Some critical reflections on linguistic pragmatics*
The title of this conference is one of the more "loaded" ones I have ever seen. Introducing a topic such as "Pragmatics: The loaded discipline" is hardly an innocent gesture. Here is an obvious hint, if there ever was one, at Dwight Bolinger's (1980) Language: The loaded weapon. We remember, of course, that Bolinger's subtitle was "The use and abuse of language today", and that his book dealt in detail with the multiple ways in which seemingly neutral and descriptive language can veil and legitimate brutal realities, as when a "lowly sampan", shredded by helicopter gun-ships, is turned into a "waterborne enemy craft". Combining this with our awareness that pragmatic writings of Jacob May (e.g. 1985, 1993, 1994) a "critical" approach has always been much in evidence, and with the knowledge that the present academic event is intended as a kind of "lifetime achievements award" for the same Jacob May, we know that the organizers wanted us, invited speakers, to offer some critical reflections on linguistic pragmatics. Maybe there was even a specific hint at the possibility that pragmatics, as a discipline, lends itself to a variety of abuses while parading as a "purely academic" endeavour. Or was the intention simply to make us celebrate the critical potential of pragmatics?
If the latter is the case, my contribution will necessary have to be critical of that festive intention, as I will address issues that touch both the body and the soul of pragmatics (a metaphor which is just that: a metaphor).
Note that, for the present purpose, I will talk about pragmatics as "a general functional perspective on (any aspect of) language", i.e. as "an approach to language which takes into account the full complexity of its cognitive, social and cultural (i.e. "meaningful") functioning in the live of the beings". (See Verschueren, 1995a,b for more information on this broad view of pragmatics.)
I will first say a few words about the predicaments of "criticism" as a scholarly enterprise in general. Then I will focus my critical attention on the bodily aspects of pragmatics, i.e. its institutionalisation as an academic discipline. Afterwards I will turn to its soul, investigating the ways in which authority is established and maintained in relation to the concepts and ideas that constitute the premises that tend to be handled as if they are beyond questioning. Finally, some conclusions will be formulated in relation to the future of the field. Those conclusions will be prescriptive rather than predictive. I will not be able to tell you what the most significant developments 11411c28l will be. Rather, I will try to sketch desirable directions to be followed and directions to be avoided in the years to come.
The predicaments of criticism
A few word are needed about the critical potential of pragmatics in relation to the predicaments of "criticism" as a scholarly enterprise in general. In the humanities and social sciences, we have witnessed over the last couple of decades the growth of a field called "cultural studies". The emergence of this field was the product of a critical reflex based on dissatisfaction with a state of affairs in which philosophy, linguistics, sociology, anthropology, psychology, history and the like, were leading institutionally separated lives of their own, characterized by self-perpetuating authoritative trends crystallized in educational curricula, and supported by grant-giving and job-selection mechanism. The idea was that the critical awareness needed to make academic activities socially relevant was inevitably stifled by the institutional constraints imposed by the self-preservational priorities of separately existing academic disciplines. "Cultural studies", profiled as necessarily interdisciplinary, was designed as an escape from this quagmire. It was profiled, in other words, as an essentially "critical" enterprise transcending disciplinary boundaries, constraints, and vested interests.
However, "criticism" in this sense is vulnerable in at least two divergent ways. First of all, it did not take long before "cultural studies" started to assume all the properties of a traditional discipline. It turned into an integral part of curriculum design. It showed up in job descriptions and, under the influence of active publishing policies by some publishing houses, s section header in numerous bookstores. If these are not fully vested interests yet, we are certainly witnessing the vesting of interests. At some universities, there are now full-grown sections and/or programs for "comparative cultural studies". In many ways, this is the end of criticism or the introduction of new dogmas, since the intercultural dimension of human life probably the least amenable to a "comparative" approach. For one thing, cultural variability is such that it lends itself to rapid change. Further, when cultural paradigms are made to interact (whatever that may mean), this creates a new situation for the understanding of which a comparison of the paradigms concerned is of minimal importance. Moreover, observable differences between cultures are rarely fundamentally different from those between individuals, social classes, men and women.
