LINGUIST List 12.2889

Mon Nov 19 2001

Review: Kadmon, Formal Pragmatics (2nd rev.)

Editor for this issue: Terence Langendoen <>

What follows is another discussion note contributed to our Book Discussion Forum. We expect these discussions to be informal and interactive; and the author of the book discussed is cordially invited to join in. If you are interested in leading a book discussion, look for books announced on LINGUIST as "available for discussion." (This means that the publisher has sent us a review copy.) Then contact Simin Karimi at or Terry Langendoen at <p> Subscribe to Blackwell's LL+ at and donate 20% of your subscription to LINGUIST! You get 30% off on Blackwells books, and free shipping and postage!


  1. Bert Bultinck, Review of Kadmon, Formal Pragmatics

Message 1: Review of Kadmon, Formal Pragmatics

Date: Thu, 15 Nov 2001 21:52:52 +0100
From: Bert Bultinck <>
Subject: Review of Kadmon, Formal Pragmatics

Kadmon, Nirit (2001) Formal Pragmatics: Semantics, Pragmatics,
Presupposition and Focus. Blackwell, xi+430pp, paperback ISBN
0-631-20121-1, $39.95.

A previous review of this book appeared on LINGUIST at

In this major contribution to the nascent field of formal pragmatics,
Nirit Kadmon manages to do several things at the same time. The blurb
informs us that "Formal Pragmatics" serves as a textbook, as well as a
reference and research book, and claims that the author also offers
informed and in-depth discussions of current problems in formal
semantics/pragmatics as well as a status quo of the debate on the
semantics/pragmatics interface. That is slightly exaggerated: while it
is certainly true that this book contains many valuable discussions and
important insights, it is hardly an introduction to the field (and the
author, pace the blurb, acknowledges this in her introduction). The
volume cannot really live up to its overly general title: certainly,
Kadmon tackles a great number of problems within a field that could be
named "formal pragmatics", but the scope and detail of this book are
such that there is not enough room to deal with a number of issues that
should without question be part of the body of "formal pragmatics" (the
attempts at formalization made in implicature theory, in discourse and
conversation analysis, in the analysis of discourse particles). In
addition, the linguistic discipline of "formal pragmatics" is clearly
still too young to be comprehensively dealt with in one volume.
Nevertheless, even if the title is somewhat misleading, the subject
range of the book is very wide indeed. It provides a very accessible
introduction to two of the most important paradigms in the field,
Discourse Representation Theory and File Change Semantics. It discusses
three truly fundamental issues in linguistic pragmatics, namely,
definiteness, presupposition theory and the semantico-pragmatic
analysis of focus. And, perhaps most importantly, it offers a number of
interesting and original perspectives on some of the problems in these
domains. Reading "Formal Pragmatics" definitely gives one the feeling
that the eponymous field is fascinating and full of unexplored

I will not summarize each of the 21 chapters, as this has already been
done by the previous reviewer, Niladri Sekhar Dash, I will limit myself
to a remark concerning the general project that structures this book ,
and a discussion of two more specific problems presented in the book,
namely her discussion of numeral determiners in NPs (which is really
just a detail - it is the subject of only one the 21 chapters) and her
extensive use of "accommodation". A critical review of all Kadmon's
proposals would take at least another book, if not several books.
"Formal Pragmatics" is a very rich text indeed.

