Friday, April 15, 2011

cognitive pragmatics

Cognitive Pragmatics


Cognitive pragmatics is concerned with the mental processes involved in intentional communication. Typically, studies within this area focus on cognitive processes underlying the comprehension of a linguistic speech act and overlook linguistic production or extralinguistic communication. As far as cognitive processes are concerned authorsin this field are interested in both the inferential chains necessary to understand a communicator’s intention starting from the utterance he proffered and the different mental representations underlying the comprehension of various communicative phenomena as cognitive processes. Thus, a theory in cognitive pragmatics aims to explain what mental processes a person actually engages in during a communicative interaction (see Shared Knowledge). Relevance theory (Sperber and Wilson, 1986/1995) is usually identified as the principal theoretical framework in the area of cognitive pragmatics (see Relevance Theory). Nonetheless, in the last decade, other theories have been developed. These include a far-reaching theory of the cognitive processes underlying human communication, known as the Cognitive Pragmatics theory (Airenti et al., 1993a, 1993b; Bara, 2005), and the Graded Salience Hypothesis (Giora, 2003), a theory which focuses Cognitive Pragmatics 71 on mental inferences underlying the comprehension of literal vs. figurative language (see Metaphor: Psychological Aspects; Accessibility Theory). Describing the cognitive processes involved in communicative interaction is interesting not only for the study of such processes as fixed states – an approach that takes into consideration exclusively the final stage in healthy adult subjects – but also for the consideration of how a given function develops from infancy, through childhood, and to adulthood, and how it eventually decays in subjects with braininjuries (Bara, 1995). Such an approach makes it possible to better comprehend, from a cognitive perspective, how pragmatic competence develops and what neurocognitive structures might cause deficits in people’s performance if damaged. A closely related topic is the identification of the cognitive components that contribute to the realization of a complete pragmatic competence. From this perspective, it is important to consider the role played by a person’s Theory of Mind and by the Executive Function (see below) during a communicative interaction. Cognitive Pragmatics Theory Airenti et al. (1993a, 1993b) presented a theory of the cognitive processes underlying human com munication aiming to provide a unified theoretical framework for the explanationof different communicative phenomena (Bara, 2005). The authors proposed that their theoretical analysis holds for both linguistic and extralinguistic communication, and thus introduced, with reference to the interlocutors, the terms ‘actor’ and ‘partner’ instead of the classical ‘speaker’ and ‘hearer.’ The theory assumes that the literal meaning of an utterance is necessary but not sufficient to the partner in order for him or her to reconstruct the meaning conveyed by the actor, and that in order to understand the actor’s communicative intention, the partner has to recognize a ‘behavior game’ the actor is proposing for him (the partner) to play. The behaviour game is a social structure mutually shared by the participants of the communicative interaction. Suppose, for example, that while you are working in your office, a colleague walks in and says: [1] It’s snowing outside. Although the literal meaning of the utterance is completely clear, you probably are utterlybewildered about how to respond. Only if [1] is understood as an invitation not to go outside, a request to close the window, a proposal to go skiing next week-end (that is, only if, in some way, the reason or reasons for uttering the expression were evident), will you be able to make the necessary inferences and answer appropriately. The utterance, pure and simple, without a game to refer to, has in itself no communicative significance whatsoever. Thus, an utterance extrapolated from its context of reference has no communicative meaning and cannot have any communicative effect on the partner. Starting from the assumption that the communicative meaning of an utterance is intrinsically linked to the context within which it is proffered, Bosco et al. (2004a) defined a taxonomy of six categories of context: Access, Space, Time, Discourse, Behavioral Move, and Status. Using contextual information, the partner can identify the behavior game bid by the speaker, which allows him to fully comprehend the actor communicative intention. Following the tenets of the Cognitive Pragmatics theory, Bucciarelli et al. (2003) proposed that two cognitive factors affect comprehension of various kind of pragmatic phenomena: the ‘inferential load’ and the ‘complexity of mental representations’ underlying