Elements of Hermeneutic Pragmatics

Agency and Interpretation

by Tahir Wood (Author)
©2015 Monographs VIII, 211 Pages


Can linguistic pragmatics be developed without the need to formulate rules, criteria or maxims? The author argues that rules as they have been conceived of within pragmatics, particularly speech act theory, are limiting and out of step with the linguistic science of recent decades.
Using a hermeneutic approach to pragmatics, this book seeks to bring pragmatics closer to the cognitive paradigm that has transformed the other branches of the linguistic and communication sciences, with the help of developments in certain neighbouring disciplines such as philosophy, sociology and narratology. The elements that are opened up to pragmatics in this approach include some new conceptions of intentionality, intertextuality, communicative action and literary authorship, as well as the subjectivity of interpretation, which by its very nature ceaselessly transforms all forms of communication in its historical spiral.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • Chapter 1: Introducing Key Concepts
  • What is hermeneutic pragmatics?
  • Speech act theory and beyond
  • The place of situation modelling in pragmatics
  • Beyond the typical
  • Intentions and outcomes
  • The relationship of semantics to pragmatics
  • Authorship and text-as-action
  • Chapter 2: Beyond Rules: The Necessity of Interpretation
  • Austin’s guide to practical reason
  • Searle’s rule conceptions
  • The critique of rules
  • When is a ‘rule’ simply an observation of a regularity?
  • Are descriptions and definitions kinds of rules?
  • When is a rule quite explicitly a rule?
  • Rules and the constitution of communicative behaviour
  • The place of rules in linguistics
  • Chapter 3: Intention and Interpretation
  • Problems of normativity
  • Intention, purpose, motivation
  • Convention, culture and a note on Grice’s categories and maxims
  • Chapter 4: The Structure of Agency in Language, Communication and Society
  • Agency in grammar
  • The social nature of agency
  • Communication and narration of communication
  • Chapter 5: Agency, Habit and Genre
  • Habit and habitus
  • Genre as habitus
  • Intentionality and other properties of genres
  • Chapter 6: The Evolution of Narrative Genres
  • Genre as a type-structure for action
  • Chronotopes
  • Adventure-time
  • From the medieval to the modern
  • Elements of fictional genres
  • Chapter 7: Hermeneutic Elements of Reading
  • Variation in ‘reading’
  • Variation in comprehension
  • Intertextual relations: Adhesion and adherence
  • The relationship of abstraction to narrative
  • The nature of hyper-abstraction
  • Quasi-conventional structures
  • Chapter 8: An Author is an Agent and an Agent is Purposive
  • Intentionality in secondary genres
  • Towards a hermeneutic pragmatics of fiction
  • Fiction as a problem case for pragmatics
  • Character and milieu
  • The presence of the author
  • Chapter 9: The Worlds of Author, Character and Reader Intertwined
  • Character and characterization
  • Who knows what in fiction?
  • ‘Omniscience’
  • Beyond the narrator, beyond omniscience
  • Chapter 10: Summary of Implications and Testable Hypotheses
  • Looking ahead
  • Purposiveness
  • Intentions
  • Habitus and iteration of genres
  • Shifting focus from the language of performance to the language of description
  • Semantics and pragmatics
  • Contradiction and change
  • Intertextuality
  • Lure and disclosure in fiction: Intention1
  • Purpose in fiction and intention2
  • Public and private in the novel
  • Bibliography
  • Index
  • Series Index


I would like to thank the editors of the Journal of Literary Semantics and The Journal of Pragmatics for affording me space in the pages of their journals to develop the ideas that have led to this book. Some of the ideas that have found expression here were first developed in embryo in the following articles: ‘Adherence Relations in Literary and Non-Literary Discourse’, Journal of Literary Semantics, 35, 165–80 (2006), ‘Author’s Characters and the Character of the Author: The Typical in Fiction’, Journal of Literary Semantics, 40, 159–76 (2011), ‘Adherence and Abstraction in Discourse Processes’, Journal of Pragmatics, 41, 484–96 (2009) and ‘Hermeneutic Pragmatics and the Pitfalls of the Normative Imagination’, Journal of Pragmatics, 43, 136–49 (2011). Those works are not reproduced here but they did mark the start of the research project that has become this book. Special thanks to Michael Toolan and to Jacob Mey for the feedback provided to me in those earlier stages. Also I would like to mention the benefit to this project of the lively engagements at the ‘Meaning, Context and Cognition’ conferences at Łódź in 2011 and 2013, hosted by Iwona Witczak-Plisiecka and her team. ← vii | viii →

← viii | 1 →


Introducing Key Concepts

What is hermeneutic pragmatics?

Hermeneutic pragmatics (HP) can be characterized in the following way. As pragmatics, it is taken as the study of what is done in communication, in line with the etymology of the word ‘pragmatic’. It is ‘hermeneutic’ insofar as it is concerned with interpretation. HP takes as its object the communicative act or deed, as well as the ways in which such acts are determined, i.e. how they are shaped historically and understood by the various agents of communication.

