LINGUIST List 15.638

Thu Feb 19 2004

Review: Pragmatics/Semantics: Dascal (2003)

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  1. Francisco Yus, Interpretation and Understanding

Message 1: Interpretation and Understanding

Date: Wed, 18 Feb 2004 10:40:51 -0500 (EST)
From: Francisco Yus <>
Subject: Interpretation and Understanding

AUTHOR: Dascal, Marcelo 
TITLE: Interpretation and Understanding 
PUBLISHER: John Benjamins. 
YEAR: 2003

Announced at

Francisco Yus, Department of English Studies, University of Alicante,


This book is a collection of essays by Marcelo Dascal. It comprises 34
previously published articles arranged in 30 chapters. Three articles
were published in the 70s, 16 articles were published in the 80s, 13
articles were published in the 90s, and two articles were published in
2000 and 2001 respectively. These articles follow a book-like format,
with one single bibliographical section at the end, and with subject
and name indexes. Besides, the articles are arranged in three parts
(which nevertheless exhibit a great deal of overlapping). A first part
of theorising comprises chapters 1 to 9; a second part of practical
terrain is covered in chapters 10 to 21. Finally, in a third part
(chapters 22-30) the pragmatic model is confronted with other
alternative accounts of understanding and interpretation.

As the title of the book indicates, all of these articles have to do,
to a greater or lesser extent, with ''interpretation and
understanding''. A theory dealing with this issue has to attempt to
clarify how, given the complexity of the interpretive process, human
beings manage to understand one another more often than not.

The book's basic claim is simple, according to Dascal: ''human
communication essentially involves the ability to use semiotic means
(such as language) to convey one's 'communicative intentions' and the
ability to recognize such intentions... [The purpose is] to analyze
the variety of circumstances in which these abilities are put to use
successfully and the mechanisms and principles through which this is
achieved'' (Foreword, p. x). Basically, the pragmatic approach
underlying the book is ''Gricean'', with an explicit interest in (a)
the semantics/pragmatics interface and the attempt to provide a
unified philosophical and linguistic base; (b) the objective to apply
this framework to a range of communicative phenomena broader than the
one envisaged by Grice; and (c) to compare this approach with others,
''thereby clarifying it further and showing its specificity,
defensibility against its critics, and productivity'' (Foreword, pp.


Chapter 1 (''Pragmatics and communicative intentions'', pp. 3-30,
originally published in 1999) summarizes Dascal's ideas on pragmatics,
semantics (vs. pragmatics) and intentionality. As I summarised in a
previous review of this article (Yus, 2001: 169-170), Dascal's idea of
intentionality is in the line of recent accounts by analytic
philosophy: to place intentionality at the level of words and
propositions, both of them prone to objective analysis. In other
words, intentionality can be traced in the actual communicative acts,
which turns pragmatics into the study of the use of linguistic (or
other) means by which a speaker manifests his/her communicative
intentions and a hearer recognises them. As such, intentionality helps
us to draw a dividing line between context-free sentence meaning and
addressee- oriented speaker meaning.

Initially, one concludes that semantics should deal with sentence
meaning, whereas pragmatics should be engaged in the explanation of
speaker meaning. Semantics and pragmatics are viewed as complementary
and with non-overlapping objects of analysis, a claim which is far
from uncontroversial, considering that their delimitation is currently
subject to a great deal of scholarly discussion.

Chapter 2 (''Conversational relevance'', pp. 31-52, originally
published in 1977) is one of the few essays which addressed the notion
of relevance in the 1970s, and attempted to develop Grice's sketchy
''maxim of relevance'' and proposed a more central role of relevance
in human communication.

The article provided interesting insights at the time, but there has
been a great deal of research on this topic in the last 25 years,
especially under the relevance-theoretic approach (Sperber & Wilson,
1986/95). This is why I wish that Dascal had updated his ideas on
relevance for this collection of essays (or at least defended them
against current developments in its study). For instance, Dascal
writes that ''there is a sense in which a certain concept of
relevance... governs the operation of the other super-maxims, as if
the CP [cooperative principle] itself were in fact a principle of
'relevance' rather than a principle of 'cooperation''' (p. 32). This
was indeed on the right track, but given the amount of research on
relevance published since then (see, for instance, Yus, 2000) it would
have been interesting to read about the author's current ideas
regarding the development of relevance theory when contrasted with his
thoughtful intuitions back in the 70s.

Chapter 3 (''Strategies of understanding'', pp. 52-81, originally
published in 1981) deals with the notion of ''understanding'',
progressively evolving towards an explanation of how meaning and
understanding are related, and with a final section on the notion of
''instantiation''. For Dascal, ''a satisfactory theory of meaning
should be either a proper part of s theory of understanding or a
separate theory which is able to contribute directly to it, in a
significant way. This, in turn, would imply that the theory of meaning
must be homogeneous with other theories relevant to an account of
understanding'' (p. 76).

