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Review of  Interpretation and Understanding

Reviewer: Francisco Yus
Book Title: Interpretation and Understanding
Book Author: Marcelo Dascal
Publisher: John Benjamins
Linguistic Field(s): Pragmatics
Cognitive Science
Issue Number: 15.638

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Date: Tue, 17 Feb 2004 09:27:27 +0100
From: Francisco Yus
Subject: Interpretation and Understanding

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

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

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 "clues".

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
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) Cooperación y relevancia. Dos aproximaciones pragmáticas
a la interpretacion. Alicante: University of Alicante, Servicio de

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

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 Filosofía del Lenguaje II:
Pragmática". 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).