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Review of  Discourse, Beliefs and Intentions: Semantic Defaults and Propositional Attitude Ascription

Reviewer: Alessandro Tavano
Book Title: Discourse, Beliefs and Intentions: Semantic Defaults and Propositional Attitude Ascription
Book Author: Kasia M. Jaszczolt
Publisher: Elsevier Ltd
Linguistic Field(s): Philosophy of Language
Issue Number: 11.2317

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K.M. Jaszczolt (1999) Discourse, Beliefs and Intention. Semantic Defaults
and Propositional Attitude Ascription. Current Research in the
Semantics/Pragmatics Interface (CRISPI), Elsevier, Oxford (UK). pp. 362

Reviewed by Alessandro Tavano, University of Trieste (I)


This book offers a theory of utterance meaning based on speaker's
intentions interpreted by default. This theory is called Default
Semantics. The term "default" here bears on some fundamental pragmatic
aspects of utterance interpretation, such as reference assigning, which in
standard situations should integrate the output of a grammatical decoding
process (i.e. the logical form of a sentence), in order to derive a
truth-evaluable proposition. If it can be showed that some fundamental
pragmatic aspects are prompted by default, the author claims, then they can
be considered proper of the semantic level of an utterance, thus tracing a
new distinction between semantics and pragmatics.

The book is organised as follows.

Chapter 1 (pages 1-45) deals with ambiguity in utterance interpretation.
How does a hearer manage to get through the multiple possible
interpretations of an utterance? The author opposes the hypothesis of an
inherent ambiguity of propositional forms, which says that an utterance
would trigger a different full interpretation (or sense) in each context of
use. This hypothesis is dismissed with by reference to Grice's Modified
Occam's Razor Principle, which calls for theoretical explanations
preserving senses parsimony.
The author rejects also the proposal of a radical underspecification to be
attributed to the linguistic input, such that logical forms would be
radically underspecified representations which would need to be driven by
general pragmatic processes of disambiguation, reference assignment, and
free enrichment in order to arrive at a full propositional form.
This view is said to be parasitic on world knowledge and thus not
Instead, Default Semantics is introduced. The author claims that the
intrusion of intentions as defaults can avoid semantic ambiguity by
assigning a default value to one of the possible meanings, from which the
others would differentiate following a graded scale of variation in default
The explanatory power of Default Semantics is said to be supported by the
outcomes of Discourse Representation Theory (Kamp & Reyle 1993), in that
they would be similar in building up dynamic semantic frames integrating
pragmatic information.

Chapter 2 (pages 47-85) sets the notion of semantic defaults into a frame
jointly made up by the Parsimony of Levels Principle and the Primary
Intention Principle. The first is a methodological development of Grice's
Modified Occam's Razor, and is used to justify the proposal of a unified
account of a rich semantic level.
The second Principle is theoretically fundamental as Default Semantics is
based on a justification of the basic role of intentions and in particular
of referential intention, which determines entities in the world referred
to by a speaker.
This is named Primary Intention because it plays a major role in explaining
how intentionality enters the semantic level.
In other words, the successful fulfilment of the strong referential
intention, that is the picking out of something from the world, is the
default and any departure from this can be used to explain how referential
expressions, such as definite descriptions, come to have weaker uses: in
this way intentions can be a tool in explaining problematic belief
ascription and believe reports.

Chapter 3 (pages 87-120) tries to clear the ground for the role of
intentionality in communication. How does intentionality mediate between
the world and the mind of those who experience the world through
Default Semantics relies on intentionality of mental states. The main
argument goes as in the following: intentionality means being about
something, it is proper of all human mental states, such as beliefs, and
it is direction-making in reaching and giving meaning to the experienced
world. It gives meaning to the world through a mediator, called noema in
the phenomenological tradition, which represents the way or mode a
particular object of the world presents itself to the giving meaning act.
Intentions in language can mediate between intentionality of mental states
and the world because language is proper to both domains. Moreover,
language becomes a type of privileged experience of the world when
intentionality is successful, when it ties the object to an intentional
relation. Reaching the world represents such a success. And by
transitivity, as the author argues, this is the optimal way of using
language in communication. The use of language to reach the world can then
be assumed as a default.

Chapter 4 (pages 121-201) shows how Default Semantics can explain and
classify the emergence of phenomena such as the difference between
referential and attributive uses of definite descriptions on one side, and
de dicto and de re readings of belief reports on the other side.
The main proposal, following the Principle of Primary Intention, is that
the de re reading, where what is meant is to pick up an entity from the
world, is the default, being the referential intention the strongest, and
the de dicto reading, where what is meant is to attribute a property to
whoever satisfies it, is derived from a weakening of the referential
intention. A classification of subtypes of readings is given.

Chapter 5 (pages 202-235) discusses various referring expressions, and
orders them in a scale of fulfilment of the referential intention, or
salience of default reading. Indexicals are said to be inherently salient
enough to strongly activate a default reading. Demonstrative NPs are not
likely to be used attributively though in some contexts they might be used
in that way. Proper names and especially definite descriptions can allow
for attributive readings. Indefinite descriptions are rarely used to pick
up a determinate referent, and thus constitute a sort of negative default,
derived by the standard non-fulfilment of the primary intention.

