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Context as other minds: The pragmatics of sociality, cognition and communication (review)

From: Language
Volume 84, Number 3, September 2008
pp. 628-632 | 10.1353/lan.0.0046

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Reviewed by
Context as other minds: The pragmatics of sociality, cognition and communication. By T. Givón. Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 2005. Pp. xii, 283. ISBN 1588115933. $53.

Context as other minds is an updated version of Givón 1989. There are ten chapters, which I briefly describe below.

Ch. 1, 'Perspective', introduces such precursors as Plato, Aristotle, Immanuel Kant, Charles Sanders Peirce, and Ludwig Wittgenstein, frequently mentioned also in my discussion of the [End Page 628] book below. Ch. 2, 'Categories as prototypes: The adaptive mind', discusses the mental representation of individual tokens of experience as members of generic categories (= types), which is the foundation upon which biological organisms structure their adaptive behavior. One's mental categories determine how one responds to one's physical, mental, and social environment. One responds to a new token of experience X by means of 'reasoning by feature association', which has the following form: 'If members of category A have the features a, b, c, and d, and if X has a, b, and c, then X also has d (and is a member of category A)'. The prototypicality of X depends on how many features it has. This type of reasoning has roughly the same status as abductive or analogical reasoning. The most profound adaptive strategy of a social species is the ability of its members to construct mental representations held by other members and thus to know other minds.

In Ch. 3, 'Semantic networks and metaphoric language', Givón explains that one's physical, mental, and social environment is cognitively represented by means of a lexicon that constitutes the mental map of these environments. The semantic/conceptual lexicon is identical with permanent semantic memory. It is represented in the mind/brain as a network of nodes and connections activated during language processing. Metaphor, qua subtype of analogy, is an activation process that goes from literal to nonliteral, and not a mapping from source to target. This interpretation is supported by experimental evidence and by diachronic evidence issuing from grammaticalization studies.

The core of the book is Ch. 4, 'Grammar and other minds: An evolutionary perspective'. G examines the act of communication, which contains the lexicon, the current text, and the current speech situation. Interpreted now as the three principal types of context, they are cognitively represented as semantic memory, episodic memory, and working memory. Grammatical structures serve such discourse-pragmatic functions as referential coherence and event coherence. These are interpreted as manipulation (in production) or anticipation (in comprehension) of the interlocutor's mental representations of the context. Both the neurological basis and the evolutionary precursors of the mental representations at issue are presented in outline.

The program of Ch. 4 is fleshed out in the three following chapters, where the material is reproduced, often verbatim, from G's previous publications, in particular Givón 2001. 'Referential coherence' (Ch. 5), expressed in NP grammar, is given the following psychological interpretation. Each clause, as part of a clause chain, has a topical referent. Cataphoric grounding means that the current referent is deactivated and a new one is activated in episodic memory. Anaphoric grounding means that the current referent is identified with an antecedent one, that is, that a connection is established between two nodes. The corresponding 'grammar-cued mental operations' are presented (144) as a tree of binary choices (cf. also Givón 1990:916, 1995:382, 2002:233). This model awaits experimental validation.

In Ch. 6, 'Propositional modalities', two 'megamodalities' are distinguished, namely epistemic and deontic. The epistemic modality is divided into 'fact' and 'nonfact' (also called 'megamodalities'). 'Fact' subsumes presupposition and realis assertion, while 'nonfact' subsumes irrealis assertion and NEG-assertion (but, apparently, also interrogative, labeled 'epistemic'). Deontic modality subsumes obligation, volition, and any kind of affect. Event coherence, expressed in 'VP grammar' or 'verbal clause', is about (mental representations of) temporal/aspectual/modal continuity and about consonant grounding of referents. The aspect of 'other minds' is also invoked in a different sense: the epistemic modalities are defined in terms of what kind of challenge (if any) is to be expected from the hearer; and nondeclarative speech acts need to take into account to what extent the hearer may be...