Ad hoc concepts and the relevance heuristics: A false paradox?

Benoît Leclercq

Abstract

The idea that interpreting a lexeme typically involves a context-dependent process of meaning construction has in recent years become common ground in linguistic theory. This view is very explicit in relevance theory (Sperber and Wilson 1995), which posits that speakers systematically infer ad hoc concepts (Carston 2002). Such an approach raises theoretical issues, though. First, it directly poses a challenge for the exact nature of (and difference between) concepts and ad hoc concepts (Carston 2002, 249). In addition, as Wilson (2011, 2016) and Carston (2013, 2016) point out, this view also uncovers the following paradox: if speakers are assumed to follow a path of least effort (relevance heuristics), why should they so systematically infer ad hoc concepts rather than test the encoded concept first? The aim of this paper is to reflect on this theoretical puzzle. It will first be argued that the hypotheses formulated both by Wilson and by Carston seem rather post hoc and fail to fully resolve the apparent paradox. Attention will then be given to the assumed nature of (ad hoc) concepts to show that the problem can be resolved when an alternative (non-atomic) view of concepts in terms of meaning potential is adopted.

Keywords:
Publication history
Table of contents

The idea that interpreting a lexeme typically involves a context-dependent process of meaning construction has in recent years become common ground in linguistic theory. One’s exact stance on the matter mostly depends on one’s theoretical and empirical commitments. In relevance theory (Sperber and Wilson 1995), it is argued that the creation of context-specific senses (called ‘ad hoc concepts’) mostly consists in an inferential process of conceptual adjustment triggered and guided by the search for optimal relevance (Carston 2002). This view is originally rooted in the assumption that lexical concepts never fully correspond to the speaker’s intended meaning (Sperber and Wilson 1998). Consider the examples in (1) to (3). In Example (1), the noun human being is not used to communicate the literal concept human being (i.e. ‘a homo sapiens’), since it is mutually manifest that the hearer already belongs to that category, and the latter must therefore infer a more specific ad hoc concept human being* (e.g. ‘a well-mannered person’). In Example (2), the verb bankrupt can be understood literally of course, but there might also be contexts in which it is loosely used to say that farmers will grow poor as a result of this policy (without necessarily going insolvent). Likewise, in Example (3), while the noun princess may be used literally (in the case Caroline turns out to be the member of a royal family), it can also be used metaphorically to credit Caroline with properties stereotypically attributed to princesses, such as good physical features.

Full-text access is restricted to subscribers. Log in to obtain additional credentials. For subscription information see Subscription & Price. Direct PDF access to this article can be purchased through our e-platform.

