NOTES ON THE MEANING OF
C. George SANDULESCU
(Informal Seminars held at the University of Stockholm in
1977-1978 as part of the joint sessions of the Departments of Psychology and of
He laughed because he thought they could not hit him—
he did not imagine that they were practising how to miss him. (Brecht.)
All men use the same words, but they do not understand
one another. And it is useless for men to try to ‘reach an agreement’ on the
meanings of words. (Octavio Paz, translated by Sam.
1. On the Method.
The title of the present discussion is patterned on
Austin’s wellknown essay ‘The Meaning of a Word’ (1940). The method to be
adopted in this investigation is that of ‘linguistic phenomenology’, as
sketchily, but clearly outlined by the same John Austin is the following
passage from ‘A plea for Excuses’ (1956), and which ultimately derives from the
work of Husserl (1900-1901; 1913):
1970: 181-2)Words are our tools, and, as a minimum, we should use clean tools:
we should know what we mean and what we
do not, and we must forearm ourselves against the traps that language sets us.
Secondly, word are not (except in their own little corner) facts or things: we
need therefore to prise them off the world, to hold them apart and against it,
so that we can realize their inadequacies and arbitrariness, and can re-look at
the world without blinkers.
of course, the work of Wittgenstein, who notes on the very first page of his Lectures
on Aesthetics, first published in Oxford only in 1966—
…) I have often compared language
to a tool chest, containing a hammer, chisel, matches, nails, screws, glue. It
is not a chance that all these things have been put together—but there are
important differences between the different tools…
discussion which follows is indicative of a genuine and acute need for a
special multi-disciplinary investigation to deal with ‘communication’, in its
real everyday usage by the scientists, which is over and beyond mere dictionary
definitions. These lecture notes only give a bare outline of the area of
research, and claim neither completeness nor consistency.
concept of ‘Communication’ enters late into the field of theoretical
linguistics, perhaps as late as 1971, with Dell Hymes’s analysis of
‘communicative competence’ (as opposed to Chomsky’s ‘linguistic competence’. In
this way, the history of the theoretical construct ‘communication’ is strongly
analogous to that of ‘presupposition’, which was extensively discussed by Frege
in the 1890’s (cf also Husserl’s Principle of Presuppositionless Understanding,
formulated in 1900), but paradoxically, the first true linguist to take it up
did so only around 1968 (cf George Lakoff, 1968, ‘Presupposition and Relative
2. Sample Problems.
Let us begin with a few
EXAMPLE 1 (Degree of Communication
a. Suppose a man
is driving his car along a country road. b. Suddenly he sees a house on
fire. c. In front of it, an old farmer is working away in his garden,
his back turned to the house. d. The driver stops the car, puts his head
out of the window, and shouts at the old man—‘Your house is on fire !’ e. The farmer waves his hand in a
friendly gesture at the driver, while the car is dashing away; then he sighs,
and goes on digging in his garden, sufficiently far from the house not to
notice anything. (The old man is quite, quite deaf.)
QUESTION at this stage: Did the driver communicate
with the old man ?
f. An unseen neighbour, inside the house next door, had
heard the driver’s message (though it was not at all intended for him); he
dashes out of the house, runs across to the house on fire, and puts the fire
QUESTION at this stage: Did the driver put across
his message ?
tend to give a negative answer to the question as formulated after stage (e),
and an answer in the affirmative to the same question as paraphrased after
stage (f). This question (in its both paraphrase variants),
though it may sound very practical, has far-reaching implications for
Communication Research: the driver indeed managed to put across his meaning
(that being due mainly to chance that a neighbour happened to overhear the
message !), but The Intentionality Requirement
has been violated.
EXAMPLE 2 : Degree of Communication Failure:
Suppose Adam writes a letter to Bertil proposing a joint
venture and inviting Bertil’s
participation. Bertil replies in the
affirmative, but the letter is lost in the mail. After a while Adam concludes
that Bertil is ignoring his invitation, and resolves to disrgard him in turn.
Bertil, on the other hand, feels offended that his answer is being ignored, and
also decides not to contact Adam any more. From this point of view their silent
enmity may last for ever, unless they decide to investigate what happened to
their respective communications, that is, unless they begin to
meta-communicate. Only then will they find out that Adam did not KNOW that
Bertil had replied, while Bertil did not know that his reply had never reached
can be seen, in this example a fortuitous outside event interfered with the
congruency of Move Sequentialization.
