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Elements of Hermeneutic Pragmatics

Agency and Interpretation

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Tahir Wood

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.
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Chapter 2: Beyond Rules: The Necessity of Interpretation

Extract

CHAPTER 2

Beyond Rules: The Necessity of Interpretation

Austin’s guide to practical reason

There is no more influential figure in the development of pragmatics than J. L. Austin. Among those of us who owe Austin a debt of gratitude for his contribution, however, there is room for disagreement over the nature of his achievement, particularly over the question of what is of most value in his How to Do Things with Words. The title suggests, somewhat flippantly, a practical work, a guide as to how to do things properly, in the manner of a set of rules or maxims. But its most important achievement may well be that it demonstrates the impossibility of providing explicit guidance on how to do things with words, apart, that is, from the very restricted class of verbal actions that Austin termed ‘explicit performatives’. Perhaps these can be taught by rules, but they are a very small class compared to the full variety of acts that are performed using language.

It may turn out to be that Austin’s greatest achievement was the demonstration of a certain difficulty in the slogan that ‘form follows function’, a slogan that has been applied to everything from architecture to web design to language to nature itself. Austin discovered in the course of his exploration of the question of what it means to do something in saying something, or by saying something, that there is in fact a persistent gap, a disjuncture,...

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