Second, and directly related to the first weak spot, we can assume that the linkage between academic activities and social relevance, if adopted without sufficient critical awareness, does not guarantee a really "critical" approach. Or, to put it in the words of the Chicago Cultural Studies Group:
"One might suspect that if every academic were really a politician [.] and were really subject to the political interactions of the nation-state, academics would be more vulnerable to state control and ideological orthodoxy. If politicisation erases the boundary between the academy and public discourse, the result will not be a gain in relevance but a loss of the very ideal sought by politicisation, the ideal of multiple cultural spaces all protected from invasion by each other or by the state." (1994: 118)
In other words, the delicate balance between scientific and social values requires that, though pre-existent social commitments of a general nature cannot be abstracted from, such commitments translated into more specific terms should by and large follow from, rather than to guide the scientific research. In order to safeguard the relevance of anchoring research into social and political reality, it must be possible for the research and its conclusions to receive the epithet "critical" without their necessarily being conducted and formulated - as seems to be the case now - by professed "leftists".
Pragmatics, as a field of study and investigation which lends itself to "critical" approaches for the simple reason that it studies instances of language use - a significant proportion of which can be reasonably characterized as "abuse" - shares these predicaments. In Whose Language? Jacob May says:
"One on my main theses is that our language cements the dominant interests of our society, helping to oppress a large segment of the population." (1985:16)
The "use of language" includes its use in the humanities and social sciences, including pragmatics itself. It makes sense therefore, certainly in the light of the foregoing remarks on the predicaments of criticism, to ask a few critical questions about pragmatics as such. To what extent, for instance, does pragmatics suffer from constraints that follow its ongoing institutionalisation? Why does pragmatics develop the way it does, in a community of practitioners, in a wider social context? How does this affect our understanding of language use, and what are the consequences of that understanding? In other words, my question is: Whose discipline?
Let me first focus some critical attention on the bodily aspects of pragmatics, i.e. its institutionalisation as an academic discipline and the institutional positioning of the actors involved.
Pragmatics, as a discipline, seems to derive its legitimacy from a series of circumstantial phenomena. It can point at a growing list of textbooks, ranging from Stephen Levinson's (1983) Principles of pragmatics over Georgia Green's (1989) Pragmatics and natural language understanding, Talmy Givón's (1989) Mind, code and context, and Diane Blakemore's (1992) Understanding utterances to Jacob May's (1993) Pragmatics, Deborah Schiffrin's (1994) Approaches to discourse, Peter Grundy's (1995) Doing pragmatics, Jenny Thomas' (1995) Meaning in interaction, Goerge Yule's (1996) Pragmatics, and Herb Clark's (1996) Using language. Moreover, there are reference works such as Steven Davis' (1991) Pragmatics, and the recently started and continuing Handbook of pragmatics (Verschueren et al., 1995). Note that this list does not even include works in languages other than English. Furthermore, a cursory look at their contents shows a higher degree of stability in the topics dealt with: deixis, speech acts, presuppositions, implicature, conversation and discourse are all musts (with the occasional exception of deixis), optionally supplemented with discussions of the links with sociolinguistics and psycholinguistics or cognitive science. The institutionalisation of the field is further supported with a comprehensive bibliography (Nuyts and Veschueren, 1987) and with journals such as Journal of Pragmatics (Elsevier), Pragmatics and Cognition (Benjamins), Pragmatics (International Pragmatics Association), as well as journals in pragmatics-related fields such as Text (De Grutyer), Language in Society (Cambridge), Discourse and Society (Sage), and book series such as Pragmatics and Beyond (Benjamins) in which over 100 volumes have appeared so far. Then there is a professional organization such as the International Pragmatics Association, with over 1,400 individual members in over 60 different countries world-wide. And in addition to the numerous small colloquia and conferences, there are regular large-scale International Pragmatics Conferences, for which the choice of site - basically a practical organizational matter - lends itself to disputes that are even translated into geopolitical terms, and worse.
Though most of these facts tend to be quoted with great pride to justify organizing another pragmatics course or publishing another pragmatics textbook, they should, in view of the supposed critical potential p pragmatics and in the light of the foregoing remarks on criticism, be a source of worry. There is no reason to believe the community of pragmatics practitioners should escape from the constraints that come with institutionalisation.
