LINGUIST List 23.2502

Mon May 28 2012

Review: Pragmatics; Semantics: Jary (2010)

Editor for this issue: Joseph Salmons <>

Date: 28-May-2012
From: Dejan Matic <>
Subject: Assertion
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AUTHOR: Mark JaryTITLE: AssertionSERIES TITLE: Palgrave Studies in Pragmatics, Language and CognitionPUBLISHER: Palgrave MacmillanYEAR: 2010

Dejan Matic, Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics, Nijmegen, The Netherlands

SUMMARYEven though assertion has held centre stage in much philosophical and linguistictheorising on language, Mark Jary's 'Assertion' represents the first book-lengthtreatment of the topic. The content of the book is aptly described by the authorhimself: ''This book has two aims. One is to bring together and discuss in asystematic way a range of perspectives on assertion: philosophical, linguisticand psychological. [...] The other is to present a view of the pragmatics ofassertion, with particular emphasis on the contribution of the declarative moodto the process of utterance interpretation.'' (p. 1). The promise contained inthis introductory note is to a large extent fulfilled: the first seven chaptersof the book discuss many of the relevant philosophical and linguistic approachesto assertion and at the same time provide the background for the presentation ofJary's own view on the pragmatics of declaratives, presented in the last (andlongest) chapter.

After the introduction, which expounds the basic tenets of the book, Jary goeson to discuss two fundamental attitudes towards assertion as developed in thepost-Fregean philosophy of language (Chapter 1). These approaches are aptlylabelled 'traditionalist' and 'fundamentalist'. The former treats propositions,i.e. the speech act content, as bearers of truth conditions. Assertoric force issomething that is added to this truth-conditional content, rather than beingintegral to it. Speech act fundamentalists, on the other hand, argue that truthvalues, and with them the linguistic meaning, arise out of assertion, understoodin terms of commitments taken on by speakers. These two views result indifferent positions assigned to assertion. For traditional speech act theory,assertion is just one of many illocutionary forces that can be produced with thesame propositional content. Fundamentalist approaches assign assertion thestatus of a basic unit of analysis in the study of linguistic meaning; otherillocutionary forces are derived from assertoric force. With certainmodifications, Jary opts for the fundamentalist position, on which the rest ofthe book is based.

The important issue of mental states expressed by assertion is addressed in somedetail in Chapter 3. The standard view, according to which assertion expressesbeliefs, has been challenged in the past decades, and it has been suggested thatassertion is conceptually prior to belief. The issue is further complicated byanother standard view, according to which all communication (via assertions) isabout belief attribution. Jary attempts to solve the problem of priority byassuming a dual perspective. According to him, there are good reasons to putassertion before belief from the conceptual point of view, but from theperspective 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. Jarymake a good point in showing that, even though belief attribution is certainly arelevant process in interpretation, it is not a conditio sine qua non of everycommunicative act.

The third step in laying down philosophical foundations for the study ofassertion is taken in Chapter 4, which discusses the relationship betweenassertoric force and linguistic form. More specifically, if assertion is indeedfundamental in the theory of linguistic meaning, then, as Jary points out, theremust be a recognisable behaviour the tokens of which count as asserting. Jarydefends the view that this behaviour is the declarative mood and dismisses thearguments that have been made to the effect that the relationship between thedeclarative mood and assertion is at best an indirect one.

If a linguistic reader has found the topics and the argumentation in the firstfour chapters too philosophical, this is compensated for in the rest of thebook. The transition to linguistics proper is smooth. Chapter 5 deals with aphilosopher whose views on assertion have had a great impact on linguistictheorising. Robert Stalnaker's common ground account of assertion is discussedin some detail. Especially enlightening is Jary's discussion of the ambiguity ofthe notion of truth in Stalnaker's work. Truth is both a property ofpropositions and an object of truth judgments. It is due to this ambiguity thatStalnaker is able to model both the content of assertions and the informationstate of the interlocutors by means of possible worlds. The element of the modelwhich 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 tobe re-evaluated for consistency with the newly asserted proposition. Anothercrucial element of the model -- the opposition between presupposition andassertion defined on the basis of their relationship to the common ground -- isshown to be untenable in its strong form.

The review of the Stalnakerian model of assertion and its use of possible worldsserves as a background for the reopening of the question of the relationshipbetween the declarative mood and assertion. While this relationship has beendealt with from a philosophical point of view in Chapter 4, Chapter 6 discussesvarious linguistic accounts of the difference between the declarative and othermoods, so as to explain its assertoric nature. Jary differentiates two mainfamilies of approaches: the formal semantic and speech-act based ones. Theformer are shown to be inadequate for the representation of data. Out of thelatter, Jary opts for Barker's model of mood, according to which moods directlyindicate force, in the sense that they constitute behaviours aimed at indicatingthe force of the given speech act. Jary's own theory of declaratives and theirrelationship to assertion is based on this account. Before turning to a detailedexposition of this theory, Jary dedicates a chapter to the second importantaspect of Stalnaker's model of assertion, i.e. to the idea that assertion isintimately connected to information structure and to the notion of main point ofan utterance (Chapter 7). He argues against the simple division of utterances inassertion and presupposition and suggests a set of more fine-grainedsubdivisions, such as explicitly encoded vs. implicitly conveyed, marked asmain-point vs. non-marked, etc. These distinctions are claimed to be logicallyinterconnected in the Relevance-Theory framework.