the comprehension of a communicative act. Inferential Load: Simple and Complex Speech Acts Searle (1975) claimed that in speech act comprehension, the literal interpretation of an utterance always has priority with respect to any other interpretations derived from it. According to Searle, understanding an indirect speech act, e.g., [2] Would you mind passing me the salt?, is harder than understanding a direct speech act, e.g., [3] Please pass me the salt, because it requires a longer inferential process. Bara and Bucciarelli (1998) provided empirical evidence that, beginning at two-and-a-half years of age, children find direct speech acts such as [4] Please sit down, and conventional indirects such as [5] Would you mind closing the door? equally easy to comprehend. In a further study, Bucciarelli et al. (2003) found that starting at age two-and-a-half years, children find both direct and conventional indirect speech acts easier to understand than nonconventional indirect speech acts, such as the utterance [6] Excuse me, I’m studying when it is a request to a partner who is hammering in a nail to stop making noise.Using the tenets of Cognitive Pragmatics theory, it is possible to abandon the distinction between direct and indirect speech acts and adopt a new one based on the difference between inferential processes involved in comprehending simple as against complex communicative acts (Bara and Bucciarelli, 1998). According to the theory, the partner’s understanding of any kind of speech act depends on the comprehension of the behavioral game bid by the actor; an agent will interpret an interlocutor’s utterance based on the grounds that are assumed to be shared. In this perspective, the partner’s difficulty in understanding a 72 Cognitive Pragmatics communicative act depends on the inferential chain necessary to refer the utterance to the game intended by the actor. Direct and conventional indirect speech acts make immediate reference to the game, and thus are defined as ‘simple speech acts.’ On the other hand, nonconventional indirect speech acts can be referred to as ‘complex speech acts,’ because they require a chain of inferential steps due to the fact that the specific behavior game of which they are a move is not immediately identifiable. For example, to understand [4] and [5], it is sufficient for the partner to refer to the ‘Ask for Something’ game. In order to understand [6], a more complex inferential process is necessary: the partner needs to share with the actor the belief that when a person is studying, he needs silence and that since hammering is noisy [6] is a request to stop it is noisy. Only then, the partner can attribute to the utterance the value of a move in the ‘Ask for Something’ game. Thus, if the problem is how to access the game, the distinction between direct and indirect speech acts is not relevant. It is the complexity of the inferential steps necessary to refer the utterance to the game bid by the actor that accounts for the difficulties in speech act comprehension. This distinction applies not only to standard communicative acts such as direct, conventional indirect, and nonconventional indirect speech acts, but also to nonstandard ones (such as ironic and deceitful) ones (Bara et al., 1999a). The same distinction between simple and complex standard, ironic, and deceitful communicative acts holds for extralinguistic communication acts as well (see Irony). That is, the distinction holds also when the actor communicates with the partner only through gestures (Bosco et al., 2004b) (see Gestures, Pragmatic Aspects). The inferential load underlying a communicative act may explain the difference in difficulty that exists in the comprehension of different communicative acts pertaining to the same pragmatic category, such as between simple and complex standard communicative  acts. To explain the difference in difficulty that might occur among communicative acts pertaining to a different pragmatic category, such as between a direct communicative act and a deceitful communicative act, is necessary to consider the complexity of the mental representations involved in their comprehension. Complexity of Mental Representations Still within the framework of Cognitive Pragmatics theory and along with the same complexity of the inferential load involved, Bucciarelli et al. (2003) described an increasing difficulty in comprehending simple communicative acts of different sorts: simple standard, simple deceitful, and simple ironic communicative acts. According to the theory, in standard communication, default rules of inference are used to understand another person’s mental states; default rules are always valid unless their consequences are explicitly denied. Indeed, in standard communication, what the actor says is in line with his private beliefs. Direct, conventional indirect, and nonconventional indirect speech acts are all examples of standard communication.
