Taylor, Kenneth A.. Sex, breakfast, and descriptus interruptus
2001, Synthese 128 (1-2):45 - 61.
Added by: Chris Blake-Turner, Contributed by: Thomas Hodgson
Abstract: Consider utterances of the following two sentences: (1) Have you had breakfast? (2) Have you had sex? Utterances of (1) and (2) typically differ in temporal import. An utterance of (1) raises a 'this morning' question. An utterance of (2) raises an 'ever' question. The difference in felt temporal import clearly has something to do with the difference between our more or less shared breakfast eating practices and our more or less shared sexual practices. People tend to eat breakfast daily - though there are, of course, exceptions. People tend not to have sex daily - though here too there are exceptions. Moreover, people by and large mutually know these facts. The first goal of these remarks is to explain how our mutual knowledge of such shared practices influences the perceived temporal import of utterances like (1) and (2). The explanation is not terribly surprising, but this unsurprising explanation reveals something significant about the nature of the great divide between pragmatics and semantics. In particular, I'm going to argue that Grice got it pretty close to right. The explanation of this phenomenon, and certain others like it, turns out to be roughly, but still deeply Gricean. I say 'roughly' Gricean because the account I offer does not entail that the difference in temporal import between (1) and (2) is a difference in conversational implicature strictly so-called. But for reasons that will become clear in due course, the explanation I offer even if not strictly Gricean is nonetheless deeply Gricean. Armed with our roughly but deeply Gricean understanding of this easy case, I turn to the somewhat more challenging and controversial case of incomplete definite descriptions. Imagine an utterance of: (3) The cat is on the couch again. In uttering such a sentence, a speaker commits what we might call descriptus interruptus. The context independent meaning of the uttered sentence is insufficient to fix a fully determinate descriptive significance for the contained descriptions. Though we may justly infer that a speaker who utters such a sentence intends thereby to communicate some proposition or other to the effect that some unique cat or other is once again on some unique couch or other, nothing more determinate may be inferred on the basis of sentence meaning alone about the relevant cat and the relevant couch. But the speaker's act of descriptus interruptus does not prevent speaker and hearer from enjoying a mutually consummated communicative exchange. The roughly though deeply Gricean approach I outline explains how such consummation is possible in a relatively straightforward way.
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