Dan Sperber & Ira Noveck
does our knowledge of language on the one hand, and of the context on the other
permit us to understand what we are told, resolve ambiguities, grasp both
explicit and implicit content, recognize the force of a speech act, appreciate
metaphor and irony? These issues have been studied in two disciplines:
pragmatics and psycholinguistics, with limited interactions between the two.
Pragmatics is rooted in the philosophy of language and in linguistics and has
spawned competing theories using as evidence a mixture of intuitions about
interpretation and observations of behavior. Psycholinguistics has developed
sophisticated experimental methods in the study of verbal communication, but has
not used them to test systematic pragmatic theories. This volume lays down the
bases for a new field, Experimental Pragmatics, that draws on pragmatics,
psycholinguistics and also on the psychology of reasoning. Chapters in this
volume either review pioneering work or present novel ways of articulating
theories and experimental methods in the area. In
this introduction we outline some core pragmatic issues and approaches and
relate them to experimental work in
psycholinguistics and in the psychology of reasoning. We then briefly present
one by one the chapters of this collection.
1. Some core pragmatic issues and approaches
a very broad sense, pragmatics is the study of language use. It encompasses
loosely related research programmes ranging from formal studies of deictic
expressions to sociological studies of ethnic verbal stereotypes. In a more
focused sense, pragmatics is the study of how linguistic properties and
contextual factors interact in the interpretation of utterances. We will be
using “pragmatics” only in this narrower sense. Here we briefly highlight a
range of closely related, fairly central pragmatic issues and approaches that
have been of interest to linguists and philosophers of language in the past
thirty years or so, and that, in our opinion, may both benefit from, and
contribute to, work in experimental psychology.
sentence of a language can be considered as an abstract object with
phonological, syntactic and semantic properties assigned by the grammar of the
language (the grammar itself being generally seen as a mental system). The study
of these grammatical properties is at the core of linguistics. An utterance, by
contrast, is a concrete object with a definite location in time and space. An
utterance is a realisation of a sentence (a realisation that can be defective in
various respects, for instance by being mispronounced). An utterance inherits
the linguistic properties of the sentence it realises and has further properties
linked to its being uttered in a given situation by a speaker addressing an
audience. In verbal communication, both linguistic and non-linguistic properties
of utterances are involved. But what
role exactly do these properties play and how do they interact? These are
questions that pragmatic theories attempt to answer.
pragmatic approaches we are concerned with here all accept as foundational two
ideas that have been defended by the philosopher Paul Grice
. The first idea is that, in
verbal communication, the interlocutors share at least one goal: having the
hearer recognize the speaker’s meaning.
The linguistic decoding of the sentence uttered provides the hearer with the sentence
meaning, but this decoding is only a subpart of the process involved in
arriving at a recognition of the speaker’s meaning. This recognition does not
involve any distinct awareness of the sentence meaning, that is, of the semantic
properties assigned to the sentence by the grammar. Only linguists and
philosophers of language have a clear and distinct notion of, and an interest
in, sentence meaning proper. Unlike sentence meaning, which is an abstraction, a
speaker’s meaning is a mental state. More specifically, for a speaker to mean
that P is for her to have the intention that the hearer should realise that, in
producing her utterance, she intended him to think that P. A speaker’s meaning
is an overt intention that is fulfilled by being recognised by the intended
audience. Consider for instance Mary’s contribution to the following exchange:
(1) Peter: Do you like Fellini’s films?
replying “some of them,” Mary intends Peter to realize that she intends him
to think that she likes some of Fellini’s films, but not all. The proposition Mary
likes some of Fellini’s films but not all is Mary’s meaning. It is not
the linguistic meaning of the sentence fragment “some of them,” which can be
used in other situations to convey totally different contents. Mary’s meaning
goes well beyond the meaning of the linguistic expression she uttered.
comprehension is often seen in psycholinguistics as the study of linguistic
decoding processes, drawing on grammar (with the possibility that grammar may
extend above the level of the sentence to that of discourse) and using
contextual factors in a limited way, to disambiguate ambiguous expressions and
fix reference. The idea that successful communication consists in the
recognition by the audience of the speaker’s meaning suggests a different
approach. Verbal comprehension should be seen as a special form of attribution
of a mental state to the speaker. This attribution is dependent on linguistic
decoding, but is essentially an inferential process using as input the result of
this decoding and contextual information.
second foundational idea defended by Paul Grice is that, in inferring the
speaker’s meaning on the basis of the decoding of her utterance and of
contextual information, the hearer is guided by the expectation that the
utterance should meet some specific standards. The standards Grice envisaged
were based on the idea that a conversation is a cooperative activity.
Interlocutors are expected to follow what he called a “co-operative
principle” requiring that they “make [their] conversational contribution
such as is required, at the stage at which it occurs, by the accepted purpose or
direction of the talk exchange in which [they] are engaged.” This is achieved
by obeying a number of “maxims of conversation” which Grice expressed as
Maxims of Quantity:
Make your contribution as informative as is required (for the current purpose of
Do not make your contribution more informative than is required
Maxims of Quality:
Try to make your contribution one that is true.
Do not say what you believe to be false.
Do not say that for which you lack adequate evidence.
Maxim of Relation:
Maxims of Manner:
Avoid obscurity of expression.