In terms of mental representations, to comprehend a standard communicative act, the partner has to simply refer the utterance proffered by the actor to the behavior game he bids. On the other hand, nonstandard communication such as irony and deceit involves the comprehension of communicative acts via the blocking of default rules and the occurrence of more complex inferential processes that involve conflicts between the beliefs the actor has shared with the partner and the latter’s private beliefs. In the comprehension of irony and deceit, the mental representations involved produce a difference between what the actor communicates and what he privately entertains. It follows that, along with the same complexity of the inferential load involved, standard communicative acts are easier to deal with than nonstandard pragmatic phenomena. According to Bucciarelli et al. (2003), in the case of the  comprehension of deceit, the partner has to recognize the difference between the mental states that are expressed and those the actor privately entertains. Consider for instance the following example: Mark and Ann share that the lecture they just attended was incredibly boring. Later Ann meets John and tells him that Mark and she attended a tedious lecture. In the afternoon alsoMark meets John, who asks him about
the lecture. Actually, Mark is annoyed with John because John did not go to the lecture and he does not want John to know that he feels he wasted the whole morning. Mark does not know that John has already met Ann, thus he answers: [7] It was really
interesting! John can understand that Mark is trying to deceive him because he recognizes the difference between the mental state that Mark is expressing and the one that he truly and privately entertains. A statement, instead, becomes ironic when, in addition to the awareness of this difference, the partner also recognizes that the mental states expressed contrast with the scenario that he shares with the actor. For example, some months later, during a chat with Mark, Ann asks: Do you remember the lecture that we attended some months ago? Mark answers: [8] It was really interesting! What makes this utterance ironic is the fact that both interlocutors share that Cognitive Pragmatics 73 the lecture had actually been boring. Thus, the difference between irony and deceit lies not in the partner’s awareness of the difference between the mental states that the actor expressed and those that he actually entertains, but in his awareness that he does or does not share this difference with the actor. In the case of irony, the partner has to represent not only the discrepancy between the mental states that the actor expressed and those that he privately entertains, but also that such awareness is shared with the actor. This makes an ironic communicative act more difficult to comprehend than a deceitful one. Bucciarelli et al. (2003) showed the existence of an increase in difficulty in the comprehension of simple standard communicative acts, simple deceits, and simple ironies with an experiment carried out on children from two-and-a-half to seven years of age. The authors also pointed out that the same children show a similar predicted gradation of difficulty in understanding the same pragmatic phenomena, both when these are expressed by linguistic speech acts and when these are expressed by communicative gestures. Regardless of the communicative channel used by the actor, linguistic or extralinguistic, children find simple standard speech acts easier to comprehend than simple deceits, which are, in turn, easier to comprehend than simple ironic communicative acts. Finally, an overall consideration of the mentioned results makes it possible to conclude that all of the theoretical predictions (both derived from the Cognitive Pragmatics theory and grounded on a person’s cognitive processes underlying the communicative comprehension) hold true for the same pragmatic phenomena whether expressed by linguistic speech acts or by gestures. These results seem to indicate that linguistic and extralinguistic communicative acts share the most relevant mental processes in each of the specific pragmatic phenomena investigated and suggest that pragmatic competence shares the same cognitive faculty – regardless of the input processed – be it linguistic or extralinguistic. It is possible to interpret such empirical evidence as being in favor of a unified theoretical framework of human communication in which linguistic and extralinguistic communication develop in parallel being different aspects of a unique communicative competence (see Bara and Tirassa, 1999; Bara, 2005) (see Communicative Principle and Communication).

Cognitive Pragmatics and Development In this section, we shall examine the empirical evidence in favor of the existence of cognitive processes of increasing complexity that underlie different pragmatic phenomena. The developmental domain is particularly interesting for this aim because it makes it possible to observe errors in the comprehension of different kinds of pragmatics tasks that allow us to falsify our hypotheses regarding the complexity of the mental processes involved in specific phenomena. However, adult subjects possess a fully developed cognitive system and communicative competence, and thus they do not show any interesting errors in comprehending or producing different kinds of communicative acts; it is only possible to analyze their time of reaction in solving such tasks. On the other hand, if inferential processes and mental representations of increasing complexity underlie the comprehension of various kind of pragmatic phenomena, then it is possible to explain why, during the development of children’s communicative competence, some communicative acts are understood and produced before others are. For example,
children initially only understand sincere communicative acts and only later on in their development do they start comprehending, for example, deceit and irony. Children’s ability to deal with mental representations and inferential chains of increasing complexity develops with age, and this fact helps explain the development
of their pragmatic competence. From this perspective, the increasing capacity to construct and manipulate complex mental representations is involved in the emergence of preschoolers’ and kindergarten student’s capacity to deceive.Adeceptive task could be made easier to comprehend by reducing the number of characters, episodes, and scenes involved in the task, and by including a deceptive
context (Sullivan et al., 1994). Likewise the ability to comprehend and produce different forms of ironies involves an increasing and sophisticated inferential ability. Lucariello and Mindolovich (1995) carried out a study on the ability of 6- and 8-year-old children to provide ironic endings to unfinished stories. The authors claimed that the recognition and the construction of (situational) ironic events involve the ability to manipulate the representations of events. These representations have to be critically viewed, and disassembled in order to create new, different, and ironic event structures.
