Can pragmatics account for unleashed expression?

Andrew Feeney

For the vast majority of the epoch in which the philosophy of language and linguistics have existed, the focus has been on the form, relations and reference of linguistic units. The field known today as pragmatics has only been accorded a name in the last 100 years (Morris, 1938) and has functioned largely as an adjunct to the core areas, a repository or ‘wastebasket’ (Bar-Hillel, 1971) for linguistic phenomena that did not sit comfortably elsewhere in various theoretical models. Only following the pioneering work of Grice (1967/89) did pragmatics arise as a coherent, fundamental aspect of accounts of language, engendering dedicated textbooks (Levinson, 1983) and further theoretical development (e.g. Sperber and Wilson, 1986) shortly thereafter.
A similar trajectory for pragmatics can be traced in the language evolution literature. Following the renewal of interest in this latter field in the wake of seminal papers in 1990, discussion of language evolution centred around structural aspects of language. This was certainly, though not exclusively, the case in generative linguistics, where many researchers adopted a reductionist focus on primary, underlying computations and their interfaces (Hauser, Chomsky and Fitch, 2002; Pinker and Jackendoff, 2005).
More recently however, a number of models have been proposed that identify the emergence of pragmatic capacity as the critical stage in the evolution of language, and the impetus for, rather than the corollary of, linguistic structural relations (e.g. Moore, 2017; Heintz and Scott-Phillips, in preparation). While we absolutely welcome this development and are in agreement with the centrality of pragmatics, hypotheses as currently construed are undermined by some unresolved tensions. Most fundamentally, how, and when, did a capacity for pragmatics – a ‘proto presumption of relevance’ (Heintz and Scott-Phillips, ibid: 21) – arise in a non-linguistic ancestral species? If the explanation lies, as has been suggested, in the rise of cooperative behaviour as an evolutionary advantageous strategy at a particular historical niche for a group of hominins (Tomasello et al., 2012) it raises the question of why it took so long to stimulate the development of language. The well documented cultural innovations associated with Homo erectus (or similar) beginning 2 million years ago (see e.g. Wells and Stock, 2007), which most likely involved some form of enriched communication, are followed, not by a period of creativity, but rather one characterised by almost complete cultural stasis for at least the next one million years. It is only in the period beginning around 500 thousand years ago that the cultural equilibrium is again punctuated (Gould and Eldridge, 1993). We suggest that genetic alterations at this time gave rise to a further fundamental enhancement of hominin cognition, enabling the recursive embedding of propositions; a capacity that is strictly independent from that of pragmatics, but, in conjunction with which, gave rise to conditions which were optimal for the evolution of language as understood today. From this perspective, the cognitive capacity for pragmatics is absolutely necessary for a faculty of language, but is not sufficient.


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