Michael McCourt · [PhilTalk] Sentences and Speakers: A case study in decoding versus inferring meaning
A central project in philosophy of language and in linguistics has been to find a systematic relation between the sounds we make and the meanings we manage to convey in making them. The meanings speakers mean appear to depend in various ways on context. On the orthodox view, a syntactically disambiguated sound completely determines what is directly asserted by the speaker (what is said), relative to a context that serves only to fix values for indexicals and deictic expressions. However, there appear to be cases of context-dependence that resist orthodox treatment (Bach 1994). When orthodoxy seems implausible, one of two options has generally been favored. Contextualists depart from orthodoxy and allow a greater role for context, including pragmatic enrichments of what is said (Recanati 2002). Others have attempted to preserve the orthodox account by enriching the symbol with covert syntactic items (Stanley 2000). On at least some accounts, this choice is an empirical one about the psychology of speakers and hearers. I therefore discuss how a series of self-paced reading time experiments, reported in McCourt et al. forthcoming, might inform these debates. I argue that these studies undermine a commonly accepted orthodox treatment of implicit control of reason clauses (The ship was sunk to collect the insurance), and therefore weaken the general motivation for orthodoxy.