Chapter 6 (pages 237-275) discusses how thought is made manifest in
propositional attitude expressions. Linguistic expressions, mental images
and non-verbal action are considered to be the vehicles of thought: this
integrated perspective can help to understand why propositional attitude
expressions cannot be fully explained by linguistic analysis and need the
phenomenological horizon of meaning-giving acts to be grasped.

Chapter 7 (pages 277-300) tries to fit the scale of salience in readings
proposed in chapter 5 in the framework of Discourse Representation Theory,
on the hypothesis that such a default scale be psychologically grounded in
reflecting natural language processing paths.

Chapter 8 (pages 301-334) is a study on the import of Default Semantics for
translations. If individuating the de re and the de dicto readings in a
text is one of the keys to a good translation, then this can be done by
searching for the default reading. The author uses examples from Polish
where the de re and the de dicto readings are partly lexicalized.

Chapter 9 (pages 335-340) claims that Default Semantics can give an order
to the different possible interpretations of an utterance and can be both
psychologically plausible and methodologically sound, obeying the Principle
of Parsimony of Levels.


This book offers a theory which aims at having a great appeal to both
linguists and philosophers. Its main assumption, the existence of default
readings in standard contexts, has been one of the principal concerns of
research in pragmatics.
Intuitions say that humans use default or standard reasoning procedures to
attribute meaning to utterances. The difficult task is to give an account
of that default processing and of how and when it can be overridden.

Default Semantics is based on a development of the idea that
interpretations by default have a key role in explaining how hearers can
arrive at and understand the intended meaning of an utterance-in-context.
In particular, defaults provide a reason for some types of uniformity in
utterance interpreation which are not part of the encoded meaning.
That the construction of propositional meaning is partly pragmatically
driven can hardly be questioned.
Give this fact, the problem to be solved is the following: in which way(s)
does pragmatics intrude the logico-semantic level of logical forms to yield
a propositional representation? The solution that Default Semantics gives
is simple: add sufficient intentions to provide at the same time a
propositional form, a bridge from mental states to the world, and a
psychologically plausible model of processing.

These three goals need a close analysis. As far as the recovery of a
proposition is concerned, the author is right in attributing a different
import to each intruding pragmatic process. Reference assignment is
intuitively prior to free enrichment. But, apart from reference assignment,
defaults do not seem flexible enough to provide a viable account for
sentence completion for instance, which is often necessary to have a full
propositional form, let alone for free enrichment.
How are these problems to be dealt with?
The author says that intentionality, the fact of being about something,
works along some principal ways: identifying an object (referential
intention), informing on states of affairs (informative intention),
communicating information (communicative intention).
In this work the import of the informative and the communicative intentions
is only hinted at and it is said that its development could explain the
picture's missing parts, but how are those intentions to be explained and
developed? Thus far, it seems that such developments would necessarily
reduce the import of Primary Intention and by the same token the
explanatory power of Default Semantics.

For the second issue, one problem might raise with too much weight being
put upon intentionality, which results in the blurring of some
distinctions. What is it that intention really does? How does it work to
connect mental and ordinary world? Does it subsume and fix individual
entities to a mental representation of some kind, or does it relate a
representation to an object fixed as reference in the world? This is left
Although intentionality can be assumed as a universal characteristic of
human interaction with the world, it seems that the transposition of its
features to located intentions (in some context of utterance) might not be

>From a psychological point of view, if one agrees with the treatment of
intentionality in Default Semantics, it remains nevertheless vague how
intention recognition and decoding of logical forms are ordered in a
comprehension processing sequence.
Further, the fact that theoretically a rich semantic level can be preferred
to other proposals does not make it psychologically sounder or easier to
process, and thus an independent argument is needed.

The main point Default Semantics makes is to show that a theory of
interpretation by default can be proposed, and that the term "default" can
be defined: both goals seem only partially achieved.
It nevertheless represent an attempt at bridging the gap between actual
uses of utterances in communication, which seem intuitively governed by
default rules, and theoretical descriptions, which require an explicit
model to fit non homogeneous data.
This book makes it clear that Default Semantics represents an interesting
attempt to propose a unified theory of utterance meaning.


Dott. Alessandro Tavano
PhD Candidate in Philosophy at the University of Trieste (I). His main
interests are: pragmatics and comprehension, the semantics/pragmatics
distinction, Relevance Theory.

Dipartimento di Filosofia,
Universit´┐Ż di Trieste,
Via Universit´┐Ż 7,
34100 - Trieste (I)
E-mail: [email protected]

At 21:12 09/10/00 -0400, you wrote:
>Dear Alessandro,
>THanks for sending that to me, Unfortunately, We can't post attachments.
>You will need to transfer the file to text format and insert it directly
>into the email.
>Please make sure that there is a carriage return every 60 characters
>or so and that there are "smart" quotes in teh document.
>On Mon, 9 Oct 2000, Alessandro Tavano wrote:
>> Dear dr. Carnie,
>> attached you'll find my review for The Linguist List.
>> Best regards,
>> Alessandro Tavano