contribution made by pragmatics
Pragmatics and argumentative discourse
Around the beginning of the seventies,
impelled by the leap forward that the "théorie de lénonciation" had
taken with the differentiation of sentences from propositions, and propositions from
utterances, a group of theories and theorists sought to go beyond the limits of the
sentence, and to engage with the meaning of discourse, that is non-arbitrary sequences of
In fact, the
initial idea was that besides the known linguistic units (phonemes, morphemes, sintactic
constituents and lexical items) belonging to the different levels characterising a
language, one could postulate another new unit of analysis, which went beyond
phrase-level: namely discourse.
could be understood variously as a linguistic unit like the others mentioned above (1), or as a communicative level
linked to the subject that produced it, (2) or as the result of a human
activity intimately related to social ideologies. (3)
universal principle emerged, generally speaking intuitive rather than anything that could
be strictly formulated, known as the Coherence principle, according to which
discourse is a coherent sequence of phrases and any discourse is interpreted based on the
expectation that it will have a degree of coherence.
certain linguistic elements were postulated as markers of this coherence, working as
indicators to give the text coherence. Considered in this respect were pronouns, definite
descriptions and discursive anaphoric nominal syntagms; pragmatic connectors and tenses of
And in terms
of structure, the macrostructure and microstructure of discourse were discussed, for
example by Van Dijk, referring to the semantics and syntax which provided its vehicle.
Also a series of linguistic markers were isolated, notably by the Geneva School, which
worked together to construct this.
On the one
there were hand markers of illocutionary function: the performative verbs, the markers of
indirect language and syntactic inversion. On the other hand, there were the interactive
function markers, including those that structure conversation and speech turns, and there
were the connectors.
At all events,
the most debated and most debatable issue was, and still is, the delimitation of the
constituent units of discourse. For this the grammatical sentences might be chosen, or
conversely the utterances, the latter being sentences in use. But, also, in the nineties,
based on conversational analysis as carried out for instance by the Geneva School, it came
to be argued that the constituent unit of discourse could perfectly well be the speech act
--that is to say, the use of a complete grammatical phrase (Reboul & Moeschler 1998,
29). This idea was further supported by, for example, the work carried out by Ducrot.
2. The contribution made by pragmatics (4)
It is plain
that discourse analysis has objectives that lie very close to, if not shared by, those of
pragmatics. This is because discourse is none other than a sequence of sentences in
operation -in other words utterances. But while discourse analysts explain the
interpretation of the elements in question without going outside language, pragmatics
resorts to other ambits of human activity (beliefs, feelings, knowledge,
). Only in this way can one explain how utterances are interpreted and how
successful interpretation of utterances is managed. It is only with the aid of
considerations of a pragmatic nature that we can go beyond the question "What does
this utterance mean?" and ask "Why was this utterance produced?".
1 Ms: Vagi una
mica de pressa a convèncer el PSOE perquè tenim pressa tots plegats
per fer tot
això. (You should hurry up a little in persuading the PSOE, because we're all in a hurry
to do all that. (5)
llegeix els diaris? (Do you read the papers? (6)
To know why Mr
(Maragall) asks the question, we need to bear in mind quite a number of considerations of
a pragmatic nature, for example, the degree of relevance of the question: in fact
considerable, given that this is a political debate.
discourse analysis can only explain that this is a reply to the observation made by Ms
(Mas) or explain what type of sentences make up each of the utterances, pragmatics will
explain what kind of reply it is, based on one or more implicatures. For example, "if
you read the newspapers you will know that I have done so many times", or "as I
am sure that you read the newspapers, I think you know perfectly well that I have done so,
therefore your observation is unnecessary". Taking a pragmatic approach, the linguist
can successfully uncover the intention that Mr has in selecting "Do you read the
papers?", and why he selected this utterance rather than another one.
object of study is "language use and language users" (Haberland & Mey 2002,
1673), and language use-understood as a universal human capacity and activity-
necessitates recourse to non-linguistic elements to be properly interpreted, because it
makes use of inference and needs interlocutors to have knowledge of the world. "The
study of language use has to explain how it is that sentences produced are successfully
interpreted by interlocutors" (Reboul & Moeschler 1998, 35).
pragmatics to offer that is new? What new elements are in play here? Basically it relies
on the speaker's interpretative strategy, in which the latter attributes qualities and
moods such as rationality, desires and mental states to other speakers. Such an
interpretative strategy is orientated towards predicting other speakers' behavior, above
all their interpretative behavior. Additionally, pragmatic theory has three central
concepts: context, intention, and inference.
say, these are not concepts that have never been used by other approaches to language. In
particular, context plays a relevant role in cultural anthropology, derived from
Malinowski's idea of the "context of situation" (Malinowski 1949), in other
words the general conditions under which a language is spoken. For Malinowski, situation
and expression are inseparable. Discourse analysis retains this concept and indeed makes
it one of its central pillars. On the other hand, the concepts of speaker intention and
inferences play a fundamental role in Speech Act theory and in formulations of Grice's
principle of Cooperation.