References

Allwood, Jens
2003 “Meaning Potential and Context: Some Consequences for the Analysis of Variation in Meaning.” In Cognitive Approaches to Lexical Semantics, ed. by Hubert Cuyckens, René Dirven, and John R. Taylor, 29–65. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter. CrossrefGoogle Scholar
Assimakopoulos, Stavros
2008 “Intention, Common Ground and the Availability of Semantic Content: A Relevance-Theoretic Perspective.” In Intention, Common Ground and the Egocentric Speaker-Hearer, ed. by Istvan Kecskes, and Jacob Mey, 105–126. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.Google Scholar
Barsalou, Lawrence W.
1983 “Ad Hoc Categories.” Memory and Cognition 11: 211–227. CrossrefGoogle Scholar
1987 “The Instability of Graded Structure: Implications for the Nature of Concepts.” In Concepts and Conceptual Development, ed. by Ulric Neisser, 101–140. New York: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
1993 “Flexibility, Structure, and Linguistic Vagary in Concepts: Manifestations of a Compositional System of Perceptual Symbols.” In Theories of Memory, ed. by Alan F. Collins, Susan E. Gathercole, Martin A. Conway, and Peter E. Morris, 29–101. Hove: Lawrence Erlbaum.Google Scholar
2000 “Concepts: Structure.” In Encyclopedia of Psychology, vol. 2, ed. by Alan E. Kazdin, 245–248. New York: Oxford University Press. CrossrefGoogle Scholar
2012 “The Human Conceptual System.” In The Cambridge Handbook of Psycholinguistics, ed. by Michael J. Spivey, Ken McRae, and Marc F. Joanisse, 239–258. New York: Cambridge University Press. CrossrefGoogle Scholar
2016 “Situated Conceptualization: Theory and Applications.” In Foundations of Embodied Cognition, vol. 1: Perceptual and Emotional Embodiment, ed. by Yann Coello, and Martin H. Fischer, 11–37. Routledge: Psychology Press.Google Scholar
Bezuidenhout, Anne
2002 “Truth-Conditional Pragmatics.” Philosophical Perspectives 16: 105–134.Google Scholar
Borg, Emma
2016 “Exploding Explicatures.” Mind & Language 31: 335–355. CrossrefGoogle Scholar
Carston, Robyn
2002Thoughts and Utterances: The Pragmatics of Explicit Communication. Oxford: Blackwell. CrossrefGoogle Scholar
2010 “Explicit Communication and ‘Free’ Pragmatic Enrichment.” In Explicit Communication: Robyn Carston’s Pragmatics, ed. by Belén Soria, and Esther Romero, 271–285. Basingtoke: Palgrave Macmillan. CrossrefGoogle Scholar
2012 “Word Meaning and Concept Expressed.” The Linguistic Review 29: 607–623. CrossrefGoogle Scholar
2013 “Word Meaning, What Is Said and Explicature.” In What Is Said and What Is Not, ed. by Carolo Penco, and Filippo Domaneschi, 175–203. Stanford: CSLI Publications.Google Scholar
2016 “The Heterogeneity of Procedural Meaning.” Lingua 175: 154–166. CrossrefGoogle Scholar
2019 “Ad Hoc Concepts, Polysemy and the Lexicon.” In Relevance, Pragmatics and Interpretation, ed. by Kate Scott, Billy Clark, and Robyn Carston, 150–162. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. CrossrefGoogle Scholar
2021 “Polysemy: Pragmatics and Sense Conventions.” Mind & Language 36: 108–133. CrossrefGoogle Scholar
Croft, William, and D. Alan Cruse
2004Cognitive Linguistics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. CrossrefGoogle Scholar
Dobler, Tamara
2020 “The Occasion-Sensitivity of Thought.” Topoi 39: 487–497. CrossrefGoogle Scholar
Escandell-Vidal, Victoria
2017 “Notes for a Restrictive Theory of Procedural Meaning.” In Doing Pragmatics Interculturally: Cognitive, Philosophical, and Sociopragmatic Perspectives, ed. by Rachel Giora, and Michael Haugh, 79–95. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter. CrossrefGoogle Scholar
Evans, Vyvyan, and Melanie Green
2006Cognitive Linguistics: An Introduction. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.Google Scholar
Falkum, Ingrid L.
2011 “The Semantics and Pragmatics of Polysemy: A Relevance-Theoretic Account.” PhD diss. University College London.
Fauconnier, Gilles, and Mark Turner
2003 “Polysemy and Conceptual Blending.” In Polysemy: Flexible Patterns of Meaning in Mind and Language, ed. by Brigitte Nerlich, Zazie Todd, Vimala Herman, and David Clarke, 79–94. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter. CrossrefGoogle Scholar
Fillmore, Charles J.
1982 “Frame Semantics.” In Linguistics in the Morning Calm, ed. by The Linguistic Society of Korea, 111–138. Seoul: Hanshin.Google Scholar
Fodor, Jerry A.
1975The Language of Thought. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
2001 “Language, Thought and Compositionality.” Mind & Language 16: 1–15. CrossrefGoogle Scholar
Gibbs, Raymond W., Jr.
1994The Poetics of Mind: Figurative Thought, Language, and Understanding. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
Groefsema, Marjolein
2007 “Concepts and Word Meaning in Relevance Theory.” In Pragmatics, ed. by Noël Burton-Roberts, 136–157. Basingtoke: Palgrave Macmillan. CrossrefGoogle Scholar