Be brief (avoid unnecessary prolixity).
interpreting an utterance, the best hypothesis for the hearer to choose is the
one that is the most consistent with the assumption that the speaker has indeed
followed these maxims. For instance, in interpreting Mary’s reply “some of
them” in the above dialogue, Peter is entitled to draw several inferences. He
is entitled, in the first place, to treat this sentence fragment as elliptical
for “I like some of Fellini’s films” since this is the interpretation most
consistent with the assumption that Mary was following the maxims, and in
particular the maxims “be relevant” and “be brief.” Peter is also
entitled to understand Mary to mean that she does not like all of Fellini’s
films. If she did like all of them, she would be violating the maxim “make
your contribution as informative as is required” in talking only of “some of
pragmatic theories draw on Grice’s idea that the existence of set expectations
is what allows hearers to infer the speaker’s meaning on the basis of the
utterance and the context. These theories differ in their account of the precise
expectations that drive the comprehension process. Neo-Griceans (Atlas,
forthcoming; Gazdar, 1979; Horn, 1973 , 1984, 1989, 1992; Levinson, 1983, 2000)
stay relatively close to Grice’s formulation. Levinson (2000), for instance,
defines three basic principles linked to three of Grice’s maxims (here in
Speaker’s maxim: Do not provide a statement that is informationally weaker than your
knowledge of the world allows.
Recipient corollary: Take it that the speaker made the strongest statement consistent with
what he knows.
Speaker’s maxim: Produce the minimal
linguistic information sufficient to achieve your communicational ends.
Recipient corollary: Amplify the informational content of the speaker’s utterance, by
finding the most specific
interpretation, up to what you judge to be the speaker’s […] point.
Speaker’s maxim: Indicate an abnormal,
nonstereotypical situation by using marked expressions that contrast with those
you would use to describe the corresponding normal, stereotypical situations.
Recipient corollary: What is said in an abnormal way indicates an abnormal situation.
principles provide heuristics for interpreting utterances. For instance, when
Mary answers elliptically “some of them”, she can be seen by Peter as
producing the minimal linguistic information sufficient to achieve her
communicational ends (following the I Principle), and this, together with the
assumption that Mary obeyed the Gricean Maxim of relevance, justifies his
amplifying the content of her utterance up to what he judges to be her point
(see Levinson 2000, 183-4). Moreover,
the Q Principle justifies Peter in taking it that Mary made the strongest
statement consistent with her knowledge, and that therefore it is not the case
that she likes all of Fellini’s films.
theory (Bezuidenhout, 1997; Blakemore,
1987, 2002; Blass, 1990; Carston, 2002; Carston & Uchida, 1997; Gutt, 1991
Ifantidou, 2001; Matsui, 2000; Moeschler, 1989; Noh, 2000; Papafragou, 2000;
Pilkington 2000; Reboul, 1992; Rouchota & Jucker, 1998; Sperber &
Wilson, 1986/1995; Yus, 1997), though still based on Grice’s two foundational
ideas, departs substantially from his account of the expectations that guide the
comprehension process. For Griceans and neo-Griceans, these expectations derive
from principles and maxims, i.e., rules of behaviour that speakers are expected
to obey but may, on occasion, violate. Such violations may be unavoidable
because of a clash of maxims or of principles, or they may be committed on
purpose in order to indicate to the hearer some implicit meaning. Indeed, in the
Gricean scheme, the implicit content of an utterance is typically inferred by
the hearer in his effort to find an interpretation which preserves the
assumption that the speaker is obeying, if not all the maxims, at least the
co-operative principle. For Relevance Theory, the very act of communicating
raises in the intended audience precise and
predictable expectations of relevance, which are enough on their own to guide
the hearer towards the speaker’s meaning. Speakers may fail to be relevant,
but they may not, if they are communicating at all (rather than, say, rehearsing
a speech), produce utterances that do not convey a presumption of their own
Grice invokes relevance (in his “maxim of relation”) without defining it at
all, Relevance Theory starts from a detailed account of relevance and its role
in cognition. Relevance is defined as a property of inputs to cognitive
processes. These inputs include external stimuli, which can be perceived and
attended to, and mental representations, which can be stored, recalled, or used
as premisses in inference. An input is relevant to an individual when it
connects with background knowledge to yield new
cognitive effects, for instance by answering a question, confirming a
hypothesis, or correcting a mistake. Slightly more technically, cognitive
effects are changes in the individual’s set of assumptions resulting from the
processing of an input in a context of previously held assumptions. This
processing may result in three types of cognitive effects: the derivation of new
assumptions, the modification of the degree of strength of previously held
assumptions, or the deletion of previously
held assumptions. Relevance, i.e. the possibility of achieving such a cognitive
effect, is what makes an input worth processing. Everything else being equal,
inputs which yield greater cognitive effects are more relevant and more worth
processing. For instance, being told by the doctor “you have the flu” is
likely to carry more cognitive effects and therefore be more relevant than being
told “you are ill.” In processing an input, mental effort is expended.
Everything else being equal, relevant inputs involving a smaller processing
effort are more relevant and more worth processing. For instance, being told
“you have the flu” is likely to be more relevant than being told “you have
a disease spelled with the sixth, the twelth, and the twenty-first letter of the
alphabet” because the first of these two statements would yield the same
cognitive effects as th second for much less processing effort. Relevance is a
thus matter of degree and varies with two factors, positively with cognitive
effect, and inversely with processing effort.
