Skip to main content

The Interface Between Pragmatics and Epistemic Vigilance

The CEU Campus
Wednesday, June 5, 2019, 5:00 pm – 6:30 pm

Speakers have two distinct goals: to be understood and to make the hearer think or act according to what is to be understood. As a result, when receiving a piece of incoming information, the hearer needs to interpret it (by inferring the speaker meaning based on linguistic and contextual cues) and evaluate it (by assessing the reliability of its source and the plausibility of its content). While the former task pertains to pragmatics, the latter is carried out by epistemic vigilance mechanisms (Sperber et al., 2010).  In this talk, I will show that these two tasks are closely intertwined. I will make this case by focusing on two distinct phenomena: speaker commitment and irony comprehension.

Previous research has shown that speaker commitment increases the likelihood that a message is accepted as true (see, e.g., Vullioud et al., 2017). Committed speakers are judged as reliable informants as their commitment puts their reputation at stake. I will discuss the way in which the attribution of speaker commitment can be modulated by pragmatic cues and provide empirical evidence that speakers are taken to be less committed to what they implicate than to what they presuppose or assert.

Finally, I will focus on a specific pragmatic phenomenon, irony comprehension, and its relation with epistemic vigilance. Current accounts of irony all converge on the assumption that one of its defining features is the expression of a dissociative attitude towards the proposition literally expressed (see, e.g., Clark & Gerrit, 1984; Recanati, 2004; Wilson & Sperber, 2012). I will suggest that the recognition of this implicit dissociative attitude requires the exercise of ‘second-order’ epistemic vigilance and show how this proposal can shed light on the ‘developmental puzzle’ of irony comprehension.