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.
AUTHOR: Bruno G. Bara TRANSLATOR: John Douthwaite TITLE: Cognitive Pragmatics SUBTITLE: The Mental Process of Communication PUBLISHER: MIT Press YEAR: 2010
Jinrui Wang, School of Foreign Languages, Shanxi University, China
Bara's ''Cognitive Pragmatics'' offers a theory of human communication that is both formalized through logic and validated through evolutionary proof and experimental data. As opposed to most traditional study of cognitive pragmatics -- merely aiming to construct theoretical models of pragmatic inference within the field of linguistics-- this book is unique in that it explores cognitive pragmatics within the broader context of communication from the perspective of developmental cognitive science, with a focus on exploring the mental processes of participants in communication. With ample persuasive evolutionary evidence and convincing experimental data, the author elucidates his theory of human interpersonal communication. The author's insight in the book is not confined to the disciplines of linguistics and psychology, but also extends to philosophy, sociology, anthropology, neuroscience, and clinical medicine.
Bara begins with a preface in which he first states his understanding of communication; essentially, it is a cooperative activity between two or more people in which the meanings of each transaction are constructed by all the participants engaged in the shared task of reciprocally attending to others' words. Therefore, the realization of successful communication falls on the shoulders of all participants. Then, the author states the goal of the book. He focuses on describing the mental states of participants in communicative interactions, trying to explain how a communicative act is generated mentally by the actor before it is realized physically, and how the physically realized communicative act is comprehended by the partner. Finally, the author states his research procedure and methodology. He furnishes a formal validation of his theory and then corroborates the theory advanced with various scientific methodologies, such as those employed in formal logic, anthropology, developmental psychology, and neurosciences, as well as linguistics. The remainder of the book is divided into six chapters.
Chapter I: Not Just Language: A Taxonomy of Communication
In this chapter, after explaining three concepts of social interaction (i.e. information extraction, communication, and human communication), the author highlights that human communication is an intentional and cooperative social activity which does not just come about through languages, but also through other channels. Therefore, human communication consists of two basic forms: linguistic communication and extralinguistic communication, both of which are generated by a combined effort between actor and partner, who consciously and intentionally cooperate to construct the meaning of their interaction. The author then proceeds to specify the differences between the two basic forms of communication: i. linguistic communication is compositional, defined by characteristics such as systematicity, productivity, and displacement; ii. extralinguistic communication is only associative, lacking the aforementioned characteristics. At last, the author points out that linguistic and extralinguistic communication are not in competition with each other, but must be integrated harmoniously to realize communicative goals, and that they both are subjected to some general principles of communication, such as cooperation, common attention, communicative intentionality, symbolization, sharedness, conversational rules, cultural dependency, etc.
Chapter II: Tools for Communicating
In this chapter, the author first outlines some fundamental methodological aspects to make his theory of cognitive pragmatics conform to the criteria of scientificness proposed by Thomas Kuhn (1962) and Imre Lakatos (1970). Since the major domain the author investigates is developmental cognitive science, he lists three key aspects of his methodology: formalization, construction, and neural correlation. Bearing these methodological aspects in mind, the author then focuses his attention on scrutinizing some major concepts indispensable to the theory of cognitive pragmatics (such as cooperation, mental states, and intentionality) in great length with critical eyes. He subdivides cooperation into behavioral and conversational types, which paves the way for him to put forward the concepts of Behavior Games and Conversation Games in Chapter III. When dealing with mental states in communication, the author differentiates between three types of beliefs: individual, common, and shared. He points out that it is from shared beliefs that communicants start to infer communicated meanings. When talking about intentionality, the author claims that only intention with the features of clear direction and deliberateness can be considered communicative, and that communicative intention consists of first-order and second-order intention (i.e. the intention to communicate something, and the intention to let that intention be recognized as such). Such a concept of intention differs from Sperber and Wilson's (1995) idea; they only regard second-order intention to be communicative intention, while first-order intention, in their eyes, is just informative intention.
Chapter III: Behavior Games and Conversation Games
At the very beginning of this chapter, after introducing the revolutionary notion of Language Game originally put forth by Ludwig Wittgenstein (1953), the author maintains that human communication is a kind of game that we play. He then makes an important distinction between Behavior Games and Conversation Games. As to playing a Behavior Game, Bara means that participants in communication should share the knowledge of an interactive action plan and carry out the plan. In terms of playing a Conversation Game, he means that participants in communication should follow certain linguistic rules in conversation and fulfill the conversational sequence. Bara points out that the former regulates social interaction while the latter governs the structure of conversation. While claiming that Conversation Games are subordinate to Behavior Games in human communication, the author mainly focuses his elaborations on Behavior Games. He first classifies Behavior Games into three main types with regard to the number of people playing them, namely, Cultural Games, Group Games, and Couple Games. He then describes the structure of a game, conditions of playing a game, moves involved in a game, and the relationship between players in a game. Finally, the author shifts his attention to Conversation Game and defines it as a set of tasks that each participant in the conversation has to fulfill in a given sequence. With a focus on describing the mental state of each participant involved in a conversation, Bara echoes Pickering and Garrod's (2004) idea that production and comprehension processes in conversation should be treated equally. As to real human communication, the author believes that, in both production and comprehension, it is the Behavior Game that governs the interaction as a whole, while the Conversation Game is responsible for the harmonious local development of dialogues.