Theory develops two general claims or “principles” about the role of
relevance in cognition and in communication:
Cognitive Principle of Relevance:
Human cognition tends to be geared to the
maximisation of relevance
Communicative Principle of Relevance:
act of communication conveys a presumption of its own optimal relevance
we have already mentioned, these two principles of relevance are descriptive and
not normative (unlike the principles and maxims of Gricean and neo-Gricean
pragmatists). The first, Cognitive Principle of Relevance yields a variety
of predictions regarding human cognitive processes. It predicts that our
perceptual mechanisms tend spontaneously to pick out potentially relevant
stimuli, our retrieval mechanisms tend spontaneously to activate potentially
relevant assumptions, and our inferential mechanisms tend spontaneously to
process them in the most productive way. This principle, moreover, has essential
implications for human communication processes.
In order to communicate, the communicator needs her audience’s attention. If,
as claimed by the Cognitive Principle of Relevance, attention tends
automatically to go to what is most relevant at the time, then the success of
communication depends on the audience taking the utterance to be relevant enough
to be to be worthy of attention. Wanting her communication to succeed, the
communicator, by the very act of communicating, indicates that she wants her
utterance to be seen as relevant by the audience, and this is what the
Communicative Principle of Relevance states.
According to Relevance Theory, the presumption of optimal relevance
conveyed by every utterance is precise enough to ground a specific comprehension
Presumption of optimal
The utterance is relevant enough to be worth processing;
It is the most relevant one
compatible with communicator’s abilities and preferences.
(a) Follow a path of
least effort in constructing an interpretation of the utterance (and in
particular in resolving ambiguities and referential indeterminacies, in going
beyond linguistic meaning, in computing implicatures, etc.).
(b) Stop when your
expectations of relevance are satisfied.
instance, when Mary, in response to Peter’s question “Do you like
Fellini’s films?” utters “some of them,” she can be confident that,
following a path of least effort, Peter will understand “them” to refer to
Fellini’s films (since this is the plural referent most prominent in his mind)
and the whole utterance to be elliptical for “I like some of them” (since
this is the resolution of the ellipsis closest to his expectations). The fact
that there are films by Fellini that Mary likes is relevant enough to be worth
Peter’s attention (as he indicated it would be by asking the question).
However, this does not yet fully satisfy Peter’s expectations of relevance:
Mary was presumably able, and not reluctant, to tell him whether she liked all
of Fellini’s films, and that too would be of relevance to Peter. Given that
she did not say that she likes them all, Peter is entitled to understand her as
meaning that she likes only some of
them. Having so constructed the interpretation of Mary’s utterance, Peter’s
expectations of relevance are now satisfied, and he does not develop the
interpretation any further.
original theory, the Neo-Gricean theory and Relevance Theory are not the only
theoretical approaches to pragmatics (even in the restricted sense of
“pragmatics” we adopt here). Important contributors to pragmatic theorizing
with original points of view include Anscombre & Ducrot (1995); Bach (1987,
1994); Bach & Harnish (1979); Blutner & Zeevat (2003); Dascal (1981);
Ducrot, (1984); Fauconnier (1975, 1985); Harnish (1976, 1994); Kasher (1976,
1984, 1998); Katz (1977); Lewis
(1979); Neale (1990, 1992, forthcoming); Recanati (1979, 1988, 1993, 2000);
Searle (1969, 1979); Stalnaker (1999); Sweetser (1990); Travis (1975); Van
der Auwera, J. (1981,
1985, 1997); Vanderveken (1990-91); see also Davis (1991), Moeschler &
Reboul (1994). However the three
approaches we have briefly outlined here are arguably the dominant ones, and the
most relevant ones to the experimental research reported in this book.
2. What can pragmatic theories and experimental
psycholinguistics offer each other?
Neo-Griceans, Relevance Theorists, and other pragmatists, all have ways to
account for examples such as (1) above, and for pragmatic intuitions generally.
It is hard to find in pragmatics crucial evidence that would clearly confirm one
theory and disconfirm another. To experimental psychologists, it might be
obvious that one should use experimental evidence in order to evaluate and
compare pragmatic claims. Pragmatics, however, has been developed by
philosophers of language and linguists who often have little familiarity with,
or even interest in, experimental psychology. The only
source of evidence most of them have ever used has been their own intuitions
about how an invented utterance would be interpreted in a hypothetical
situation. Provided that intuitions are systematic enough across subjects, there
is nothing intrinsically wrong in using them as evidence, as the achievements of
modern linguistics (which relies heavily on such intuitions) amply demonstrate.
More sociologically oriented pragmatists have insisted on the use of evidence
from recordings of genuine verbal exchanges, or of genuine written texts,
together with data about the speakers or authors and the situation. Even though
the interpretation of these naturally occurring utterances is normally left to
the pragmatist’s intuitive interpretive abilities, their use has been of great
value in investigating a variety of pragmatic issues.
