1 Introduction – The Semantics-Pragmatics Controversy

1 Introduction

1.1 The Standard Notions of Literal Meaning and Non-literal Meaning and Their Problems

One of the major issues in investigating the relation of language and meaning is the question of how to characterise and draw the line between what traditionally are called semantics and pragmatics. In describing what they take to be the characteristics of one or the other system, linguists often make use of the terms literal meaning and non-literal meaning. For example, Lyons (1987) lists a number of propositions used in the differentiation of semantics from pragmatics, amongst which is the following: ‘...that semantics deals with literal, and pragmatics with non-literal, meaning...’ (ibid., p. 157). Similarly, Cole (1981, p. xi) states that semantics ‘...is involved in the determination of conventional (or literal) meaning... ’, whereas pragmatics is concerned with ‘...the determination of nonconventional (or nonliteral) meaning...’ and Kadmon (2001, p. 3) writes ‘...I think that roughly, semantics only covers “literal meaning.” Pragmatics has to do with language use, and with “going beyond the literal meaning.”’. More recently, Recanati (2004, p. 3) summarised (and criticised) the standard view on the division of labour between semantics and pragmatics, starting as follows. ‘Semantics deals with the literal meaning of words and sentences as determined by the rules of the language, while pragmatics deals with what the users of the language mean by their utterances of words and sentences’.

For such a characterisation of semantics and pragmatics to be useful, one has to know how the kinds of meaning the terms literal meaning and non-literal meaning refer to are characterised. This is problematic in so far as one usually does not find such characterisations in the literature. Generally, it rather seems that the two terms literal meaning and non-literal meaning are treated as denoting basic kinds of meaning that are intuitively clear and as such need no further description.

The pair of terms literal meaning/non-literal meaning actually is only one of quite a number of dichotomies used in the characterisation of semantics and pragmatics. Thus, the two systems are often characterised in terms of the differentiation between conventional vs. non-conventional meaning, as, e.g. in the quote from Cole (1981) given above. See also again Lyons (1987), who lists the proposition ‘...that semantics has to do with conventional, and pragmatics with the non-conventional, aspects of meaning...’ (ibid., p. 157). Another important pair of terms traditionally used is context-independent vs. context-dependent meaning. Thus, Lyons (1987, p. 157) states ‘...that semantics deals with context-independent, and pragmatics with context-dependent, meaning’. More specifically, Katz (1977) introduces the notion of the ‘anonymous letter situation’ to characterise the kind of meaning captured by semantics in contrast to pragmatics.

[I] draw the theoretical line between semantic interpretation and pragmatic interpretation by taking the semantic component to properly represent only those aspects of the meaning of the sentence that an ideal speaker-hearer of the language would know in an anonymous letter situation, ... [where there is] no clue whatever about the motive, circumstances of transmission, or any other factor relevant to understanding the sentence on the basis of its context of utterance. (Ibid., p. 14)

In addition, semantics is also characterised as dealing with those aspects of meaning that expressions have, independent of their use. In contrast, pragmatics is understood as dealing with those aspects of meaning that are determined by the actual use of language. Thus, compare again Lyons (1987) who mentions the idea that ‘...semantics has to do with meaning, and pragmatics with use...’ (ibid., p. 157). Accordingly, one finds uses of the terms literal meaning and non-literal meaning which pick up on this view of the difference between semantic and pragmatic meaning. For instance, Bach (2001a) writes

Words do not have nonliteral meanings [...], but they can be used in nonliteral ways. [...] In familiar cases, such as metaphor and metonymy, particular expressions are used nonliterally. [...] But there is a different phenomenon which I call “sentence nonliterality,” [...] Here a whole sentence is used nonliterally, without any of its constituent expressions being so used. (Ibid., p. 249, my emphasis)

Thus, whereas literal meaning is a feature that expressions are said to have, the non-literal meaning of an expression results from the particular use of that expression.

