‘Speakers’ commitment to their utterance content and hearers’ epistemic vigilance in accepting that content’ – 12th July 2021 (Previous Staff-Led Events)

Organised by Nausicaa Pouscoulous, Eliot Michaelson and Robyn Carston

Sponsored by the London Arts and Humanities Partnership (LAHP)

Monday July 12th 2021

BST / UK time/ GMT+1

Zoom details: Meeting ID: 995 3154 6882 Passcode: 962865

2pm – 2.50pm             Bart Geurts (Radboud University)

                                    Normative pragmatics and folk psychology

2.50pm – 3.20pm        Francesca Bonalumi (Central European University)

Beyond the explicit-implicit dichotomy: The pragmatics of accountability and plausible deniability

3.30pm – 4pm             Nausicaa Pouscoulous (University College London)

Implicature interpretation and endorsement in cooperative and uncooperative contexts

4pm – 4.50pm             John Michael (Central European University) & Matt Chennells (University of Warwick)

Ask not and ye shall receive: when explicit agreements undermine the sense of commitment

4.50pm – 5.20pm        Tea/coffee break       


5.20pm – 6.10pm        Eliot Michaelson (King’s College)

Insincerity Pluralized, and then Moralized

6.10pm – 7pm             Dan Harris (Hunter College)

Communicative commitments as a product of practical rationality

Bart Geurts (Radboud University)

Normative pragmatics and folk psychology

According to normative theories of pragmatics, the main purpose of communication is to adjust and keep up normative statuses: commitments, entitlements, obligations, and so on. The common ground between interlocutors is defined by their normative statuses. Folk psychology is part of this normative fabric, which enables us to coordinate our activities in a great variety of ways and over long periods of time. Folk psychology is culture dependent and language dependent, and it a biological oddity. By contrast, social cognition is part of the psychology that underwrites our interactions, and it is widely distributed throughout the animal kingdom, though some species have more of it than others. This talk focuses on the relationships between linguistic communication and folk psychology, and it is argued that the latter evolved out of the former.

Francesca Bonalumi (CEU), Johannes Mahr (Harvard University), Pauline Marie (UCL) & Nausicaa Pouscoulous (UCL)

Beyond the explicit-implicit dichotomy: The pragmatics of accountability and plausible deniability

Why do we communicate the way we do, sometimes not efficiently? Why do speakers construct utterances the way they do? How speakers choose to express their message (modulating confidence, using less explicit formulations) has been proposed to impact how much others will hold them accountable and how plausible the denial of their message is. This work tested the hypothesis that the degree of meaning strength and the level of meaning used by the speaker (an enrichment or a conversational implicature) decisively modulate accountability and plausible deniability. The results of this study support the hypothesis that meaning strength is a decisive factor in modulating both accountability and plausible deniability. Indeed, recipients hold the speaker more accountable when a meaning is strongly implicated and that strongly implied meanings are more difficult to deny, compared to weakly implicated meanings. When it comes to the level of meaning, the results show that enrichments are harder to deny than conversational implicatures, thus corroborating the differences found between these levels of meaning in the literature.

Nausicaa Pouscoulous & Giulio Dulcinati (UCL)

Implicature interpretation and endorsement in cooperative and uncooperative contexts

Cooperation between interlocutors is the cardinal assumption that affords all pragmatic inferences in Grice’s (1989) theoretical framework. In two experimental studies, we investigate communication in non-cooperative contexts and tests the prediction derived from Grice’s account that hearers will not derive implicatures from the utterances of uncooperative speakers. Overall, the findings do not support this prediction. Instead, they suggest that because of a dissociation between comprehension and epistemic acceptance of communicated content (Sperber et al., 2010; Mazzarella, 2015) uncooperative contexts do not affect the inference of implicatures, but only the acceptance of their content.

John Michael (Central European University) & Matt Chennells (University of Warwick)

Ask not and ye shall receive: when explicit agreements undermine the sense of commitment

Explicit agreements play important roles in structuring human social life. They make people willing to do things they would not otherwise be willing to do (i.e. boosting the willingness to interact), and also help people to coordinate when they already are willing to interact (i.e. boosting the ability to interact). But they can also impair social interaction in various ways — e.g. by excluding flexibility or by signalling a lack of trust. In this talk, we lay out a framework for understanding why, when and how it can be counterproductive to initiate explicit agreements rather than simply relying on others’ sense of commitment, and present some initial data testing predictions of the framework.

Eliot Michaelson (King’s College)

Insincerity Pluralized, and then Moralized

Theories of sincerity and insincerity have generally focused on one-on-one conversations.  Interestingly, even the most sophisticated extant theories cannot handle cases involving speakers who are talking to larger audiences and who have different communicative attitudes towards different members of that audience.  I make the obvious moves to fix these theories before introducing a more serious dilemma: either we need to re-assess the degree to which speakers can control who it is they are talking to, something which presumably determines the scope of the second-person pronoun ‘you’, or else we are going to be unable to explain why politicians and other public figures cannot be sincere when they knowingly say something bound to mislead to a large portion of their actual audience, simply by not intending to address that part of the audience.  I suggest that a proper understanding of sincerity may, in fact, require us to appreciate the sorts of specifically linguistic duties that we take on in virtue of inhabiting certain public roles.  These duties will, in turn, may well constrain the very things that we are capable of meaning with our words.

Dan Harris (Hunter College)

Communicative Commitments as a Product of Practical Rationality

Some philosophers and linguists have argued that performing speech acts is fundamentally a matter of undertaking commitments of various kinds. For example, to assert p is to commit oneself to the truth of p, or to the cause of defending p if it is challenged, etc. I discuss several theories of this kind, as well as the data that have been used to support them. I will then argue that a better explanation of these data can be given if we adopt an intentionalist theory of speech acts, together with a planning theory of intention (a la Bratman). On the view that I will defend, our communicative commitments result from the rational requirements governing our beliefs and intentions, particularly as those requirements manifest themselves in the context of collective planning.

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