Haiman, John
1980 “Dictionaries and Encyclopedias.” Lingua 50: 329–357. CrossrefGoogle Scholar
Hall, Alison
2017 “Lexical Pragmatics, Explicature and Ad Hoc Concepts.” In Semantics and Pragmatics: Drawing a Line, ed. by Ilse Depraetere, and Raphael Salkie, 85–100. Berlin: Springer International Publishing. CrossrefGoogle Scholar
Halliday, Michael A. K.
1973Explorations in the Functions of Language. London: Edward Arnold.Google Scholar
Horsey, Richard
2006 “The Content and Acquisition of Lexical Concepts.” PhD diss. University College London.
Lakoff, George
1987Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things: What Categories Reveal about the Mind. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. CrossrefGoogle Scholar
Langacker, Ronald W.
1987Foundations of Cognitive Grammar, vol. 1: Theoretical Prerequisites. Stanford: Stanford University Press.Google Scholar
Leclercq, Benoît
2019a “On the Semantics-Pragmatics Interface: A Theoretical Bridge between Construction Grammar and Relevance Theory.” PhD diss. University of Lille.
2019b “Coercion: A Case of Saturation.” Constructions and Frames 11 (2): 270–289. CrossrefGoogle Scholar
2020 “Semantics and Pragmatics in Construction Grammar.” Belgian Journal of Linguistics 34: 225–234. CrossrefGoogle Scholar
Lemmens, Maarten
2017 “A Cognitive, Usage-Based View on Lexical Pragmatics: Response to Hall.” In Semantics and Pragmatics: Drawing a Line, ed. by Ilse Depraetere, and Raphael Salkie, 101–114. Berlin: Springer International Publishing. CrossrefGoogle Scholar
Murphy, Gregory L.
1991 “Meaning and Concepts.” In The Psychology of Word Meaning, ed. by Paula J. Schwanenflugel, 11–35. Hillsdale: Erlbaum.Google Scholar
Norén, Kerstin, and Per Linell
2007 “Meaning Potentials and the Interaction Between Lexis and Contexts: An Empirical Substantiation.” Pragmatics 17: 387–416.Google Scholar
Pustejovsky, James
1995The Generative Lexicon. Cambridge: MIT Press.Google Scholar
Reboul, Anne
2000 “Words, Concepts, Mental Representations, and Other Biological Categories.” In The Lexicon-Encyclopedia Interface, ed. by Bert Peeters, 55–95. Amsterdam: Elsevier.Google Scholar
Recanati, François
2004Literal Meaning. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
Reddy, Michael
1979 “The Conduit Metaphor: A Case of Conflict in Our Language about Language.” In Metaphor and Thought, ed. by Andrew Ortony, 284–324. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
Sperber, Dan
2005 “Modularity and Relevance: How Can a Massively Modular Mind Be Flexible and Context-Sensitive?” In The Innate Mind: Structure and Content, ed. by Peter Carruthers, and Stephen Laurence, 53–68. Oxford: Oxford University Press. CrossrefGoogle Scholar
Sperber, Dan, and Deirdre Wilson
1987 “Precis of Relevance: Communication and Cognition.” Behavioural and Brain Sciences 10: 697–754. CrossrefGoogle Scholar
1995Relevance: Communication and Cognition. 2nd ed. Oxford: Blackwell.Google Scholar
1998 “The Mapping between the Mental and the Public Lexicon.” In Language and Thought: Interdisciplinary Themes, ed. by Peter Carruthers, and Jill Boucher, 184–200. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. CrossrefGoogle Scholar
2008 “A Deflationary Account of Metaphor.” In The Cambridge Handbook of Metaphor and Thought, ed. by Raymond Gibbs, 84–105. New York: Cambridge University Press. CrossrefGoogle Scholar
Verschueren, Jef
2018 “Adaptability and Meaning Potential.” In The Dynamics of Language, ed. by Rajend Mesthrie, and David Bradley, 99–109. Cape Town: UCT Press.Google Scholar
Wilson, Deirdre
1995 “Is There a Maxim of Truthfulness?UCL Working Papers in Linguistics 7: 197–212.Google Scholar
2003 “Relevance Theory and Lexical Pragmatics.” Italian Journal of Linguistics/Rivista di Linguistica 15: 273–291.Google Scholar
2009 “Parallels and Differences in the Treatment of Metaphor in Relevance Theory and Cognitive Linguistics.” Studies in Pragmatics 11: 42–60.Google Scholar
2011 “The Conceptual-Procedural Distinction: Past, Present and Future.” In Procedural Meaning: Problems and Perspectives, ed. by Victoria Escandell-Vidal, Manuel Leonetti, and Aoife Ahern, 3–31. Bingley: Emerald Group Publishing. CrossrefGoogle Scholar
2016 “Reassessing the Conceptual-Procedural Distinction.” Lingua 175: 5–19. CrossrefGoogle Scholar
Wilson, Deirdre, and Robyn Carston
2006 “Metaphor, Relevance and the ‘Emergent Property’ Issue.” Mind and Language 21: 404–433. CrossrefGoogle Scholar
2007 “A Unitary Approach to Lexical Pragmatics: Relevance, Inference and Ad Hoc Concepts.” In Pragmatics, ed. by Noël Burton-Roberts, 230–259. Basingtoke: Palgrave Macmillan. CrossrefGoogle Scholar
Wilson, Deirdre, and Dan Sperber
2004 “Relevance Theory.” In The Handbook of Pragmatics, ed. by Laurence R. Horn, and Gregory Ward, 607–632. Oxford: Blackwell.Google Scholar