This material has been published in

Brain and Language
Volume 68, Number 3, July 1999, pp. 389-391
Article ID brln.1999.2118, available online at IDEAL

Special Issue: Pragmatics: Theoretical and Clinical Issues
Guest Editor: Brigitte Stemmer

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Centre de Recherche, Institut universitaire de gériatrie de Montréal, Canada
Lurija Institute for Rehabilitation and Health Sciences at the University of Konstanz,
Kliniken Schmieder, Allensbach, Germany

What is pragmatic theory? It has proven difficult to provide a satisfactorydefinition of pragmatics due to the complexity of the phenomena involved. The modern use of the term can be traced back to Charles Morris (1938) who defined pragmatics as the study of “the relation of signs to interpreters”. He distinguished three fields of study: (1) syntax, the study of “the formal relations of signs to one another”, (2) semantics, the study of “the relations of signs to the objects to which the signs are applicable”, and (3) pragmatics, the study of “the relation of signs to interpreters” (Morris, 1938: 6). H. Paul Grice (1957, 1975) was concerned with the nature of the relation of signs to interpreters, and in particular how a speaker manages to communicate a specific communicative intention to his or her interlocutor, and how the interlocutor recognizes this intention. He formulated a set of maxims that guide the process by which the interlocutors recognize each other’s communicative intention. John L. Austin (1962) and his student John R. Searle (1969, 1975) tried to provide a systematic classification of such communicative intention. With each utterance a person makes, three acts are performed simultaneously: somehing is said (locutionary act), a communicative function (inviting, apologizing, requesting) is performed (illocutionary act), and an effect is produced on the listener or hearer (perlocutionary act). Searle (1969, 1975, 1979) grouped illocutionary acts into five main types (representatives, directives, commissives, expressives, declarations) and formulated specific contextual conditions relevant for the performance and distinction of different speech acts.[1]
Although not explicity stated, most treatise on pragmatics focus on linguistic communication in context. Levinson (1983), in his book “Pragmatics”, devotes 35 pages to the problem of defining pragmatics, and finally sums up that despite problems the most promising definitions are those “that equate pragmatics with ‘meaning minus semantics’, or with a theory of language understanding that takes context into account, in order to complement the contribution that semantics makes to meaning” (32). And he suggests that “if one really wants to know what a particular field is concerned with at any particular time, one must simply observe what practitioners do” (32). The contributions to this issue are witness to the variety of phenomena studied in pragmatics, and in particular neuropragmatics. However, most of the contributions restrict pragmatics to linguistic communication in context. This is rooted in traditional rather than theoretical reasons. Dascal (1983)[2] questions the practice to “identify the theory of use (pragmatics) with an account of the inter-relations between language and the communicative situations in which it is typically used” (42). He stresses that pragmatics must deal not only with the communicative uses of language, which he calls sociopragmatics, but also with its mental uses, which he refers to as psychopragmatics. Similarly, Tirassa (this volume) argues for a theory of cognitive pragmatics that describes what goes on in the mind of interlocutors who engage in communication. Broadening the scope of pragmatics may indeed prove beneficial and open up new directions. Schönle (1999), for example, develops a neurofunctional pragmatic approach to neurological rehabilitation and relates pragmatics to human action in general. Stemmer (this volume), discussing discourse studies in brain-damaged populations, stresses the importance to study discourse as a phenomenon of human action, and to view discourse as a form of manifestation of the interaction between organism and environment. In doing so, new directions for studying discourse in brain-damaged populations can evolve.
I end this introduction by providing a brief insight into the origins and the development of the term “pragmatics” and its multifacet meanings (see Figure 1) and leave it to the reader to pragmatically choose the appropriate pragmatic concept.

Figure 1 Derivatives of πραγμα and πραξιζ (modified after Stachowiak, 1986).

One of the central meanings of the Greek word πραγμα (pragma) and, in this context its synonym πραξιζ (praxis), is action, doing; the other central meaning refers to factual, real. It is from the first central meaning that the performance oriented notion of “Praxis”/“practical” and related fields develop. A second major meaning area develops around “pragmatical”/“pragmatics”, in colloquial language often synonymous to useful, suitable, opportune. The third field is around the notion “pragmatism” which refers mainly to philosophical ways of thinking such as those introduced by Peirce or Kant. A fourth derivative is “pragmatology” (4), a term used differently in different contexts and which centers on self reflection on pragmatic thinking. Finally, there is the derivative “praxeology” (5) which refers to a research area established by Polish researchers and which centers around the methodology of efficient actions and optimal action directives.


Austin, J. L. (1962). How to do things with words. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Dascal, M. (1983). Pragmatics and the philosophy of mind I. Thought in language. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
Grice, H. P. (1957). Meaning. Philosophical Review, 66, 377-388.
Grice, H. P. (1975). Logic and conversation. In P. Cole & J. Morgan (Eds.), Syntax and Semantics 3: Speech acts (pp. 41-58). New York: Academic Press.
Levinson, S. C. (1983). Pragmatics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Morris, C. H. (1938). Foundation of the theory of signs. In International Encyclopedia of Unified Science, Vol. 2, No. 1. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Schönle, P. W. (1999). Neuropragmatics - a practical neurofunctional approach to neurological rehabilitation. Unpublished manuscript. Kliniken Schmieder, Allensbach, Germany.
Searle, J. R. (1969). Speech acts. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Searle, J. R. (1975). Indirect speech acts. In P. Cole & J. Morgan (Eds.), Syntax and semantics 3: Speech acts (pp. 59-82). New York: Academic Press.
Searle, J. R. (1979). The classification of illocutionary acts. Language in Society, 5, 1-24.
Stachowiak, H. (Ed.) (1986). Pragmatics. Handbook of pragmatic thought. Volume I: Pragmatic thought from the beginning to the 18th century. Hamburg: Felix Meiner Verlag. 
[1] In the neurolinguistic literature concerned with speech acts, it is often disregarded that Searle’s classification has also had numerous critics and is not universally accepted.

[2] Dascal, M. (1983). Pragmatics and the philosophy of mind I. Thought in language. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
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