But every one
of these terms has a different meaning in the different theoretical paradigms.
Let us take
context, for instance: in Discourse Analysis this is something which is outside the
speakers and is static in nature, framing the communicative activity, it constitutes the
place and the time in which the latter takes place; in pragmatics, on the other hand, it
is something personal and dynamic. For Sperber & Wilson (1980), for example, it is not
a given at the outset, but rather is constructed by the interlocutors utterance by
utterance. It includes the series of premises that have to do with knowledge of the world,
and to a combination of perceptive data known by the interlocutors; it also involves a
series of items of information extracted from the interpretation of preceding utterances
at any given moment. The theory of knowledge and linguistics are interrelated here.
intention, pragmatics defends the idea that recognition of speaker intention conditions
success in overall interpretation of an utterance. "Interlocutors arrive at a
satisfactory interpretation of the utterance, if they succeed in recovering the contents
that the speaker intended to communicate by means of that utterance" (Reboul &
Moeschler 1998, 47).
this intention is expressed by means of certain linguistic conventions, which are the
central core, while intention is relegated to the anecdotal; for Grice, on the other hand,
meaning and intention are never explicit and transparent, they can only be recovered
thanks to the implicit elements.
theory of relevance put forward by Sperber & Wilson was a further advance, and
separates the informative intention -which is that the speaker wishes to manifest a series
of assumptions- from the communicative intention -which is that they also want to
communicate their intention of so doing.
It is plain
that to succeed in correctly interpreting these two intentions, the receiver of the
message has to work with the implicit knowledge which Grice speaks of. What we have, then,
is a third important concept, which includes all that is inferred by the interlocutors
from what is said. In reality, it is knowledge shared by both, and which both know to be
shared in this way.
3. Pragmatics and argumentative
different ways in which discursive activity may manifest itself, argumentation is one
which has particularly attracted the interest of scholars, because it is omnipresent in
communicative activity and because it dominates political, legal and advertising discourse
Speech Act theory (Searle 1970) we can state that the argument as an illocutionary act is
associated with the perlocutionary act of persuasion, an act whose objective is to
get interlocutors or audience to accept a series of ideas the arguments- which
involve the demonstration of a conclusion.
(1984, 43-45) characterises the illocutionary act of persuasion in the following
way. It has:
condition, the fact of articulating this series of propositions constitutes an attempt by
the speaker to justify an opinion O to the hearer.
conditions, the speaker believes a) that the hearer will not accept opinion O at
the outset, b) that the hearer will accept the totality of propositions
expressed, c) that the hearer will accept the constellation of propositions as a
justification of O.
conditions, the speaker believes that a) O is acceptable, b) the
propositions expressed in the utterances are acceptable, c) that these
propositions constitute a reasonable justification of O.
To put it
another way: speakers, who know they have an opinion O which is not accepted at the outset
by the interlocutors, employ a series of propositions which are thought to be acceptable
and which are thought to be a good justification of O, in order to change
interlocutors initial opinion.
of a strategy to convince or persuade the interlocutor, by means of the relationship
between one or more arguments and a conclusion, definition of the discourse orientation
has a very important place. The discourse orientation is the movement or direction we wish
to give to the coherent totality of speech acts and which we wish to induce in our
receptor. While we construct the discourse we impose on it a precise process of
interpretation, offering guidance on how to attribute meaning to our utterance. In this
way we guide listeners along the interpretative path which will lead them to understand
what we say and the intention with which we say it. And we do so by devising a strategy,
applying effort to the selection of words and discourse movement, with a view to achieving
certain specific communicative objectives. If we apply this concept to argumentative
discourse, we can tease out three basic argumentative orientations: the concessive, the
consecutive and the conclusive.
orientation, which operates with two speech acts or two interventions (7) One which argues in favor of an
implicit conclusion r, and another which does so in favor of a conclusion -r and
which, accordingly, questions precisely the relevance of the first act. When weighing up
the force of the two acts the result implies -r.
you come you won't see him
You will come
> you will see him (implicit conclusion r)
You won't see him (-r)
2 makes it
clear that the first act is not relevant, argumentatively speaking, because its implicit
conclusion is not acceptable. Put another way, "there is no use in your coming if
what you want is to see him". (8)