Pragmatic considerations in semantic analyses
In this paper I argue against a sharp separation of semantics from pragmatics. While it may be useful to consider semantics independently of pragmatics, in some cases this strategy may lead us astray. First, I make a methodological point. Competing semantic analyses are often presented as supported by competing semantic intuitions of native speakers. Functional considerations are pragmatic considerations which should affect our choice of semantics. These are inferences from the linguistic goals the speakers actually achieve to the meanings their expressions must therefore have. Second, there are linguistic expressions whose semantic (literal) meaning is a function of their pragmatic uses. I consider two examples. First, the logicians' debate over the universal analysis of conditionals in natural language. The participants in the debate all ignore conditional forms other than the assertoric and subjunctive. In particular they ignore the conditional speech-act reading. The meaning of the conditional is related to its function: to restrict the commitment of a given speech-act to special conditions. A functional proof of the existence of such conditionals (even in the assertoric mood) is given, thus showing that the different semantics account only for part of the relevant facts. The second example concerns vague terms. I claim that one of their main uses is to help us identify objects by reference not to their absolute properties but relative to their background. This function cannot be performed by the use of non-vague terms. Vague terms are context dependent and may in some contexts be used non-vaguely and refer to distinct objects in the discourse domain. In a way, what these terms end up denoting is a function of the use of predicates to partition a given domain.
Published online: 01 January 1995