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A Dynamical, Self-Organized View of the Context for Linguistic Performance

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Most everyone agrees that context is critical to the pragmatic interpretation of speakers’ utterances. But the enduring debate within cognitive science concerns when context has its influence in shaping people’s interpretations of what speakers imply by what they say. Some scholars maintain that context is only referred to after some initial linguistic analysis of an utterance has been performed, with other scholars arguing that context is present at all stages of immediate linguistic processing. Empirical research on this debate is, in my view, hopelessly deadlocked. My goal in this article is to advance a framework for thinking about the context for linguistic performance that conceives of human cognition and language use in terms of dynamical, self-organized processes. A self-organizational view of the context for linguistic performance demands that we acknowledge the multiple, interacting constraints which create, or soft-assemble, any specific moment of pragmatic experience. Pragmatic action and understanding is not producing or recovering a “meaning” but a continuously unfolding temporal process of the person adapting and orienting to the world. I discuss the implications of this view for the study of pragmatic meaning in discourse.

Affiliations: 1: University of California, Santa Cruz, USA


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