As far as the general objective of this book is concerned, I believe
that the attempt at formalization is crucial. This approach does not
determine the answers suggested (although it clearly does influence the
type of answers, i.e., answers usually come in the form of rigid
constraints, not in the form of Levinsonian or Hornian principles), but
it certainly guides the research questions. An example of this is the
extensive discussion of presupposition projection. Certainly, the old
discussion on the status of presuppositions and how they should be
combined with the semantic representation (logical form) of an
utterance managed to find its way into the canon of linguistic
pragmatics. But a theory of presuppositions is much more than a theory
of how presuppositions are cancelled, filtered, suspended, or added to
the context. The attention for presupposition projection (five chapters
and a short extra chapter entitled "interlude") seems disproportionate
when compared to the discussion of presupposition triggering and the
behavior of presuppositions (treated together, in one chapter). Even
more remarkable is that, while the analysis of the projection problem
leads Kadmon to firmly propose definite solutions, the chapter on the
ways in which presuppositions are produced or triggered remains
inconclusive. The fundamental question whether presuppositions should
be considered conventional aspects of certain lexemes (or certain
groups of lexemes) or pragmatic, Gricean effects of uses of these
lexemes is not answered in this volume. The discussion of
presuppositions - one of the three foci of this book - ends rather
disappointingly with the suggestion that much more research into this
problem is necessary. I believe that the imbalance between the
attention for the projection problem and the arguably more essential
triggering problem is caused not only by the traditional framework and
the canon of presupposition theory, but also by the explicit desire to
formalize the concept of presuppositions and its linguistic
manifestations. The formal theories that Kadmon works with (model-
theoretic semantics, and in this part of her book especially Kamp's DRT
(Kamp and Reyle 1993) and Heim's FCS (Heim 1982)) simply do not provide
the tools to decide between conventional and conversational approaches
to presupposition-triggering. In other words, these models allow for
rigid and accurate formalization, but the decision to view
presuppositions as conventional or conversational (Kadmon actually
suggests that a mix between the two might be in order) must evidently
be made prior to the formalization of the implications of that
decision. Only an extensive survey of all presupposition-triggers
combined with off-line research into what speakers and hearers in fact
do take for granted and, ideally, corpus-based analyses of the
discursive effects of presupposition triggers on the ensuing
conversation can answer the essential question of what presuppositions
are and how they differ from more explicitly/strongly coded semantic
material. The attempt to formalize presuppositions is necessarily
reduced to a small subdomain of presupposition theory (namely, the
projection problem), because we seem to know too little about what
presuppositions do in general. In that sense, the integration of
presupposition theory into formal semantic programs seems a bit
premature. If "formal pragmatics" wants to do more than simply
transcribe and model the findings of more informal investigations into
language use, it should give prominence to surveys, investigations, and
explanations of pragmatic phenomena, which can be described in informal
as well as in highly formal terms. The language in which certain
phenomena are discussed is secondary to the description of the
phenomena itself.

On the other hand, it must certainly be acknowledged that when we
restrict our attention to the question of presupposition projection,
the analyses offered in this book are quite refined and nuanced. And
also Kadmon's discussion of definiteness and her very short discussion
of numeral determiners of NPs is rather sophisticated. The latter is
original in that it combines the traditional Gricean argument with the
instruments of Discourse Representation Theory. The interpretation of
numeral determiners is yet another of the hotly debated subjects in the
last three decades of linguistic pragmatics and it is no exaggeration
to say that Kadmon offers the most convincing analysis of numerals that
is available today. Criticizing Horn's original (1972, 1989) analysis
of numerals in terms of an 'at least' semantics and an 'at most'
implicature as well as Kamp's analysis starting from an 'exactly'
meaning of numerals, she proposes that the difference between three
cats and at least three cats lies in the scalar implicature, which may
be created by uttering the first, but not the second. The difference
with Horn's account is subtle, but crucial: because Kadmon treats NPs
with numeral determiners just like indefinites of the form a CN (Common
Noun) in DRT, the 'at least' meaning that is postulated by Horn as the
meaning of the numeral itself, arises as the consequence of an
existential operator ranging over the whole discourse, and not just
over the numeral. The advantage of Kadmon's approach is that it is no
longer necessary to accept counter-intuitive 'at least' meanings for
numerals, while her approach still manages to explain crucial arguments
in favor of such an 'at least' analysis (e.g., the combination of
negation and numerals). Even if Kadmon does not state this very
explicitly, her analysis leads to the powerful and intuitively
acceptable claim that numerals have 'absolute value' semantics and that
all sorts of phenomena (grammatical, such as the English restrictors,
as well as pragmatic, such as discourse positions) can alter this basic
meaning. Throughout this book, she shows that she is aware of the
overwhelming importance of contextual influence on meaning creation,
and also in her discussion of numerals she rightly points out a number
of common sense reasons why numerals almost invariably appear to have
'exact' semantics.

