Most people modify their ways of speaking, writing, texting, and e-mailing, and so on, according to the people with whom they are communicating. This fascinating book asks why we 'accommodate' to others in this way, and explores the various social consequences arising from it.
Review of Discourse, Beliefs and Intentions: Semantic Defaults and Propositional Attitude Ascription
K.M. Jaszczolt (1999) Discourse, Beliefs and Intention. Semantic Defaults and Propositional Attitude Ascription. Current Research in the Semantics/Pragmatics Interface (CRISPI), Elsevier, Oxford (UK). pp. 362
Reviewed by Alessandro Tavano, University of Trieste (I)
This book offers a theory of utterance meaning based on speaker's intentions interpreted by default. This theory is called Default Semantics. The term "default" here bears on some fundamental pragmatic aspects of utterance interpretation, such as reference assigning, which in standard situations should integrate the output of a grammatical decoding process (i.e. the logical form of a sentence), in order to derive a truth-evaluable proposition. If it can be showed that some fundamental pragmatic aspects are prompted by default, the author claims, then they can be considered proper of the semantic level of an utterance, thus tracing a new distinction between semantics and pragmatics.
The book is organised as follows.
Chapter 1 (pages 1-45) deals with ambiguity in utterance interpretation. How does a hearer manage to get through the multiple possible interpretations of an utterance? The author opposes the hypothesis of an inherent ambiguity of propositional forms, which says that an utterance would trigger a different full interpretation (or sense) in each context of use. This hypothesis is dismissed with by reference to Grice's Modified Occam's Razor Principle, which calls for theoretical explanations preserving senses parsimony. The author rejects also the proposal of a radical underspecification to be attributed to the linguistic input, such that logical forms would be radically underspecified representations which would need to be driven by general pragmatic processes of disambiguation, reference assignment, and free enrichment in order to arrive at a full propositional form. This view is said to be parasitic on world knowledge and thus not explanatory. Instead, Default Semantics is introduced. The author claims that the intrusion of intentions as defaults can avoid semantic ambiguity by assigning a default value to one of the possible meanings, from which the others would differentiate following a graded scale of variation in default parameters. The explanatory power of Default Semantics is said to be supported by the outcomes of Discourse Representation Theory (Kamp & Reyle 1993), in that they would be similar in building up dynamic semantic frames integrating pragmatic information.
Chapter 2 (pages 47-85) sets the notion of semantic defaults into a frame jointly made up by the Parsimony of Levels Principle and the Primary Intention Principle. The first is a methodological development of Grice's Modified Occam's Razor, and is used to justify the proposal of a unified account of a rich semantic level. The second Principle is theoretically fundamental as Default Semantics is based on a justification of the basic role of intentions and in particular of referential intention, which determines entities in the world referred to by a speaker. This is named Primary Intention because it plays a major role in explaining how intentionality enters the semantic level. In other words, the successful fulfilment of the strong referential intention, that is the picking out of something from the world, is the default and any departure from this can be used to explain how referential expressions, such as definite descriptions, come to have weaker uses: in this way intentions can be a tool in explaining problematic belief ascription and believe reports.
Chapter 3 (pages 87-120) tries to clear the ground for the role of intentionality in communication. How does intentionality mediate between the world and the mind of those who experience the world through communication? Default Semantics relies on intentionality of mental states. The main argument goes as in the following: intentionality means being about something, it is proper of all human mental states, such as beliefs, and it is direction-making in reaching and giving meaning to the experienced world. It gives meaning to the world through a mediator, called noema in the phenomenological tradition, which represents the way or mode a particular object of the world presents itself to the giving meaning act. Intentions in language can mediate between intentionality of mental states and the world because language is proper to both domains. Moreover, language becomes a type of privileged experience of the world when intentionality is successful, when it ties the object to an intentional relation. Reaching the world represents such a success. And by transitivity, as the author argues, this is the optimal way of using language in communication. The use of language to reach the world can then be assumed as a default.
Chapter 4 (pages 121-201) shows how Default Semantics can explain and classify the emergence of phenomena such as the difference between referential and attributive uses of definite descriptions on one side, and de dicto and de re readings of belief reports on the other side. The main proposal, following the Principle of Primary Intention, is that the de re reading, where what is meant is to pick up an entity from the world, is the default, being the referential intention the strongest, and the de dicto reading, where what is meant is to attribute a property to whoever satisfies it, is derived from a weakening of the referential intention. A classification of subtypes of readings is given.
Chapter 5 (pages 202-235) discusses various referring expressions, and orders them in a scale of fulfilment of the referential intention, or salience of default reading. Indexicals are said to be inherently salient enough to strongly activate a default reading. Demonstrative NPs are not likely to be used attributively though in some contexts they might be used in that way. Proper names and especially definite descriptions can allow for attributive readings. Indefinite descriptions are rarely used to pick up a determinate referent, and thus constitute a sort of negative default, derived by the standard non-fulfilment of the primary intention.
