Logic and Grammar Contesting the Semantics–Pragmatics Divide

Ernie Lepore

Professor of Philosophy
Director, Center for Cognitive Science
Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, USA


Grice’s theory of conversational implicature offers an influential way to account for the interpreta- tion of utterances in terms of logical meanings, on the assumption that speakers’ purposes shape the understanding of utterances in conversation. This course provides an overview and critical discussion of Grice’s theory and of subsequent developments in philosophy, linguistics, psychology and artificial intelligence. While acknowledging the central place for collaboration in language use, we find that further linguistic rules and interpretive processes are often implicated in recognizing alleged implicatures. These factors necessitate important changes to Grice’s views. By highlighting researchers’ opposing takes on key issues—the interpretive constraints imposed by linguistic knowledge, the nature of pragmatic inference, the diversity of imaginative perspective taking, and the psychological mechanisms of social understanding—we hope to provide students with a roadmap to develop their own views about the subject matter.


The category of CONVERSATIONAL IMPLICATURES, introduced by Grice in his 1969 William James Lectures at Harvard, is a fundamental conceptual tool for getting clear on the relation- ship between logic and language. It has helped to cement the modern perspective that ordinary language, warts and all, is rule-governed and amenable to analysis with formal tools, and has sparked a diverse and exciting range of follow-up research across cognitive science. It can be justifiably viewed as a breakthrough in linguistics and philosophy. Grice’s ideas have been profoundly influential—by now, they have inspired a wide variety of modified and extended accounts. These frameworks turn out to conceptualize pragmatic principles and pragmatic reasoning in di- verse ways, and as a result they make strikingly different claims both about what, in fact, pragmatic reasoning contributes to interpretation, and about how it does it.

In the first two meetings of the course, we survey the accounts of CIs developed by Grice himself and those explored in subsequent research in philosophy, linguistics, psychology and artificial intelligence. We shall reach the conclusion that, while Grice’s theory of CIs provides the foundation for most of modern pragmatics, the place and status of the semantics–pragmatic divide remains deeply contested. The goal of this part of the course is for students to appreciate the challenge of getting clear on the relationship between semantics and pragmatics. There are difficult empirical questions to answer about the nature and scope of the rules of language. But it’s not enough to distinguish the interpretive effects of different kinds of knowledge and reasoning in language use. The interpretation of these empirical results depends on such philosophical considerations as the nature of content and representation, the relationship of meaning and agency, and the bases for human interaction and collaboration.

The agenda for the rest of course is then to bring empirical characterizations of utterance inter pretation into closer contact with the philosophical issues and arguments that inform how natural language meaning should be conceptualized and formalized. In particular, on days three and four of the course, we survey what’s known about the status of various interpretive effects without prejudice to the overarching theoretical and philosophical questions, and develop a broader and better-informed perspective.

Day three gives an overview of the rules of language that potentially affect the status of inter- pretive effects as implicatures. Some rules, governing DISCOURSE COHERENCE, seem to explicitly specify the possible actions that particular utterances can be used for. Other rules, governing PRE SUPPOSITION, seem to explicitly specify the possible contexts in which particular utterances can be used. Still more rules, governing INFORMATION STRUCTURE, seem to explicitly specify what relationships particular utterances can bear to salient alternatives that have been or might be uttered in the ongoing conversation. Ultimately, conventional meaning seems so eclectic and variable that we need an explicit methodological justification for how researchers have been able to characterize these interpretive effects as linguistic.

Day four, meanwhile, explores speakers’ diverse and particular ways of engaging with imagery, through interpretive effects such as metaphor and irony. For example, we will argue, particularly following Davidson (1978) and Camp (2009), that metaphorical interpretation involves a distinctive process of PE R SPE C T IV E TAKING. Metaphor invites us to organize our thinking about something through an analogical correspondence with something it is not. Any explanation of the import of metaphorical utterances will need to appeal to this distinctive perspective-taking operation. General pragmatic principles will not explain metaphor on their own.

Day five distills the consequences of these considerations for semantics and pragmatics. Semantics, on our view, can be taken to include all the linguistic information—truth conditional or otherwise—that speakers use to recover the content contributed to conversation through utterances.

Pragmatics, meanwhile, is best characterized as a process of disambiguation: the identification of the linguistic structure that the speaker had in mind and the associated rules that are taken to govern its content. Neither semantics nor pragmatics exhausts interpretation, which also requires interlocutors to approach the content speakers present through appropriate practices of imaginative engagement. And even this broad sense of interpretation does not exhaust understanding. Even after we interpret an utterance we may still reason further in an attempt to better understand the speaker. Thus, in place of Grice’s uniform pragmatics and its associated notion of conversational implicature, we have a much more nuanced taxonomy.

We don’t expect our perspective to be definitive. However, by exposing students to this taxonomy, we expect to enable students—whether they agree with us or not—to pursue more robust research into interpretation, and to engage more productively with interdisciplinary audiences in presenting their ideas.

Our course draws closely on my and Matthew Stone’s recent book Imagination and Convention: Distinguishing Grammar and Inference in Language, to be published by Oxford University Press in Fall 2014. The course emphasizes key views that students should be familiar with, but, with the book as a resource, stu- dents will easily be able to build on what we present, and relate it to current debates on questions such as the grammatical status of scalar implicatures, the role of meaning in metaphorical interpretation, the role of speaker intentions in disambiguation, and the limits of logic in capturing any of these interpretive effects.





Day 1

The landscape of pragmatic inference. Overview of the course. (Grice, 1975; Stalnaker, 1979; Thomason, 1990); Pragmatic inference: linguistic and psychological approaches. (Horn, 1984; Levinson, 2000; Pinker, Nowak & Lee, 2008; Sperber & Wilson, 1986)

Day 2

The interpretive effects of linguistic rules. Reconciling pragmatic arguments with empirical accounts of discourse structure, presupposition, anaphora and information structure. (van Kuppevelt, 1996; Kehler, 2001; van der Sandt, 1992)

Day 3

Varieties of interpretive inference. Reconciling pragmatic arguments with empirical ac- counts of metaphor and irony. (Camp, 2009; Davidson, 1978) Theorizing semantics and pragmatics. Communicative intentions, the conversational record, context dependence and the semantics–pragmatics divide (Grice, 1957; Lewis, 1969; Lewis, 1979; Pollack, 1990)

Expected Level

The course will present its arguments from scratch, so no prior experience is expected. We imagine the course will be most attractive to MS students and early PhD students, but of course we’d welcome more advanced students as well.


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