Chapter 4 (''Two modes of understanding'', pp. 82-100, with I.
Berenstein, originally published as ''Two modes of understanding:
comprehending and grasping'', 1987) is a continuation of the previous
chapter. In this essay the author distinguishes between rule-based
''comprehending'' and intuitive-direct ''grasping'', both of which
complement each other in human communication.

Chapter 5 (''Individual and collective intentions'', pp. 101-114, with
A. Idan, originally published as ''From individual to collective
action'', 1989) is related to chapter one in the sense that it deals
with (communicative) intentions. Besides, the notion of ''collective
action'' is introduced (I coined a similar term, ''common-interest
task'' in Yus, 1997), which the author considers a rather difficult
notion to tackle, since communication may be, after all, a matter of
mental states of individual agents.

Chapter 6 (''How does a connective work?'', pp. 115-148, with
T. Katriel, originally published as ''Between semantics and
pragmatics: The two types of 'but' -Hebrew 'aval' and 'ela''', 1977)
addresses this connective within the author's ''onion-like picture''
of the significance of an utterance. According to this picture,
utterances exhibit a set of layers of meaning, ranging from
inner-layer propositional content to outer-layer conversational
layers, and with other layers in-between (e.g. presupposition,
modality, illocutionary force, etc.).

In chapter 7 (''Commitment and involvement'', pp. 149-168, with T.
Katriel, originally published as ''Speaker's commitment and
involvement'', 1989) the author distinguishes between a yes-no concept
(commitment) and a degree concept (involvement). The former has to do
with social and linguistic rules that underlie the 'conventional'
relation between linguistic form and communicative interaction. The
latter covers what these rules do not prescribe, that is, the actual
'engagement' of speakers towards their speech and interlocutors.

Chapter 8 (''Cues, clues, and context'', pp. 169-193, with E. Weizman,
originally published in two articles: Part A: ''Contextual
exploitation of interpretation clues in text understanding: An
integrated model'', 1987; Part B: ''On clues and cues: Strategies of
text understanding'', 1991) is about context. Dascal distinguishes two
major roles of context in the process of interpretation: a
semantics-based gap-filling function and a pragmatic
mismatch-resolution function. Besides, the author distinguishes two
stages in interpretation: the identification of an interpretation
problem and the search for a solution to this problem. The former is
signalled by ''cues'', while the latter is performed with the aid of

Chapter 9 (''Models of interpretation'', pp. 194-210, originally
published in 1992) also addresses interpretation by locating it inside
the spectrum of possible 'models of interpretation' such as the
'cryptographic', the 'hermeneutic', the 'super-pragmatic', the 'deep-
structure', the 'radical interpretation' and the 'pragmatic'.

Chapter 10 (''Understanding digressions. A study in conversational
coherence'', pp. 213-243, originally published in 1979) is about
digressions, as aspect of discourse coherence (and also of other terms
such as 'topic', 'involvement' and 'relevance') which has not been
sufficiently studied within pragmatics.

Chapter 11 (''Understanding a metaphor. The beyond enterprise'',
pp. 244- 272, originally published as ''The beyond enterprise'', 1996)
is about the metaphor 'beyond X', which ''plays a key role in the
conceptualization of and the discourse about the dynamics of
theoretical change'' (Foreword, p. xv).

Chapter 12 (''Three remarks on pragmatics and literature'',
pp. 273-279, originally published in 2000) is a short paper dealing
with the application of pragmatics to the study of literature.

Chapter 13 (''Understanding controversies'', pp. 280-292, originally
published as ''Controversies as quasi-dialogues'', 1989) addresses
polemical exchanges (i.e. controversies) with the aid of pragmatics,
which is especially suitable to deal with communicative exchanges
normally devoid of the ''mutually accepted direction'' which Grice
pictured for his famous cooperative principle. In the chapter a
special emphasis is placed on the fact that on many occasions
polemical exchanges are misunderstood.

In chapter 14 (''Understanding misunderstanding'', pp. 293-321,
originally published in two articles: Part A: ''Some questions about
misunderstanding'', 1999; Part B: ''The relevance of
misunderstanding'', 1985) Dascal studies a phenomenon of communication
in which I am particularly interested: misunderstandings (see for
instance Yus, 1998, 1999a,b), especially the second part dealing with
the need to offer a classification of types of misunderstandings. In
this second part, Dascal uses Fillmore's (pseudo-rhetorical) questions
(Fillmore, 1976) which a hearer typically has to answer when engaging
in the interpretation of utterances: (1) What did he say; (2) What was
he talking about; (3) Why did he bother to say it?; and (4) Why did he
say it in the way ha said it? For Dascal, misunderstandings can arise
in any of these interpretive questions.

