Meet My Daughter, Felicity Pragmatics

To my horrible consternation, I was talking to someone yesterday, and had good cause to apply my linguistics knowledge by drawing the vowel chart, and I couldn’t do it. I had that thing up on my wall for years. So clearly what my brother has told me is quite true: I have forgotten more linguistics than most people know.

But, perhaps that’s because I’ve never loved vowels to begin with. Pragmatics, on the other hand, is awesome. Paul Grice is one of my heros. Formal Semantics always bordered on vaguely pointless, but pragmatics – that’s where it’s at.

What’s so enticing, you ask? Well, typically in many disciplines, utterances stand and fall on their veracity. And this is perfectly valid. We need to know about truth and falsehood. So it’s useful to talk about truth conditions. On the other hand, many utterances don’t really fit into that rubric. For instance, what do you do with a question? Is it true? Or is it False? How does one handle utterances of the form: “I declare you to be free” or “Please pass the salt.”?

This is where felicity conditions come in really handy. [For the moment we will lay aside the fact that they dovetail splendidly with my other favorite thing, speech acts]. Felicity conditions are conditions which need to be met for the utterance to be properly functional in the conversation. For example, it’s quite a different thing for President Schapiro to say, on graduation day, “I confer upon you the Degree of Bachelor of Arts, with all the rights, privileges, and responsible thereto appertaining” that if a drunk frat boy said the same thing.

In the case where you have worked hard for 4 years, and Schapiro makes that utterance, all the conditions are met, such that it is a felicitous utterance. On the other hand, the frat boy doesn’t have the authority to confer a degree upon you, so his utterance is infelicitous.

But, what I’m really hear to talk about is emotions.

It seems like a really common thing these days to talk about emotions in a highly polarized way. There’s “positive” ones, like happiness and love, and “negative” ones, like anger and sadness. Then, as a result, we should, in our grand pursuit of happiness and stuff, strive to eliminate negative emotions from our life, and fill them with positive ones.

I think this is complete rubbish.

This is like trying to say that “Please pass the salt.” is true or false. It just doesn’t work that way. I think emotions fall more in the felicitous and infelicitous camp.

For instance, it would be particularly odd if, after witnessing a terrible disaster, you were elated. Or, if on the death of someone you loved, you did not suffer any grief, but were rather filled with inexplicable delight. Or imagine someone mourning the birth of their first child. We would think that something had gone terribly wrong.

Every emotion has a place in our lives.

But, like utterances, they have felicity conditions, that tell us about their appropriateness. For instance, if you win a prize for your great performance at work, by all means it is quite felicitous to be glad. Or, if you are instead wronged and exploited at work, it is reasonable to feel one of those so called “negative” emotions.

Emotions are like pain – negative emotions tell you something bad is going on. Some times it’s not something serious, like if you stub your toe, there is no reason to fly into a rage. On the other hand if you or someone you care about is devastatingly ill, it makes sense that you would feel upset.

What do you guys think?

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2 Responses to Meet My Daughter, Felicity Pragmatics

  1. I enjoyed reading the Grician maxims. They make a lot of sense, and I see why you like that better than formal semantics.

    To me, Grice’s work should be added to the formal semantics, as added information or assumptions.

    But regarding emotions, I think people take them as “negative” when they’re frightened by them, or when the feelings are uncomfortable – felicitous or infelicitous. (Is that literally “happy” or “unhappy”?)

  2. Peter says:

    I think: When did my little sister become so wise!?

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