Friday, September 23, 2011

The cooperative listener?

In a comment on this post on Language Log, Spell Me Jeff wrote:
I've been doing some admittedly shallow searching on topics like Grice and cooperative principle, and all I'm finding focuses on the role of the speaker. Surely there is work describing a "cooperative listener"?
I think that there are several areas of research that may be relevant, including work on:

  1. what expectations hearers have,
  2. whether the Cooperative Principle is real/operative,
  3. charity in interpretation (perhaps the hearer-side counterpart of cooperation), and
  4. feedback that hearers provide to the speaker (also a candidate for being the hearer-side counterpart of cooperation).

There has been a lot of work on what expectations hearers have (and what they are justified in having). For example neo-Griceans such as Larry Horn and Stephen Levinson try to boil Grice's maxims down to two or three. According to Levinson, each of them can be expressed as a guideline for the speaker and a rule of thumb for the hearer.
e.g. Speaker side: Say as much as you can.
Hearer side: What isn't said, isn't. (Levinson 2000, p. 31)

A classic paper on hearer expectations (and speaker maxims) is Wilson and Sperber 2002, which argues that there is no maxim of truthfulness and, correspondingly, hearers do not expect speakers to say only things that are literally true:
"hearers expect to be provided with true information. But there is an infinite supply of true information which is not worth attending to. Actual expectations are of relevant information, which (because it is information) is also true. However, we have argued that there just is no expectation that the true information communicated by an utterance should be literally or conventionally expressed..." (pp. 627-8)
On the Cooperative Principle more specifically, a number of theorists have argued that talk-exchanges need not be cooperative, and that the fundamental explanation for speakers tailoring their utterances to their audience is simply that they want to be understood (Kasher 1976, Sperber and Wilson 1986, inter alia; but see Grice's reply to some of these criticisms: 1989, around p. 369). If this is right then hearers can't generally expect cooperation, but they can expect that utterances will have been sufficiently tailored for them to be understandable and worth processing. Relevance theory can be seen as an attempt to spell out what this amounts to, and how it could be enough for communication to work:
The goal of inferential pragmatics is to explain how the hearer infers the speaker’s meaning on the basis of the evidence provided. The relevance-theoretic account is based on another of Grice’s central claims: that utterances automatically create expectations which guide the hearer towards the speaker’s meaning. Grice described these expectations in terms of a Co-operative Principle and maxims of Quality (truthfulness), Quantity (informativeness), Relation (relevance) and Manner (clarity) which speakers are expected to observe (Grice 1961; 1989: 368-72): the interpretation a rational hearer should choose is the one that best satisfies those expectations. Relevance theorists share Grice’s intuition that utterances raise expectations of relevance, but question several other aspects of his account, including the need for a Co-operative Principle and maxims, … The central claim of relevance theory is that the expectations of relevance raised by an utterance are precise enough, and predictable enough, to guide the hearer towards the speaker’s meaning. (Wilson and Sperber, 2004, p. 607)
An interesting question is what the hearer counterpart of cooperation is. It may be charitable interpretation, as perhaps manifested in interpretations of misspeakings, such as taking someone who says 'I was feeding the penguins in the park' to have been expressing the proposition (or trying to) that she was feeding the pigeons.

There is a huge literature on the 'principle of charity' in the philosophy of language, most famously in the work of Quine and Davidson, e.g.: "Assertions startingly false on the face of them are likely to turn on hidden differences of languages." (Quine, 1960, p. 59) Note that this principle, if applied rigorously (and perhaps simplemindedly), gets the pigeon/penguin example wrong and makes a mess of irony e.g. my saying 'It's beautiful weather again' in a downpour.

Formulations of the principle of charity all seem to run into some trouble or other. Whether it is assuming the speaker is speaking the literal truth, or assuming the speaker is expressing coherent beliefs, or assuming the speaker is like the hearer in her attitudes -- all appear vulnerable to counterexamples, that is, cases where operating with one of these expectations, the hearer would fail to correctly understand the speaker. One can argue that these 'counterexamples' are just exceptions to a general rule, of course. But the failures seem rather systematic.

One way in which hearers generally are rather cooperative is in their provision of feedback to the speaker to indicate various things: that they are following (or not), that they agree (or not), that they would like to hear more (or to cut in). Herb Clark has done interesting work on this (e.g. Clark and Krych 2006). There is also work on this sort of thing, particularly the way that speakers and hearers 'negotiate' taking turns in conversation, in Conversation Analysis (e.g. Sacks et al 1992).