In the first part, the author analyses six questions which a theory of
misunderstandings should deal with: (1) How often does a
misunderstanding occur?; (2) How often is a misunderstanding detected
and corrected, without further damage to communication?; (3) How is
misunderstanding managed?; (4) What are the causes of
misunderstanding?; (5) What is the logic of misunderstanding? Is it a
binary phenomenon or does it admit gradation?; and (6) What ethical
aspects of communication emerge in the issues raised by

Chapter 15 (''Understanding the law'', pp. 322-361, with
J. Wroblewski, originally published in two articles: Part A:
''Transparency and doubt: Understanding and interpretation in
pragmatics and in law'', 1988; Part B: ''The rational lawmaker and the
pragmatics of legal interpretation'', 1991) combines pragmatics and
legal thought in an interdisciplinary attempt to apply pragmatics to
this field. Traditionally, legal language has been rather cryptic,
which means that, considering that even the apparently most
transparent utterances undergo a process of pragmatic adjustment for
their interpretation, legal language requires a lot of pragmatic input
in order to turn the coded form into full- fledged interpretations.

In chapter 16 (''Understanding jokes and dreams. Sociopragmatics vs.
psychopragmatics'', pp. 362-379, originally published in 1985) Dascal
takes advantage of Freud's comparison between 'joke-work' and 'dream-
work' in order to assess the differences between a typically social
endeavour such as joking and a typically asocial and intimate activity
such as dreaming. Dascal tries to find out whether the latter is
constrained by socio-pragmatic issues in the same way as the ones
operating in the former.

Chapter 17 (''Understanding art'', pp. 380-401, with V. Dascal,
originally published as ''Understanding art as knowing how'', 1985)
shows, again, Dascal's ability to apply pragmatics to areas not
typically studied within this discipline. This time art is analysed
from a pragmatic standpoint, with specific emphasis on the cognitive
dimension of understanding artworks.

Chapter 18 (''Why does language matter to Artificial Intelligence?'',
pp.402-436, originally published in 1992) addresses, predictably, the
limitations of AI to deal with the multifarious quality of
sociopragmatic and psychopragmatic aspects of language production and
comprehension. These ideas are further explored in chapter 19
(''Pragmatics in the digital age'', pp. 437-456, with E. Dresner,
originally published as ''Semantics, pragmatics, and the digital
information age'', 2001), where Dascal explores the new forms of
communication within the digital age (see also Yus, 2001 for an
application of pragmatics to Internet communication). Dascal and
Dresner argue that ''the Digital Age still falls short of exploiting
the full potential of meaning embedded in both the semantic and the
pragmatic aspects of language and language use, and suggest how this
should and could be done'' (Foreword, p. xviii).

Chapter 20 (''Interpretation and tolerance'', pp. 457-476, originally
published as ''Tolerance and interpretation'', 1989) discusses the
issue of freedom of expression, while chapter 21 (''Understanding
other cultures. The ecology of cultural space'', pp. 477-494,
originally published as ''The ecology of cultural space'', 1991) is
related to the previous one in the sense that it defends the notion of
tolerance in the context of cross-cultural communication.

Chapter 22 (''Why should I ask her?'', pp. 497-506, originally
published in 1985) attempts to explain why the pragmatic
interpretation of linguistic utterances is, despite all the problems
inherent to human communication, quite successful.

Chapter 23 (''Speech act theory and pragmatics. An uneasy couple'',
pp.507-520, originally published as ''Speech act theory and Gricean
pragmatics'', 1994) compares Grice's and Searle's philosophical
accounts of the pragmatic side of human communication. Basically
Dascal addresses the problems that are faced when attempting to marry
speech acts and the Gricean theory in the light of the obvious
differences between the two. This study is continued in chapter 24
(''The pragmatic structure of conversation'', pp. 521-541, originally
published as ''On the pragmatic structure of conversation'', 1992),
where Dascal develops the criticism of Searle's use of speech acts as
a paradigm for pragmatics, and also in the next chapter
(''Contextualism'', pp. 542-561, originally published in 1981).

Chapter 26 (''Does pragmatics need semantics?'', pp. 562-593,
originally published in two articles: Part A: ''Defending literal
meaning'', 1987; Part B: ''On the roles of context and literal meaning
in understanding'', 1989) addresses a defence of literal meaning (also
partly studied in the previous chapter) against those who claim that
literal meaning does not play the role it is usually taken to play in
the philosophical process of interpretation.