Pragmatic research is not to be censured, let alone discarded, on the
ground that it is mostly based on intuition and observational data and has
hardly been pursued at all as an experimental discipline. However, this has
meant that preference for one theory over another is justified not in terms
of crucial empirical tests but mostly on grounds of consistency, simplicity,
explicitness, comprehensiveness, explanatory force, and integration with
neighbouring fields. For example, it has been argued that Grice’s own
formulation of his principle and maxims is too vague, and not explanatory
enough: Gricean explanations are more like ex post facto rationalisations. Neo-Griceans are developing an approach to pragmatics in
close continuity with linguistic semantics, and view this as an advantage.
Relevance theorists feel that their approach is more explanatory, more
parsimonious, and better integrated into the cognitive sciences. These
considerations, however relevant to evaluating theories, can themselves be
Turning from pragmatics to experimental psycholinguistics—an older and
more developed science—, we find a rich and extensive domain of research
dealing with diverse themes ranging from the child’s first language
acquisition to the mechanics of speech production. Among these themes is that of
comprehension, which includes a variety of sub-themes from the perception and
decoding of the acoustic (or visual) signal to the interpretation of discourse.
In principle, the range of phenomena that pragmatics investigates is part of the
much wider domain of psycholinguistics. However, with its own rich history,
traditions, and focus on experimental research, psycholinguistics has generally
paid very little attention to the discipline of pragmatics, even when the
phenomena studied have been standard pragmatic phenomena. Rather, it has
developed its own theoretical approaches to pragmatic themes, in particular
under the label of ‘discourse processes.’ To what extent, and on what
specific points research on discourse processes might converge or conflict with
specific pragmatic claims remains largely to be seen (for a comparison between
the psycholinguistic notion of discourse coherence and the pragmatic notion of
relevance see in particular Blakemore 2001, 2002, Blass 1990, Rouchota 1998,
Unger 2000, Wilson 1998, Wilson & Matsui 2000).
It is reasonable to expect that two fields of research dealing in part
with the same material at the same level of abstraction would gain by joining
forces, or at least by interacting actively.
For pragmatics the gain would be twofold. First, experimental evidence
can be used, together with intuition and recordings, to confirm or disconfirm
hypotheses. The high reliability and strong evidential value of experimental
data puts a premium on this sort of data even though it is hard to collect and
is generally more artificial than observational data (and therefore raises
specific problems of interpretation). The
three kinds of evidence—intuitions, observations and experiments—are each in
their own way relevant to suggesting and testing pragmatic hypotheses, and they
should be used singly or jointly whenever useful. Secondly, aiming at
experimental testability puts valuable pressure on theorizing. Too often,
armchair theories owe much of their appeal to their vagueness, which allows one
to reinterpret them indefinitely so as to fit one’s understanding of the data,
but which also makes them untestable. Developing an experimental side to
pragmatics involves requiring a higher degree of theoretical explicitness.
Moreover, experimentally testing theories often leads one to revise and refine
them in the light of new and precise evidence, and gives theoretical work an
For experimental psycholinguistics, the gain from a greater involvement
with pragmatics would be in taking advantage of the competencies, concepts and
theories developed in this field, in order to better describe and explain a
range of phenomena that are clearly of a psycholinguistic nature, and to develop
new experimental paradigms. The experimental approach often results in
imbalanced coverage of the domain of study. Topics for which an experimental
paradigm has been developed get studied in great detail, whereas other topics of
comparable empirical importance may remain largely untouched for lack of an ad
hoc experimental tradition. There is, for instance, a wealth of psycholinguistic
research on metaphor but very little on implicatures, when, from a pragmatic
point of view, the two phenomena are of comparable importance. Typically,
pragmatic theories have been more comprehensive and evenly detailed than
The small amount of existing Experimental Pragmatic work from
psycholinguists and pragmatists already shows what this collection is meant to
demonstrate, namely that there is much to gain, both for pragmatics and for
psycholinguistics, from systematically putting pragmatic hypotheses to the
experimental test. Here we give a
brief account of two examples: indirect speech acts and bridging.
An early illustration of the relevance of experiments to theoretical
issues was provided by experimental work done in the 70s on a topic of hot
theoretical debates at the time: indirect speech acts (Searle 1975). When a
speaker says “Could you stop fidgeting?” is the speech act a question, or is
it a request? The problem with categorizing this as a question is that, in
ordinary circumstances, the proper response for the hearer is not to provide a
verbal answer such as: “yes, I could” or “no, I couldn’t” (as would be
appropriate in response to a genuine question), but to actually stop fidgeting.
The problem with categorizing it as a request is that the mood of the sentence
is interrogative and not imperative. Sentential moods, it is generally assumed,
indicate the kind of speech acts an utterance can be used to perform:
declaratives serve to make assertions, interrogatives to ask questions,
imperatives to make requests, and so forth. Indirect speech acts are called
“indirect” precisely because they don’t seem to conform to the indication
given by their mood: a declarative utterance may indirectly express a request
(e.g. “you could stop fidgeting”) or a question (e.g. “I would like to
know where you have been”), an interrogative utterance may indirectly express
a request (as in our example, “could you stop fidgeting?”) or an assertion
(e.g. “Who could remain indifferent in front of such injustice?”); an
interrogative can also serve to ask an indirect wh-question, different from the
yes-no question it would express directly (e.g. “could you tell me the
time?”), and so on. Indirect speech acts thus seem to threaten a basic
assumption of much linguistic thinking. A possible way to go is to treat
indirect speech acts as non-literal uses of language, comparable to metaphor
and, like metaphor, explainable in pragmatic terms. Another way is to take
indirect requests to be conventional or idiomatic. But are these descriptions
really adequate? This is where experimental work comes in.