Chapter 6 (pages 237-275) discusses how thought is made manifest in propositional attitude expressions. Linguistic expressions, mental images and non-verbal action are considered to be the vehicles of thought: this integrated perspective can help to understand why propositional attitude expressions cannot be fully explained by linguistic analysis and need the phenomenological horizon of meaning-giving acts to be grasped.
Chapter 7 (pages 277-300) tries to fit the scale of salience in readings proposed in chapter 5 in the framework of Discourse Representation Theory, on the hypothesis that such a default scale be psychologically grounded in reflecting natural language processing paths.
Chapter 8 (pages 301-334) is a study on the import of Default Semantics for translations. If individuating the de re and the de dicto readings in a text is one of the keys to a good translation, then this can be done by searching for the default reading. The author uses examples from Polish where the de re and the de dicto readings are partly lexicalized.
Chapter 9 (pages 335-340) claims that Default Semantics can give an order to the different possible interpretations of an utterance and can be both psychologically plausible and methodologically sound, obeying the Principle of Parsimony of Levels.
This book offers a theory which aims at having a great appeal to both linguists and philosophers. Its main assumption, the existence of default readings in standard contexts, has been one of the principal concerns of research in pragmatics. Intuitions say that humans use default or standard reasoning procedures to attribute meaning to utterances. The difficult task is to give an account of that default processing and of how and when it can be overridden.
Default Semantics is based on a development of the idea that interpretations by default have a key role in explaining how hearers can arrive at and understand the intended meaning of an utterance-in-context. In particular, defaults provide a reason for some types of uniformity in utterance interpreation which are not part of the encoded meaning. That the construction of propositional meaning is partly pragmatically driven can hardly be questioned. Give this fact, the problem to be solved is the following: in which way(s) does pragmatics intrude the logico-semantic level of logical forms to yield a propositional representation? The solution that Default Semantics gives is simple: add sufficient intentions to provide at the same time a propositional form, a bridge from mental states to the world, and a psychologically plausible model of processing.
These three goals need a close analysis. As far as the recovery of a proposition is concerned, the author is right in attributing a different import to each intruding pragmatic process. Reference assignment is intuitively prior to free enrichment. But, apart from reference assignment, defaults do not seem flexible enough to provide a viable account for sentence completion for instance, which is often necessary to have a full propositional form, let alone for free enrichment. How are these problems to be dealt with? The author says that intentionality, the fact of being about something, works along some principal ways: identifying an object (referential intention), informing on states of affairs (informative intention), communicating information (communicative intention). In this work the import of the informative and the communicative intentions is only hinted at and it is said that its development could explain the picture's missing parts, but how are those intentions to be explained and developed? Thus far, it seems that such developments would necessarily reduce the import of Primary Intention and by the same token the explanatory power of Default Semantics.
For the second issue, one problem might raise with too much weight being put upon intentionality, which results in the blurring of some distinctions. What is it that intention really does? How does it work to connect mental and ordinary world? Does it subsume and fix individual entities to a mental representation of some kind, or does it relate a representation to an object fixed as reference in the world? This is left unexplained. Although intentionality can be assumed as a universal characteristic of human interaction with the world, it seems that the transposition of its features to located intentions (in some context of utterance) might not be straightforward.
>From a psychological point of view, if one agrees with the treatment of intentionality in Default Semantics, it remains nevertheless vague how intention recognition and decoding of logical forms are ordered in a comprehension processing sequence. Further, the fact that theoretically a rich semantic level can be preferred to other proposals does not make it psychologically sounder or easier to process, and thus an independent argument is needed.
The main point Default Semantics makes is to show that a theory of interpretation by default can be proposed, and that the term "default" can be defined: both goals seem only partially achieved. It nevertheless represent an attempt at bridging the gap between actual uses of utterances in communication, which seem intuitively governed by default rules, and theoretical descriptions, which require an explicit model to fit non homogeneous data. This book makes it clear that Default Semantics represents an interesting attempt to propose a unified theory of utterance meaning.
Dott. Alessandro Tavano PhD Candidate in Philosophy at the University of Trieste (I). His main interests are: pragmatics and comprehension, the semantics/pragmatics distinction, Relevance Theory.
Address: Dipartimento di Filosofia, Universit� di Trieste, Via Universit� 7, 34100 - Trieste (I) E-mail: email@example.com
At 21:12 09/10/00 -0400, you wrote: >Dear Alessandro, > >THanks for sending that to me, Unfortunately, We can't post attachments. >You will need to transfer the file to text format and insert it directly >into the email. > >Please make sure that there is a carriage return every 60 characters >or so and that there are "smart" quotes in teh document. > >Best, > >AC > > >On Mon, 9 Oct 2000, Alessandro Tavano wrote: > >> Dear dr. Carnie, >> attached you'll find my review for The Linguist List. >> Best regards, >> Alessandro Tavano > > >