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9.6 What is context?

One of the points that emerges from our discussion of Grice's notion of conversational implicature in the previous section is the double role played by context. First of all, the utterance itself is embedded in what J. R. Firth and others have called a context of situation; and, as we saw in our discussion of metaphor, in order to decide whether a metaphorical interpretation is prob- able or not, one may need to know what the context of situation

9.6 What is context? 291

is. Second, having decided that information is being conveyed over and above the information contained in what has been said, the addressees have to infer what this additional informa­tion is on the basis of contextual information which they share with their interlocutors.

There has been a tendency, until recently, for linguists and philosophers to neglect the context of situation in their presen­tation of Grice's maxims. It is arguable that they have, for this reason, failed to bring out as clearly as they should have done the fact that language-behaviour is a culture-dependent activity. What constitutes sincerity and politeness may differ considerably from one society to another. Nor can we assume that rationality will manifest itself, in relation to the quality of information or its relevance, in the same way in all cultures. In fact, Grice's own presentation, and that of many of his fol­lowers, may well suffer from some degree of socio-cultural bias - a bias which is now being corrected by those working in conversational analysis and in what has come to be called the ethnography of speaking.

It is arguable that Grice's work also suffers from its philo­sophical bias in favour of descriptive, or prepositional, meaning. This is revealed, not only in his acceptance of a truth-conditional theory of meaning, but also in his conception of context - in the second of its two roles referred to above. For him, and for many of those who have drawn upon his ideas, context is taken to be a set of propositions in relation to which new propositions can be evaluated for truth and added to the context (or rejected as untrue).

But much of the knowledge that is involved in the production and interpretation of utterance-inscriptions is practical, rather than prepositional: it is a matter of knowing how to do some- thing, not of knowing that something is the case. Of course, it is always possible (in certain languages at least) to describe practical knowledge as if it were prepositional. For example, instead of saying that a speaker must be able to tell whether his or her interlocutor is of higher or lower social status, we can say that the speaker must know which, if either, of the following two propositions is true: "x is of higher status than y" and "x is of

292 Text and discourse; context and co -text

lower status than y" (where x and y stand for referring expres­sions which will identify the speaker and addressee respectively). However, the fact that we can formulate practical knowledge in prepositional terms, does not mean that it is in fact preposi­tional. A strong case can be made for the view (taken for granted throughout this work) that social and expressive information is non-propositional.

It would seem, therefore, that context in both of the roles identified earlier in this section is, to a considerable degree, non-propositional. One of the advantages of the theory of speech-acts that we looked at in the previous chapter is that, in Austin's formulation at least, it gives full recognition to the social basis of language. It is, as I said, a theory of social prag­matics (in the etymological sense of 'pragmatics'): a theory of a particular kind of social doing. Grice's notion of language-behaviour as co-operative interaction fits in well with this; and, as I mentioned at the end of the preceding section, it need not be coupled with the assumption that the norms, or maxims, that he formulated for one kind of discourse in one culture - one kind of language-game, as the later Wittgenstein would have put it — are universally valid.

No simple answer, then, can be given to the question "What is context?". For the limited purposes of this book, it suffices to emphasize the fact that, in the construction of a satisfactory theory of context, the linguist's account of the interpretation of utterances must of necessity draw upon, and will in turn con­tribute to, the theories and findings of the social sciences in general: notably of psychology, anthropology and sociology. For further discussion of the role of context (including co-text), as also for what has come to be called neo-Gricean prag­matics, students are referred to the 'Suggestions for further reading'. In this chapter we have concentrated on the basic concepts as they were originally developed.

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