For one thing, while the consistency we find across the available textbooks might be seen as a sure sign of the "existence" of an identifiable field of pragmatics, it may also point at processes of conventionalisation and habit formation in ways of looking at language use, and therefore even at incipient tendencies towards the construction of an acceptable dogma. More will have to be said about this later. Suffice it, for the moment, to point at the apparent need, manifested over and over again, to define pragmatics as a component of a theory of language, on a par with syntax and semantics. This, in itself, is an institutionalising move, setting the beacons of a territory within which authority can be established. Why not simply admit that pragmatics is nothing but a specific "perspective" on language. This not only solves most of the delimitation problems, but it also counteracts both imperialist and isolationist tendencies (even if, in a market-rather than content-driven world, one of these two may be needed to get money, or jobs, or both).
Or, to take another example, efforts are made at the historiography of pragmatics. Attempts to find "roots" for the field in a distant past may simply serve purposes of legitimation not too dissimilar from the history writing that took place during the formative periods in the development of most nation states. This does not mean that it would be useless to look at what others. Long ago, have thought and said about aspects of language use which we now discuss under the label of "pragmatics". Rather, we should beware of the language-scale reframing of earlier observations just for the sake of our present purposes, thus diverting the attention from the content that should really interest us.
Finally, as soon as a community is formed, this does not only produce opportunities for the cross-fertilization of insights. A variety of social-psychological processes are activated which are not always conductive to the advancement of knowledge. Not only is authority established by groups and individuals in ways that take courage for them to be challenged. But even simple politeness and consideration get in the way of expressing opinions in a manner that is sufficiently clear to score any effect. You will see, for instance, that in the rest of this lecture I will not identify the sources of the ideas that I will present as challengeable. This is partly because the ideas in question are so widespread that pinning them down on names would not be entirely justifiable, but partly it is a strategy to avoid insulting any individuals whom I may like or with whom I do not want any trouble, whether they are present in my audience, or whether I calculate the possibility of their consuming a mediated version of my talk. There may even be reasons for distrusting whatever I am saying in this lecture. How could anyone, so deeply enmeshed in some of the institutionalising processes as I am (by way of my involvement in the International Pragmatics Association and in various publishing endeavours), possibly take the critical distance necessary for looking more or less objectively at "pragmatics" as an "institution" from the outside while standing in the middle of it? More specifically, to what extent does the festive intention behind this particular academic event restrict what I can say and how to say it? Really thorough and unscrupulous pragmatic research would be needed to get the answers to such questions.
So much for the problems related to the body of pragmatics.
Questioning the obvious
Looking critically at the soul of pragmatics, we cannot avoid investigating the ways in which authority is established and maintained in relation to the concepts and ideas that constitute its core and the premises that tend to be handled as if they are beyond questioning. Such an investigation amounts to an ideological critique of pragmatics. Here the term "ideology" is taken out of its usual socio-political context, but we preserve the reference to a constellation of fundamental or commonsensical beliefs and ideas that are highly immune to doubts and questions, within a given community, in discourse of a certain type (such as the pragmatic literature). Another way of talking about the same phenomenon, in the present context, would be with reference to Charles Goodwind's (1994) notion of "professional vision". Just like archaeologists imbue patches of dirt with meaning by highlighting them, or just like an expert witness may decompose a massive beating into sequences of escalation, de-escalation and assessment periods thus turning what happened to Rodney King into a form of responsible polite behaviour, pragmatics has its own established ways of looking at language use.
It will not be possible to present a full analysis of the "ideological" or "professional" framing of verbal behaviour to be found in the discourse of pragmatics publications. I will restrict myself to a few more or less random examples to demonstrate the types of questions that can be asked and the types of analyses we need if we want to exploit the critical potential of pragmatics in a scientifically justifiable way. Just a few unquestioned premises will be made to pass the review, illustrating some of the things that are taken for granted in pragmatics and carried by authoritative concepts.
