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Review of  Words without Meaning

Reviewer: Xuelin He
Book Title: Words without Meaning
Book Author: Christopher Gauker
Publisher: MIT Press
Linguistic Field(s): Discourse Analysis
Philosophy of Language
Issue Number: 14.2172

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Date: Thu, 14 Aug 2003 01:38:25 +0800 (CST)
From: Xuelin He
Subject: Words without Meaning

Gauker, Christopher (2003) Words without Meaning, MIT Press,
Contemporary Philosophical Monographs.

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 metacontexts.

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


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 meaning.


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.

ABOUT THE REVIEWER 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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