Clark, H. H. & Krych, M. A. (2004). Speaking while monitoring addressees for understanding. Journal of Memory and Language, 50(1), 62-81.
Grice, P. (1989). Studies in the Way of Words. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.
Kasher, A. (1976). Conversational maxims and rationality. In A. Kasher (Ed.), Language in Focus: Foundations, Methods and Systems. (pp. 197–216). Dordrecht, Holland: Reidel Publishing Company.
Levinson, S. C. (2000). Presumptive Meanings: The Theory of Generalized Conversational Implicature. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.
Quine, W. V. O. (1960) Word and Object. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.
Sacks, H., Jefferson, G. & Schlegloff, E. (1992). Lectures on Conversation. Oxford: Blackwell.
Sperber, D. & Wilson, D. (1986). Relevance: Communication and Cognition (2nd Ed. 1995). Oxford: Blackwell.
Wilson, D. & Sperber, D. (2002). Truthfulness and relevance. Mind, 111(443), 583–632.
Wilson, D. & Sperber, D. (2004). Relevance theory. In L. R. Horn & G. L. Ward (Eds.), The Handbook of Pragmatics. (pp. 607–632). Malden, Mass: Blackwell.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Pre-utterance utterance interpretation and the meaning of a ringing phone

In yesterday's Dilbert:

This is an interesting case for Griceans and relevance theorists. Normally a ringing phone means (naturally and non-naturally?) that someone wants to speak to you, and Dilbert assumes that that is so here. I assume that Alice and Wally intend him to think this, and they don't intend to start a conversation: they were hoping that what did in fact happen, would happen. That is, their intention was to get Dilbert worrying about who could be calling him, with what problem etc. (Doing ‘pre-utterance utterance interpretation’, that is.)

According to Grice the following two intentions are essential to speaker meaning (there's also a third that is not relevant here):

i) S intends S’s utterance of x to produce a certain response r in a certain audience, A.

ii) S intends A to recognise S’s intention (i).

This is one of the examples where the producer of the stimulus has the first intention but does not want that intention to be recognised, i.e. does not have the second intention. All of which is a fairly long-winded (but illuminating) way of saying that what we have here is manipulation, not communication – and a vindication of Grice's second condition.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

What colour is a peach with a dark red skin?

Sometimes the answer is ‘white’, and sometimes ‘yellow’.

What I have in mind is a real-life version of a well-known example from the literature on context-sensitivity. It's a recipe, and the ingredients list calls for:

6 large or 12 tiny white or yellow peaches, with dark red skins

This brought to mind the commonly-used example of a red apple. If I tell you I have a red apple, I may mean one that is red fleshed, or one with a red skin (and there are other possibilities). The use of this example in the current debate may be due to Anne Bezuidenhout. The idea that the combination of a modifier like a colour term and a noun does not in itself determine an interpretation, because of variations in the way that the colour applies (to put it vaguely), goes back at least to Charles Travis' work:

Suppose, for example, someone says that the leaves on the tree are green. Fine. We understand what it would be for things to be that way; we grasp the thought expressed. Now suppose someone says that his bedroom walls are green. Again, we grasp that thought; know how things would be according to it. If someone says that the cheese we left in the refrigerator when we went on vacation is green, again, so far, so good. Now suppose someone calls his Uncle Hugo green. Might we not, for all of the above, be baffled as to what is supposed to be so according to that thought, unhelped by our knowledge of what being green is, adequate though it was for grasping those other thoughts? Would we not, for all that, know what being green is? (Travis, 1994, p. 168)

Travis, C. (1994). On constraints of generality. Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society New Series, 94, 165–188.

Edited to add: I see that Recanati cites Lahav saying that the ‘red apple’ example comes from Quine:

For a bird to be red (in the normal case), it should have most of the surface of its body red, though not its beak, legs, eyes, and of course its inner organs. Furthermore, the red color should be the bird's natural color, since we normally regard a bird as being « really » red even if it is painted white all over. A kitchen table, on the other hand, is red even if it is only painted red, and even if its « natural » color underneath the paint is, say, white. Morever, for a table to be red only its upper surface needs to be red, but not necessarily its legs and its bottom surface. Similarly, a red apple, as Quine pointed out, needs to be red only on the outside, but a red hat needs to be red only in its external upper surface, a red crystal is red both inside and outside, and a red watermelon is red only inside. For a book to be red is for its cover but not necessarily for its inner pages to be mostly red, while for a newspaper to be red is for all of its pages to be red. For a house to be red is for its outside walls, but not necessarily its roof (and windows and door) to be mostly red, while a red car must be red in its external surface including its roof (but not its windows, wheels, bumper, etc.). A red star only needs to appear red from the earth, a red glaze needs to be red only after it is fired, and a red mist or a red powder are red not simply inside or ouside. A red pen need not even have any red part (the ink may turn red only when in contact with the paper). In short, what counts for one type of thing to be red is not what counts for another.’ (Lahav, 1989 : 264)

Lahav, Ron (1989). 'Against Compositionality: the Case of Adjectives', Philosophical Studies, 57 : 261-79.

Of course there is a significant difference between, on the one hand, the peach example and the recent use of the red apple example, and, on the other hand, Quine and Lahav's point. The recent debate is over the point that (e.g.) 'red apple' may be used to mean different things, while the older quotations argue that 'red' in 'red apple' means something different from 'red' in 'red book' etc.

Thought, interpretation and communication

My teaching this term. How do we communicate? How can we know whether to believe what someone tells us? Finally, how are these questions connected?

An introduction to the Gricean programme in philosophy of language and pragmatics, then an introduction to the topic of 'testimony' in epistemology. Finally a look at some of the latest research on 'epistemic vigilance', which brings these two areas (and more) together.

