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Review of  Thoughts and Utterances

Reviewer: Gloria Cappelli
Book Title: Thoughts and Utterances
Book Author: Robyn Carston
Publisher: Wiley
Linguistic Field(s): Discourse Analysis
Issue Number: 14.1934

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Date: Fri, 11 Jul 2003 17:52:05 -0400
From: Gloria Cappelli
Subject: Thoughts and Utterances: The Pragmatics of Explicit Communication

Carston, Robyn (2002) Thoughts and Utterances: The Pragmatics
of Explicit Communication, Blackwell Publishing.

Gloria Cappelli, PhD student, Dept. of English Studies,
University of Pisa, Italy.


The book is made up of four main chapters plus an
introduction, two appendices, references and indexes.

In the introduction, the fundamental assumptions on which
the relevance-theoretic approach is grounded are sketched.
The author illustrates the Relevance Theoretic notion of
Pragmatics as a capacity of the mind, a real information-
processing system for "interpreting human ostensive
communicative behaviour" (p.4) . In this sense, pragmatics
stops being just an addition to natural language semantics
and becomes a real object of study itself, although
maintaining strict interaction with semantics. In this
cognitive pragmatic approach, the semantics/pragmatics
interface is connected to the distinction between two
strictly interrelated cognitive processes, namely, semantic
decoding and pragmatic inference.

In the 1st chapter, "Pragmatics and Linguistic
Underdeterminacy", the author starts by illustrating the
distinction between linguistic meaning, encoded by
linguistic forms, and speaker's meaning. A comprehensive
survey of the most studied linguistic phenomena showing
saying/meaning divergences is provided. All the cases
described support the hypothesis that it is necessary for a
hearer to undertake a process of pragmatic inference which
allows him/her to understand what the proposition expresses
and what the speaker implicates. This hypothesis is further
developed into the "Underdeterminacy Thesis": "the
linguistic semantics of the utterance, that is the meaning
encoded in the linguistic expressions used, [...],
underdetermines the proposition expressed (what is said)"
The Underdeterminacy Thesis is illustrated in
detail and the alternative hypotheses on linguistic
ambiguities and reference assignment (especially those
pertaining to the truth-conditional semantics and to the
logico-philosophical tradition) are considered, compared
and, when possible, integrated via a relevance-theoretic
reinterpretation of compatible questions. Some other
proposals are refuted in a lucid, articulate way. Many
sources of linguistic underdeterminacy and several
pragmatic strategies employed by the hearer in order to
arrive at the correct interpretation are illustrated, such
that underdeterminacy is finally defined as an essential
feature of the relation between linguistic expressions and
the thoughts they are used to express. The author proposes
her strong "essentialist view", comparing her position with
other weaker views on the question and refuting several
philosophical principles allowing for the possibility of
"eternal reference" and "eternal predication". Carston
illustrates the relevance-theoretic model for
communication, underlying the primacy of the human capacity
to infer the mental states of others and to attribute them
through the pragmatic inferential capacity. She recognises
the fundamental role of the Background (in a version
similar to Searle's Background) and concludes that
underdeterminacy is not only an inalienable characteristic
of linguistically encoded meaning but of thought in