Also, different forms of irony behave in different ways, as the authors’ experiments show. Their results show that older children construct more complex ironic derivations from the representational base than younger children do. Just as it is possible to better understand the development of pragmatic competence by considering the cognitive processes involved in a specific communicative act, it also is possible to explain deficits in performance in cases of brain damage. The ability of children with closed head injury to solve pragmatic tasks is specifically impaired (for a review, see Bara et al., 1999b). These subjects performed worse than 74 Cognitive Pragmatics did their normal peers in specific pragmatic tasks such as bridging the inferential gap between events in stereotypical social situations and tasks such as comprehending utterances that require inferential processes because of their use of idiomatic and figurative language (Dennis and Barnes, 1990). Cognitive Pragmatics and Brain Damage Neuropsychological diseases affect communicative performance in various ways, depending on which relevant cognitive subsystem is damaged. The information obtained by studying these abnormal processes provides us with an opportunity to better understand the architecture of the brain/mind and its relationship to pragmatic competence (Tirassa, 1999; Bara and Tirassa, 2000). Acquired brain damage impairs certain cognitive processes while leaving others unaffected. For example, it is well-documented in the literature that aphasic patients with left-brain damage have residual pragmatic competence despite their language impairment. On the other hand, what different cerebral injuries have in common is a damaged capacity to deal with phenomena that require complex mental processes in order to be understood. In particular, if the tasks require more complex inferences, then this capacity seems to be more damaged than in other cases, as we will show later in this section. Results like these seem to confirm the assumption that different pragmatic phenomena require the activation of increasingly complex cognitive processes. McDonald and Pearce (1996) found that traumatic brain injured patients (TBI) do not have difficulty in the comprehension of written sincere exchanges such as [9] Mark: What a great football game!; Wayne: So you are glad I asked you?, but they have several problems, compared to the normal control subjects, in comprehending ironic exchanges such as [10] Mark: What a great football game!; Wayne: Sorry I made you come. The authors gave the subjects the same experimental material in auditory form and found that the patients’ performance did not improve. The authors concluded that TBI patients have difficulty in comprehending irony and that, even if the tone of voice usually facilitates the comprehension of ironic remarks, it is not sufficient on its own.
Furthermore, McDonald (1999) found that, surprisingly, TBI patients have no problem understanding written ironic utterances such as [11] Tom: That’s a big dog; Monica: Yes, it’s a miniature poodle. The author suggested that [11] might require a shorter inferential chain compared to [10] in order to be understood. Indeed, in comprehending [11], it is sufficient to understand what Monica answers as meaning that Tom’s statement meant the opposite of what it said. In [10], however, Wayne’s response is not only a rejection of the original comment, but an allusion to Mark’s actual reaction to the game. Thus, there were at least two necessary inferential steps in the comprehension process. Such findings are in line with the proposal that different kinds of irony may vary in their difficulty of being understood, according to the complexity of the required inferential load (Bara et al., 1999a). Particularly interesting from our perspective are studies that showed that the decay of pragmatic competence in closed head injured subjects (CHI) reflects the same type of development that is observed in normal children, i.e., the capacities acquired later in the development of the pragmatic ability are the most damaged. Using a linguistic experimental protocol, Bara et al. (1997) tested a group of CHI subjects and found that specific pragmatic tasks such as the comprehension of nonstandard communication, e.g., deceit and irony, are more difficult than tasks requiring only simple mental representations, such as the
comprehension of standard communication involving only direct, conventional, and nonconventional indirect speech acts. In addition, the authors found no differences in patients’ comprehension of direct and conventional indirect speech acts. The same results were observed in the performance of children aged 2 to 6 years old who were tested by the same experimental protocol (Bara and Bucciarelli, 1998). It should also be noted that Bara et al. (1997) presented two classical tests on false belief to CHI patients in order to measure their theory of mind, but did not find any significant difference with the control group of children who were not brain damaged. Thus, the patients’ poor performance on pragmatic tasks cannot be ascribed to a deficit of the Theory of Mind; that is, their poor performance cannot be ascribed to an inability to understand another person’s mental states. Moreover, Bara et al. (2000) used a similar extralinguistic nversion of the same pragmatic experimental protocol and evaluated the comprehension of standardn communication, i.e., simple and complex communicative acts, and nonstandard communication, i.e., deceit and irony. Such a protocol contains videotaped scenes wherein the pragmatic phenomena are presented using extralinguistic means, such as pointing or clapping. The subjects were firstly a group of children 2–6 years of age and secondly a group of Alzheimer’s disease patients, and found that children show the same tendency in the development of extralinguistc competence that was observed by Bara and Bucciarelli (1998) in the linguistic domain. In addition, the authors observed a similar tendency toward decay in the Alzheimer’s patients’ extralinguistic competence: the nonstandard extralinguistic tasks Cognitive