Event Abstract

Are scalar implicatures a natural kind? Neurocomputational issues in pragmatics

  • 1 University of Catania, Humanistic sciences, Italy

Studies on scalar implicatures have been perhaps the most active line of research in experimental pragmatics. I think that the trajectory of this research is very instructive for future experimental work in this field. The starting point has been a general explanation - rooted in a Gricean framework – which takes seriously what is common to all scalar implicatures at a conceptual level, with the more or less implicit suggestion that there is a common mechanism for their processing. However, there is growing evidence that scalar implicatures behave differently in different linguistic domains. My claim is that this result is far from unexpected if we give due consideration to what we know about the basic neurocomputational mechanisms of the brain. Neuroscientific research is too often prone to a confirmation bias of high-level, functional descriptions, which adopt conceptual similarities as a criterium for the existence of domain-specific processing. As a matter of fact, although our brain is a Hebbian machine always in search of regularities (of what is common), this search is progressive and far from perfect: one may fail to generalize over cases whose similarity is clearly recognizable, and one may also fail to appreciate the higher-level similarity of its own (lower-level) representations and processes. As a consequence, similarities at the conceptual level are not reliable signs of uniformity of processing. These considerations are coherent with a general approach to cognition that puts the explanatory weight more on the organization of memory than on specialized processes. Such an approach is taken by construction-based theories of grammar as well as by Jackendoff – according to whom generativity in language processing depends on the hierarchical structure of linguistic representations. By a discussion of Sauerland and Schumacher (2016), I aim to show that, in the explanation of scalar implicatures (and other pragmatic phenomena), it is common to appeal to explanations in terms of frequency and consequent conventionalization at different levels of abstraction. On the other hand, there are signs that the theoretical implications of that approach are not entirely drawn.


U. Sauerland, P. Schumacher (2016), Pragmatics: Theory and Experiment Growing Together, Linguistische Berichte, 245: 3-24.

Keywords: implicatures;, Hebbian Learning, Neurocomputation, Frequency, abstraction

Conference: XPRAG.it Behavioral and Neural Evidence on Pragmatic Processing , Genoa, Italy, 10 Jun - 11 Jun, 2017.

Presentation Type: Oral Presentation

Topic: Cognitive approaches to pragmatics

Citation: Mazzone M (2019). Are scalar implicatures a natural kind? Neurocomputational issues in pragmatics. Front. Psychol. Conference Abstract: XPRAG.it Behavioral and Neural Evidence on Pragmatic Processing . doi: 10.3389/conf.fpsyg.2017.71.00017

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Received: 10 May 2017; Published Online: 25 Jan 2019.

* Correspondence: Prof. Marco Mazzone, University of Catania, Humanistic sciences, Catania, 95124, Italy, mazzonem@unict.it