The limits of truth-conditional meaning, and why we need pragmatics

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Where truth conditions fail to account for meaning

In the previous module we saw that the "meaning" of a word or expression can be understood as its truth conditions, i.e., the conditions that need to be met for that expression to be true. Nevertheless, there are lots of situations in which it's not clear how we can account for meaning using only truth conditions. Here's a small sample:

The fundamental problems here are (1) that speakers do not always encode messages explicitly, they often use language to convey something more than what they are literally saying; and (2) speakers don't just use language to convey messages, they use it to do things, some of which have little to do with conveying true or false messages. The main job of pragmatics is to explain how people figure out what language users (as opposed to words, sentences, or expressions) really mean with the things that they say. We will spend the whole rest of the semester struggling with this issue.

Why truth conditions are still useful in pragmatics

It may seem like I'm bashing truth conditions a lot, but the idea of truth conditions and truth-conditional meaning is nevertheless very important when trying to understand pragmatics. Let's take a moment to see why.

Recall that, in the "Three Kinds of Meaning" module, we raised the idea that there are three parts to meaning: abstract meaning, utterance meaning (also known as "what is said"), and force (also known as "what is meant"). I think the distinction between abstract meaning and utterance meaning is pretty clear: a sentence can mean many things (because of lexical, syntactic, and semantic ambiguities, as well as deixis), but when uttered in a particular time and place by a particular person it usually only actually does mean one of those things (except during puns and wordplay).

The distinction between utterance meaning and force, however, might be less clear, and I think the explanation we left ourselves with at the end of that module was deeply unsatisfying. We acknowledged that the way to get from literal utterance meaning to force (i.e., what the speaker really intended to convey) is to think about the speaker's goals and intentions in the context. But, as we saw at the end of the module, that's also what we need to think about to get from abstract meaning to utterance meaning!

With the idea of truth conditions in hand, we can better explain the difference between utterance meaning and force (and, if we can better explain it, we can better understand and test which is which). Utterance meaning is truth-conditional: it contributes to making an utterance true or false. Force, on the other hand, is not.

To make this a bit more concrete, let's take an example and look at its meanings. Consider a sentence like "Prakash is from Wisconsin but he's smart." Here are its meanings:

The important thing to see here is that "what is meant" is not truth-conditional; it can't make the sentence false. If someone says "Prakash is from Wisconsin but he's smart", and that person doesn't actually believe Wisconsin people are generally stupid, that doesn't make the sentence false, it just makes the sentence weird and inappropriate and somehow wrong, similar to other examples we've seen above where a sentence has something "wrong" with it even though the sentence is not false. (In fact, when we hear a sentence like this, we can often imagine a context that lets it make sense, rather than just assuming it's false. For example, imagine someone who just had a blind date with a man says, "He's handsome, but he's rich". This might sound weird to many people, because many people would consider "handsome" and "rich" to be positive qualities that go together. But rather than thinking this utterance is false, a person hearing this utterance might think: "oh, she doesn't like rich people!")

On the other hand, "what is said" is truth-conditional. If someone says "Prakash is from Wisconsin but he's smart", and Prakash is not actually smart, then the sentence is false.

This difference may seem subtle and silly now. But as the class progresses, we will see examples where it is quite important—and, in some cases, still under debate—whether some interpretation of an utterance is truth-conditional (and thus part of "what is said") or non-truth-conditional (and thus part of "what is meant").

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The distinction between truth-conditional meaning ("what is said") and non-truth-conditional pragmatic meaning ("what is meant") may not be as clear-cut as I claimed above. Let's consider another example:

Imagine that I'm driving on a street in a countryside where there aren't many people, and I see someone whose car is stopped on the side of the road. I stop and talk to him, and he tells me his car is broken down. Then I tell him, "There's a shop around the corner." What are the meanings of this utterance?

The abstract meaning, as always, is all the possible meanings that syntax and semantics could create by putting together these words. There are several sources of ambiguity here. "Is", as mentioned before, is deictic. "Shop" is also ambiguous; it could mean a store that sells stuff, or it could mean a place that repairs cars.

Based on the context, we can probably infer that the speaker meant the second kind of shop, because that's what would be relevant here. Hence we get the utterance meaning, "what is said". But furthermore, if we assume the speaker is trying to be helpful, we might also infer that the shop is open now (or, more accurately: as far as the speaker knows, the shop is open—i.e., the speaker has no reason to believe the shop is closed). This latter meaning is part of "what is meant", the force of the utterance.

As we've seen above, it's hard to distinguish between what is said and what is meant based on what information we use to derive them: both are derived by thinking about the context, assuming the speaker is trying to be helpful, and reasoning about what would be a helpful thing to say.

What about truth conditions? "What is meant" is clearly not truth-conditional: the speaker could say, "There's a shop around the corner... oh, but it's closed", and they will not have contradicted themself, they would not have made the first part of the utterance false (although they might come off as unhelpful or annoying).

Part of "what is said" is clearly truth-conditional: "There's a shop around the corner, but there isn't a shop around the corner" is clearly a contradiction. But what about the idea that the "shop" is an auto shop (i.e., a place that repairs cars)? Is that truth-conditional? Imagine that the speaker is a total jerk, and he stops to say, "There is a shop around the corner......but it's a candy shop! Hahahahaha, loser!" and then speeds away. Clearly this speaker is being deceptive, uncooperative, and an asshole. But it doesn't feel to me like his statement "There is a shop around the corner" has been made false... just misleading.

Classic pragmatic analysis would say that figuring out the meaning of "shop" is part of figuring out "what is said", and "what is said" is truth-conditional. But this suggests to me that either (a) interpreting "shop" as "auto shop" is part of what is meant, not what is said; or (b) "what is said" is not necessarily truth-conditional. In fact, either (or both) of these may be true; there are lots of different approaches to pragmatics, and many of them reject the distinctions that I'm raising here. Recently I discussed this example with several of my friends who are pragmatics experts, and they suggested many different things, but one thing everyone agreed on was that the distinction between "what is said" and "what is meant" is not as obvious as pragmatics textbooks make it sound, and that it's not totally clear whether "what is said" comes from semantics, pragmatics, general logic, or something else.

Given all that, what do you think about an example like this (or similar examples you can think of)? Is the asshole in this example saying something false, or just misleading? How could you characterize the difference between this kind of false/misleading statement and others?

⟵ Truth-conditional semantics
Performatives and felicity ⟶

by Stephen Politzer-Ahles. Last modified on 2022-04-06. CC-BY-4.0.