The final and most important part of the book, Chapter 8, contains a detailedpresentation of the author's theory of assertion, which is meant to be arelevance-theoretical cognitive counterpart to the speech-act based'fundamentalist' views on assertion. The basic idea is that the declarative moodis apt for making assertions because it presents the proposition as relevant inits own right -- as a premise to be used in inference. This insight is largelydue to Stalnaker's idea that to represent the way the world is, is to use theassertion to locate the actual world within the basic context set, i.e. withinthe set of consistency-aiming propositions. Since consistency is arrived at viainference, the representational nature of assertion is a consequence of its roleas a premise for inferences. This also explains the capability of assertion topick out a particular possible world, as opposed to sets of worlds: thedeclarative mood signals that the proposition expressed is relevant in a contextformed of (the individual's) factual assumptions. This account of assertion issupplemented with a cognitive account of interpretation of assertions. As theauthor puts it, "allowing one's thoughts to be influenced in this way ispotentially advantageous but also highly risky, for the communicator may beincompetent, or have interests that diverge from one's own" (p.194). As asafeguard against this, the interpretive mechanism based on the ability tometarepresent is used, i.e. to see utterances as representations, rather thanraw information, even though the latter option is always possible.

The book closes with a short concluding section (Chapter 9) which summarises themain topics discussed and the main issues raised in the previous chapters andplaces them in a broader perspective.

EVALUATIONJary's book on assertion has many virtues: it is -- with some exceptions --comprehensive in coverage, drawing from philosophical, linguistic, andpsychological sources, it is well written and well researched, and it containsimportant and original insights on its subject. Whoever intends to write onassertion in future will have to refer to this book -- not only because itcovers much of what has been said about the topic in past century, but also forits original contribution to the ongoing debate.

There are, however, some weak points. I see a problem in Jary's dual perspectiveon the relationship between assertion and belief (Chapter 3). According to Jary,beliefs are derivative of assertions conceptually, but cognitively, it is theother way around, with assertions expressing beliefs. I have to admit that I amnot able to follow the logic of this dual perspective: either assertions areexplained in terms of beliefs or beliefs in terms of assertion, but doing firstone 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 cognitiveaccount of assertion the book strives to provide, the only logical way would beto endorse the cognitive stance, i.e. to treat beliefs as primary and assertionsas communicative extensions of beliefs.

Another weak point is the treatment of the declarative mood as a dedicated signof assertion. Non-assertoric uses of the declarative are explained as derivedfrom its primary, assertion-marking function. I see no flaw with this line ofreasoning -- after all, most linguistic signs tend to cross the narrow limits oftheir proper functions. Where I do see a potential problem is the vagueness ofthe notion of mood in Jary's usage. On the one hand, 'mood' seems to correspondto what traditional grammar used to label 'sentence type' (declarative,interrogative, exclamatory, etc.), i.e. to particular ways of using syntacticstructures to bring about certain illocutions. Importantly, 'sentence types' arenot necessarily bound to any particular formal structure. On the other hand,'mood' is used to refer to specific syntactic, morphological, or prosodicsignals (especially in Chapter 6), so that, say, the French indicative mood isopposed to the subjunctive mood. In view of the claim that the declarative moodis a sign of assertion, I take it that the basic idea was closer to the latternotion of mood. However, this leaves the reader puzzled as to the extension ofthe declarative mood: if Subjunctive is not declarative, does it mean that thedeclarative mood is actually the factual mood? And if this is the case, what isthe illocutionary status of all the non-factual moods? This is where a somewhatgreater breadth of coverage would have been helpful. The semantics of moods hasbeen a topic of much theoretical and empirical research in linguistics, only asmall fraction of which is tackled in this book. A more profound discussion ofsome standard views on mood and modality would have contributed not only to thecomprehensiveness of the book, but would have also strengthened itsargumentation. The same applies to the otherwise very enlightening discussion ofinformation structure in Chapter 7: some discussion of at least the majortheoretical approaches to information structure and its relationship toassertion would have made the book even more worthy of reading.

These critical points notwithstanding, Jary's book on assertion is a valuablecontribution to the field, and I expect it will be widely used by the scholarsdealing not only with assertion, but with any aspect of the relationship betweenillocution, meaning, and truth.

ABOUT THE REVIEWERDejan Matic holds a Ph.D. from the University of Cologne, Germany. He hasworked at the University of Cologne, MPI EVA in Leipzig and MPI inNijmegen. His research concentrates on information structure, modality andpredication in cross-linguistic perspective.

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