Pragmatic Millianism and the Accessibility of What Is Said

As I explained, “pragmatic Millians” such as Ken Taylor and Fred Adams et al. explains our semantic intuitions about sentences containing empty names by distinguishing between what is said and what is implicated (in Grice’s sense) by such sentences.  In their view, although what is said is a gappy proposition, which is not truth-evaluable, what is implicated (or communicated) is a non-singular proposition, which is truth-evaluable.  Such implicated propositions are the alleged source of our semantic intuitions about the original sentences. 

Marga Reimer objects as follows:
“The problem with this account is that it does not withstand informed reflection.  For even after we are apprised of the distinction between what is said and what is communicated, we still want to say that, in sincerely uttering sentences containing empty names, we say and do not just communicate, propositions that are truth-evaluable” (Reimer, 2001, 502).

As far as I can tell, this objection has been ignored by pragmatic Millians.  (If anyone knows of a place where pragmatic Millians have replied to it, I would love to know about it.)

Even so, Reimer’s objection is not devastating as it stands.  Reimer appears to assume that speakers, at least upon informed reflection, can directly intuit what is said vs. what is implicated (or communicated).  This assumption needs justification.  The notion of what is said is a technical notion introduced by Grice.  There are different views about the nature of what is said and whether it is processed consciously or unconsciously.  It cannot be simply assumed that speakers, even upon informed reflection, have direct conscious access to what is said as such. 

Nevertheless, Reimer’s remark points in the direction of an important question for pragmatic Millianism.  In fact, it points in the direction of a question that faces many semantic theories, including hers.  What relationship is there between what is said by an utterance and the semantic intuitions of speakers?


  1. I’m not familiar with the work of the pragmatic Millians (sorry, Fred, sorry, Ken!) but here’s a line that someone could take: semantic theory is about systematic relations between strings of symbols and things in the world. There could be many kinds of theories like this. So before we can say anything sensible about semantic theory, we need to set out what the theory is supposed to do, what kinds of evidence it is supposed to be supported by, and so on.

    Grice proposed distinguishing between a theory of meaning and a theory of implicature. Without trying to decide whether there is any such distinction, or how it is to be made, it seems to me to be an attractive proposal, since it disconnects two enterprises: one is a systematic theory, as above, and the other is a theory that aims to explain how we hear and understand and use our language.

    Are there semantic intuitions — a kind of data that comes from naive responses to sentences — that bear on systematic theory? Probably; but so far, the relation between those intuitions and the theory has been completely unspecified. The relation between the intuitions and the theory might be extraordinarily complex and unobvious (as it seems to me to be between linguistic theory and intuitions of grammaticality).

    Lining things up this way, the ontology question is one for the systematic theory to answer: what kinds of entities does it need in order to put together an acceptable theory of its evidence? How this is related to how people use their words is, again, completely unspecified so far: we haven’t begun to say anything about how people’s uses are related to the theory or its ontology.

  2. Millianism had a striking plausibility.I think you may be trying to handle multiple, unequal concepts here.I think the confusion or mistake here is a different from conflating applicative meaning and semantic content.

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