If an indirect speech act is like an idiom with a conventional meaning,
then understanding it should not involve more processing than understanding a
direct speech act. Reaction time studies, such as those by Clark & Lucy
1975, suggested that, in fact, indirect requests do take longer to comprehend
than direct ones and therefore are not conventional (but see Gibbs 1979 for a
more complex picture). If indirect requests are like metaphor, then their
literal interpretation should not be retained at all. After all, when a sentence
is used metaphorically (e.g. “John is a bulldozer”), the literal sense is
not at all part of the speaker’s meaning. Clark 1979 telephoned store owners
with indirect questions such as “Can you tell me what time you close?” and
most answered things like “Yes, we close at six.” Yes, in such an answer, seems to be an answer to the direct question
(“Can you tell me?” “yes, I can tell you”) whereas the rest of the
sentence (“we close at six”) is an answer to the indirect question (“At
what time do you close?”), suggesting that both the direct and the indirect
questions were considered parts of
the speaker’s overall meaning (for further evidence and different analyses,
see Munro 1979, Gibbs 1981). Not only did these experimental studies provide
relevant evidence in the theoretical debate, they also suggested new and more
specific hypotheses about indirect speech acts. However, this early dialogue
between experimentalists and pragmatists working on indirect speech acts largely
ends here. The two groups failed to
take as much advantage of each other’s work as they could have.
Another example of interactions between psycholinguistics and pragmatics
is provided by the case of bridging.
A bridging inference, or bridging implicature
(Clark, 1973), links a referring expression to an intended referent that is
neither present in the environment nor mentioned in the ongoing discourse but
that is nevertheless inferentially identifiable.
For example, in the two sentences in (2) below:
(2) John walked
into a room. The window was open.
The expression the
window is a referring expression
implicitly linked to the room mentioned in the preceding sentence. In order to establish the
link, a bridging implicature such as the
room had a window has to be retrieved. Bridging was the basis for one of the
first innovative accounts of discourse from Clark and colleagues – the Given-New
contract – which has inspired much valuable experimental work in
psycholinguistics. This research has
contributed to the development of innovative paradigms (e.g. using reading times
and semantic probes), for the creation of typologies in texts
(Sanders, Spooren, & Noordman, 1992)
, and has fed theoretical debates (e.g. between the
Constructionist vs. Minimalist accounts of inference generation) in the
(Graesser, Singer, & Trabasso, 1994; McKoon &
Clark explicitly drew inspiration from Grice, and although bridging is obviously
an important pragmatic topic, the exchanges between the pragmatic and
psycholinguistic communities on the theme of bridging remained limited. A recent
exception is provided by the work of Tomoko Matsui
, a pragmatist who has become involved in experimental
research. She makes a distinction
between cases of bridging proper, like (2), where “contextual assumptions
[are] needed to introduce an intended referent which has not itself been explicitly
mentioned” and cases where the intended referent is mentioned under a
different description in a previous utterance, as in (3) and (4) below (both of
which are bona fide bridging inferences according to most accounts):
(3) I met a man
yesterday. The nasty fellow stole all my money.
(4) Peter took
a cello from the case. The instrument
was originally played by his grandfather.
allows for cases of bridging that are not normally considered by current
theories, where the bridge is not to previous inferences but to salient
background assumptions as in (5):
(5) [Peter and
Mary are off to visit a flat]. Mary: I hope the bathroom is not too small.
Is Matsui right
in assuming that the cognitive tasks involved in fixing reference in (2) and (5)
have more in common than either does with the task involved in (3) and (4)? The
issue is of obvious psycholinguistic relevance.
to accounts that rely, for constructing the bridge, on the explicit linguistic
information in a prior utterance
or on a situational model (Garrod and Sanford, 1988;
Walker & Yekovich, 1987)
, Matsui predicts that “in interpreting an utterance, the
individual automatically aims at optimal relevance [which means] he will try to
pick out, from whatever source, a context in which to process the utterance so
that it gives at least adequate cognitive effects for no unjustifiable
processing effort.” This
prediction is supported by a series of investigations based on utterances
(presented alone or in the context of a story), with two plausible intended
referents. Consider (6):
(6) I prefer
the restaurant on the corner to the student canteen.
The cappuccino is less
Is it the
cappuccino at the restaurant or at the canteen that is said to be less
expensive? 80% of Matsui’s participants indicate that one can generally get
less expensive cappuccinos at student canteens. If such common-knowledge were
the determining factor, then participants should construct a bridge from
cappuccino to student canteen. Similarly, if the determining factor were the
shortness of the gap between the referring expression and a previous expression
to which it could plausibly be bridged, then the canteen, the mention of which
is the closest to that of cappucino, should provide the preferred bridge. Yet
100% of participants respond restaurant
when asked “Where is the cappuccino less expensive?”
Unlike theories developed in psycholinguistics, relevance theory provides
an explanation of these data. The sentence The cappuccino is less expensive achieves optimal relevance as an
explanation of the speaker’s preference for the restaurant over the canteen
when the bridge is to the restaurant, and is of no obvious relevance if the
bridge is to the canteen. This is why all participants understand the phrase
“the capuccino” to refer to the cappucino at the restaurant. Matsui’s work
provides striking examples of the mutual relevance of pragmatics and
psycholinguistics (for further discussion, see Wilson & Matsui 2000).
