After Delhi

The 13th International Pragmatics Conference ended two days ago. I’m back in Finland, but my mind is still simmering wildly in trying to make coherent sense of Delhi.

Come to think of it, Delhi is quite like Pragmatics.

The coherence of the field of pragmatics is of course there in the study of language use, the study of language function, of context, contexts and contextualization in relation to communication. But within this general idea that unites us, there is a wealth of perspectives, not of static discord or dissonance, but of dynamic anarchy. And this is how we want it. Contextualization is a process – in speech, writing, signing and in e-communicating. And it is this amoebic coherence filled with unexpected turns that gets us coming to the IPrA conferences year after year.

Thank you all once, twice, always, for joining us in Delhi, and for thereby realizing the IPrA goal of reaching out to other (academic) cultures, and doing our own little bit in bringing people and understanding closer together – not only in order to make the world a better place to live in, but also in order to understand ourselves better. As Rabindranath Thakur so eloquently expressed this in one of his songs,

The traveller has to knock at every alien door to come to his own,
and one has to wander through all the outer worlds
to reach the innermost shrine at the end.

Rukmini Bhaya Nair and her crew emerged as an embodiment of the Indian spirit of diversity in tranquil unity. We are forever grateful to all of you for giving us this experience.

I look forward to seeing you all in the last week of July 2015 in Antwerp for the 14th International Pragmatics Conference.

Appreciation and respect – on the occasion of April 30, 2012

I just returned from celebrating IPrA’s Secretary General’s 60th birthday. This was a small-scale dinner where we (Michael Meeuwis, the John Benjamins crowd, and myself) handed over a “Festschrift” that you all had helped put together – some of you by writing important state-of-the-art articles, most of you by putting your names in the Tabula gratulatoria – all in appreciation of Jef Verschueren’s invaluable work for the whole field of pragmatics. A “Festschrift” may seem like a ghost from the 19th century, but surely pragmatics deserves one, and I know Jef appreciated it – and that is what counts. (Cf. http://www.benjamins.com/#catalog/books/z.170/presentation)

All this made me think of how important it is to express one’s appreciation of one’s colleagues’ work, and of the groundbreaking research and advances that our predecessors in pragmatics and in linguistics generally have made. Without them our field would not be what it is. This comes close to being a tautology, but time and again we need to remind ourselves of our past, and give due recognition to our forerunners.

True, there will always be debates about who the scholars are who have “most significantly” advanced a field; something the editors of a volume like that offered to Jef the other day are more than frightfully aware of. But, alas, one does one’s best – openly, and in the hope that others will react.

These days it seems that the very idea of giving recognition to previous generations is not always that obvious; it is almost becoming a rule in the humanities and social sciences, too, that innovation is what matters, that showing that earlier findings are “wrong” will get you fame. Ideals from the natural sciences are taking over. But in all scientific endeavors, innovation builds on earlier findings: minimally, you have to recognize your past in order to go forward.

This is not to say that the past is “the good old days”, or that younger generations are worse than we ourselves were in this respect. But we need to evaluate whether innovation and publication per se promote understanding – especially in our field.

Thus, Chomsky might have wanted to break with structuralism, but in a longer perspective, many of us feel that there was no real break, no paradigm shift at all in the late 1950s. Discourse analysis wanted to make a very clear break with the text linguistics of the early 1970s – but today any distinction in these terms seems unworkable. CA and ethnomethodology gave a fresh look at language use when it became known to most of us in the mid and late 1970s; but much research on spoken language had been done in linguistics before that. And so on. What sometimes worries me is that coming up with a new name, a new brand, for one’s ideas is on occasion used as a justification for not having to read or get acquainted with earlier important – but “old-fashioned” – advances within one’s area of research.

On a slightly different note: we are all students of language and communication. Still, in pragmatics many feel that minimalism needs to be stayed away from at all costs; and minimalisms will typically not consider work on “communication” relevant for “linguistics”. Sure, the ideologies and background assumptions are different, but the work that is being done is surely valid. We do not want “pragmatics” to become a religion that can’t be criticized even from within; neither should we treat other approaches as religious or fanatic.

What tends to happen in the humanities and social sciences is that oppositions peter out and become gradient; what were once new insights get integrated with our understanding of the field as a whole – conflicting views can live fairly happily together in the humanities and social sciences. That’s our strength.