To summarise the standard understanding of semantics and pragmatics: whereas the former is characterised as dealing with literal, conventional and context-independent meaning, the latter deals with non-literal, non-conventional and context-dependent meaning. Using the dichotomies in this characterisation suggests that there is a correspondence between literal, conventional and context-independent meaning, on the one hand, and non-literal, non-conventional and context-dependent meaning on the other.1 In other words, the fact that the two terms literal meaning and non-literal meaning are used amongst others in a dichotomous characterisation of semantics and pragmatics suggests that these other terms also may be used in characterising literal meaning and non-literal meaning as such. In fact, this implicit assumption has led to what might be called the standard notions of literal meaning and non-literal meaning which are summarised in what follows.

Literal meaning, on the one hand, is assumed to be conventionalised, that is, it does not take any special interpretation effort to arrive at it. The literal meaning of simple expressions is listed in their lexical entries; the literal meaning of complex expressions is the result of a principled combination of the literal meanings of their parts. Thus, both the literal meaning of simple as well as complex expressions is characterised by the fact that it is context-independent. Non-literal meaning, on the other hand, is assumed to be non-conventionalised, thus, it does take a special interpretation effort to arrive at it. Intuitively, it is considered as deviating from some more basic (literal) meaning in a fairly special way. Moreover, in contrast to literal meaning, non-literal meaning crucially is taken to be context-dependent. Overall, the term non-literal meaning is used to differentiate from literal meaning a kind of meaning that is derived from the latter and, in a sense, has a secondary status. Therefore, it is traditionally assumed that in terms of the enfolding of the interpretation process, the literal meaning of an expression is processed first, whereas any potential non-literal meanings are processed afterwards and only if the literal interpretation does not fit the given context.

However, as the extensive debate concerning the proper demarcation of semantics from pragmatics – especially of the last 15 years (cp. Carston 1999, Turner 1999, Dölling 2001, Bianchi 2004, Borg 2004b, Cappelen and Lepore 2005, Horn 2006, Dölling and Zybatow 2007, Carston 2009, Frisson 2009, Recanati 2010, Borg 2012, Carston and Hall 2012, etc.) – shows: not only is it unclear whether the standard notions of literal meaning and non-literal meaning actually are useful in the characterisation of distinctive kinds of meaning aspects, what is even more problematic is the fact that they are based on an understanding of semantics and pragmatics that has come under increasing criticism.

In particular, the question of whether semantics should be taken to be differentiated from pragmatics by the property of context-(in)dependence of meaning has been – and still is – heavily discussed. This has become a pressing question since, in addition to the assumption that it deals with context-independent meaning, semantics has also traditionally been characterised as determining the proposition expressed by a sentence. However – and this is implicit already in Grice (1975, 1989)’s characterisation of the two levels of meaning what is said and what is meant – it can be argued that semantics alone actually does not determine the proposition expressed by a sentence. Thus, although Grice characterised the level of what is said as ‘...closely related to the conventional meaning of the words (the sentence) [the speaker] has uttered’ (Grice 1989, p. 25), he also recognised that for a sentence to express a determinate proposition at all, indexicals have to get fixed and ambiguities and references resolved. Grice himself did not explicitly call the processes that lead to such specifications of meaning either semantic or pragmatic . However, in the discussion of the two levels of meaning that followed, some authors have claimed that what is said – or at least a level of meaning very similar to it – actually IS the semantic content of an utterance (and as such is determined by a semantics component that does allow the consideration of contextual information after all), whereas others have argued that it is a level of meaning that has already gone beyond the purely semantically determined content (thus keeping to the traditional view of semantics as independent of contextual information).2

