulfil in order to count as Gricean pragmatics. In this pilot project we begin by identifying the main, novel dimensions on which the Gricean program has recently been challenged (overtly or covertly) and attempt to assess the state-of-the-art of the post-Gricean, contextualist, truth-conditional approach to meaning. Next, we hypothesise that the ‘pipeline picture of meaning’, so central to Grice’s own approach, is not a necessary condition for being ‘Gricean’, while the truth-conditional method and the explanatory role of intentions are. The question arises, how the departure from the logical form-based underspecification can be reconciled with retaining the truth-conditional method and intentions as the explanans. Here we propose to include an empirical component in this largely theoretical project and conduct a pilot study, using the method of elicitation (judgement and autoreflection), on a carefully selected set of examples within a carefully selected range of semantic phenomena, to address the question as to whether the ‘non-pipeline’ picture of meaning is a feasible construct that can be supported with a formal theory qua a theory with predictive power that yields itself to algorithms for different semantic phenomena.


We focus on reference assignment, discourse relations, and varieties of non-literal meaning and we assess such phenomena on three dimensions:

(i)      the role of pragmatics vis-à-vis syntax in the construction of meaning,

(ii)     the status of alleged ambiguities, and

(iii)    the role of intention and inference in linguistic interpretation.


We adopt the unit of analysis in the form of the so-called merger representation developed within DS. The process of constructing such conceptual structures has not yet been attempted and constitutes an important challenge, especially in view of the foundational questions summarised above, which we propose to take up.


Cambridge Linguistics can boast strong research activity in the relevant areas that has already come to be known internationally as Cambridge Pragmatics. In the course of over twenty years, a group of scholars has been meeting to discuss cutting-edge questions in theoretical pragmatics currently under the name of the ‘Semantics, Pragmatics, and Philosophy’ (SPP) research group. This makes us uniquely well placed to address metapragmatic and foundational pragmatic issues. The proposed project poses questions that have not been attempted so far and demonstrates that they are of high priority for the future of pragmatics. Once we know what patterns the construction of utterance meaning follows when freed from the constraints of theoretical assumptions, we are free to construct a plausible unit, taking seriously the issue of systematicity and compositionality on the level above that of linguistic structures, and start building a formal theory that puts language in its rightful place with respect to other sources of information. This pilot project in metapragmatics will fit into this overall objective.