On a Theory-Internal Problem in the Semantics/Pragmatics Debate: How to Resolve Grice’s Circle

  • Alessandro Capone
Part of the Perspectives in Pragmatics, Philosophy & Psychology book series (PEPRPHPS, volume 22)


In this chapter, I reconsider the discussion of the semantics/pragmatics debate and rejuvenate it by means of two important ideas: Grice’s circle (discussed by Levinson (Presumptive meanings, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2000)) is apparent and certainly not pernicious; the fact that explicatures are not cancellable means that the pragmatics we consider in pragmatic intrusion has some features in common with truth-conditional semantics.

One of the topics I will be confronted with is whether explicatures (or at least the pragmatic components of explicatures) are cancellable or not. This topic is concatenated with the more heavily theoretical topic of Grice’s circle, a theoretical difficulty noted by Levinson (Presumptive meanings, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2000), which can be summarized as follows. It is claimed that pragmatics takes input from semantics. However, the camp of contextualists have shown that (propositional) semantics cannot be independent of pragmatics, given that it is accepted that in numerous cases we must assume pragmatic intrusion into truth-conditional meaning. Thus, it follows that not only is it the case that pragmatics takes input from semantics, but that semantics takes input from pragmatics. There may be two ways of breaking out of this circle. One is to argue, as I have done, that the circle is not pernicious given that explicatures (which are the engine of the semantics/pragmatics debate) are, in principle and in fact, not cancellable after all. Thus, the pragmatic contributions that intrude into semantics acquire some of the features of semantics (like entailments, they cannot be cancelled on pain of contradiction). The other is to reduce the circle and to state that there are indeed (many) cases of pragmatic intrusion; however we should not be so pessimistic as to claim that in all cases semantics needs to be augmented by pragmatics. There are sentences which can be fairly well understood even independently of pragmatics and, furthermore, there are sentences where limited amounts of pragmatic intrusion can occur and where such intrusions can be somehow ignored since the truth-conditional content of the sentence can be grasped by making abstract substitutions such as X did Y (for example, in the sentence, ‘He did this’).


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© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  • Alessandro Capone
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of Cognitive ScienceUniversity of MessinaMessinaItaly

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