Be that as it may (for now), the important point to note is that – considering that traditionally semantics is in fact characterised by both the properties of dealing with context-independent meaning as well as determining the propositions expressed by sentences and considering that the characterisation of literal meaning derives from that of semantics – maybe it actually is the latter mentioned property of semantics that the term literal meaning should be taken to relate to. In other words, maybe it is not the context-independent meaning that is literal, but rather the proposition expressed by a sentence. If the latter is the case, then literal meaning would in fact not be context-independent. Actually, Korta and Perry (2008) claim that ‘[w]hat is said has been widely identified with the literal content of the utterance...’ and looking at the quotations below, where the term literal is indeed used to refer to a context-dependent level of meaning (roughly: Grice’s what is said), this claim is corroborated. So, for instance, Carston (2007, p. 21) speaks of the ‘...literal meaning of [a speaker’s] utterance’. Similarly, Recanati (1995, p. 2) refers to ‘...the literal interpretation of an utterance (the proposition literally expressed by that utterance)...’ and Sag (1981, p. 274-5) speaks of the ‘...propositional content of an utterance (i.e., its literal meaning)...’. It should be noted that although these authors reject the standard characterisation of semantics and pragmatics and they use the term literal meaning in a non-standard understanding, they only do the latter implicitly. That is, these authors do not explicitly say anything new concerning the properties that characterise literal meaning and non-literal meaning, respectively. In fact, Bierwisch (1979, 1983, 1997) is the only exception here in that he explicitly uses the term literal meaning with respect to a context-dependent level of meaning he calls utterance meaning, which is quite similar to Grice’s what is said. Thus, he says of an expression’s utterance meaning that it may or may not correspond to the literal meaning this expression has in that particular utterance context. However, he does not give any details as to how this particular type of meaning is determined or differentiated from others.

Generally, what the quotations given so far show is that the term literal meaning is not only used with respect to a context-independent level of meaning. Rather, and as Bezuidenhout and Cutting (2002, p. 435) note, ‘[t]he phrases “literal meaning” or “literal interpretation” have been used to cover both the literal meaning of a sentence and what is said by the utterance of a sentence in a context’. In other words, the term literal is used to refer to quite different types of meaning levels. In fact, the pair of terms literal and non-literal is even used in the characterisation of so-called indirect speech acts – usually taken to belong to the pragmatically determined level of meaning what is meant – which have been analysed as being associated with two illocutionary forces, where one is the primary and at the same time non-literal and indirect speech act and the other is the secondary and at the same time literal and direct speech act. The literal speech act is the illocutionary force taken to be conventionally associated with the particular sentence-type used for the expression of some particular speech act, whereas the non-literal speech act is the act actually intended by the speaker.

Thus, it seems the two terms literal meaning and non-literal meaning are (mostly) used based only on intuitions we have concerning the nature of the relation between particular types of meaning aspects rather than on an identification of determinate and contrasting sets of properties those types of meaning aspects can be shown to exhibit. This becomes apparent when looking in more detail at the properties used in the standard characterisations of the two terms and the phenomena intended to be picked out by them, where it turns out that the phenomena do not all show the properties suggested by the standard characterisation. Thus, there is an argument to be made that literal meaning should not be viewed as context-independent (as we already saw), always conventional and always primary in interpretation. Similarly for non-literal meaning, one does not necessarily have to assume that it is always non-conventional and secondary in interpretation.3

What complicates matters even further is the fact that the notions traditionally used in the standard characterisations of literal meaning and non-literal meaning – and of semantics and pragmatics, of course – such as (non)-conventionality and context-(in)dependence, actually are problematic themselves. Thus, the use of the pair of terms conventional vs. non-conventional as exemplified above suggests that conventionality is an all-or-nothing property. However, as is suggested by the results of various experiments investigating the nature of the interpretation process on the one hand (cf. Giora 1997, 1999, Gibbs 2002), as well as by theoretical considerations within the field of historical semantics on the other (cf. Busse 1991), this view is an oversimplification of the facts. Similarly – and as mentioned above already – not all approaches that are characterised as essentially semantic by their proponents necessarily share the view that what semantics deals with is context-independent meaning only (cf. Sag 1981, Borg 2004b, Cappelen and Lepore 2005). Having said that, it should be noted that there is no single concept of what constitutes a context, but rather several. Thus, even if different authors claim that semantics is context-dependent after all, actually they may not agree on which processes exactly are involved in determining semantic meaning or on the kind of contextual information that plays a role in that determination. Generally, it is questionable whether the terms literal meaning and non-literal meaning can be characterised and differentiated in terms of the dichotomies traditionally used. The same concern holds for the characterisations of semantics and pragmatics from which – as we saw – that of the terms literal meaning and non-literal meaning derives.

