Three kinds of meaning

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We saw in the previous module that meaning is severely underdetermined by language: in other words, language alone isn't enough to tell us what an utterance means. We need to do extra work (i.e., we need to use pragmatics) to figure out what an utterance means in the context in which it was uttered.

We could roughly divide the problems discussed in the previous module into two groups. First of all, a lot of the challenge in figuring out meaning comes from the fact that language can often be ambiguous or vague; that is what most of the previous module focused on. So, when a person says something whose meaning is unclear because it has deictic words or because it has an ambiguous sentence structure or because it has words with vague meaning or whatever else, we need to use context to assign a more specific meaning to that utterance (i.e., a meaning that expresses a specific statement about the world, which could be true or false). Secondly, even after we've figured out that specific meaning, we are faced with the problem that people sometimes just mean something different than what they say anyway. So, even once we've determined the specific meaning of the utterance, we still need to think about the context and the speaker some more to see if the speaker really means something else (like we did when we deduced that Jonathon might not actually want to keep in touch with Mary, given that he threw his letter into the ocean).

Thomas (chapter 1) breaks meaning down along these lines, showing us that an utterance has three types of meaning and that different kinds of information are used to figure out which meaning is the one the speaker really "meant". Here are the terms she uses to describe them:

Let's sum that up in a nice table:

Derived from... Ambiguous because of...
Abstract meaning Linguistic rules (grammar) Lexical, syntactic, and semantic ambiguity, and deixis
Utterance meaning Using context to select from abstract meaning Speakers mean things other than what they say
Force Pragmatic reasoning: thinking about the speaker's intentions Not ambiguous (or is it?)

(If you're paying attention, you may have noticed by now that "utterance meaning" is about the same as "what is said" or "sentence meaning", and "force" is about the same as "what is meant" or "speaker meaning".)

Abstract meaning is linguistic: if you look at a sentence like He is a vegetarian, you can use your knowledge of language to understand what that sentence could "mean" or express in any context, even if you don't know who is saying it at what time and about whom. But abstract meaning is not propositional—in other words, it doesn't express any statement about the real world. If you don't know who "he" is, you can't tell if the sentence is true or false. The abstract meaning is just a linguistic representation of what the sentence could mean, but you need a context to know what the sentence is actually saying about the world. We could also call abstract meaning "sentence meaning", because it's the linguistic meaning of a sentence divorced from any context (keep in mind that a "sentence" is a linguistic expression [a sequence of words put together in a certain way following certain rules], whereas an "utterance" is the action of saying a sentence in a certain context—if I say "It's raining today and you say "It's raining" tomorrow these will be two different utterances, even though they each consist of the same sentence).

Utterance meaning, on the other hand, is propositional: it expresses some idea about the world (some "proposition"). If you know that I said He is a vegetarian and you know what person I am talking about, you can judge whether the utterance is true or false. So, utterance meaning combines abstract meaning with context to create a fleshed-out proposition, i.e., a statement about the world.

Force is even more context-dependent than utterance meaning. If you are preparing a dinner party and you ask me whether a certain guest likes hamburgers, and I say "He is a vegetarian", then you will probably infer that what I'm really saying is that he won't eat hamburgers and you should probably prepare something else for him. But if I said that exact same sentence in a different context, that meaning might not arise.

The example we saw from Roger Federer in the previous module fits perfectly into this framework. The sentence alone, taken out of context, could mean lots of different things (i.e., its abstract meaning is very ambiguous). Once we have some context, we can figure out what it literally means (its utterance meaning), by figuring out that "it" refers to the tennis match, "tough" means difficult, etc. But that literal utterance meaning is also pragmatically ambiguous, because we can't be certain what message he really wants to convey by saying it—i.e., we aren't sure what its force is (its force might just be a simple and objective description of how he felt about the match, or its force might be a complaint about how the referees handled the match, or an excuse for why he lost).

Another example example from the TV show BoJack Horseman can also help illustrate similar ambiguities at each level of meaning within the same utterance. (Spoiler alert for a gut-wrenching moment from the show.) In this episode, BoJack, who has always had a negative and hateful relationship with his mother, is reflecting on the last moments he spent with her in the hospital before she died. Not long before she died, she looked towards him and said, "I see you". Afterwards, he spends a long time thinking about what that might have meant. Maybe it was a last moment of genuine person-to-person connection between them and showing that she understands who he is and what he needs (which could be particularly poignant because for the last few months of her life she had serious dementia and usually couldn't even recognize BoJack). Or maybe it was a criticism, like "Everyone else thinks you're a great guy but I know what kind of bad person you really are, I see you for who you really are!" Here we can see that BoJack thinks he understands the utterance meaning of "I see you" (i.e., that his mother literally meant that she, his mother, sees him, BoJack) but he is struggling to understand what the force was meant to be. Later, though, he recalls that his mother's hospital room was in the Intensive Care Unit—the I.C.U. When he thought she was looking at him and saying "I see you", she was actually just looking over his shoulder at an "ICU" sign and reading aloud "I. C. U.". So he ultimately realizes that none of his original assumptions about her force were right, because actually he had gotten her utterance meaning wrong: she didn't mean that she [his mother] sees him [BoJack], but she was just saying the word "I.C.U.", and thus she didn't really mean anything (i.e., her utterance didn't have any intended force).

