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PRAGMATICS AND TIME

Deirdre Wilson & Dan Sperber

University College London and CREA, Ecole Polytechnique, Paris

[Published in R. Carston & S. Uchida (eds) 1998 Relevance theory: Applications and implications. John Benjamins, Amsterdam: 1-22]

1 Introduction

In interpreting utterances such as (1) and (2), the hearer generally treats the events described as temporally or causally related:

(1) a. I took out my key and opened the door.

b. John dropped the glass and it broke.

c. They planted an acorn and it grew.

d. Peter left and Mary got angry.

(2) a. I took out my key. I opened the door.

b. John dropped the glass. It broke.

c. They planted an acorn. It grew.

d. Peter left. Mary got angry.

Such relations are not encoded in the meanings of the sentences uttered. This paper is concerned with how they arise. We will look in particular at the following problems:

(a) The sequencing problem. Why does the hearer generally take the events to have happened in a certain order, so that in (1d), for example, he would assume that Peter left before Mary got angry?

(b) The interval problem. Why does the hearer generally take the events described to be separated by different intervals, so that in (1b), for example, he would assume that the glass broke as soon as it was dropped, whereas in (1c) he would not expect the acorn to have sprouted as soon as it touched the ground?

(c) The cause-consequence problem. Why does the hearer often take the events to stand in a causal or consequential relation, so that in (1b), for example, he would assume that the glass broke because it was dropped?

In the recent linguistic literature, these problems have been approached from two rather different perspectives. Within the Gricean pragmatic tradition, a sharp line is drawn between decoding and inference, and the temporal and causal connotations of (1) and (2) are seen as purely inferential. Within this tradition, the aim is to find a few very general pragmatic principles which will interact with sentence meaning and contextual assumptions to yield the desired interpretations. In the framework of 'discourse semantics', by contrast, the dividing line between decoding and inference has become rather blurred, and a variety of special-purpose rules have been proposed to generate temporal and causal connotations. In this paper, we will look mainly at issues that arise within the Gricean pragmatic framework. A fuller account would deal with the many interesting questions raised by the 'discourse semantic' approach.

The paper is organised as follows. We will argue, first, that while Grice was right to treat the temporal and causal connotations of (1) and (2) as properly pragmatic, they are best analysed not as implicatures but as pragmatically determined aspects of truth-conditional content, or 'what is said'. We will then look at some attempts to deal with the sequencing problem using principles such as Grice's maxim 'Be orderly', and suggest a more general approach. Finally, we will show how all three problems might be tackled within the framework of relevance theory, and point out some implications of this approach.

2 Temporal and causal connotations: implicatures or pragmatically determined aspects of what is said?

Ordinary-language philosophers (e.g. Strawson 1952) used to argue, on the basis of examples like (1), that 'and' in natural language differed in meaning from truth-functional '&' in logic. In these examples, so the argument went, natural-language 'and', was equivalent in meaning to 'and then', or 'and so'; hence, a change in the order of conjuncts would lead to a change of meaning. In logic, by contrast, 'P & Q' was invariably equivalent to 'Q & P'.

Grice, in his William James Lectures (1967/1989), defended the view that natural-language 'and' was equivalent in meaning to '&' in logic. He pointed out that the temporal and causal connotations of (1) were not best analysed as part of the meaning of 'and', since the non-conjoined utterances in (2) have the same temporal and causal connotations. On his view, these connotations were best derived via the operation of his Co-operative Principle and maxims. In other words, he rejected a decoding account of these connotations in favour of an inferential approach.

In Grice's framework, the temporal and causal connotations of (1) and (2) were analysed as conversational implicatures: that is, beliefs that had to be attributed to the speaker to preserve the assumption that she was obeying the Co-operative Principle and maxims. More generally, Grice seems to have assumed that any aspect of utterance interpretation governed by the Co-operative Principle and maxims must be analysed as an implicature, and Gricean pragmatists have invariably followed him on this. Grice drew a sharp dividing line between what was conversationally implicated and what was strictly said. Conversational implicatures made no contribution to the truth conditions of utterances, which were determined solely by what was said. It should follow from Grice's account that the temporal and causal connotations of (1) and (2), which he treats as conversational implicatures, make no contribution to the truth-conditions of utterances in which they occur. But there are problems with this approach.

On Grice's account, natural-language 'and' is semantically equivalent to truth-functional '&' in logic. As Cohen (1971) pointed out, if Grice is right, then reversing the order of the conjuncts in (1) should make no difference to truth conditions: 'P and Q' should always be truth-conditionally equivalent to 'Q and P'. But consider (3) and (4):

(3) It's always the same at parties: either I get drunk and no-one will talk to me or no-one will talk to me and I get drunk.

(4) a. What happened was not that Peter left and Mary got angry but that Mary got angry and Peter left.

b. A: So Peter left and Mary got angry?

...

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