EXAMPLE 3. Degree of Communication
Suppose Ada and Bertie are talking on the telephone, and
they are unexpectedly cut off after three minutes. They both want the
connection restored immediately, which it will be if and only if one of them
calls back while the other one waits. It matters little to either of them
whether she is the one to call back or the one to wait. They must
each choose whether to call back, each according to the expectation of the
other’s choice, in order to call back if and only if the other one waits. Which
N.B. The analysis
of this example should be done in terms of Move
Expectation in game theory.
EXAMPLE 4. MetaCommunication as
Suppose that the husband, while alone at home, receives a
long-distance call from a friend who said he would be in the area for a few
days. The husband immediately invites the friend to stay at their home, knowing
that his wife would also welcome this friend and that, therefore, she would
have done the same thing. When the wife comes home, a bitter quarrel arises
over the invitation the husband had extended to the friend. Upon analysis, both
husband and wife agreed that to invite the friend was the most appropriate
thing to do. They were perplexed to find out that they agreed, and yet
disagreed on what appeared to be the very same issue.
conflict in communication ultimately arose from an argument essentially of the
type—‘Well, you may be right, but you are wrong because you are arguing with me
!’. In other words, they disagreed on the metaCommunicational
level—i.e. from the point of view of the ‘relationship’, but
tried to resolve the disagreement on the content level.
EXAMPLE 5. Report versus Command:
(a) Let A, B, and C be a linear chain of neurons. Then the
firing of neuron B is both a report that neuron A has fired, and a command for
neuron C to fire.
The message “It is important to release the clutch gradually and smoothly” and
“Just let the clutch go, it’ll ruin the transmission in no time !” have
approximately the same information content (i.e. the report aspect) (i.e. STAND
IN A CLEAR PARAPHRASE RELATION), but they obviously define very different
analysis of these two examples leads us to the two operations which have come
to be known as the Report and the Command aspects of any communication.
EXAMPLE 6. Man-Animal Communication:
(a) If the foot of a walking man hits a
pebble, energy is transferred from the foot to the stone; the latter will be
displaced, and will eventually come to rest again in a position which is fully
determined by such factors as the amount of energy transferred, the shape and
weight of the pebble, and the nature of the surface on which it rolls.
(b) If, on the other hand, the man kicks a
dog instead of the pebble, the dog may jump and bite him. In this case, the
relation between the kick and the bite is of a very different order. It is
obvious that the dog takes the energy for his reaction from his own metabolism
and not from the kick. What is transferred, therefore, is no longer energy, but
Hence, Communication is to
be roughly defined as “an exchange of
information”, and never as a “tranfer of energy”.
What then remains to be defined is the
notion of Information (instead of,
or alongside with, that of
EXAMPLE 7. Intentionality:
If someone has his toes stepped on by another, it makes a
great deal of difference to him whether the other’s behaviour was deliberate or
unintentional. This view, however, is based on his own evaluation of the other
person’s motives and, therefore, on assumptions about what goes inside the
other’s head. And, of course, if he were to ask the other about his motives, he
could still not be certain, for the other individual might claim his behaviour was unconscious when he had
meant it to be deliberate, or even claim it was deliberate when in fact it was
All this brings us to the question of Attribution of Meaning.
EXAMPLE 8. Violation—ostentatious
or not—of Gricean Maxims:
Suppose two strangers are accidentally brought together: one
of them wants to make conversation and the other does not—for instance, two
airplane passengers sitting next to each other. Let passenger A be the one who
does not want to talk. There are two things he cannot do: (a) he cannot
physically leave the field, and (b) he cannot NOT communicate.
The Pragmatics of this communicative situation are
narrowed down to the following three alternatives: Alternative One.
‘Rejection’ of communication: Passenger A can make it clear to passenger B,
more or less bluntly, that he is not interested in conversation. Since by the
rules of good behaviour this is reproachable, it will require courage and will
create a rather strained and even embarrassing silence, so much so that a
relationship with B has not in fact been avoided. Alternative Two.
Acceptance of communication: Passenger A may give in and make conversation
after all. In all probability he will hate himself and the other person for his
own weakness. But once A has started to respond, he will find it increasingly
difficult to stop. Alternative Three. Disqualification of communication:
A may choose to defend himself by means of the technique of disqualification,
i.e. he may communicate in a way that invalidates his own communications or
those of the other. Disqualifications cover a wide range of communicational
phenomena: (a) self-contradictions, (b) inconsistencies, (c) subject switches,
(d) tangentializations, (e) incomplete sentences, (f) deliberate
misunderstandings, (g) literal interpretation of metaphor, (h) metaphorical
interpretation of literal statement etc. (cf also another type of analysis in
terms of (1) Confirmation, (2) Rejection (i.e. “You are wrong !”), and (3)
Disconfirmation (i.e. “You do not exist !”) .
