Philosophy, Film, Politics, Etc.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Szabo on Semantics and Pragmatics, Part I

For my own edification, I present the following review of a paper I'm reading called "The Distinction Between Semantics and Pragmatics" by Zoltan Gendler Szabo, which appears in The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy of Language (2006). (All page references are to this text unless otherwise noted).

I. Introduction

Szabo defines pragmatics as "the study of contexts of utterance, or more precisely, a study of the way context can influence our understanding of linguistic utterances" (363). Semantics, in turn, is presented as "the study of linguistic meaning, or more precisely, the study of the relation between linguistic expressions and their meanings" (363).

This might look simple enough, but I find it impenetrable. Presumably, what a linguistic expression means in some circumstance depends on context. Thus, following Szabo's characterization, pragmatics and semantics both study the relation between linguistic expressions and their meanings. Similarly, if the relation between an expression and its meaning relies on context, then semantics must involve a study of contexts, and so semantics must also be a study of the way context can influence our understanding of linguistic utterances. So semantics includes pragmatics and pragmatics includes semantics. It does not seem like Szabo has identified two distinct areas of study.

Szabo presents the semantic/pragmatic distinction as a way of understanding different types of disagreement: semantic, substantive, and contextual. If two people disagree about the definitions of words, then they have a semantic disagreement. For example, two people might argue about whether or not the Evening Star is a star. This disagreement could simply be a disagreement about what the word "star" means. That would be a semantic disagreement, and not a substantive one. Szabo isn't so clear when it comes to contextual disagreements, however. He refers to a situation in which one person says X="The table looks good here" and another says Y="The table looks terrible here." In this case, the people could be referring to different places or different tables, they could be using different standards of evaluation, they could be talking about different points of view, and they could even be performing different sorts of speech acts: one could be asserting a belief while the other could be making a joke. In this case, Szabo says, the disagreement is not a disagreement about what the words mean. He says that the disagreement can persist even if both people agree on what the words they are using mean.

This isn't clear. I'm not sure what sort of disagreement Szabo is trying to characterize. If I say X in earnest and you respond with Y in jest, we do not have a disagreement. I might think we do, but I would be mistaken. If we are talking about different tables or places, again, we do not have a disagreement, even though we might confusedly think we did. If we are talking about different points of view, we do not have a disagreement, either. The only disagreement could be if we are arguing over different standards for evaluating the appearance of the table. I suppose we might regard such a disagreement as contextual, but that seems like a strange way of putting it. Whatever we call it, it still seems substantive. I wouldn't say it's factual, but who says all substantive disagreements are factual? While there is no authoritative source for deciding on the correct standard of measurement here, and so no fact of the matter to be settled, we are still disagreeing about something of substance: namely, whether or not we should apply one standard over another. That has consequences outside of our discourse. That sort of disagreement determines where the table ends up getting placed.

Szabo hasn't clearly defined what a contextual disagreement is or how it could be distinguished from a semantic or a substantive one. Yet, there is a line to be drawn, Szabo says, and he says it is the line between semantics and pragmatics. Unfortunately, I don't think he's clearly argued for any sort of line at all.

At this point, Szabo has so far only introduced the problem, so we must read on to see how well he resolves this apparently confused situation. His next step is to discuss problems with some of the ways other people have tried to draw the line between semantics and pragmatics. He discusses three, which he calls the semiotic conception, the indexical conception, and the cognitivist conception.

II. The Semiotic Conception

Szabo presents and then discards a classic work in semiotics, Charles Morris' Foundations of the Theory of Signs (1938). Morris distinguishes between syntactics, semantics, and pragmatics. This tripartite distinction still exists today, though the sense of the distinction remains contentious. Morris characterizes it thus: Syntactics is the study of the relations between signs and signs; semantics is the study of the relations between signs and what they designate; pragmatics is the study of the relationship between signs and their interpreters. A sign is defined by a process of mediation, such that "something takes account of something else mediately, i.e. by means of a third something" (Morris 1938: 3-4; quoted on page 365). Szabo clarifies that semantics is not the study of all the relations between signs and disgnata, but only those relations that define the sign as such.

Szabo's criticism of Morris is wrong in many ways. First, he says Morris "assigns a rather narrow scope to semantics" (366), because according to Morris, semantics does not deal with the meanings of terms that do not designate anything (such as prepositions, quantifiers, logical connectives, and so on). This is not a persuasive objection. For one thing, there are ways of treating all of these signs as having designata. Logical connectives might designate mental operations, for example. Or we might say that they have no designata, and that they have meaning in so far as they are related to other words; thus, their meaning is a proper subject of syntactical analysis, and not semantics. Either way, Morris' view is not clearly problematic.