Yet another problem is that with only the standard notions of literal meaning and non-literal meaning to rely on, it is no trivial question to ask how these two meaning aspects are related to other kinds of meaning aspects identified in the individual approaches, such as e.g., explicit/implicit meaning aspects of an utterance due to free enrichment, so-called ad-hoc concepts or conversational implicatures . According to the standard characterisation, they should all be cases of non-literal meaning as all of them are context-dependent. However, it can be argued that this is stretching the notion of non-literal meaning a bit too far, especially as it involves the grouping together of meaning aspects which otherwise are very different in nature.4

To summarise the main points made so far: although there exist some standard characterisations of the terms literal meaning and non-literal meaning, they are not always used in accord with these characterisations, indicating that the latter are not appropriate. Moreover, although there exist alternative approaches to the standard differentiation of semantics from pragmatics, these approaches largely remain silent about whether – and if so, how – the standard notions of literal meaning and non-literal meaning should be revised. In fact, as in the traditional literature, if the terms literal meaning and non-literal meaning are used, this is done under the assumption that it is clear what they refer to and how they can be differentiated from other types of meaning aspects. However, as already mentioned above, this is not at all clear. The only notable exception here is Bierwisch, who clearly assumes of literal meaning that it is context-dependent but does not explain why he makes that assumption. Moreover, although Bierwisch characterises literal meaning as a particular type of utterance meaning, he does not say anything either as to how this particular type of meaning is determined. Thus, the present book actually ties up to Bierwisch’s assumption concerning the nature of literal meaning but goes further in that it gives reasons for why this assumption is reasonble to make and explicitly asks how literal meaning is determined and how it is differentiated from non-literal meaning, on the one hand, as well as other types of meaning aspects on the other. More generally, it shows in detail why the standard notions of literal meaning and non-literal meaning are inadequate.

1.2 Aim of the Book

The problems sketched in the last section led me to the formulation of the three questions below, which I aim to answer in the present book.

  1. What is it that makes the standard notions of literal meaning and non-literal meaning inadequate and thus in need of revision?
  2. What exactly are the properties that characterise and differentiate literal meaning and non-literal meaning and how are these particular types of meaning related to other types of meaning identified in the semantics/pragmatics literature (e.g., conversational implicature, implicit meaning aspects)?
  3. By which criteria should semantics and pragmatics be characterised and differentiated, if not by the dichotomies traditionally used and under the assumption that the two systems are involved in the determination of (at least) three distinct meaning levels in interpretation?

To answer the first question, I will look at the individual properties standardly assumed to be exhibited by literal meaning and non-literal meaning and show that they cannot all simultaneously hold. More specifically, I will give arguments that actually both literal meaning as well as non-literal meaning are context-dependent and that they are not differentiated by conventionality of meaning. I will further argue that the two terms – as well as the dichotomies mentioned above in general – cannot be used in the characterisation of semantics and pragmatics.

In order to answer the second question – but also as a preliminary for answering the third – I will review and compare different, currently prominent approaches to utterance interpretation as well as consider empirical data on various relevant phenomena. The focus will be on the identification of the levels of meaning assumed in the individual approaches and how these are characterised, as well as on the respective characterisations of the particular types of meaning aspects and interpretation processes identified. Based on the discussion of the different approaches to utterance interpretation and the various aspects of meaning as well as on a defence of the appropriateness of differentiating two context-dependent levels of meaning, I will finally formulate my answer to the third question.

Generally, the primary aim of this work is not so much to offer a ‘new’ model of utterance interpretation that integrates semantics and pragmatics. Rather, I have compared existent theories of utterance interpretation as to the basic notions they make use of and how these relate to semantics or pragmatics.

1.3 Plan of the book

The book is structured as follows. In chapter 2, I will argue against the standard notions of literal meaning and non-literal meaning. In particular, I will argue against the traditional characterisation of literal meaning and non-literal meaning , according to which the former is taken to be context-independent and the latter non-conventional. Having established that literal meaning does not necessarily have to be taken to be context-independent and as such semantic in nature, I will discuss the consequences this view has for the nature of lexical meaning. After reviewing a number of different types of approaches to lexical meaning, I will argue for a view that assumes a high degree of underspecification of lexical meaning. Generally, in the discussions in chapter 1, I will consider both theoretical viewpoints as well as empirical data. In particular, one section is dedicated to empirical studies on aspects of the semantics component, namely that lexical meaning is characterised by underspecification and that, generally, semantic processes of meaning construction should be differentiated from pragmatically based plausibility checks. In the last part of chapter 1, I will try to answer the question of why the standard notions of literal meaning and non-literal meaning came to be assumed in the first place. Here, the idea of stereotypical interpretations of linguistic expressions presented ‘out of context’ will be considered.