EXAMPLE 9. Semantic Approximation:
(WIFE) (ASIDE) I think I have
a very cute smile . . .
(WIFE) I’ve never heard you
say I have a cute smile . . . Do you think I have a cute smile ?
(HUSBAND) Oh, yes, I think you have the cutest smile of anyone
since the world began . . .
(WIFE) (ASIDE) Even when he says it, he does not say it !
we tend to obtain here is the concept of Zero
Information of a given message, the message thus becoming a
‘dummy message’. This is more often than not achieved on the basis of the Principle of Semantic Approximation.
EXAMPLE 10: The Christmas Dinner Language Game.
Suppose there are four players, say, having
Christmas Dinner—call them Ada, Bertie, Cissa, and Dave. They indulge in two
distinct kinds of communication: (a) bilateral (with only two players
involved), and (b) general (with all four players involved). There are two
distinct operations that they all perform: (c) reception, and (d) production.
In production, the players can only resort to two kinds of moves: (e)
initiating moves, or (f) responding moves. The players’ knowledge of languages
is as follows: A knows two languages—Swedish and German; C knows three
languages—Rumanian, French, and German; B knows four languages—Swedish,
English, French, and German; and finally D knows five languages—English,
Swedish, Rumanian, French and German.
QUESTION at this stage: What is the language pattern for general communication ? Restrictions: (a) B and D refuse to speak German, though their
level of communication is quite high; (b) C half-refuses to speak German, using
it exclusively for bilateral communication; (c) there is a close correlation
Directionality and Code Selection.
EXAMPLE 11. The Never-Explain—A Game as a
Fundamental Communication Game:
Suppose there are two players, call them Candide and
Voltaire, engaged in a game against each other. The very first rule of the game
is that only one of the players should know the rules of the game.Hence, rules
are never explained and neither are they systematically disclosed; but any time
Candide breaks a rule, Voltaire imposes a certain penalty upon him, e.g. go
back to square one etc. (cf epigraph of present paper bu Bertolt Brecht.) In
other words, Candide’s task, in order to win, is to learn absolutely all the
rules of the game through trial and error exclusively, and Voltaire’s task as a
player is to prevent Candide from winning the game. (In a nastier variant,
Voltaire keeps changing the rules so that Candide may never get to learn them.)
The result of this procedue is that slowly and painfully Candide leqrns all the
rules. There is of course a chance that Candide may never learn these rules
(cf butler James in ‘Same Procedure as
Last Year’ endlessly stumbling over the leopard’s head). But the game
necessarily ends—at least in theory—with Candide becoming Voltaire.
QUESTION: Are the
two players entitled to go on playing (what game they play is quite
irrelevant), once Candide has learnt all the rules of the game ? For, as such,
he automatically disqualifies himself from playing the game by virtue of having
violated the very first rule of it …
NOTE: A learner
of Swedish, English, or any other language for that matter, disqualifies
himself from playing the game, once a certain level of proficiency has been
attained, i.e. once he is able to communicate satisfactorily. (The notion of SATISFACTORY COMMUNICATION remains to be
ever-changing rules of the same game, SEE Spying, Secret Service activities,
particularly in war time as well as the drafting of Secret Codes.
Delineation of Semantic Field: Typology of Communication.
There are the following fundamental types of Communication, as expressed by
means of three binary oppositions:
1. [ + HUMAN ] Communication;
2. [ + VERBAL ] Communication; and—
3. [ + INTENTIONAL ] Communication.
Semiotics, and its journal Semiotica, would very
largely deal with the non-verbal variety. Semiology—as a branch of
medicine, sometimes called symptomatology—would handle the unintentional
phenomena, including pathological versus normal communication. Finally, as to
intentionality, it is to Husserl and Brentano that we owe the theoretical
foundations of the concept.
On the basis of
these three fundamental types of communication, we can distinguish the following
1.0 MAN : MAN.
Adult : Adult.
1.2 Adult : Child. #
Mother : Child [+ Boy]…
1.3 Child : Child.
1.4 Man : Woman.
2.0 MAN : NATURE.
2.1 Man : Animal.
2.2 Animal : Animal.
(N.B. Remember William BLAKE—“Where man is not, nature is barren”, in
Marriage of Heaven and Hell.)