Let us start with the notion of "function". Many approaches to language use are characterized by a romantic form of functionalism according to which language mirrors the basic functions it has to perform. A result of this goal-oriented view is that often a lot of attention is devoted to distinguishing functions of language, at the expense of carefully scrutinizing its functioning. A close look at the functioning of language would reveal, for instance, that language often does all kinds of things that it is not designed to do (as when Lufthansa pilot's "Once we are in the air, we'll fly as fast as possible" causes the passengers to giggle), while language often manages to do what it has to do in spite of its structural and semantic limitations (as when a child' basically uninterpretable response "what language do I have to speak then?" in answer to "Shut up!" proves to be an effective way of reaching a goal).
A corollary of the goal-orientedness of romantic functionalism is the heavy emphasis on "intentionality". Thus the Gricean notion of meaning still goes unchallenged in much of the pragmatic literature, which takes for granted the definition of meaning as the speaker's intention in the making of an utterance top produce an effect in the hearer by means of the hearer's recognition of the intention to produce that effect. Needless to say that this was a major step in the development of pragmatics, removing meaning from language per se and placing it in the custody of the user. But at the same time it imposed a burdensome restriction on the field by recognizing only the speaker's intention as criterial. Fortunately, there have been many pleas for a return of the full human complexity of meaning, but these have not been heard in many quarters (see Verschueren, 1995c, for a fuller discussion).
Similarly, the Gricean notion of conversational "cooperation", though it has been challenged, is still quite dominant. Yet, a careful look at actual language use shows how profoundly conflictual most forms of verbal interaction are. This is why Grice's conversational maxims have such an unbelievably normative and prescriptive ring to them - an impression that can only be strengthen by a Moslem linguist's observation that the Gricean maxims correspond almost one-to-one to pieces of conversational advice formulated by the prophet Mohamed. What they represent, then, seems to be a fragment of communicational ideology shared at least by the judeo-christian and Islamic cultures.
Still many theories, for instance theories of "politeness", are predicated on the assumption that interactional harmony is the norm, ignoring that the very notion of politeness makes sense only in the (normative) evaluation of behaviour in the light of underlying interpersonal and social strife. Ant adequate scientific approach to politeness phenomena should itself avoid taking the position of the social "norms". Otherwise, the researcher gets involved in the struggle (as when "impolite" behaviour in public places is ascribed to a lack of cultural scripts), so that he or she cannot but lose sight of the struggle aspect itself. (A detailed analysis of the "ideologies" underlying the politeness literature is currently being made by Gino Eelen.)
Another concept which is often used with too little critical awareness is "context". If linguists outside the pragmatics circle are afraid of the ever-expanding contexting of language, we have no-one but ourselves to blame. Context is too easily supposed to be objectively "out there". We should have learned by now that "context" is created by the discourse itself (see Duranti and Goodwin, 1992: Auer and DiLuzio, 1992) and that this process leaves observable traces allowing for empirical attention to aspects of context that are demonstrably relevant because they are used in the course of verbal meaning construction. Speculation can thus be avoided, and the vulnerability of pragmatic analyses can easily be minimized - though probably never fully eliminated. It is quite disconcerting, therefore, to find analyses even in the tradition of "critical" discourse analysis or "critical" linguistics which start out with a section called "background". Such a section is then supposed to describe the objective context in which a piece of discourse is to be situated for its proper interpretation. What is easily ignored by this practice is the fact that whatever background sketch can be given it always represents a particular, inevitably limited, view of a slice of historical "reality" (see the discussion in Galasisnski 1997a,b; Blommaert 1997).
One of the most abused or ill-understood contextual concepts is that of "culture". When going over the pragmatic literature, one often gets the impression that cultures really "exist". There is talk of cultures that clash, people who act in accordance with "cultural scripts" and are guided by "cultural expectations". And related to these concepts, there are supposed to be culture-specific or culturally determined "communicative styles". Style, in combination with culture, thus becomes a pass-partout explanation for communication conflicts - again an example of the dominance of the harmony model which requires a special key for the understanding of disharmony. There is very little awareness that, though "culture" is a notion that can reasonably be used to describe aspects of behaviour that cannot be said to derive strictly from "nature", cultures (plural) do not really exist but are merely rhetorical constructs. There is, therefore, little chance that processes of so-called intercultural communication will ever be properly understood unless we approach them simply as forms of communication, subject to the same forms of variability and negotiability which turn any instance of communication into hazardous adventure by definition.