Szabo next claims that, on Morris' account, semantics does not account for the meaning of indexicals (like "this" and "that"), either, since we need to know context in order to determine what they designate. Here Szabo is inserting his own view of pragmatics, assuming that pragmatics alone is able to identify contextual relevance. But Morris does not distinguish pragmatics in that way. Rather, as Szabo apparently forgot, pragmatics is principally a study of the relationship between signs and their interpreters. Of course context is important for pragmatics, but it can also be relevant to semantics, too. So the fact that we need contextual information to identify the designatum of a sign does not mean it is no longer a semantic issue.

Szabo then says Morris includes too much in the scope of pragmatics: since much of human life is occupied with signs, Szabo says, pragmatics would amount to "a comprehensive theory of human interactions" (367). That's rather hyperbolic. Surely humans interact in many ways without signs. But, yes, much of our interaction does involve signs. How is that a problem for Morris' approach?

Next Szabo accuses Morris of confusing the role of signs in biology. According to Szabo, "Morris suggests that the concept of sign may prove as fundamental for the biological sciences as the concept of atom is for the physical ones" (367). This reminds me of a point Dawkins makes in The Selfish Gene: A biological description of human beings should include cultural artifacts, like clothes, glasses, and so on. Indeed, wouldn't it include language and signs in general? Why not suppose that a biological study of human beings would include an account of how people use/interpret signs? Morris is right. Yet, Szabo says the only sorts of signs that are of any interest to biologists are DNA, since they are information carriers. It looks like Szabo's completely missed the point. And, by the way, DNA aren't signs by Morris' definition. They don't operate as mediators in a semiotic process.

Szabo's final criticism is that Morris fails to recognize an asymmetry between semantics and pragmatics. Szabo says that, while semantics can operate "in relative ignorance" of pragmatics, pragmatics must take semantics into account. Morris (wrongly, according to Szabo) says that pragmatics abstracts from semantics just as semantics abstracts from pragmatics. But it's not so clear Morris is wrong. Szabo rather seems to be presenting a very misleading picture of what Morris actually says. Szabo says that, according to Morris, the study of pragmatics cannot even recognize that signs bear relations to particular designata, that we can only pursue pragmatics by ignoring the fact that signs bear relations to things. This cannot be what Morris means. There is a difference between abstracting from semantic relations and simply ignoring them. I don't think Morris is suggesting that pragmatics can be developed without any knowledge of semantics. I think Szabo might also be mistaken in supposing that semantics (as defined by Morris) can operate in relative ignorance of pragmatics. If semantics is the study of relations between signs and designata, and these relations are defined via an irreducibly triadic relationship between signs, persons, and designata, then there is no way you could have a robust semantics that remained ignorant of pragmatics, just as you cannot have a pragmatics that remained ignorant of semantics.

In sum, Szabo's rejection of Morris' approach has no discernible basis, other than confusion.

III. The Indexical Conception

Szabo now turns to Richard Montague, who proposes that pragmatics should be firmly rooted in the notions of truth and satisfaction. On this view, the difference between semantics and pragmatics is that the former treats truth-function without worrying about context, while the latter treats truth-function "relative to an interpretation and also to a context of use" (368). What this means, says Szabo, is that the need for pragmatics is nothing more or less than the need to account for indexicals. It seems, however, that this idea is more clearly present in Bar-Hillel, and not so explicit in the quotations Szabo provides from Montague. I'm not familiar with Montague, however, so I cannot make a forceful objection. Whether it is really Bar-Hillel or Montague who advocates it, the view on the table is that pragmatics comes into play only when we need contextual information to assign designata to indexical signs.

Szabo identifies some problems with this approach. The first is that it is unwieldy. It is too hard (perhaps impossible) to systematically treat all of the ways truth-functionality depends on context. The second problem is that Montague does not account for implicatures--that is, situations in which the literal meaning of an utterance is not what the speaker means to say. For example, an utterance of "The ham sandwich is getting restless" may, in ordinary situations, be used to refer to a person, and not a sandwich--for example, if it is used to inform a cook that a customer is losing patience. Yet, we run into trouble if we start treating ordinary descriptions as if they were indexicals. So the indexical conception of context-dependence seems incomplete.

On the face of it, I agree with Szabo's criticism of the indexical conception of pragmatics. I haven't read the rest of the paper yet, but I hope to read it and have the rest of my review up soon.