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Review of  Assertion

Reviewer: Dejan Matic
Book Title: Assertion
Book Author: Mark Jary
Publisher: Palgrave Macmillan
Linguistic Field(s): Pragmatics
Issue Number: 23.2502

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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

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.

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.

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.

Format: Hardback
ISBN-13: 9780230573994
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