Another beauty is the pragmaticist's faith in the face-to-face conversation as the standard of comparison for all the forms of communication. It is obviously true that any adequate theory of language use has to be able to cope with the complexities of conversation. It may even be true that all communication has somehow evolved from the use of language in face-to-face settings (as paralleled in individual language acquisition). But one cannot avoid amazement when reading in a recent book that what makes conversation so special as a prime target for pragmatic research is the fact that its participants are in full control, speaking for themselves, jointly determining who says what when, and formulating utterances as they go along - while in other (e.g. institutional) settings the participants are restricted in what they can say when. This simply ignores the many ways in which everyday conversation are burdened with restrictions from beginning to end - if one is to take seriously the social embeddedness of any form of interaction.
In the same vein, conversation is often seen as the true locus for serious language use, involving mainly the real-time, real-place layer of action, while most other forms of language use add layers, removing the communicative event from real time and/or real place, thus making them more prone to non-serious forms of usage. Such a view shows too much confidence in the existence of an identifiable and unmediated "reality" (remember the earlier remarks about "context"), ignoring the processes of reality construction that characterizes all real-life utterances. Furthermore, it does not take sufficient account of the extent to which functional layers can enter the here-and-now rather than to be simply superimposed on it (as in a play context).
All these complexities are aggravated by the fact that terms in the pragmatic literature rarely lend themselves to unambiguous use. It would be surprising indeed if they did, but the consequences of this predicament are seldom fully appreciated and taken into account. Let us take as an example the recently popularized notion of "intertextuality" (see Verschueren, 1996a). Intertextuality can hardly be seen as an uanambiguously identifiable "object" of investigation. Rather, whether it was ever explicitly intended in this way or not, the term pints at a problem area. Like the notion of "context", it is a warning against the fallacy of the autonomy of language and individual instances of language use. It is there to remind us that there is more to language than what presents itself directly to the eye. What is at stake is the identification and constant recognition of a "dimension" to be found in all language use. The study of intertextuality, therefore, should be part and parcel of every pragmatically oriented approach to discourse. Just like most labels, when taken literally, "intertextuality" is misleading.
First, it covers intra- as well as inter- textual phenomena. At the purely intertextual end of this scale, phenomena are covered that were already observed by Franz Boas, such as the way in which themes and structures flow back and forth between different narrative genres and texts (see Briggs and Bauman, 1992). The same can be said of Bakhtin's (1986) description of genre flexibility (e.g. change and adaptation as a result of intertextual influences) and of the way in which primary genres (e.g. a conversation) get into secondary ones (e.g. a novel). Similarly, conversation analysis can be literally seen as an exercise in the detailed tracing of intertextual dynamics, every "turn" having the character of a "text". While Bakhtin's (1981) "dialogism" also refers to such phenomena, it takes us directly to the other end of the scale as well with the recognition that not only every text but even every utterance hosts a range of interacting "voices". Also at the intratextual end, we can situate every present manifestations of metapragmatic awareness.
Second, the label "intertextuality" does not only cover strictly "textual" features, assuming that text requires linguistic form. to the extent that there may not be highly visible linguistic correlates, "voices" may already be marginally textual. But this is certainly the case where the label gets used to refer to the dynamic interaction of different worlds of interpretation in the process of meaning construction.
Third, "intertextuality" does not always require observable forms of interaction, whether intra- or intertextual, and whether textual or mental. Often all that is at stake is simply "contrastiveness", which may or may not derive from interaction, and forms of which can be found within sentences, within texts, between texts, across languages, and even across historical time spans (see Vershueren, 1996b).
The panorama of distinguished phenomena is wide indeed. Therefore, like with the notion of context, the main problem when relying on intertextuality will always be to find the delicate balance between the fear of over-extending its scope so as to get lost in vagueness and speculation, and uninspired faithfulness to the observable data (see also Verschueren, 1995c). the balance can be found if we remember that, like context, intertextuality is not just out there, but that it is actively constructed and negotiated in the discourse itself, and that this process leaves that can be empirically investigated.