The course handout.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Conference on the development of pragmatic abilities in children

In Oslo. I think this is going to be very interesting. (I'm one of the local organisers, which is a privilege, but expect to be mainly an interested spectator.) Here's the description:

The last ten to fifteen years have seen a rapid proliferation of research on the development of the communicative capacity in children and its interaction with the development of other metarepresentational capacities such as those for mindreading, argumentation and epistemic vigilance. The aim of this workshop is to take stock of this research and consider some of its implications for theories of pragmatics and metarepresentation. We have therefore invited speakers working on development from a variety of theoretical perspectives, including those of Tomasello (2008), Csibra & Gergely (2009) and relevance theory (e.g. Sperber & Wilson 2002, Carston 2002), to present some of their research and to consider its implications for theories of communication and for the relation between communicative abilities and other types of metarepresentational capacity.

There are more details, including names of speakers, at the conference website. The programme will follow soon.

Edited to add: it is open to all, and there is no charge.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Chekhov egregiously twitted

Adam Roberts on deliberate massive flouting of Chekhov's law of relevance (in the first part of the novel 2666 by Roberto Bolaño):
The most striking thing about Bolaño’s style is what you might call its egregious twitting of the Chekov principle. If Bolaño were to have a character hammer a nail into the wall at the beginning of Act 1 not only would the character not hang himself upon it at the end of Act 3, but he would spend Act 1 hammering nails all over the place, selling his hammer to a character who never appears again, describing elaborately detailed but wholly oblique dreams, observing, doing and thinking a blizzard of things that seem to have no relationship to the larger pattern.
[a] broken toilet is mentioned […] several times, and Pelletier even has a detailed dream about it. Is it relevant? Does it, perhaps, symbolize something important about this tale, about waste, about shit, about gaping absences […] ? Or is it just another element in a shifting mosaic of data, some relevant, most not, because that’s what the world is actually like? The problem with Chekov’s nail is that, once you’re aware of the principle, it constrains the audience’s response: like a whodunit in which there are only two characters, it closes down your interpretive options. Bolaño works hard against that.

Monday, August 08, 2011

Cheap airline ticket offers inquiry

My parser/language faculty misparsed this classic bit of (British) headlinese this morning. Three reasons: the noun pileup stack atrocity, that 'offers' can be a verb, that I haven't had coffee yet.

Then I could feel some sort of pragmatic assessment kicking in. Wait, tickets don't offer things. But they might metaphorically. But not inquiries. And it snapped into place.

(From the Guardian frontpage this morning. And I got there before language log.)

Saturday, August 06, 2011

I realized she meant for me to get in out of the rain

From A Farewell to Arms:

"Good-by," I said. I stepped out into the rain and the carriage started. Catherine leaned out and I saw her face in the light. She smiled and waved. The carriage went up the street, Catherine pointed in toward the archway. I looked, there were only the two carabinieri and the archway. I realized she meant for me to get in out of the rain. (Book II, Ch. 24)

Just a nice example that demonstrates that non-verbal communication is inferential (not very controversial) and that part of what has to be inferred is illocutionary force (probably more controversial).

If that is too cryptic, consider this question: What does Catherine mean by pointing? What might Frederic have initially thought she meant?

Friday, April 22, 2011

Argumentics: excellent blog on pragmatics and argumentation theory

Argumentics has only been around since late 2009 and already has over 200 posts. I don't know who writes them (I can't recognise him/her from the profile photo -- see below) but he/she really knows his/her stuff, and can explain it well too. Two highlights:

The pragmatics of what is said

Ljubljana meets Ducrot

Mr/Ms Argumentics

More recently there is coverage of formal semantics, with a propositional logic quiz, and lovely explanations of lambda and higher order types.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

This post is as good as itself

A post on the Guardian sports blog contains two new types of tautology.

In work on tautologies, in philosophy/semantics/pragmatics, it's normal to give examples like 'War is war', 'Boys will be boys', 'If it rains, it rains', and 'Either he'll come or he won't'. It's also normal to point out that tautologies can have these forms:

Equative: e is e; an e is an e
Conditional: If P then P
Disjunctive: Either P or not P

It's not so easy to think of tautologies that have forms not on this short list (of course with a bit of propositional logic you can come up with as many tautological forms as you like, but what we're after here are sentences that someone might actually produce).

The new examples are after the jump.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Dromiceiomimus explains exclusive-we

... better than me?? Here's her explanation.

Here's mine:

Number and person [on pronouns] interact in interesting ways. One example is the first person plural (‘we’/’us’), which usually picks up from context a set containing the speaker and sometimes but not always containing the hearer too. Some languages mark this inclusive-we/exclusive-we distinction linguistically, either on the verb, or with different forms of the pronoun. For example in Taiwanese, ‘góan’ means we-excluding-you and ‘lán’ means we-including-you. (Allott 2010, p. 57)

T-rex's exclusive-you is not, as far as I know, lexicalised or otherwise encoded in any language, and, not unconnectedy, I suspect, it seems impossible to use 'you' to communicate it.

Allott, N. (2010). Key Terms in Pragmatics. Continuum.