AUTHOR: Mark Jary TITLE: Assertion SERIES TITLE: Palgrave Studies in Pragmatics, Language and Cognition PUBLISHER: Palgrave Macmillan YEAR: 2010
Dejan Matic, Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics, Nijmegen, The Netherlands
SUMMARY Even though assertion has held centre stage in much philosophical and linguistic theorising on language, Mark Jary’s ‘Assertion’ represents the first book-length treatment of the topic. The content of the book is aptly described by the author himself: ''This book has two aims. One is to bring together and discuss in a systematic way a range of perspectives on assertion: philosophical, linguistic and psychological. [...] The other is to present a view of the pragmatics of assertion, with particular emphasis on the contribution of the declarative mood to the process of utterance interpretation.'' (p. 1). The promise contained in this introductory note is to a large extent fulfilled: the first seven chapters of the book discuss many of the relevant philosophical and linguistic approaches to assertion and at the same time provide the background for the presentation of Jary's own view on the pragmatics of declaratives, presented in the last (and longest) chapter.
After the introduction, which expounds the basic tenets of the book, Jary goes on to discuss two fundamental attitudes towards assertion as developed in the post-Fregean philosophy of language (Chapter 1). These approaches are aptly labelled 'traditionalist' and 'fundamentalist'. The former treats propositions, i.e. the speech act content, as bearers of truth conditions. Assertoric force is something that is added to this truth-conditional content, rather than being integral to it. Speech act fundamentalists, on the other hand, argue that truth values, and with them the linguistic meaning, arise out of assertion, understood in terms of commitments taken on by speakers. These two views result in different positions assigned to assertion. For traditional speech act theory, assertion is just one of many illocutionary forces that can be produced with the same propositional content. Fundamentalist approaches assign assertion the status of a basic unit of analysis in the study of linguistic meaning; other illocutionary forces are derived from assertoric force. With certain modifications, Jary opts for the fundamentalist position, on which the rest of the book is based.
The important issue of mental states expressed by assertion is addressed in some detail in Chapter 3. The standard view, according to which assertion expresses beliefs, has been challenged in the past decades, and it has been suggested that assertion is conceptually prior to belief. The issue is further complicated by another standard view, according to which all communication (via assertions) is about belief attribution. Jary attempts to solve the problem of priority by assuming a dual perspective. According to him, there are good reasons to put assertion before belief from the conceptual point of view, but from the perspective of the study of human communication, the order is reversed: assertion is about the communication of beliefs. It does not follow, however, that interpreting assertions is necessarily based on belief attribution. Jary make a good point in showing that, even though belief attribution is certainly a relevant process in interpretation, it is not a conditio sine qua non of every communicative act.
The third step in laying down philosophical foundations for the study of assertion is taken in Chapter 4, which discusses the relationship between assertoric force and linguistic form. More specifically, if assertion is indeed fundamental in the theory of linguistic meaning, then, as Jary points out, there must be a recognisable behaviour the tokens of which count as asserting. Jary defends the view that this behaviour is the declarative mood and dismisses the arguments that have been made to the effect that the relationship between the declarative mood and assertion is at best an indirect one.
If a linguistic reader has found the topics and the argumentation in the first four chapters too philosophical, this is compensated for in the rest of the book. The transition to linguistics proper is smooth. Chapter 5 deals with a philosopher whose views on assertion have had a great impact on linguistic theorising. Robert Stalnaker's common ground account of assertion is discussed in some detail. Especially enlightening is Jary's discussion of the ambiguity of the notion of truth in Stalnaker's work. Truth is both a property of propositions and an object of truth judgments. It is due to this ambiguity that Stalnaker is able to model both the content of assertions and the information state of the interlocutors by means of possible worlds. The element of the model which makes this kind of account plausible is the consistency requirement, i.e. the requirement that the possible worlds that make up the common ground have to be re-evaluated for consistency with the newly asserted proposition. Another crucial element of the model -- the opposition between presupposition and assertion defined on the basis of their relationship to the common ground -- is shown to be untenable in its strong form.
The review of the Stalnakerian model of assertion and its use of possible worlds serves as a background for the reopening of the question of the relationship between the declarative mood and assertion. While this relationship has been dealt with from a philosophical point of view in Chapter 4, Chapter 6 discusses various linguistic accounts of the difference between the declarative and other moods, so as to explain its assertoric nature. Jary differentiates two main families of approaches: the formal semantic and speech-act based ones. The former are shown to be inadequate for the representation of data. Out of the latter, Jary opts for Barker’s model of mood, according to which moods directly indicate force, in the sense that they constitute behaviours aimed at indicating the force of the given speech act. Jary’s own theory of declaratives and their relationship to assertion is based on this account. Before turning to a detailed exposition of this theory, Jary dedicates a chapter to the second important aspect of Stalnaker’s model of assertion, i.e. to the idea that assertion is intimately connected to information structure and to the notion of main point of an utterance (Chapter 7). He argues against the simple division of utterances in assertion and presupposition and suggests a set of more fine-grained subdivisions, such as explicitly encoded vs. implicitly conveyed, marked as main-point vs. non-marked, etc. These distinctions are claimed to be logically interconnected in the Relevance-Theory framework.
