LINGUIST List 14.2172

Sun Aug 17 2003

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

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  1. 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

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


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.
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