Pragmatics 75 are understood less well than are the standard communicative tasks. Finally, the trend of decaying pragmatic competence in the Alzheimer patient group matched the results obtained by CHI patients, when tested according to the same extralinguistic protocol (Bara et al., 2001). The CHI subjects were also given several neuropsychological tests, but no statistical correlation between the subjects’ performance on the pragmatic protocol and their performance on these collateral neuropsychological tests was found. Thus, the patient’s poor performance cannot be ascribed to a deficit in their executive functioning. As already observed for the development of pragmatic linguistic and extralinguistic competence, the empirical data concerning brain damaged subjects seem to be in favor of the existence of a unified pragmatic competence which is independent of the input – whether it is linguistic or extralinguistic. That is, the comprehension of speech acts and extralinguistic communicative acts shares the most relevant mental processes when tested on different pragmatic phenomena, and the pragmatic competence seems to be independent of the expressive means used to realize it. Cognitive Pragmatics and the Executive Function While the literature provides empirical evidence that mental processes involved in various pragmatic tasks can be ordered according to increasing difficulty, as we have seen above, in order fully comprehend pragmatic competence from a cognitive perspective, we need to consider also a further factor affecting the human ability to communicate: the executive functions. The Executive Function is a cognitive construct used to describe the goal-directed behaviors that are mediated by the frontal lobes. The Executive Function guides a person’s actions and enables him to behave adaptively and flexibly; it includes cognitive capacities such as planning, inhibition of dominant responses, flexibility, and working memory. Barnes and Dennis (2001) have shown that, in addition to a deficient inferential ability, also a reduction of working memory and metacognitive skills may be invoked to explain closed-head injured children’s problems in comprehending stories. Working memory provides the necessary resources for computing inference in ongoing text comprehension; metacognitive skills are used when checking if, and when, an inference needs to be made. The authors tested children with severe to mild head injury on their ability to comprehend brief written stories, and found inferencing deficits in children with severe (but not with mild) head injury; these children had problems linking their general knowledge to the particular wording of the text. In general, when the metacognitive demands and the pressure on working memory were reduced, children with severe head injuries did not show any deficiencies in inferencing compared to the development in normal children or their mildly head-injured peers. Working memory also plays a role in explaining the poor ability to comprehend written stories that is observed in children with hydrocephalus, a neurodevelopmental disorder accompanied by increased pressure of the cerebrospinal fluid on the brain tissue.
Children with hydrocephalus, when compared to the control group, show increasing difficulty drawing on information from an earlier read sentence when trying to understand a new sentence, the greater the distance between the two texts. Thus, while these children do not seem to have a fundamental problem in making inferences, their poor performance is mainly due to a deficit in their working memory (Barnes et al., 2004). As to the role of other executive functions, Channon and Watts (2003) examined the ability of CHI patients to comprehend brief vignettes involving pragmatic judgement and the relationship between this activity and some executive functions: working memory, inhibition, and the ability to organize and plan appropriate responses in a certain context. The authors found that only the ability to solve the inhibition task, which required the subjects to inhibit dominant words and generate words that completed sentences with nonsensical endings, correlates with the pragmatic comprehension task. No association was found with the other executive skills. From a neuropsychological perspective, intact frontal lobes are critical to executive functioning, and because traumatic brain injury often results in damage to these areas, pragmatic deficits shown by these patients can be explained by a principal Executive Function impairment. From this perspective, the deficits in planning and monitoring of behaviour that are usually observed in such patients seem to explain the difficulty these subjects have in adhering to the structure of conventional discourse (McDonald and Pearce, 1998). To conclude, theoretical and empirical studies in the literature seem to suggest that in order to explain people’s pragmatic competence, it is necessary to take into account the role played by at least three elements: mental processes, namely, the inferential load and the complexity of the mental representations; the Theory of Mind; and the Executive Function. Whereas the empirical studies mainly focus on the linguistic competence that is needed to realize various pragmatic tasks, the perspective should be widened to include 76 Cognitive Pragmatics a methodical comparison with extralinguistic competence. In order to establish whether, or not, the cognitive components that make these two different means of communication are the same in both cases. Finally, a complete theory in the cognitive pragmatic domain should be able to explain not only adult normal subjects’ ability to communicate, but also the development and the decay of this capacity in brain-damaged patients. See also: Communicative Principle and Communication; Gestures, Pragmatic Aspects; Irony; Metaphor: Psychological Aspects; Pragmatics: Overview; Relevance Theory; Shared Knowledge; Speech Acts; Speech Acts, Literal and Nonliteral.

F M Bosco, University of Torino, Torino, Italy
                        2006 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved

No comments:

Post a Comment