The final and most important part of the book, Chapter 8, contains a detailed presentation of the author’s theory of assertion, which is meant to be a relevance-theoretical cognitive counterpart to the speech-act based ‘fundamentalist’ views on assertion. The basic idea is that the declarative mood is apt for making assertions because it presents the proposition as relevant in its own right -- as a premise to be used in inference. This insight is largely due to Stalnaker’s idea that to represent the way the world is, is to use the assertion to locate the actual world within the basic context set, i.e. within the set of consistency-aiming propositions. Since consistency is arrived at via inference, the representational nature of assertion is a consequence of its role as a premise for inferences. This also explains the capability of assertion to pick out a particular possible world, as opposed to sets of worlds: the declarative mood signals that the proposition expressed is relevant in a context formed of (the individual’s) factual assumptions. This account of assertion is supplemented with a cognitive account of interpretation of assertions. As the author puts it, “allowing one’s thoughts to be influenced in this way is potentially advantageous but also highly risky, for the communicator may be incompetent, or have interests that diverge from one’s own” (p.194). As a safeguard against this, the interpretive mechanism based on the ability to metarepresent is used, i.e. to see utterances as representations, rather than raw information, even though the latter option is always possible.
The book closes with a short concluding section (Chapter 9) which summarises the main topics discussed and the main issues raised in the previous chapters and places them in a broader perspective.
EVALUATION Jary’s book on assertion has many virtues: it is -- with some exceptions -- comprehensive in coverage, drawing from philosophical, linguistic, and psychological sources, it is well written and well researched, and it contains important and original insights on its subject. Whoever intends to write on assertion in future will have to refer to this book -- not only because it covers much of what has been said about the topic in past century, but also for its original contribution to the ongoing debate.
There are, however, some weak points. I see a problem in Jary's dual perspective on the relationship between assertion and belief (Chapter 3). According to Jary, beliefs are derivative of assertions conceptually, but cognitively, it is the other way around, with assertions expressing beliefs. I have to admit that I am not able to follow the logic of this dual perspective: either assertions are explained in terms of beliefs or beliefs in terms of assertion, but doing first one thing and then the other does not seem to constitute a coherent theory. There seems to be no middle way in deciding this aporia. Given the cognitive account of assertion the book strives to provide, the only logical way would be to endorse the cognitive stance, i.e. to treat beliefs as primary and assertions as communicative extensions of beliefs.
Another weak point is the treatment of the declarative mood as a dedicated sign of assertion. Non-assertoric uses of the declarative are explained as derived from its primary, assertion-marking function. I see no flaw with this line of reasoning -- after all, most linguistic signs tend to cross the narrow limits of their proper functions. Where I do see a potential problem is the vagueness of the notion of mood in Jary’s usage. On the one hand, ‘mood’ seems to correspond to what traditional grammar used to label ‘sentence type’ (declarative, interrogative, exclamatory, etc.), i.e. to particular ways of using syntactic structures to bring about certain illocutions. Importantly, ‘sentence types’ are not necessarily bound to any particular formal structure. On the other hand, ‘mood’ is used to refer to specific syntactic, morphological, or prosodic signals (especially in Chapter 6), so that, say, the French indicative mood is opposed to the subjunctive mood. In view of the claim that the declarative mood is a sign of assertion, I take it that the basic idea was closer to the latter notion of mood. However, this leaves the reader puzzled as to the extension of the declarative mood: if Subjunctive is not declarative, does it mean that the declarative mood is actually the factual mood? And if this is the case, what is the illocutionary status of all the non-factual moods? This is where a somewhat greater breadth of coverage would have been helpful. The semantics of moods has been a topic of much theoretical and empirical research in linguistics, only a small fraction of which is tackled in this book. A more profound discussion of some standard views on mood and modality would have contributed not only to the comprehensiveness of the book, but would have also strengthened its argumentation. The same applies to the otherwise very enlightening discussion of information structure in Chapter 7: some discussion of at least the major theoretical approaches to information structure and its relationship to assertion would have made the book even more worthy of reading.
These critical points notwithstanding, Jary’s book on assertion is a valuable contribution to the field, and I expect it will be widely used by the scholars dealing not only with assertion, but with any aspect of the relationship between illocution, meaning, and truth.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
Dejan Matic holds a Ph.D. from the University of Cologne, Germany. He has
worked at the University of Cologne, MPI EVA in Leipzig and MPI in
Nijmegen. His research concentrates on information structure, modality and
predication in cross-linguistic perspective.