The 2nd chapter, "The Explicit/Implicit Distinction", like
the first chapter, deals with theoretical issues concerning
the semantics/pragmatics and the explicit/implicit
distinctions. The author analyses different ways in which
the distinction between the proposition explicitly
expressed by a speaker and the implicated propositions can
be determined. Moreover, she defines which are the
different levels which play a role in a cognitive pragmatic
account of the representations and processes required in
the interpretation of an utterance.
She comments on different views of the explicit/implicit
distinction in verbal communication held by other linguists
and philosophers and this critical survey provides strong
support for her argumentation. The guiding thread of the
discussion is Grice's pivotal work, and other theorists'
views are considered insofar as they support, modify or
react against his positions.
Carston starts from Grice's approach to the "saying" and
"implicating" distinction. First, she provides a survey of
Grice's theory about "what is said", the complete
propositional (truth-conditional) content of the basic
speech-act of an utterance, and "what is implicated" and
then she describes the relevance-theoretic
explicature/implicature distinction, which is considered a
distinction between two different ways of deriving
communicated assumptions.
Explicatures are defined as ostensively communicated
assumptions inferentially developed from one of the
linguistically given logical forms encoded by the
utterance. They are further specified to include in the
account several types of "subutterances", although the
central concepts of ostensive communication and pragmatic
enrichment maintain their primacy. Explicatures are then
made distinct from the "propositions expressed", which,
within the relevance-theoretic approach, are connected with
an idea of a "representational level of explicit content
that may not be communicated (speaker-meant)" (p.133).
Following the argumentation developed throughout the first
two chapters, Carston starts casting some doubt on the
necessity for different explicatory levels other than the
encoded logical form, explicatures and other contextual
enrichments. This strong conclusion will be drawn in the
final chapter.
Implicatures are defined as ostensively communicated
assumptions which are derived exclusively by pragmatic
inference and they are further divided in implicated
premises and implicated conclusions. In Carston's account,
only Gricean "conversational implicatures" figure (and they
are considered an aspect of the proposition expressed),
while phenomena categorized as "conventional implicatures"
are usually considered as procedural constraints on
inferential processes whose conceptual content is supplied
by pragmatic inference and are compared with the relevance-
theoretic notion of "procedural meaning". Following the
underdeterminacy thesis, the author also rejects the
distinction between particularized and generalized
implicatures, in favour of a continuum going from
occasional context-dependent cases to those cases which are
generally present in the vast majority of contexts and for
which very specific contextual circumstances are required
in order to be blocked.
Carston illustrates the global comprehension process as
postulated by the Relevance Theory and adds further
specifications building on her underdeterminacy thesis.
Once an utterance is uttered, it carries its own
presumption of relevance. The hearer can retrieve the
intended meaning relying on the so-called "relevance
theoretic comprehension strategy". The first step is the
decodification of the ostensive stimulus, in order to
derive the logical form, an incomplete conceptual
representation with variables whose value must be fixed,
and with slots to fill in. Tentative interpretive
hypotheses concerning the intended referents are made on-
line and subsequently confirmed or rejected, according to
whether they contribute or not to the interpretation which
meets the expectation of relevance, that is, considering
interpretations in order of accessibility and stopping when
the expected level of relevance is reached. The logical
form is so pragmatically developed through processes of
disambiguation, saturation and free enrichment
The author's position in favour of the underdeterminacy
thesis is finally outlined through a critical survey of
several accounts provided by outstanding voices from the
philosophical and linguistic field of research.
Travi's, Recanati's and Bach's proposals concerning the
comprehension process and more specifically the
saying/implicating distinction are analysed and integrated
in Carston's account or progressively discarded. The level
of the Gricean "what-is-said", intended as a minimal
proposition, is finally put aside in favour of a three-
level account of the representations and processes required
in the interpretation of utterances (logical form,
saturation and free enrichment), although the possibility
for the necessity of a fourth representational level in a
philosophical-semantic analysis is left open.

In the 3rd and 4th chapters, "The Pragmatics of 'And'-
Conjunction" and "The Pragmatics of Negation", the
underdeterminacy thesis is applied to the analysis of two
of the most studied phenomena within the logico-semantic
In both cases, Carston demonstrates that the relations
expressed by 'and' and the fixation of the negation scope
are pragmatically determined. The semantics of these
natural language operators only provides a minimal
framework, which needs being pragmatically augmented and
complemented by inferential mechanisms contributing to the
explicit content of the utterance.
The account provided by the author is strongly cognitively
oriented, and it is based on the hypothesis concerning the
ways in which the human mind conceives of the world and
organises and stores encyclopaedic knowledge. According to
this perspective, some relations are typical of the human
cognitive system (i.e. cause-consequence relation), while
other ones are developed out of our experience of the world
(i.e. temporal relations).
Chapters 3 and 4 open up the way for the possibility of
pushing even further the underdeterminacy thesis and of
positing the existence of a process of on-line concept
construction, which is pursued in the last chapter.

The 5th chapter, "The Pragmatics of On-line Concept
Construction", is probably the richest in proposals, and
the one in which most questions are raised. It deals with
lexical semantics and with those processes of loosening and
broadening of the encoded conceptual content which have
been traditionally considered as not contributing to the
proposition expressed. Carston doesn't support this view
and shows that the processes of narrowing and broadening
of the conceptual content are both reflected in the
proposition expressed and, therefore, they are seen as
contributing to the explicit level of communication.
In the relevance-theoretic framework, "atomic concepts" are
considered nodes in memory which make available three kinds
of information: the logical entry, (consisting of a set of
inference rules which capture certain analytic implications
of the concept), the encyclopaedic knowledge (including
many different types of knowledge, from scientific to
cultural specific knowledge and beliefs), and the lexical
properties (specifying the phonetic, phonological and
syntactic properties of the linguistic form encoding the
concept). In the process of retrieving the intended
meaning, there are not two distinct processes at work, one
of narrowing and one of loosening, but only one process
with two possible outcomes, deriving from the act of
"picking and choosing from among the elements of logical
and encyclopaedic information that are made available by
the encoded concept" (p.334). The difference consists only
in whether, in this process of on-line ad hoc concept
construction, the logical properties are retained (like in
the case of narrowing) or dropped (like in the case of
loosening), but whatever the outcome is, it still
represents a move away from strict literalness. The
derivation of the intended meaning is seen as involving a
mutual parallel adjustment of these processes until the
addressee's expectation of relevance is met.
The analyses is applied to several kinds of figurative use,
such as metaphor and hyperbole, as well as to the semantics
of certain lexical items showing polisemy or vagueness, for
which the idea is proposed that, like all lexical items,
they encode only a very abstract and general concept
providing a basis for pragmatic processes of enrichment
or, pushing this idea even further, that they function as
pointers to a conceptual area.
The very last paragraph of the chapter summarises the
account of explicit communication supported and depicted in
the book: a radical version of the underdeterminacy thesis
is supported which allows only for a three-level
interpretive process, where the ostensive stimulus is
decoded and the derived logical form is then enriched by
pragmatically filling and adjusting "the semantic
scaffolding provided by the linguistic expression" itself
(p.366) , (explicature) and, possibly, through other
totally pragmatically derived information (implicatures).