3. Pragmatics and the experimental psychology
Fruitful interactions between pragmatics and experimental
psychology are not limited to psycholinguistics. All experiments involving
verbal communication with participants are affected by the way in which they
understand what they are told. When an experimenter’s expectations do not
measure up with a participant’s comprehension, this can have major
consequences. In the psychology of reasoning in particular, experiments
typically involve not one but two levels of verbal communication from
experimenter to participants: verbal instructions on how to perform the task and
the task itself consist partly or wholly of verbal material. Experimenters (who
are usually focused on rates of correct responses) often take it for granted
that instructions and the verbal material are understood as intended, but this
need not be the case. What happens if the instructions or text for a reasoning
problem are not understood as intended? The
performance of participants may fail to meet the experimenters’ criteria of
success because they have, in fact, performed a task different from the one
intended. Their pragmatic comprehension processes may be functioning quite
properly, and so may their reasoning processes, and yet their responses may seem
mistaken to the experimenter. This is enough to give some plausibility to the
claim that participants’ apparent irrationality in reasoning tasks is linked
to miscontruals or reconstruals of the task rather than to their reasoning
. Even apparently
successful performance of a task may in some cases be due to an unforeseen
interpretation that happens to yield the experimenter’s normative response not
for logical but for pragmatic reasons.
role of pragmatic processes in reasoning experiments is generally acknowledged,
but only in a vague sort of way. There has been no attempt to introduce
systematic pragmatic considerations into experimental methodology. Nevertheless,
there have been more and more studies investigating the role of
pragmatic factors in standard paradigms in the psychology of reasoning, following the
pioneering work of researchers such as
and Mosconi (1990).
A number of apparent irrationalities in people’s performance have been shown
to be explainable, at least in part, as resulting from these pragmatic factors. It
is not an exaggeration to say that nearly every task in the reasoning literature
has inspired a pragmatic analysis.
Several illustrations can be found in the chapters by Politzer and by Van der
Henst and Sperber. The
relevance of this work to the study of reasoning is self-evident. Its relevance
to the experimental study of pragmatics is also clear because, in each case,
researchers have had to identify precise pragmatic factors at work and devise
ways of testing their role experimentally.
4. The chapters
book is divided into 3 parts devoted, respectively, to pioneering approaches
(Chapters 2 through 6), to current issues in experimental pragmatics (Chapters
7-11), and to the special case of scalar implicatures (Chapters 12-15). Although
this volume aims to develop and give a name to a budding field of inquiry, the
chapters in the First Part is devoted to researchers who have been working in
this area all along.
2, by Herb
Clark and Andrian
Bangerter, provides both a historical and a contemporary perspective on
reference, which is the ubiquitous activity involved in picking out an object
for an addressee. Consider the
utterance Put the small coffee cup over
there. One would have to pick
out the cup (presumably from among other candidate objects) and know where over
there is (presumably from a gesture).
Their chapter describes how reference was initially viewed as autonomous
and addressee-blind before it came to be viewed as an activity that requires the
coordination of both speaker and addressee. Among the features of referring
highlighted are a) the multiple methods of directing an addressee’s attention
to individual objects and b) speaker-addressee pacts to arrive at a reference
(i.e. to agree to certain provisional names).
The coordination involved in referring is extensive, Clark and Bangerter
argue, leading them to conclude that it is far from being an autonomous act.
In fact, it requires more than mere coordination, it is an act that
requires the full participation of both initiator and addressee. The chapter
highlights how armchair reflection, field observations and careful
experimentation have combined to lead to a more profound understanding of this
fundamental communicative act. The chapter also provides an opportunity to
appreciate Clark’s well-known contributions to discourse analysis (the
given-new contract, common ground) in the context of pragmatic theory-making.
is a classic pragmatic form whose understanding has been greatly advanced by
psycholinguistic investigations. As Sam Glucksberg shows in chapter 2, metaphor comprehension in
psycholinguistics was initially viewed through a Gricean lens, in which the
literal interpretation of a metaphor is given priority.
According to Grice (or Searle), a metaphor renders an utterance
“defective” and prompts one to look for another meaning.
In his chapter, Glucksberg argues that this standard pragmatic model
persisted in the literature because its literal-first hypothesis resonates with
an approach that assumes that both semantics and syntax are primary while
pragmatics is secondary, an assumption that is common in psycholinguistic
circles. Through his and his
colleagues’ pioneering work on metaphor, Glucksberg demonstrates how
metaphorical interpretations of sentences such as Some
jobs are jails are carried out as automatically as other linguistic
processes. He extends his analysis to other related phenomena (e.g. showing how
novel features emerge in conceptual combinations like peeled
apples) in order to show just how automatic pragmatic processes are in
comprehension tasks. He concludes by
suggesting that experimentation is needed to determine the correct division of
labour between linguistic decoding and pragmatic inferencing, a central issue in
current pragmatic theory. The
pragmatic process, as shown by Sam Glucksberg, does not merit its
“stepchild” status; pragmatics is so automatic that it is arguably a module.
