LINGUIST List 14.2172

Sun Aug 17 2003

Review: Philosophy of Lang/Pragmatics: Gauker (2003)

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  • Xuelin He, Words without Meaning

    Message 1: Words without Meaning

    Date: Sat, 16 Aug 2003 18:26:37 +0000
    From: Xuelin He <>
    Subject: Words without Meaning

    Gauker, Christopher (2003) Words without Meaning, MIT Press, Contemporary Philosophical Monographs.

    Announced at

    Xuelin He, National Research Center for Linguistics and Applied Linguistics (Guangzhou, China).


    The book ''Words without Meaning'' is the latest issue of the Contemporary Philosophical Monographs Series by the MIT Press. The four divided parts of the book, each titled ''The Issue'', ''Pragmatics'', ''Semantics'', ''Beliefs'', evenly share 285 pages in total. Every part consists of three chapters. Gauker raises his doubt about linguistic communication and presents his suggested solution in the first part, then in the following parts he uses his theoretical framework to deal with various quandaries in the philosophy of language. Gauker himself writes a short preface and afterword, the former a summary of his points in this book, the latter a comparison of his theory with other contemporary ideas.

    In contrast with the his own approach, the received view of linguistic communication, which underscores the primary function of language as the transmission of thoughts between hearer and speaker, receives a detailed critique in the first chapter. The crisis arises from the asymmetry between thought and language, which fails the use of words as the expression of thought. Except the cases of transparent insincerity and nonliterality, such as irony and sarcasm, in which the thought expressed diverges from the propositions of the sentences, an unavoidable problem is context-relativity that means that the proposition of a sentence depends also on the context in which the sentence is uttered. Besides these, presupposition is another factor influencing the hearer's interpretation. It is hard to pin down which proposition is to be presupposed. The next troublesome problem is what it takes for a belief to have representational content. The intention- based semantics is hardly convincing now. A better alternative is an externalistic approach, which implies that the meaning of a sentence is a function F from contexts into propositions. This provides a framework of norms of discourse in terms of which we could redefine logical consistency and logical implication.

    Chapter 2 ''Mental Representation'' may be viewed as the continuous discussion of the fallacy in the received view of linguistic communication, according to which the thought exchanged through communication is taken for granted to have propositional content in the mind. If so, what it takes for a belief to have one proposition rather than another? Here Gauker criticizes two mainstream theories about mental representation: one is to regard the propositional content of a belief as a matter of brain-world correlations; the other is analogous to cartographical representation. However, neither of them can get around the problem of how to cull the intended interpretation among many permissible interpretations. The solution to this problem calls for a new theory of language and mind without propositional contents involved in forming beliefs.

    Chapter 3 ''Elements of an Alternative'' provides a detailed illustration of the key concepts in Gauker's proposed theory of linguistic communication. To make his theory clear, he has done some redefinitions. First, the goals in conversations are linked to actions such as finding something or management of society rather than keeping people informed. The success in communication can only be ensured by achieving such goals. Second, 'literals' are the simplest kind of sentence, consisting of one demonstrative pronoun plus a predicate. Literals and their negation forms are basic to the formulation of the discourse norms. Demonstrative pronouns, contexts and assertibility all assume new senses in this book. The context is a core concept. In this chapter, he gives a formal and a substantive account of a primitive context and the assertibility and deniability conditions for literals in a primitive context. A primitive context is the smallest set of literals such that every action in accordance with it relative to the goal of the conversation is a good way of achieving the goal. It cannot contain both a sentence and the negation of the same sentence. Third, logical consistency and validity is defined in terms of assertibility. In the last part of this chapter, Gauker talks about what his theory may assume about the operation of mind. He encourages abandoning the use of the term ''propositional content'' and explaining the mental processing wholly in neurological terms. The framework in this book, he wishes, would provide a motive to develop a conception of cognition that the concepts of representation bears no resemblance to the philosophically propositional content.

    Chapter 4 ''Domain of Discourse'' elaborates an alternative to solve indeterminacy of shared knowledge in communication. The proponents of the received view can not maintain what the speaker has in mind solely determines the demonstrative references and the domains of discourse while at the same time assuming the interpretation of one's words to reveal his or her propositional contents in the mind. In other words, the domain of discourse of a hearer is his or her representation of what the speaker has in mind on the basis of the speaker's choice of words, whereas the speaker cannot choose the words to say without knowing first the hearer's domain. However, the fact is ''we do not understand words by reading minds; rather we read minds by understanding words''. (P.76). Gauker believes that there is something about the environment that determines the content of the domain. The domain of discourse only depends on what is objectively relevant to the conversation in view of the situation in which the conversation takes place. If there is a mismatch between what the speaker has in mind and what the hearer would reasonably suppose, then there is no proposition expressed in the context.

    The beginning of Chapter 5 ''Presupposition'' lists some unsolvable problems within the semantic theory of presupposition, such as the appropriateness of sentence using and the so-called presupposition projection problem. It is followed by much critique on the propositional context and its modified version suggested by Stalnaker also known as the pragmatic theory of presupposition. The pragmatic view for using a sentence is by the condition that the presuppositions of that sentence are satisfied in the pertinent propositional context, which is modified to be composed of relevant shared assumptions. Nevertheless, the pragmatic theory of presupposition has its own problems. The problem of informative presuppositions is caused by the fact that the informed proposition can not be a shared assumption in the propositional context. ''Presupposition accommodation'' supposed by David Lewis is another problem, which means that what each person should do depends on what the others are going to do. An alternative to overcome all the difficulties is to identify the propositional context with the kind of context defined in chapter 3. With his newly defined context, Gauker elaborates the steps to solve the above-said problems in the last part of this chapter.