This is a significantly different notion to that of pragmatics as ‘context-sensitivity’. In the latter view pragmatics is a kind of meaning that is either added to the semantics of sentences (usually conceived as ‘propositions’) or it is a kind of modification of the semantics of the sentence brought about by considerations of context.1 For such approaches, the distinction or the relation between semantics and pragmatics tends to be an abiding problem.

A related concern in much of pragmatics has to do with implicature and all forms of ‘the unsaid in the said’. This is of course closely related to a concern with context, since contextual cues are what provide access to the unsaid. In Mey (1998), for example, these two aspects dominate his analyses of literature, in which puzzles such as who it is that speaks (author, character or narrator?), what free indirect discourse reveals and how it is ← 1 | 2 → created, how gaps in textual information are ‘filled in’ by the reader, and so on. These concerns, which I would tend to regard as part of a discourse semantics, certainly contribute to pragmatics, but they do not reach what I consider to be the definitive overarching concern of pragmatics: what one agent is doing relative to another.

HP, by contrast, represents an integration of various elements, such as language, contextual knowledge and biography, into a determination of what has been or is being done. Thus there is no intention of delimiting pragmatics from the other linguistic sciences, but rather of deploying all of the latter towards the stated end. As an enquiry it asks what sorts of acts are performed and how they are recognized by the agents involved. Since this might appear to share similarities with speech act theory (it does), it will be important to contrast speech act theory and HP as approaches. One important difference is that HP bases itself on concrete acts of cognition, emphasizing experiential differences amongst agents, rather than a priori formulations of criteria.

HP emphasizes experiential realism (Lakoff 1987: 282) and the centrality of subjectivity. It does not concern itself with rules, maxims or criteria as much as it does with mental modelling of experiential situations, especially where those are situations of communication. The idea is that individuals interpret their own acts and those of others according to the set of models that they possess. These would be expected to correspond in some manner to the expressions that they use in their speech when characterizing acts that have been performed. While models are commonly represented by lexical items – I will in due course pay particular attention to verbs of communication – they may also be expressed via metaphors. For example a question like ‘What did she do?’ could elicit answers such as:

Each of these metaphorical expressions must be conventional, if it is to be readily understood, and must also be based on the assumption that the interlocutor similarly has a model of the situation type being described.

Schleiermacher’s (1998) fourfold distinction, between grammar, object of knowledge, technique and psychology is still highly relevant to an analysis of the linguistic deed. Insofar as these four dimensions are integrated into any act of communication, they can be identified as constituent elements of hermeneutic pragmatics. Taking these four in turn and recasting them in more modern terms: ‘grammar’ would today need to be specified in terms of the subfields of phonology, syntax and semantics; ‘object of knowledge’ would deal with the contents of episodic memory as these are brought to bear in determining contents of communicative acts; ‘technique’ can be specified as the command of rhetoric and stylistics as these are defined relative to various types of communicative acts or genres of communication, including those that are conditioned by technology; ‘psychology’ brings us closer to the purposes and motivations of individual agents or groups of agents engaging in communication, as well as subjective factors such as interest, attention span, etc.

The ‘cognitivist turn’ in linguistics of recent decades is clearly presupposed in all of the foregoing, but with certain reservations similar to those expressed by Freeman (2004). Cognitive linguistics has come about as a confluence of thinking between such fields as artificial intelligence, the philosophy of mind and of language, cognitive psychology and a dissatisfaction with earlier linguistic paradigms, such as transformational-generative grammar. ‘Continental’ influences in Gestalt psychology, semiotics and phenomenology have tended to be of some, but lesser, importance. Freeman’s article is critical of this balance and suggests, with reference to Merleau-Ponty’s work in phenomenology, that such European sources have more to contribute to cognitive linguistics than has been acknowledged. She raises three points that are highly significant for the discussion of HP:

On the first point, it can be attested that many apparently novel aspects of Anglo-American philosophy occurring over the last century or so were anticipated as early as the nineteenth century in European philosophy, very often in works that were not translated into English, and often more rigorously treated. I shall touch on this matter, especially with regard to the topic of ‘normativity’.

On the second point, I would like merely to signal at this stage where time plays a significant role in HP: it is in regard to the hermeneutic spiral. Time obviously is implicated in the development of subjectivity, not only historically but also biographically. Thought traverses an apparent circle when it returns to a familiar matter; but it is not a circle, it is a spiral. Time is what makes it a spiral; intervening time makes the difference between one interpretation and another, so that the subject is never in exactly the same ‘place’ as it was before.


VIII, 211
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2014 (December)
linguistic science philosophy sociology narratology intentionality
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Wien, 2015. VIII, 211 pp.

Biographical notes

Tahir Wood (Author)

Tahir Wood is currently Director of Academic Planning at the University of the Western Cape in South Africa. He completed his PhD in 1994 at the University of Cape Town under the supervision of the author J.M. Coetzee and has taught English and linguistics at several South African universities. His interests are in pragmatics, semantics, semiotics and discourse studies.


Title: Elements of Hermeneutic Pragmatics
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