Understanding each kind of meaning

Getting from the actual words that were said to the abstract meaning (the list of all the possible things that combination of words could mean) is the domain of syntax and semantics. We will have little to say about it in this class.

Getting from abstract meaning to utterance meaning (which of the possible literal meanings the speaker intended the utterance to express) is what some researchers call "semantic pragmatics"—it's kind of pragmatics, because it does consider context, but it's still dealing with literal meaning. Nevertheless, pragmatics clearly has an important role to play in determining "utterance meaning" or "what is said". Recanati (1989) coined this issue "the pragmatics of what is said". In fact, most words have multiple meanings (at the very least, most words have multiple polysemous senses), so context is almost always necessary to determine what a speaker has said. For example, the word "pump" could refer to a hand pump for putting air into a bicycle tire, or it could refer to a big, powerful water pump for a fire hose; but if a firefighter in a fire truck arriving at a burning house asks for a "pump", she's probably asking for the second one! The way you can figure this out is by considering the context, not anything inherent to language itself. This issue is easy to forget about, because the vast majority of pragmatics research and pragmatics textbooks (and this class) focuses on the other part, "what is meant"; nevertheless, it's important to keep this other part in mind as well. Geurts (chapter 1.6 and chapter 8.5) has some interesting and in-depth discussion of how important pragmatics is for determining what is said, and how important determining what is said is for theories of pragmatics.

Getting from utterance meaning to force (what the speaker wants to do with the utterance) is the domain of what I would consider true, "pragmatic" pragmatics, because it considers not just context but also the speaker and hearer's goals and intentions. This last part, the step from utterance meaning to force, will be the main focus of this whole class.

While the breakdown sketched above is not always as clear-cut as it may seem (for example, you can probably think of ways that considering speaker intentions may also help the hearer get from abstract meaning to utterance meaning—and indeed, the whole division between these things is kind of questionable, because people's goals and intentions are part of the context!), it is a useful starting point and a useful guideline for what we will consider "pragmatics" to be about.

Another note as we wrap up: at this point you might be starting to think that the distinctions I'm raising sound crazy or implausible. That's ok. An important part of thinking about pragmatics is questioning the ideas. Most of the ideas we will discuss in this class are ideas that are still being challenged, and there are many linguists and philosophers out there who totally reject the theories that we are working through here. (For example, while some pragmatics approaches assume that "force" ["what is meant"] is figured out based on "utterance meaning" ["what is said"], other approaches reject this idea; for instance, Relevance Theory, which is very important but which I mostly ignore for this whole class, argues that "what is said" and "what is meant" are not figured out in serial order, but are both worked out simultaneously, and each informs the other; see e.g. Zufferey et al., chapter 3.) So, if you feel like the distinctions or concepts I'm describing are crazy or don't really work for certain examples, that doesn't mean that you're wrong or that you're misunderstanding the ideas; it might just mean that you're thinking like a good pragmaticist! The goal of this class is not for you to just memorize and accept some "wisdom" from some old famous guys; the goal is for you to understand the ideas but then question them, challenge them, and come to your own conclusions. (There is, of course, a difference between saying "I reject this idea because it just sounds crazy / because I don't understand it", versus saying "I understand what this idea claims, and here is my evidence that its claims are wrong"—good pragmaticists and linguists do the latter, not the former.)

Video summary

In-class activities

Given that understanding an utterance involves understanding its abstract meaning, understanding its utterance meaning, and understanding its force, there are lots of combinations of things that can happen. A person might understand some of these and not others. Have students brainstorm the possible combinations, and brainstorm examples that illustrate them. You can also have them try to estimate which situations are more common or less common.

Thomas (chapter 1) provides a breakdown, with examples, of this. Below is a list of all the possible combinations, along with some suggestions of my own for examples. (You don't have to share this with students before the discussion; these are some ideas in case students can't come up with ideas for some of these.)

⟵ How meaning is underdetermined
Truth-conditional semantics ⟶

by Stephen Politzer-Ahles. Last modified on 2022-05-01. CC-BY-4.0.