Context and Content: Essays on Intentionality in Speech and Thought

Context and Content: Essays on Intentionality in Speech and Thought

Context and Content: Essays on Intentionality in Speech and Thought

Context and Content: Essays on Intentionality in Speech and Thought


In Context and Content Robert Stalnaker develops a philosophical picture of the nature of speech and thought and the relations between them. Two themes in particular run through these collected essays: the role that the context in which speech takes place plays in accounting for the way language is used to express thought, and the role of the external environment in determining the contents of our thoughts. Stalnaker argues against the widespread assumption of the priority of linguistic over mental representation, which he suggests has had a distorting influence on our understanding. The first part of the book develops a framework for representing contexts and the way they interact with the interpretation of what is said in them. This framework is used to help to explain a range of linguistic phenomena concerning presupposition and assertion, conditional statements, the attribution of beliefs, and the use of names, descriptions, and pronouns to refer. Stalnaker then draws out the conception of thought and its content that is implicit in this framework. He defends externalism about thought--the assumption that our thoughts have the contents they have in virtue of the way we are situated in the world--and explores the role of linguistic action and linguistic structure in determining the contents of our thoughts. Context and Content offers philosophers and cognitive scientists a summation of Stalnaker's important and influential work in this area. His new introduction to the volume gives an overview of this work and offers a convenient way in for those who are new to it. The Oxford Cognitive Science series is a new forum for the best contemporary work in this flourishing field, where various disciplines--cognitive psychology, philosophy, linguistics, cognitive neuroscience, and computational theory--join forces in the investigation of thought, awareness, understanding, and associated workings of the mind. Each book constitutes an original contribution to its subject, but will be accessible beyond the ranks of specialists, so as to reach a broad interdisciplinary readership. The series will be carefully shaped and steered with the aim of representing the most important developments in the field and bringing together its constituent disciplines.


Until recently, pragmatics -- the study of language in relation to the users of language -- has been the neglected member of the traditional three-part division of the study of signs: syntax, semantics, pragmatics. The problems of pragmatics have been treated informally by philosophers in the ordinary language tradition, and by some linguists, but logicians and philosophers of a formalistic frame of mind have generally ignored pragmatic problems, or else pushed them into semantics and syntax. My project in this paper is to carve out a subject matter that might plausibly be called pragmatics and which is in the tradition of recent work in formal semantics. The discussion will be programmatic. My aim is not to solve the problems I shall touch on, but to persuade you that the theory I sketch has promise. Although this paper gives an informal presentation, the subject can be developed in a relatively straightforward way as a formal pragmatics no less rigorous than present-day logical syntax and semantics. The subject is worth developing, I think, first to provide a framework for treating some philosophical problems that cannot be adequately handled within traditional formal semantics, and second to clarify the relation between logic and formal semantics and the study of natural language.

I shall begin with the second member of the triad, semantics. The boundaries of this subject are not so clear as is sometimes supposed, and since pragmatics borders on semantics, these boundaries will determine where our subject begins. After staking out a claim for pragmatics, I shall describe some of the tasks that fall within its range and try to defend a crucial distinction on which the division between semantics and pragmatics is based.

I. Semantics

If we look at the general characterizations of semantics offered by Morris and Carnap, it will seem an elusive subject. Semantics, according to them,

The research for and preparation of this paper was supported by the National Science Foundation, grant number GS-2574. I would like to thank Professors David Shwayder and Richmond Thomason for their helpful comments on a draft of this paper.

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