In chapter 27 (''Pragmatics and foundationalism'', pp. 594-599,
originally published in 1992) literal meaning is also defended, but
this time against another type of objection: ''the claim that, being
'encodings' of mental representations, they cannot be 'foundational',
and therefore, in so far as semantics deals with literal meanings it
is perforce at best a 'derivative' discipline; accordingly, the truly
foundational discipline is pragmatics, for the origins of linguistic
meanings, as well as the grounds for their effectiveness, lie at the
level of interaction'' (Foreword, p. xx).

Chapter 28 (''The marriage of pragmatics and rhetoric'', pp. 600-622,
with A.G. Gross, originally published in 1999) is about persuasion,
traditionally studied in the domain of rhetoric, and often neglected
in pragmatic research. Dascal finds in ''inference'' a possible bridge
to link pragmatics to rhetoric.

Chapter 29 (''Hermeneutic interpretation and pragmatic
interpretation'', pp. 623-640, originally published in 1989) addresses
one further neighbouring discipline, this time hermeneutics, in the
light of pragmatic research.

Lastly, chapter 30 (''The limits of interpretation'', pp. 641-659,
with V. Dascal, originally published in 1996) inquires about the human
capacity to produce and interpret meaning, considering the possibility
that all the models of interpretation ''have some use and validity in
specific circumstances and for specific purposes, provided none of
them yield to their intrinsic imperialistic or reductionist tendencies
to provide the only, ultimate, and true account of all forms of
interpretation'' (Foreword, p.xxi).


When I was writing my thesis in the early nineties, I discovered
Dascal's book on pragmatics and the philosophy of mind (Dascal, 1983),
which was a great source of inspiration. To my knowledge, no second
volume in the series was ever published, but as the reader can find in
this collection of essays, Dascal's contribution to pragmatics has
been enormous and highly valuable. The range of perspectives and
objects of analysis that he has undertaken in the last decades is
incredibly wide, covering not only typical aspects of pragmatic
analysis, but also other areas not often (or not sufficiently) studied
within pragmatics. Simply by having a look at a (more or less)
complete list of publications by Dascal
updated May, 2003) one can be fully aware of how important his
contribution to pragmatic research has been (and no doubt will be).

The only drawback that I can find in the book is the fact that I
expected the author to devote some pages after each chapter to explain
how his ideas on the different pragmatic issues have evolved in the
last years, or to what extent these ideas remain the same. The
inclusion of a postface after each essay, in much the same way as we
can find in Kasher (1998), would have been welcome, considering the
amount of research on the multiple topics studied by Dascal which has
been published in the last decades.


Dascal, M. (1983) Pragmatics and the Philosophy of Mind. Vol. I:
Thought in Language. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Fillmore, C.J. (1976) ''Topics in lexical semantics''. In R. Cole
(ed.) Current Issues in Linguistic Theory. Bloomington, Indiana:
Indiana university Press, 76-138.

Kasher, A. (ed.) (1998) Pragmatics. Critical Concepts. London:

Sperber, D. and D. Wilson (1986/95) Relevance: Communication and
Cognition. Oxford: Blackwell.

Yus, F. (1997) Cooperaci�n y relevancia. Dos aproximaciones
pragm�ticas a la interpretacion. Alicante: University of Alicante,
Servicio de Publicaciones.

Yus, F. (2000) ''Relevance theory online bibliographic
service''. Online document available
Last updated: 13-2-2004.

Yus, F. (1998) ''The 'what-do-you-mean syndrome'. A taxonomy of
misunderstandings in Harold Pinter's plays''. Estudios Ingleses de la
Universidad Complutense 6: 81-100.

Yus, F. (1999a) ''Towards a pragmatic taxonomy of misunderstandings''.
Revista Canaria de Estudios Ingleses 38: 217-239.

Yus, F. (1999b) ''Misunderstandings and explicit/implicit
communication''. Pragmatics 9(4): 487-517.

Yus, F. (2001) ''Review of M. Dascal's 1999 Filosof�a del Lenguaje
II: Pragm�tica''. Pragmatics & Cognition 9(1): 165-173.


Francisco Yus teaches linguistics at the University of Alicante,
Spain. His main research interests are media discourses (his 1995
Ph.D was on the pragmatics of British comics), verbal irony and
misunderstandings from a pragmatic point of view, especially from the
relevance-theoretic approach to human communication. He has published
several books an articles on these subjects, including two recent
books on the pragmatics of Internet communication (Ciberpragmatica. El
uso del lenguaje en Internet. Madrid: Ariel, 2001) and on the
discourse of female characters in British alternative comics (El
discurso femenino en el comic alternativo ingles. Alicante: University
of Alicante, Servicio de Publicaciones, 2002).
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