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Modular Pragmatics Asa Kasher

Modular Pragmatics is a research programme that applies the modular approach to the
study of the mind, cognition and language (Chomsky 1984) to the field of pragmatics. Its
main theoretical objective is delineation and explanation of the human competence to
use natural language in terms of a family of cognitive systems that are, in a certain
sense, independent of each other and of other cognitive systems.

1 Modules

The traditional view of the mind portrayed it as "entirely indivisible": "the faculties of
willing, feeling, conceiving, etc. cannot be properly speaking said to be its parts"
(Descartes 1641). Studies of syntax within the Chomskyan research programme of
generative linguistics have given strong reasons to believe that language is a separate
organ of the mind.

The notion of module has been influentially explicated in Fodor (1983). Input systems
are claimed to be modular since they possess most or all of certain properties: (1) they
are domain specific; (2) their operation is mandatory; (3) there is only limited central
access to the representations that they compute; (4) they are fast; (5) they are
"informationally encapsulated" in the sense of having significantly constrained access to
information present in the mind; (6) they have outputs that are "shallow" in the sense of
encoding significantly constrained information; (7) they are associated with fixed neural
architecture; (8) they exhibit characteristic and specific breakdown patterns; and (9)
their ontogeny exhibits a characteristic pace and sequencing. Language and vision are
used as prime foci of the argument. (See Garfield 1987).

Discussions of modularity in pragmatics (e.g. Kasher 1984) rest on a broader notion of

cognitive independence. A pragmatic system is modular in so far as it has its
independent (1) domain; (2) theoretical principles; (3) information processing; (4) neural
embodiment; and (5) acquisition process.

2 Pragmatics is independent

Several case studies have shown that pragmatic aspects of language can be
dissociated from other aspects of language and vice versa.

Genie (Curtiss 1977) started acquiring her first language as a teenager. Her ensuing
language development resulted in an uneven profile: Her grammar is poor and she
produced no vocatives or grammatically marked questions, but she has turn-taking
knowledge and a variety of non-linguistic communication devices.

The case of John (a certain child, described in Blank et al. 1979) provided the opposite
profile: His verbal productions were within the range of his peers, but most of his
utterances were unrelated to other conversant's utterances. He also evidenced little if
any skill in non-linguistic communication.

Laura (Yamada 1990), a young retarded woman, revealed an extensive syntactic

knowledge in production, but her contributions to conversation have often failed to
follow the Gricean conversational maxims (Grice 1989).

3 Pragmatics is not a module

If it is assumed that among the linguistic phenomena that every theory in pragmatics
has to capture for it be adequate, in an elementary descriptive sense, one finds deixis,

lexical pragmatical presuppositions, forces of speech acts, performatives,
conversational implicatures, talk in interaction and politeness principles, then
pragmatics is not a single module (Kasher 1984).

The reason is that though each of these phenomena is related to independent

theoretical principles, some of them involve psychological processing that is not
informationally encapsulated in the above mentioned sense.

4 Modules in Pragmatics

Although the whole area of pragmatics does not comprise a single module, each of the
major phenomena of pragmatics is independent of the rest to an extent that justifies
raising the question whether it is a module or not. The following are central examples
(Kasher 1984).

Some kinds of speech act, e.g., assertion, question, command and request, are basic,
in the sense that one has not mastered a language before one has mastered the rules
that govern them in the language. A broader class, of things done with words, involves
resort to rules that govern certain societal activities and therefore mastering it is not
similarly necessary for linguistic mastery. Most probably, the basic speech acts are
modular as is the ability to acquire new knowledge of things done with words, though
not this knowledge itself.

Conversational implicatures, as described by (Grice 1989), have been shown to be

derived from general rationality principles (Kasher 1976). These principles govern not
only speech activity, but also every other case of rational intentional action, such as
drawing or driving. Moreover, the information base used by a person for drawing
particular conversational implicatures seems to be one's whole system of beliefs.
Hence, the cognitive system of conversational implicature is not modular.

Similar considerations show that turn taking and similar phenomena of talk in interaction
are related to a conversational module, while cultural systems of politeness are not


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