For more than 20 years, Raymond
Gibbs has embodied the aim of this book, by specifically testing
linguistic-pragmatic theories using experimental psychological methods.
In chapter 4, Gibbs describes how his experiments have constrained
theories with respect to four areas that are at the heart of
linguistic-pragmatics: making and understanding promises, understanding definite
descriptions, making and interpreting indirect speech acts, and the distinction
between what is said and what is meant. In
each case, he has – like most accomplished experimentalists – come up with
one or more clever designs that, in the end, either elucidate a given theory
(e.g. the short-circuited nature of indirect requests) or force one to rethink a
theory’s claims (e. g. Searle’s speech act theory with respect to promises).
The aim of Gibbs’s chapter is to convince experimentalists of the value
of linguistic-pragmatic theories and to convince linguists of the value of
In chapter 5, Guy Politzer—who was often a lone voice underlining the importance
of linguistic pragmatics to the field of reasoning—provides a pragmatic
analysis of both classic and modern reasoning tasks along with experimental
results that stress the importance of the way individual premises, conclusions
and task information in general are interpreted.
For a notable example, consider Piaget’s famous class-inclusion
problem, in which children are shown a picture of five daisies and three tulips
and then asked, “Are there more daisies or more flowers ?”
After presenting a “microanalysis” of the way the task’s demands
are interpreted, Politzer shows that young children (5-year-olds) fail to answer
correctly (to say flowers) because
they interpret “flowers” to mean flowers-that-are-not-daisies.
He also shows how a short series of disambiguating questions prompts even
the youngest children to demonstrate their class-inclusion skills. Such
microanalyses can be applied equally to many of Kahneman & Tversky’s tasks
(e.g. the Linda problem and the Engineer-Lawyer problem), Wason’s tasks (the
Chapter 6 by Tony Sanford and Linda Moxey
reviews their previous work on the psychological processing of quantifier
understanding and demonstrates how experimental approaches can inform
linguistic-pragmatics. They begin by
pointing out that not all quantifiers are alike.
A large set of “non-standard” quantifiers like few, many, and most, convey
much more than a rough notion of quantity or proportions; they have
communicative functions as well. For
example, polarity plays a determinative role in quantifier-interpretation.
A negative quantifier like few
and a positive quantifier like a few
have quite different effects on the interpretation of sentences.
Compare few -- vs. a few -- of the MP’s attended the meeting.
Few is more likely than A
few to place the focus on the complementary set, those MP’s who did not
show up. Their findings show that
the interpretation of quantifiers goes well beyond the semantics of these terms.
issues in experimental pragmatics
chapters in this section extend both the range of topics one can investigate in
Experimental Pragmatics and the techniques one can use.
The chapters here cover inter alia disambiguation, metaphor and
joke comprehension, promise understanding, the import of saying even-if,
and the telling of time. All these
topics are addressed using various experimental paradigms from neuropsychology,
developmental psychology, reasoning, psycholinguistics, and anthropology.
chapter 7, Jean-Baptiste van der Henst and Dan Sperber review
experiments that test central tenets of Relevance Theory and in particular the
cognitive principle of relevance ("human cognition is geared to the
maximisation of relevance"), and the communicative principle ("every
utterance conveys a presumption of its own relevance"). Some of these
experiments draw on two standard paradigms in the psychology of reasoning:
relational reasoning and the Wason Selection Task. Others investigate the
behaviour of people asked the time by a stranger in public places. All involve
manipulating separately the two factors of relevance, effect and effort. These
experiments illustrate how a pragmatic theory that is precise enough to have
testable consequences can put previous experimental research in a novel
perspective and can suggest new experimental paradigms.
Giora & Ofer Fein give an
account of the role of the context in accessing the appropriate meaning of
ambiguous terms in sentence comprehension in Chapter 8.
They argue against a) a modular view which assumes that lexical access to
all meanings of a word are automatic and encapsulated only to be refined by an
independent non-modular system, and against b) a direct access view which relies
largely on just the context to arrive at a word’s intended meaning.
Rather, they propose the graded salience hypothesis, which assumes that a) more salient
meanings are accessed faster from the start and that; b) context also affects
comprehension on-line. Their chapter
presents four experiments whose results lend strong support to their claims.
Seanna Coulson provides a review of the way Evoked
Response Potentials (ERP’s) methods can be applied to language comprehension,
with a focus on what this technique has to offer pragmatics.
The chapter is instructive in that it describes ERP’s various dependent
variables (P300, N400, P600 etc.) and the aspects of comprehension with which
these measures are associated. Coulson
cites studies of pragmatic import – e.g. on joke comprehension and metaphor
integration – including many that come from Coulson herself.
She works from a model that predicts that processing
difficulty is related to the extent to which comprehension requires the
participant to align and integrate conceptual structure across domains. She
goes on to suggest ways in which ERP experiments could be exploited to
investigate other linguistic-pragmatic issues, such as prosody and the
distinction between explicatures and implicatures.
Overall, her paper shows very clearly how imaging can be exploited and
indicates what one should expect from this technique in the future.
