Words and Thoughts: Subsentences, Ellipsis, and the Philosophy of Language

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He then goes on to point out that subsentential utterances are no worse off. I suspect these claims rests on a confusion between speech acts and acts of speech. It is one thing to holds that there are sentences, or utterances acts of speech about which it is indeterminate what their content or force is. That would be a bit like saying that there propositional contents whose very meaning is indeterminate. Fortunately for his position, the same holds for subsentential utterances of the sort that concern Rob.

More specifically as it applies to the argument given a moment ago, I suggest that Rob accept P1 as true pretty much as a matter of definition, but deny P2. That was by way of throat-clearing. Rob offers some suggestions as to how that might occur. My view is this: What drives the hearer to look for the missing argument or function is a the non-propositional meaning of the item uttered, a matter of type semantics, together with b something about pragmatics.

In contrast, the hearer realizes, her interlocutor could mean such-and-such proposition—got from combining a language-derived content with a salient entity of some kind.

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And so on, in the familiar Gricean fashion. Expressing a proposition is only one component of one kind of speech act. Second, something about pragmatics!? The casual appeal in the passage just quoted and elsewhere to the Gricean framework, is not just cause for finger-shaking; it hides a potential problem. As we saw, Rob denies that the speech acts we speaker-mean by means of subsentential utterances are speaker-meant by means of conversational implicature.


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On the standard Gricean picture, we have a speech act that is already fully formed—an assertion, question, imperative, or what have you—that appears to violate one or more conversational maxim. We then either reinterpret appearances so that the speaker was only making as if to perform a speech act for instance in cases of irony , or hypothesize that the speaker must have been speaker- meaning an illocution over and above the one that she literally did perform.

In both cases we start with entire propositions as exogenously given. Not so with subsentential utterances. What is more, even if we widen the ambit of the Gricean enterprise to include the idea that utterance of a subsentence could be, for instance, insufficiently informative and thereby in violation of a Gricean norm, it would still appear that the illocutions thus generated will be conversationally implicated only, and thus not speech acts. My remark is both relevant and plausible on the assumption that I am attempting to suggest that the letter is from Madagascar—as opposed to remarking that There are lemurs in Madagascar or that Madagascar formed after Pangea.

The question is how pragmatics does this. Such an apparent failure forces the addressee to look for a component of speaker meaning either going beyond, or alternative to, what has been said.

When a speaker utters an incomplete proposition and nothing else, she has failed to express a complete proposition, and so, assuming that the conversation in which she is engaging mandates an answer to the question on the table, a claim, a suggestion as to what to do, etc. This puts pressure on her interlocutors to fill in what she has said with further information that would make her utterance sufficiently informative, while respecting the other norms of Relation, Quality and Manner.

The proposition implicated is the proposition whose assertion or whose querying, or whose being commanded to be made true, and so on for other illocutionary forces would best conduce to the accepted aim or aims of the conversation under way, modulo contextual factors such as common knowledge and salient items of experience. That there may be no unique such proposition is compatible with a familiar ambient indeterminacy in what is implicated.

Still what we have here is an account couched as a revision of the notion of implicature. How then can we get lies when we need them? It is not a type of assertoric commitment. I can both assert and imply or implicate something. Furthermore, I think we can find other uses for the bottom-right node of the tree. That illocution is arrived at non-conventionally, and non-conversationally—where we now know that the latter means that it may still occur amid a conversation.

It is pre- or proto-conversational rather than conversational. Remember that this is a case of speaker meaning does not imply that it rises to the level of a speech act. Pickup not available.


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