Mind, Code, and Context: Essays in Pragmatics

Mind, Code, and Context: Essays in Pragmatics

Mind, Code, and Context: Essays in Pragmatics

Mind, Code, and Context: Essays in Pragmatics


Scholars concerned with the phenomenon of mind have searched through history for a principled yet non-reductionist approach to the study of knowledge, communication, and behavior. Pragmatics has been a recurrent theme in Western epistemology, tracing itself back from pre-Socratic dialectics and Aristotle's bio- functionalism, all the way to Wittgenstein's content-dependent semantics.

This book's treatment of pragmatics as an analytic method focuses on the central role of context in determining the perception, organization, and communication of experience. As a bioadaptive strategy, pragmatics straddles the middle ground between absolute categories and the non-discrete gradation of experience, reflecting closely the organism's own evolutionary compromises. In parallel, pragmatic reasoning can be shown to play a pivotal role in the process of empirical science, through the selection of relevant facts, the abduction of likely hypotheses, and the construction of non-trivial explanations.

In this volume, Professor Givon offers pragmatics as both an analytic method and a strategic intellectual framework. He points out its relevance to our understanding of traditional problems in philosophy, anthropology, linguistics, cognitive psychology, neuro-biology, and evolution. Finally, the application of pragmatics to the study of the mind and behavior constitutes an implicit challenge to the current tenets of artificial intelligence.


Pragmatics is an approach to description, to information processing, thus to the construction, interpretation and communication of experience. At its core lies the notion of context, and the axiom that reality and/or experience are not absolute fixed entities, but rather frame-dependent, contingent upon the observer's perspective.

Pragmatics traces its illustrious ancestry to the pre-Socratic Greek dialecticians, then via Aristotle to Locke, Kant and Peirce, eventually to 19th Century phenomenologists, and--last but not least--to Ludwig Wittgenstein. In cognitive psychology, pragmatics underlies figure-ground perception, primed storage and maleable recall, attended ('context-scanning') information processing, and flexible ('prototype') categorization. In linguistics, pragmatics animates the study of contextual meaning and metaphoric extension, frame semantics and the semeiotics of grammar-in-discourse, the sociology of language, and the acquisition of communicative competence. In anthropology, pragmatics is reflected in the exploration of cultural relativity, ethnomethodology and cross-cultural cognition.

In spite of such exalted lineage and wide applicability, the academic study of pragmatics remains narrow, insular and fractious. On the one hand, various formal schools have undertaken to keep pragmatics firmly attached to the very discipline which it purported to overthrow--formal deductive logic. On the other hand, a plethora of informal schools have taken the intoxicating freedom of contextual relativity as license for extreme methodological nihilism, unfettered intuitionism, and an anything goes rejection of sensible empirical constraints. What unites these extreme interpretations is, paradoxically, an antipragmatic faith in the Platonic excluded middle: The lack of total order means a total lack of order; the lack of total understanding is a total lack of understanding. In this way, the very essence of pragmatics is subverted by its most impassioned proponents.

Pragmatics, at its somewhat unadorned middle-ground best, closely reflects the evolutionary compromise practiced by biological organisms. In adapting to life in a less-than-ideal environment, bio-organisms have invariably opted for the proposition that half a loaf is infinitely better than none; that life is precariously suspended mid-way between absolute order and unmitigated chaos; that while full determinism is a dangerous evolutionary trap, unbounded freedom is an unrealistic evolutionary mirage. In their humble travail to adapt and survive, bio-organisms have recognized what contentious . . .

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