Chapter IV: Generation and Comprehension of Communication Acts
In this chapter, the author constructs the theoretical framework of the book, aiming to describe the mental states of participants in conversation, that is, how they generate and comprehend communication acts. In order to underscore the multiplicity of communicative channels (such as sign languages, facial expressions, gestures, etc., besides spoken language), Bara intentionally avoids the terms Speaker and Hearer in favor of the terms Actor, to indicate the participant who takes an active role at the moment of communicating, and Partner, to refer to the participant who has a passive role at that point in the interaction. The author takes the actor's generation of communication acts for granted, for he thinks this can be explained by exploring the partner's mental process of comprehension. So, he mainly focuses on the partner's generation and comprehension of communication acts. He distinguishes five logically connected stages in the partner's mental process in speech communication: recognizing the actor's act of expression, inferring the actor's intended meaning, reaching the communicative effects intended by the actor, generating communicative intentions he/she will communicate in a response, and planning overt communicative responses. The author then elaborates the tasks that the partner has to fulfill at each of the five stages and correspondingly explores the mental states of the partner at these stages in great detail.
Chapter V: Nonstandard Communication
In this chapter, the author first points out that there exist nonstandard communication cases, that is, situations that fail to trigger the default procedures of mental processing in communication that he outlines in Chapter IV, and then classifies these cases under four headings: nonexpressive interaction, exploitation, deception, and failure. The author holds the view that these nonstandard cases provide evidence in favor of the theoretical framework of the processes of generating and comprehending communication acts outlined in Chapter VI. Here, we can take ''deception'' as an example to see how Bara advances his argument. Bara defines this term as a conscious violation of a shared Behavior Game. When expressing an utterance 'p' in communication, the actor intends to persuade the partner into taking 'p' as shared between them, although in actuality the actor does not believe 'p' at all. So, whether the deception works or fails, the partner will undergo all the five stages of comprehending and generating communication acts, though with different communicative effects and responses. As to the other three types of nonstandard communication, Bara also makes detailed yet convincing arguments to show that they logically fall under the framework of the comprehension process that he outlines.
Chapter VI: Communication Competence
After acquainting readers with the theoretical aspects of cognitive pragmatics in his sense, Bara, in the last part of the book, presents ample evolutionary evidence and experimental data in order to corroborate his understanding of human communicative competence. The author shows the readers that an individual's communicative competence includes not only abstract capacities but also his/her potential to carry out those capacities. Thus, an individual's communicative competence is not static but developmental. At the end of this chapter, the author introduces a new perspective of studying communicative competence -- neuropragmatics, which investigates the correlations between the mental processes involved in communication and those areas of the brain that are responsible for these processes. He holds that the study of the mind-brain relationship will provide a rich perspective from which we will be able to better explain human communicative competence.
As a whole, this book is a clearly written, thought-provoking discussion of cognitive pragmatics through the lens of human communication. Through a novel presentation of ideas, the book achieves its goal of piquing the curiosity of readers by explaining the mental processes of participants in communicative interaction and offering a number of innovations that depart from the traditional treatment of cognitive pragmatics.
As to the book's strengths, the stance the author takes regarding cognitive pragmatics and his methodological standpoints are particularly commendable. He deals with cognitive pragmatics within the broad context of human communication from the perspective of developmental cognitive science and manages to corroborate his formalized theory with various scientific methodologies: formal logic, anthropology, developmental psychology, and the neurosciences. All these methodologies are harmoniously interwoven throughout the whole book, which makes his theory both well-grounded and coherent. Equally laudable is the author's discussion of the evolution and emergence of communicative competence through ample persuasive documentary data and convincing experimental data, both of which are rarely seen in such detail in other books on cognitive pragmatics. The book is also praiseworthy for its number of figures and formulas that help clarify concepts that would be difficult to express solely through words.
Concerning the book's readability and manner of writing, there is very little to criticize because it follows a very conversational yet detailed format. Throughout the whole book, the author cites many real-life examples and provides extensive references to support his arguments, continually pointing readers to sources where they may find more in-depth discussions of the material.
A convincing theory of cognitive pragmatics is supposed to be both descriptive and interpretive. However, it seems that Bara's Cognitive Pragmatics framework is more descriptive than interpretive. While the book is very strong in showing readers that the human mind has remarkable communicative competence, through plenty of evolutionary and experimental data, it is relatively weak in interpreting how the two parties involved in real communication use their inner mechanisms to negotiate with each other to ensure a common communicative goal. The author pays more attention to a static description of human mental processes of communication, leaving the individual's dynamic mental process in real communicative interaction by the wayside. This affects the theory's power of explaining human communicative interaction to some extent. As such, if the theoretical kernel of the book, Chapter IV, had more elaborations on the five logically connected steps in participants' mental processes that the author proposes, particularly how the actor and partner collaborate with each other in meaning construction, the book would be perfect.
Overall, Bara's Cognitive Pragmatics is a unique exploration of human mental processes in communication with many insightful connections to areas beyond cognitive science. Anyone interested in linguistics, philosophy, psychology, sociology, anthropology, neuroscience, or clinical medicine will enjoy the exposition presented in this book, which widens our vision of human communication.
Kuhn, T.S. 1962. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Lakatos, I. 1970. Falsification and the Methodology of Scientific Research Programs. In Criticism and the Growth of Knowledge, ed. I. Lakatos and A. Musgrave. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Pickering, M.J., and S.Garrod. 2004. Toward a Mechanistic Psychology of Dialogue. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 27(2): 169-190.
Sperber, D., and D. Wilson. 1995. Relevance: Communication and Cognition, 2nd ed. Oxford: Blackwell.
Wittgenstein, L. 1953. Philosophical Investigation. Oxford: Blackwell.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
Jinrui Wang is a PhD candidate at the Research Center for Philosophy of
Science and Technology, Shanxi University, China. He currently teaches
pragmatics and translation at Shanxi University. His principal research
interests are philosophy of language, philosophy of mind, and cognitive