While her analyses of so-called donkey-sentences, the "uniqueness"
meaning of definite descriptions and referential and attributive
definites are all very detailed, the author often resorts to two
principles which cannot be constrained as clearly as one would expect
from formal theories: metalinguistic negation and, most prominently,
accommodation. She is certainly aware of this herself (she regularly
notes that we should be wary of invoking "accommodation" for every
problem we come across), but the "constraints" on accommodation she
borrows from other researchers, namely "consistency" and "bridging" are
themselves quite flexible. Exaggerating only slightly, we could say
that the extensive use of "accommodation" in the discussion of problems
concerning the semantics/pragmatics interface enables Kadmon to avoid
the phenomena that really matter. In a sense, every reference to the
concept of accommodation testifies to the fundamental and irreducible
flexibility of the ways in which speakers and hearers produce and
interpret language. It is not that I believe that Kadmon uses the
concept of accommodation to "rescue" makeshift aspects of her theory,
it is just that I think that the theory she presents captures only the
tip of the ice-berg. The rest of the ice-berg is as it were banished
from "formal pragmatics" and hides under the cover term "accommodation".

Be that as it may, Kadmon's discussion of local and global
accommodation is in itself a significant contribution to the analysis
of the as yet underinvestigated concept. Also the related notions of
"linguistic" and "cognitive presupposition" are useful when trying to
distinguish the weight of meaning contributions of certain items.
Beaver's definition of global accommodation as "a natural part of the
orderly communication process in which conversational participants
gradually determine their common ground" (Beaver 1993:67) is cited and
local accommodation is seen as an act of the hearer whereby she assumes
that the speaker cannot have meant what he said. Acting upon that
assumption, the hearer then locally alters the meaning of the speaker's
expression but does not change anything in his "files" or in his
background assumptions. Kadmon, however, considers this approach too
simplistic. Her analysis of the sequence

(1) If John bought a sports car today, he is dying to show it to us.
 He should be driving it here right now, in fact.

leaves room for two different sorts of accommodation: either the
existential presupposition of it in the consequent is added to the
context just because that enables an interpretation of it, or it is
permanently added to the context. I think this captures the intuitions
about (1) quite well. Kadmon admits that local accommodation is
sometimes mandatory, for instance, when global accommodation would be
incompatible with the existing context. But her analyses of sentences
like (2)

(2) If Sue stopped smoking yesterday, she will get a prize from the
 health bureau.

clearly demonstrate that even when global accommodation would be
possible, local accommodation remains a possibility. In specific
contexts, it is perfectly possible to interpret (2) without having to
"cognitively" presuppose that Sue had a smoking habit before. This also
shows that Beaver's identification of local accommodation with "acting
on the assumption that the speaker can't have meant what she said" is
wrong. Kadmon's discussion of accommodation is very insightful and
convincing, even if the frequency with which "accommodation" is
employed to explain embarrassing examples in presupposition theory
somehow casts a shadow over the formal semantics' claims of rigidity
and mechanical procedurality.

In general, it should be clear that Kadmon's book is a very interesting
and extremely rich contribution to a number of problems in linguistic
pragmatics. She manages to write quite informally on very intricate and
technical themes, and she is imaginative enough to find lacunae in a
number of powerful accounts of pragmatic phenomena. It should also be
clear that "Formal Pragmatics" can be no more than a step in the
evolution of a burgeoning discipline. The book also suggests that
anything that aspires to the name "pragmatics" ideally involves a mix
of, on the one hand, very detailed analyses and principles at micro-
level and, on the other hand, rather general considerations of what
"meaning" is, how it is construed and negotiated and how it can never
be taken for granted.

Beaver, David. (1993). "The kinematics of presupposition", in Hans Kamp
(ed), Presupposition, DYANA-2, Deliverable R2.2.A, Part II, August

Heim, Irene. (1982). The semantics of definite and indefinite noun
phrases, Ph.D. dissertation, University of Massachussetts, Amherst.

Horn, Laurence Robert. (1972). On the semantic properties of logical
operators in English. Ph.D. Thesis, UCLA.

Horn, Laurence Robert. (1989). A natural history of negation. Chicago:
University of Chicago Press.

Kamp, Hans and Uwe Reyle. (1993). From Discourse to Logic. Dordrecht,
Boston: Kluwer.

Bert Bultinck is a research assistant (Fund for Scientific Research -
Flanders) at the University of Antwerp and works on the Gricean legacy,
the semantics/pragmatics interface and the meaning analysis of
Mail to author|Respond to list|Read more issues|LINGUIST home page|Top of issue