That said, we are academics and it is therefore self-evident that all attempts to put forward bold, new and risky proposals (even though they might on occasion end up going wrong) are naturally extremely laudable and important in order to gain a deeper understanding of language and communication.

Congratulations, Jef, on becoming of age – with appreciation and deep respect for what you’ve done – so far!

Statement March 15, 2012

Like most of us involved in doing scientific work, I would like to think that I have an open mind with respect to different kinds of approaches to the study of language use and language function. In this field in particular it is, however, easy to presume that one’s views are so obvious that they must be shared by many others. Partly as a response to the IPrA secretariat’s suggestion that the president of IPrA would do good to keep up a blog (something I have never done before), but mostly because I think it is fair to the members of IPrA that they get some idea of how their president for the next six years thinks about pragmatics, I thought I’ll off and on try to jot down some of my views on language and communication, and most of all, on issues related to IPrA.

Let me start today by trying to spell out how I see pragmatics and IPrA. And I would be extremely happy if people objected to and criticized what I am saying. I mean it. (And I apologize in advance for the headings I’m using below – they in themselves portray me as something very different from what I think of myself as being and doing. But I need to start somewhere.)

Vision
I would like to see the day come when all work in and on language takes issues of pragmatics into account – at all stages of analysis. In line with the expressed aim of IPrA “to represent the field of pragmatics in its widest interdisciplinary sense as a functional (i.e. cognitive, social, and cultural) perspective on language and communication” it is important that work in all subfields of language and communication integrates language function into its descriptions, simulations, and explanations from the very start – and do not “add on” function and context as an afterthought after a particular analysis has been done.

Mission
I take seriously Charles W. Morris’s idea that we need to move in the direction of finding a “unified” view of how language and communication work. Since I see language as a yin-yang dynamic amoeba, with one “force” requiring stability and norms, while the other stresses creativity and free will, I would not spend a lot of effort on finding the “truth” in terms of a strictly coherent framework for pragmatics, but rather stress the importance of a unified search for understanding (of language, and through language).

Strategies
I want to enhance the search for balance among different approaches within pragmatics. I relish creativity, innovativeness and risk-taking (although I know these are buzz-words, and as such almost meaningless), but not at the expense of doing unsystematic work. I am not a friend of fluffiness. We need to collaborate with researchers in other fields, but we also have to have a very strong feeling of identity amongst ourselves, and trust that what we do is indeed essential for an in-depth understanding of how we communicate. This trust in the importance of what we do has to be relayed to our students and future generations of scholars in language and communication.

Values
We are (most typically) dealing with human beings as our informants, co-participants, as our “research objects”, if you want. We are, in other words as subjects working on representations of ourselves. This means that whatever we say will be subject to interpretation (by ourselves and others), and this in turn means that we cannot ever lose sight of the importance of issues of responsibility, accountability and agency in our daily work, nor of the influence (on our “object of study”) of the interventions we take part in as we carry out our empirical day-to-day work. Due to the general topic of our work, we cannot either at any time neglect (or not take responsibility for) the impact that our work may have in the form of its social relevance and application in practical situations.

I do think that work on all fronts is needed within pragmatics. I am just as excited about new ways of formalizing grammar (as long as it takes language function into account) as I am about new findings in emergent grammar. I also refuse to think that monologically and dialogically oriented pragmatics scholars can’t sit and talk sensibly at the same table and achieve important results about how language and communication work. Essentialists, interactivists and emergentists, or, empirical-analytically, historical-hermeneutically, and social-scientifically oriented scholars have equally important contributions to make – as long as these contributions are made in a scholarly fashion (with established methodologies, or with new, inspiring, but systematic methods).

And finally, but most importantly, it goes without saying that different languages and cultures need to be taken as equal contributors in our search for a deeper understanding of language and communication. I here see IPrA as a forerunner, but much more work has to be done; and holding the next IPrA conference in New Delhi, India is an excellent step in the right direction (if I may say so myself).

I will do my best to work for IPrA and for pragmatics during my time as president. And I am naturally willing to change my preconceived views on language function if and when you persuade me that I am “wrong”, or that my view is too narrow. I welcome responses.