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Context in communication: A cognitive view

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Context is a controversial concept. Research in philosophy of language, linguistics and cognitive science has shown that the communicative content of an utterance cannot be limited to the conventional content of what is said. The notion of context has assumed a central role in language studies with the ...

Context is a controversial concept. Research in philosophy of language, linguistics and cognitive science has shown that the communicative content of an utterance cannot be limited to the conventional content of what is said. The notion of context has assumed a central role in language studies with the pragmatic turn that has shifted the focus from meaning to speaker’s meaning, a change of paradigm that can be traced back to Wittgenstein’s conception of language use and to the work of philosophers of language like Austin, Grice and Searle. In this framework pragmatics is the place where the intentional aspects of language use are treated. From a cognitive point of view communication is considered as an inferential process based on mental states and shared assumptions. The notion of context is then no more limited to the deictic features of an utterance referring to the spatial and temporal situation in which it occurs. All that contributes to interpret a communicative act beyond the spoken words may, broadly speaking, be included. This can be seen as a critical point. Is this unconstrained definition of context useful? If the background for meaning is all human knowledge, and if all the aspects of human action are potentially involved, aren’t we attempting, in Chomsky’s words, to make the “science of everything”? Are there ways to delimit the notion of context? Is it possible to identify different types of contexts and to make a taxonomy of them? How different types of contexts relate to each other? How is the relevant contextual knowledge acquired? How children learn to deal with different types of contexts? Etc.


We propose two examples. A rather unusual case of context in language meaning is offered by moral sentences. They are well known for defeating the standard truth-apt semantics, because of their strong dependence on the moral attitudes of the speaker. According to expressivism, the currently most popular theory, moral utterances just express emotions, or the acceptance of emotional norms, a position not immune from theoretical difficulties, like the so-called Frege-Geach problem. A different proposal is that moral terms work much like indexicals and their meanings must get filled in by context. What is exactly the context in this case? And to what extent does the similarity with indexicals hold?


Another interesting case is the comprehension of indirect, nonliteral and figurative meaning. Different theories have been proposed to explain how works the interpretation of this kind of communicative acts. However, the fundamental point is that only contextual knowledge allows to draw the distinction between an assertion and an ironic statement or a joke in the case of an utterance like “Paul is a genius”. How can this kind of context be defined?


In this Research Topic we intend to investigate the role of context in communication from different perspectives coming from all the areas of cognitive science. We welcome theoretical contributions, research papers as well as reviews and opinion notes.


Important Note: All contributions to this Research Topic must be within the scope of the section and journal to which they are submitted, as defined in their mission statements. Frontiers reserves the right to guide an out-of-scope manuscript to a more suitable section or journal at any stage of peer review.

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