The book also contains two appendixes, "Appendix 1:
Relevance Theory Glossary" and "Appendix 2: Gricean
Conversational Principles", and more than 30 pages of
References and Indexes.


"Thoughts and Utterances" is much more than the application
of the Relevance Theory: it represents a huge step forward
in the theory itself, strongly founded in pre-existing
debates and analyses. The subtitle, "The Pragmatics of
Explicit Communication", doesn't do it justice: the book is
definitely about explicit communication as a whole,
although the main goal of the author is to demonstrate the
essential role of pragmatics in recovering utterance
What is immediately evident, from the very first pages, is
the strongly cognitively oriented but interdisciplinary
nature of the study: the author covers perspectives ranging
from the philosophical to the logico-semantic and the
neurological ones on such debated issues as the
explicit/implicit and the semantics/pragmatics
Carston provides an incredibly extensive survey of several
traditions of research which, although from different and
often irreconcilable perspectives, have contributed to the
lively debate about these fundamental questions in
linguistics. Her synthesis is carried out critically and in
order to provide further evidence to the account of
explicit communication that she proposes and to support the
well delineated divisions that she makes. She doesn't
dismiss all contributions coming from different areas of
study (as is often the case), but tries to reinterpret some
of the suggestions according to her framework of analysis
and to include them in her account. This approach gives her
work a philosophical taste, and, at the same time, it
provides the research with steady foundations in order to
build further within the relevance-theoretical framework.
In her attempt to provide a comprehensive panorama of the
debate, the author also presents Relevance Theory as
developed by Sperber and Wilson (1986, 1995) as well as the
successive contributions added by Blakemore (1992),
Infantidou (2001), Papafragou (2000) and others. This
aspect, together with the critical analysis mentioned above
and with an in-depth analysis of Grice's work and of the
development of the Gricean theory by Levinson, makes
"Thoughts and Utterances" also a useful, but not at all
basic, handbook even for all those students and researchers
who approach the processes guiding explicit communication
for the first time. The book represents, indeed, a complete
state of the art on a specific topic, although even a
little background in linguistics and in philosophy of
language is recommended, given the non-elementary nature of
the book.
All the chapters are very rich in content: sometimes this
richness makes the argumentation slightly difficult to
follow, although everything is made clear in the end and
all the different considerations find their exact place in
the puzzle. The author was clearly aware of this
argumentative complexity, since at the end of almost each
chapter, and often even at the end of some paragraphs, she
provides the reader with a brief summary of the points she
made. These summarising lines are always extremely useful
and help the reader follow the discussion.
As far as the readability is concerned, it must be
signalled that the notes at the end of each chapters are as
important and full of useful information and input as the
main text: they are often used as a "box" for interesting
material which would have led the discussion too far from
the actual topic of the single paragraphs. The same holds
for the two appendices at the end of the book. The first
one provides the reader with Gricean Conversational
Principles which are constantly mentioned in the book but
never explicitly reported. The second appendix deals with
the relevance-theoretic terminology. It provides an
essential dictionary containing all the keywords necessary
to the understanding of the discussion, and the single
lexical items are defined according to Carston's use of the
term, especially when it doesn't perfectly correspond to
some previous well-established usage.
Of course, the value of this book is not only in the
critical state of the art that the author provides. Robyn
Carston makes the Relevance theory progress providing
researchers within this framework with new tools. She
redesigns the model of explicit communication previously
proposed according to her strong view of the
Underderterminacy Thesis, ruling out the intermediate
representational level of minimal proposition, which
departs only minimally from encoded meaning but already has
truth-conditions. In 'her linguistic' account (and she is
very precise about this specification), there is only room
for the logical form and for the enrichment it receives
through different pragmatic inferential processes, driven
from the linguistically encoded elements themselves
(explicature) or totally pragmatically derived
(implicature). The possibility for an other intermediate
representational level to be useful is left open, in
consideration of the fact that all philosophical accounts
seem to include it. What changes, though, is the
explicatory purpose. Linguistic pragmatics doesn't want to
account for the truth conditions of propositions, and
therefore it doesn't need that intermediate level.