    The sixth chapter ''Implicature'' is primarily a critique of Gricean theory. In writer's words, ''meaning something by something else'' and conversational implicature are two Gricean dogmas in contemporary philosophy. By pointing out the fallacies of these two dogmas, Gauker gives some plausible examples to show that conversational implicature is not necessary to linguistic communication. The hearer may still draw the speaker-intended conclusion by inferring from the speaker's own sentences in collaboration with the practical conditions of the environment in which the conversation takes place, without contemplating the speaker's state of mind in speaking.

    Chapter 7 ''Quantification'' highlights the advantages of the context- logical approach to give a more adequate account of the logic of quantification than the propositional approach. Quantification involves two elementary logical rules of inference, which are called universal instantiation and existential generalization. Universal instantiation that is more likely to yield absurd conclusions cannot ensure an inference as valid as existential generalization. The asymmetry of this sort is unacceptable within the same framework of the propositional approach. Many solutions aiming at the problem of the asymmetry have their own weakness(P.152-157). Then Gauker starts to show that his Q- context could make both two valid.

    In Chapter 8 ''Conditionals'', Gauker rejects the commonly accepted idea that there is an valid inference in any conditional sentence while treating conditionals as context-relative rules of inference. After exposing the logical absurdity as the result of following the principle of compositionality and the principle of equivalence assumed within the propositional approach, he gives a formal and substantive account of multicontexts in terms of which he defines a context-relative logical validity for conditionals. His concept of context can also explain subjunctive conditionals.

    Chapter 9 ''Truth'' presents the suggested solutions to several semantic paradoxes, which is another enhancement of the context-logical approach. The usual solution to the liar paradox(P.191) is to forbid this kind of self-reference by distinguishing metalanguage from object language. However, this way cannot prevent other semantic paradoxes from occurring, for example, the notecard paradox(P.192-193) or the analogous paradox(P.195). In this chapter, Gauker tries to solve them by defining the basic semantic properties in terms of assertibility and deniability in metacontexts.

    Chapter 10 introduces the communication conception to replace what Gauker calls ''the postulationist conception of beliefs and desires'' which is the cornerstone of the received view of linguistic communication. He puts focus on the attribution of beliefs instead of directly defining a belief. From his communicative view, an attribution of a desire is to command on someone else's behalf; an attribution of a belief is to assert on someone else's behalf. Such assertions and commands are subject to norms, and cannot be made simply at someone's own will. Here in this chapter Gauker discusses the possible difficulties in the practice of the postulationist conception; for instance, it's hard to tell the difference between the believing attitude and the belief-like attitude towards a proposition or the difference between first-person and third-person attributions of beliefs. The communicative perspective may contribute to the solution of these problems.

    If the previous chapter is about the nature of beliefs and desires, then this chapter concerns itself with explanation of prediction of human behaviors in terms of beliefs and desires. The fallacy of the postulationist conception is its excessive dependence upon folk psychological laws for explanation of which the validity and reliability is a matter of question. Alternative to predict behaviors is to be based on an attribution of one's competence or skill rather than on the basis of attribution of beliefs and desires. A person's competence as a speaker of a language depends on the norms of discourse. As Gauker suggests, attribution of beliefs and desires could be reformulated in terms of assertions and commands on another person's behalf. This is well illustrated in his defense against a counterexample by John Perry(P.254-257).

    Chapter 12 ''Semantics and Ontology'' completes Gauker's account of beliefs and desires from the view of his communicative conception. The first half of this chapter is about how the communicative conception of beliefs could be elaborated into a context-logical semantics. The latter half is marked with Gauker's stance against the ontological view of beliefs. He claims that the various ways of explaining the natures of things and the general purpose about such explanations to provide a bridge to a form of discourse a person may be lacking are strong evidence for communicative conception's account of the attribution of beliefs and desires to be as a theory of the nature of beliefs and desires.


    Wittgenstein puts an end to semantic meaning with his famous slogan ''meaning is use'', and starts with communicative meaning instead. Later, speech acts by Austin (1962) and intended meaning by Grice (1989) dawn the era of linguistic communication. The emphasis on language in use still maintains what semantics holds: propositions as the content of thought and the use of words as the expression of thought. Most externalism linguists following this line in philosophy tacitly approve meaning in mind even when they advocate the decisive role of contexts in interpretation. Intention-based semantics is now hardly convincing (Kripke, 1982), intention-based meaning is still popular in most current semantics or pragmatics monographs (Levinson, 2000; Sperber & Wilson, 1995). However, in this book Gauker adopts a very bold step to dispel the existence of propositional content from his ''meaningless'' theoretical framework, which, I believe, is meaningful to development of the philosophy of language. His insightful solutions to those well- known problems deserve attention of anyone who feels home at the chaos of philosophical thinking on meaning.


    Austin, J.L.(1962). How to Do Things with Words, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Grice, P. (1989). Studies in the Way of Words, Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press.

    Kripke, S. (1982). Wittgenstein on Rules and Private Language. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

    Levinson, Stephen C. (2000). Presumptive Meanings: The Theory of Generalized Conversational Implicature. MIT Press.

    Sperber, D and Wilson, D. (1995). Relevance: Communication and Cognition, 2nd edition. Blackwell.


    Xuelin He, a lecturer in Fujian Normal University, is now pursuing her doctoral degree of applied linguistics in Guangdong Foreign Studies University. Her academic interests cover pragmatics, sociolinguistics and philosophy of language.