Neddless to say that the foregoing comments pick out utterly random topics from a much wider range of possibilities within the domain of investigation that goes under the label "pragmatics".
Finally, let me formulate some conclusions in relation to the future of the field of pragmatics. Those conclusions, as announced, are prescriptive rather than predictive. I will not be able to tell what the most significant developments 11411c28l will be. Rather, I will try to sketch desirable directions to be followed in the year to come, as well as directions to be avoided.
First of all a positive recommendation. A thorough "ideological" critique of the pragmatics literature is urgently called for. We have to become aware of the ideas we tend to take for granted, so that we can systematically question them. In some cases we will have to abandon them, in others they will be reinforced and thereby strengthened. At any tare, pragmatics should, on a permanent basis, become its own object.
Among the negative recommendations is the warning that a bureaucratisation (or a further bureaucratisation) of the "institute" which "pragmatics" has already become, should be avoided at all costs. Translated into practical terms this means that we can continue teaching pragmatics, even more extensively and more systematically than we have so far, but the field will probably have outlived its usefulness when we start dreaming of departments of pragmatics. Similarly, it makes sense to continue a tradition of international conferences, but only if the energy this takes is spent on content.
Finally, another negative recommendation. Let us collectively distrust work that gets quoted too much, not really because the work itself would be suspect, but because it is predictable that only its superficial aspects will spread easily, thus misguiding subsequent research. Of course, you are free to quote me on this, as an argument against a citation index for the humanities.
Auer, Peter and Aldo, DiLuzio eds., 1992. The contextualization of
Bakhtin, M.M., 1981. The dialogic imagination.
Bakhtin, M.M., 1986. Speech genres and other late essays.
Blakemore, Diane, 1992. Understanding utterances: An introduction to
Blommaert, Jan, 1997. Whose background? Comments on a
discourse-analytic reconstruction of the
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abuse of language today.
Briggs, Charles L. and Richard Bauman, 1992. Genre, intertextuality, and social power. Journal of Linguistic Anthropology 2(2): 131-172.
Clark, Herbert, 1996. Using language.
Duranti, Alessandro and Charles Goodwin eds., 1992. Rethinking
Galasinski, Dariusz, 1997a. The making of history: Some remarks on politicians' presentation of historical events. Pragmatics 7(1): 55-68.
Galasinski, Dariusz, 1997b. Background and discourse analysis: A response to Jan Blommaert. Pragmatics 7(1): 83-87.
Givón, Talmy, 1989. Mind, code and context: Essay in pragmatics.
Goodwin, Charles, 1994. Professional vision. American Anthropologist 96(3): 606-633.
Grundy, Peter, 1995. Doing pragmatics.
Leech, Geoffrey, 1983. Principles of pragmatics.
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Mey, Jacob, 1985. Whose language? A study in linguistic pragmatics.
Mey, Jacob, 1983. Pragmatics: An introduction.
Mey, Jacob, 1994. How to do good things with words: A social pragmatics for survival. Pragmatics 4(2): 239-263.
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Schiffrin, Deborah, 1994. Approaches to discourse.
Thomas, Jenny, 1995. Meaning in interaction: An introduction to
Veschueren, Jef, 1995a. Linguistic pragmatics and semiotics. Semiotica 104(1/2): 45-65.
Veschueren, Jef, 1995b. The pragmatic perspective. In: J. Veschueren, J.-O. Östman and J. Blommaert eds., 1-19.
Veschueren, Jef, 1995c. The pragmatic return to meaning: Notes on the dynamics of communication, degrees of salience, and communicative transparency. Journal of Linguistic Anthropology 5(2): 127-156.
Veschueren, Jef, 1996a. Remarks on pragmatics and intertextuality.
In: Beatriz Penas ed., The intertextual dimension of discourse:
Pragmalinguistic-cognitive-hermeneutic approaches, vii-xi.
Veschueren, Jef, 1995b. Contrastive ideology research: Aspects of a
pragmatic methodology. In: Katarzyna Jaszezolt and Ken Turner eds., Contrastive
semantics and pragmatics (2 vols.), 559-603.
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Jef Vershueren is a Research Director for the Fund for Scientific Research,