Robyn Carston also attempts to make headway in lexical
semantics. She tries to apply her theory also to word
meaning, in an attempt to account for ambiguities,
vagueness and polysemy. She hypothesises the online
construction of ad hoc concepts (relative to a certain
context), starting from a raw basis provided by a lexical
item to the inferential processes. In order to support this
explanation the author also provides a model for the
meaning provided by concepts as summarized above. She
leaves many questions open for further research, but the
path she opens seems promising, since it seems applicable
also to figurative uses of language.
Robyn Carston's book is not an isolated voice. It perfectly
collocates in contemporary cognitive-linguistic research
and shows numerous points of contact with other linguistic
trends of study.
A similar view of communication is proposed in Bertuccelli
Papi (2000), a study of implicitness in text and discourse.
Implicitness and explicitness are considered gradable
entities and the former is seen as a cover term for several
phenomena (inexplicit, implicated and subplicit) related to
different types of knowledge which the hearer can select in
order to set up the context of interpretation. According to
Bertuccelli Papi, the input is filtered and the most
relevant information is selected by an evaluative
mechanism. As I already mentioned, in Carston's book, the
role of the hearer and of his "intention-reading" effort is
widely recognised. However, contrarily to what happens in
Bertuccelli Papi (2000), where a fundamental role is
explicitly attributed to attitudes, here, the importance of
attitudes in the communicative process (as a fundamental
source for the identification of implicit meanings) is
neglected. It is possible that attitudes are implicitly
included in the "speaker's intentions", or that they are
considered part of the situational context or of the
background information.
Carston's proposals and hypothesis seem to be in line with
the most recent development of lexical semantics and of the
cognitive-functional language acquisition studies as well.
The online construction of ad hoc concepts from a steady
core of meaning finds support in Croft and Cruse (to
appear). In line with the recent development of Cognitive
Psychology, they support the Dynamic Construal Approach,
according to which there are no fixed concepts: concepts
and structural relations between lexical items emerge in
actual situations of use. They speak of "meaning
construal", which seems to parallel Carston's on line
concept construction. More point of contact could be
outlined between these two approaches to the lexicon but
this would lead us too far. I will only mention that also
in Croft and Cruse, a very general steady element of
meaning is hypothesised which receives a particular
interpretation in a particular context according to several
Carston's communication process is essentially a mind-
reading pragmatic process: the hearer has to imagine in a
certain situation what the communicative intention of the
speaker might be and to interpret the ostensive stimulus
accordingly, trying to retrieve the most relevant
information. The most recent studies applying cognitive-
functional approaches to language acquisition, this 'mind-
reading perspective', or more precisely this 'intention
reading', is considered as one of the essential features of
the human mind involved in the development of language.
Tomasello (2003) sees intention-reading as uniquely human
and as one of the foundational processes for the emergence
of language, both phylogenetically and ontogenetically.
"Thoughts and Utterances" is a very rich study, which marks
a decisive step forward in the scientific study of explicit
communication thanks to the solid linguistic, philosophical
and scientific theoretical background witnessed by a very
large bibliography of hundreds of titles. It is a work that
shows links to the most recent trends in linguistics
research and in cognitive studies in general, which is
enough to make of Robyn Carston's book a necessary reading
for all the people interested in the actual functioning of
ostensive linguistic interaction.


Bertuccelli Papi, M. (2000), Implicitness in Text and
Discourse. Pisa: Edizioni ETS.

Blakemore, D. (1992), Understanding Utterances: an
Introduction to Pragmatics. Oxford: Blackwell.

Croft, W. & Cruse, A. (to appear), Cognitive Linguistics.
Cambridge: CUP.

Infantidou, E. (2001), Evidentials and Relevance,
Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Papafragou, A. (2000), Modality: Issues in the Semantics-
Pragmatics Interface. Oxford: Elsevier Science.

Sperber, D. & Wilson, D. (1986, 1995), Relevance:
Communication and Cognition. Oxford: Blackwell; Cambridge,
MA: Harvard University Press.

Tomasello, M. (2003), Constructing a Language: A usage-
based Theory of Language Acquisition. Cambridge, MA:
Harvard University Press.

ABOUT THE REVIEWER I am a PhD student in Linguistics at the department of English Studies of the University of Pisa, Italy. In the past, I studied the acquisition of Italian as a Second Language and I am now interested in English linguistics, especially in the lexical semantics of cognitive verbs from a cognitive functional perspective.

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