There was in the 1960s a theory of the understanding of language that portrayed the process as a formal act of decoding. Language was described as a system of syntax and semantics, and understanding a sentence involved beginning with the meaningful elements (words), applying the generative rules of syntax and semantics, and arriving at a formal representation of the meaning of the sentence as a formal object. Jerry Fodor and Jerrold Katz perhaps went furthest down this road. (Katz’sSemantic theory laid out the perspective well in 1972.)
What John Searle contributed to this picture in Speech Acts: An Essay in the Philosophy of Language was what we would now call a pragmatist twist. Understanding a sentence is not simply a formal algorithmic process. Rather, it is an ongoing social process, in which the listener actively forms interpretations of the utterance on the basis of a number of cues from the social environment. In particular, Searle emphasized the importance of “conversational implicatures” — the tacit understandings that the listener and speaker bring to the linguistic exchange. Absent those forms of background knowledge, the exchange would be unintelligible.
So comprehension is a social and pragmatic act. And here is a consequence: when a population know on the basis of widely different presuppositions, there is a deep possibility of radical mutual misunderstanding. And when those differences in presuppositions are importantly socially valenced, those misunderstandings may be of great social significance.
These kinds of misunderstandings are most evident when it comes to stylized interpersonal behavior. (This is the arena studied by Goffman, Garfinkel, and other micro sociologists.) Each party to an interaction comes with a framework of ideas of what the situation is and means; what kinds of behavior are called for and which are not; what counts as a joke, an insult, or an insensitive gaffe; etc. Take as an example the Super Bowl quarterback meeting the distinguished university expert on global economic crisis. Each comes to the interaction with a sense of his own importance and a reduced sense of the significance of the accomplishments and station of the other. And each may offend the other by making light of something the other takes with solemn seriousness. If the scholar starts off with a joke about golf, the conversation may be off on the wrong foot. And if the quarterback opens with a comment about what idiots economists are, likewise.
But how do these examples of the cognitive-practical background of action and interaction show any similarity to the example of attempting to understand the speech acts of another? How do implicatures and presuppositions come into the process of reconstructing the meaning proffered by the other?
Consider this stretch of dialogue from The Great Gatsby between Nick (the first-person narrator) and Gatsby (chapter 5):
“Your place looks like the World’s Fair,” I said.
“Does it?” He turned his eyes toward it absently. “I have been glancing into some of the rooms. Let’s go to Coney Island, old sport. In my car.”
“It’s too late.”
“Well, suppose we take a plunge in the swimming-pool? I haven’t made use of it all summer.”
“I’ve got to go to bed.”
He waited, looking at me with suppressed eagerness.
“I talked with Miss Baker,” I said after a moment. “I’m going to call up Daisy tomorrow and invite her over here to tea.”
“Oh, that’s all right,” he said carelessly. “I don’t want to put you to any trouble.”
“What day would suit you?”
“What day would suit you?” he corrected me quickly. “I don’t want to put you to any trouble, you see.”
“How about the day after tomorrow?” He considered for a moment. Then, with reluctance:
“I want to get the grass cut,” he said.
This is of course fictional dialogue. But it makes clear how much background knowledge and presupposition are required for the two participants to make sense of each others’ speeches. We get a few clues from the narrator: “reluctance,” “absently,” “suppressed eagerness,” and “quickly” give the reader some idea of the emotional timbre of the conversation. But the sense of each sentence requires reconstruction based on background knowledge; and the “why” of the conversation needs yet another level of shared knowledge. What is Gatsby’s interest in having Daisy produced for tea? This is the point of the interaction; and if one or the other party doesn’t get it (or the reader sticks to closely to an effort at literal reading) then the passage will have been misconstrued and misunderstood.
Here are some of the factual bits of knowledge that are needed:
- The World’s Fair was a garish, wild location.
- A “sport” is a pal, not a game or contest.
- Gatsby emphasizes his own car to flaunt its opulence or as a gesture of hospitality.
- Coney Island is a place with an amusement park, not a hot dog restaurant.
- The swimming pool has water in it suitable for swimming.
- “I don’t want to put you to any trouble …” is a social lie.
The listener needs these bits of knowledge to even make sense of the words. But the meaning of the interaction, including the speeches, goes beyond this level. Beyond the more or less literal meaning of the utterances, we need to understand what the speeches are intended to convey to the other. This is a bit of meaning intermediate between straight semantics and speech act analysis. For example, what is the function of “I want to get the grass cut.”? Semantically we understand what Gatsby is saying: but what move is he making in the emotional-practical interaction with Nick? Is it coyness, second thoughts, insecurity, practical concern about the state of the lawn, etc.?
(If one wants to get seriously lost in an ocean of presuppositions, try this speech at the beginning of chapter 4:
“He’s a bootlegger,” said the young ladies, moving somewhere between his cocktails and his flowers. “One time he killed a man who had found out that he was nephew to Von Hindenburg and second cousin to the devil. Reach me a rose, honey, and pour me a last drop into that there crystal glass.”
What in the world do the young ladies mean?