An Introduction to Pragmatics

Pragmatics is the study of the relations between linguistic expressions and their environments. It is a wide and diverse discipline that encompasses many different concepts, but the broadest and most widely accepted concept is context. Different theorists have focused on different aspects of context, resulting in several divergent approaches to pragmatics. This article outlines the main competing conceptions of contextuality, in order to provide an overview of the field and to show how the differing concepts relate to one another.

Most philosophers define pragmatics as the study of the ways that speakers and hearers use language to communicate. They consider how the context in which a speaker utters an expression influences its meaning and its implication for the listener. These include the speaker’s intentions, the relevant contexts of a speaker’s previous and subsequent utterances, the lexical, syntactic, semantic and other features of the expression itself, and the extra-linguistic circumstances surrounding the utterance.

A major controversy over pragmatics concerns its relation to semantics. Some theorists take a strict, traditional view of semantics, which is that it consists solely of conventional rules of meaning for expressions, such as propositions, and that these determine what something means, or at least what the referential content of a given expression is. This is sometimes called the’representational theory of semantics’, after its most prominent exponent, Morris. Others, however, argue that semantics does not properly describe a core element of human communication: the relation between a sign and its interpreters.

Some theorists, usually neo-Griceans, take a less traditional view of semantics. They consider a number of pragmatic factors to be ‘near-side’, in the sense that they are necessary for the truth-conditions of sentences. They see Gricean considerations as a sort of shock-absorber, where pragmatic factors are seen to limit the intrusion of contextual issues into the autonomous domain of semantics. They are referred to as minimalists, in contrast to the more popular literalists and Gricean maximalists.

Other theorists, particularly relevance theorists, take a more psychological view of pragmatics. They are concerned with the processes by which utterances are understood and comprehended, and believe that they should be studied within the framework of a representational theory of mind. They are often referred to as ‘near-side’ pragmatics, in contrast with the more popular ‘far-side’ pragmatics.

Relevance theorists have done a lot to contribute to the notion that pragmatics is not simply a special form of semantics, but a separate discipline concerned with the process of understanding and comprehension. They are partly responsible for the current trend in contemporary philosophical pragmatic theory towards a focus on near-side pragmatics. However, they also have some important differences with other theories of pragmatics.