Having argued against the standard notions in chapter 2, and more specifically, having argued for viewing literal meaning, similarly to non-literal meaning as essentially context-dependent as well, chapter 3 is dedicated to looking in detail at the first context-dependent level of meaning called what is said by Grice, to see how this has been characterised subsequently and to identify the processes potentially involved in determining literal meaning at this level of meaning. I will start with Grice’s differentiation of four different types of meaning and relate them to the two levels of meaning Grice introduced: what is said and what is meant. Following that, I will present Bierwisch’s threefold differentiation of levels of meaning, based on the different knowledge systems made use of in their determination. In the second part of chapter 3, I will discuss a range of approaches that give alternative characterisations for Grice’s level of what is said. The overall aim is to identify the different processes at work in determining what is said, how these processes are characterised and which types of meaning aspects can be found at this level of meaning (appart from potentially literal or non-literal meaning ). At the same time, the various approaches discussed also all offer slightly different views on the nature of the semantics and pragmatics components and how they interact in the process of utterance interpretation. While the greater part of chapter 3 is taken up by theoretical considerations, towards the end of that chapter a few empirical results will also be discussed.

Chapter 4, then, is concerned, on the one hand, with phenomena traditionally assumed to arise at Grice’s level of meaning what is meant, and, on the other hand, with the more basic question of whether a differentiation of two context-dependent levels of meaning what is said and what is meant actually is necessary /possible. Thus, in the first part of chapter 4, alternative approaches to the phenomena of metaphor, irony, (primarily generalised) conversational implicature and (primarily indirect) speech acts will be reviewed as well as empirical results considered that test the predictions following from the individual approaches. Here, the aim is to establish, on the one hand, how these different meaning aspects are determined and, on the other hand, which of the phenomena actually can be usefully considered as non-literal. More generally, the question is addressed at which level of meaning (i.e. what is said or what is meant) the individual phenomena should be taken to arise. In the second part of chapter 4, various arguments will be presented for and against differentiating the two levels what is said and what is meant from one another. I hope to make clear that such a differentiation is useful and necessary, although it might be difficult to decide on the criteria to be used in this differentiation.

Chapter 5, finally, turns back to the basic question that chapter 2 ends with, namely how literal meaning and non-literal meaning actually should be characterised if one wants to capture the various uses the two terms are put to. I will start out with two alternative characterisations of what literal meaning and nonliteral meaning should be taken to be, before presenting my own characterisation, based on the discussion in the preceding chapters. As a preliminary for my characterisation, I will review the various processes identified in the preceding chapters as involved in the overall interpretation of utterances. The main consequence drawn from my characterisation of literal meaning and non-literal meaning will be that these two notions actually cannot be used in the characterisation of the distinction between semantics and pragmatics, if the former, in contrast to the latter, is essentially taken to be context-independent. The last part of chapter 5 will take up exactly this point, namely the nature of contextual information in utterance interpretation and whether the notion of context- (in)dependence actually is useful in differentiating between semantics and pragmatics. Thus, I will first offer a proposal concerning the nature of the contextual information the process of free enrichment makes use of. Free enrichment is one of the processes assumed to contribute to the level of utterance meaning and crucially is taken to depend on a consideration of potential speaker intentions for its operation. I will show that this assumption is not necessary, allowing for a differentiation between the level of utterance meaning and communicative sense based on the assumption that processes leading to the former do not involve reasoning concerning the speaker’s potential intentions in making the utterance she did, whereas the processes leading to the latter level of meaning do. In the final section of chapter 5, I will turn back to the characterisation of the semantics/pragmatics distinction and after discussing a number of views on that characterisation present my own.