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Review of  Cognitive Pragmatics

Reviewer: Jinrui Wang
Book Title: Cognitive Pragmatics
Book Author: Bruno G. Bara John Douthwaite
Publisher: MIT Press
Linguistic Field(s): Pragmatics
Cognitive Science
Issue Number: 22.2872

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AUTHOR: Bruno G. Bara
TRANSLATOR: John Douthwaite
TITLE: Cognitive Pragmatics
SUBTITLE: The Mental Process of Communication
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.

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 pragmatics.

Format: Hardback
ISBN: 0262014113
ISBN-13: 9780262014113
Pages: 296
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