Josie Bernicot and Virginie
Laval focus on children between the ages of 3 and 10 and their developing
understanding of promises, based on the theoretical framework of Speech Act
theory (Austin 1962; Searle, 1969, 1979; Searle and Vanderveken, 1985). The
authors summarize a program of research that has been investigating promise
comprehension among children from the point of view that language is a
communication system and that language competence is the acquisition and use of
that system. What counts as a
promise? Here, the authors present two experiments investigating the extent to
which interlocutors’ intentions (listener's wishes about the accomplishment of
an action) and textual characteristics of utterances (verb tense) play a role in
understanding that a promise was made.
Simon Handley and Aidan
Feeney develop a psychological account of the way in which people reason
with even-if, working in a mental
models framework (Johnson-Laird, 1983). According to the mental model approach,
many errors of reasoning arise because people represent only one or a few of all
the models of a given set premises and leave the other models implicit. They
then draw their conclusions on the sole basis of the explicitly represented
models. Handley and Feeney compare two possible ways in which this partial
representation of problems might arise. In
one, all models are represented before being pared down by extra-logical, viz.
pragmatic, factors; in the other, which the authors advocate, initial
representations are limited to one model while pragmatic considerations add new
models. They present two experiments
based on inference making from even-if premises that lend support to their account. They discuss
the implications of their work for experimental pragmatics in general.
4.3 The case
of scalar implicatures
chapters in the third section of the book focuses on one pragmatic phenomenon, scalar
implicature, which is at the heart of ongoing debates in pragmatic
theory. As described earlier, there
are two main accounts of these inferences. One
assumes that such implicatures are automatically associated with the use of a
weak term (as exemplified by Levinson, 2000) and the other assumes that the
implicature is drawn out effortfully (as exemplified by Relevance Theory).
In these chapters, four authors (or groups of authors) present
experimental findings that lend support either to Relevance Theory or to some
form of the default view.
chapter 12, Anne Bezuidenhout and
Robin Morris first describe how they operationalized the two theoretical
accounts into testable pragmatic-processing models.
This is less obvious than it might seem because it is hard to do justice
to the rich and detailed accounts that have been offered by these rival theories
on the topic of scalar implicatures. They
then report on two eye movement experiments that test predictions generated from
the models as participants read a series of sentence-pairs such as Some books had color pictures. In fact all of them did, which is why the
teachers liked them. One can
determine whether Some in the first
sentence readily prompts Not all by
investigating potential slowdowns and look-backs when processing the second
sentence. They argue that the weight
of the evidence favors the Underspecification account (which is the one inspired
by Relevance Theory); however they argue that their Default model (the one
inspired by a neo-Gricean account) could be modified to accommodate their
Gennaro Chierchia, Theresa Guasti, Andrea Gualmini, Luisa Meroni, Stephen Crain,
Foppolo present a novel account of implicatures based on the Semantic Core Model, which
challenges a way of interpreting Grice's proposal that has come to be dominant
in the field. According to the dominant view, one first retrieves the semantics
of a whole root sentence and then processes the implicatures associated with it
(in a strictly modular way). The Semantic Core Model proposes, instead, that
semantic and pragmatic processing take place in tandem. Implicatures are
factored in recursively, in parallel with truth conditions. They go on to
present experimental evidence from adults and children that support this new
model. One of the novel findings
from this work demonstrates how particular grammatical contexts predict the
non-existence of scalar implicatures.
chapter 14, Ira A. Noveck
reviews the two rival accounts and the processing predictions they engender,
before summarizing his laboratory’s findings from experiments investigating
those logical terms (i.e. might, some, or,
and and) that could be interpreted
either minimally (i.e. with just their linguistically-encoded meanings) or as
pragmatically enriched. His
developmental studies show how children are less likely than adults to pursue
pragmatic inferences, leading to a robust experimental effect in which children
actually appear more logical than adults. Follow-ups show how task-demands, and
not just age, can affect the production of pragmatic inference-making, pointing
to the important role of context in these paradigms.
The adult studies, which include an ERP investigation, primarily explore
the time-course of scalar inferences. Whereas
participants’ pragmatic treatments of underinformative statements (e.g. the
time taken to respond False to Some cows are mammals) are are very time-consuming, True
responses are not. Furthermore, time
pressure encourages True responses.
Noveck presents his findings as support for Relevance Theory.
chapter 15, Anne Reboul presents a
novel task, which she calls Koenig's puzzle, as promising ground for testing
between the two rival theories. Imagine that after being handed a glass of wine,
a speaker says Better
red wine than no white wine. The
puzzle consists in determining the speaker’s wine preference and inferring
what she was actually given.
While referring to the two sides of the debate as localists and
globalists (for the Default and Relevance accounts, respectively), Reboul describes
Koenig's puzzle in detail and proposes a solution to it. Reboul then explains
why such sentences may be used to test between the two accounts. Finally her
paper reports two experiments whose results show how implicatures are actually involved in the puzzle.
Her results are presented as support for global over local theories for
this specific pragmatic phenomenon.
How to approach the book
chapters are representative of what we are calling Experimental Pragmatics.
Each summarises previous experimental work or presents original
experiments that address topics central to pragmatic theory – metaphor,
quantifier interpretation, scalar inference, disambiguation, reference, and
promise understanding, to name a few. Many
of the chapters share common themes, especially the last four, but each can be
read and appreciated separately. Our intention has been to illustrate how
experimental pragmatics may contribute to linguistics and psychology, and to the
cognitive sciences in general.
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