MAN : MACHINE.
Man : Machine.
Machine : Machine.
NOTE 1: Across the
categorizations 1.0 to 1.4 lies the distinction NORMAL versus PATHOLOGICAL
Communication, and the linguistic analysis
of Schizophrenese, a type of discourse which leaves it up to the
listener to take his choice from among the many possible meanings which are not
only different from but may even be incompatible with one another.
Categorization 2.2 is a special form of Man/Animal Communication, as Man
invariably functions as ACTIVE OBSERVER of such communication—hence, it
NOTE 3: Under
point 2.0 one should perhaps further distinguish between (a) Communication with
Animate Nature, and (b) Communication with Inanimate Nature (cf
Examples 6 and 7).
NOTE 4: The same
argument as in NOTE 2 applies also to Category 3.2; it applies in a somewhat
modified form, as man is not only active observer, but also (a) artificer (i.e.
inventor and designer) and (b) trigger (cf also two computers endowed with
moral qualities, in the film Star Wars, for instance). cf also Meetham,
ed. 1969 : 49ff).
NOTE 5: In
establishing a communicative pattern, there is also
the question of DIRECTIONALITY OF
PATTERNING in the sense “Who holds the rule-establishing function
The Ultimate Propositional Nature of Communication.
The essence of communication is prepositional. This means that
there is no full-fledged communication below the level of the proposition. This
also means that all communication is in the last analysis reducible (or perhaps
expandable ?) to a prepositional paraphrase. There is, in other words, no
complete communication below the level of the proposition, framed in a speech
act (or rather, a communicative act). Such an attitude may ultimately be,
however, another instance of ‘human imperialism’ (cf Roman Jakobson) over
Lexical signs are very much like phonemes in that they
only carry meaning partially, and only to an extent that allows definition at
meta level. But these meaning-potentials are turned into Husserl’s
‘meaning-fulfillment’ only as part of the communicative act (SEE Discourse
4.3 In their turn, propositions (or propositional paraphrases) are assigned complete meaning only in discourse (as
Segments of discourse).
Principles and Rules of Communication.
The following set of Principles are operational in communicative
5.1 The Cooperative
5.2 The Principle of Expressibility, (Searle).
The Principle of Accessibility.
The Principle of Tolerance, (Bronowski).
The Principle of Semantic Approximation.
The Principle of Inabsolute Certainty, (Bronowski).
The Principle of Presuppositionless Understanding (Husserl).
The Principle of Compulsive Communication, (Watzlawick).
To each of these Principles is added a set of
rules (called Maxims by Grice).
For a more extensive discussion of the notion of Rule, cf Itkonen 1976. Depth
studies of these Principles lead to the clarification of the fundamental
category of Communication. For example, according to the Principle of Tolerance
“all information can be exchanged only within a play of tolerance”; this refers
both to the exchange of information between man and man, and to the exchange of
information between man and nature. According to the Principle of Compulsive
Communication, “one cannot not communicate”, despite popular belief that one
can; even suicide is ultimately a form of communication. According to the
Principle of Accessibility, the rule-establishing role (perhaps the more
institutionalised, and the more dominating) in the interaction decides upon the
level of accessibility; in less formally institutionalised situations, the more
dominating role is that of the message-producing agent. Finally, the Principle of Inabsolute
Certainty avoids the absolute certainty characterizing dogma and dogmatism,
and ensures the right to reject
communication on content grounds across institutionalised barriers; as such it
is related to the Cooperative Principle. In conclusion:
the Principles of Communication (and some of the derived rules) are of two
fundamental kinds: (a) abstract, i.e. remote, or theoretical, or
philosophical; (b) concrete, i.e. immediate, or operational, in essence.
All the principles so far outlined are unified
mainly by their pragmatic importance, which in turn rests not so much on their
particulars as on their interpersonal (rather than individualistic) reference.
Birdwhistell (1959 : 104) has even gone so far as to suggest that—
an individual does
not communicate; he engages in or becomes part of communication. He may move,
or make noises… but he does not communicate. In a parallel fashion, he may see,
he may hear, smell, taste, or feel—but he does not communicate. In other words,
he does not originate communication; he participates in it. Communication as a
system, then, is not to be understood on a simple model of action and reaction,
however complexly stated. As a system, it is to be comprehended on the
‘Communication as a transactional system’ is a
very important conclusion indeed, particularly in the light of systems
theory (cf Emery, ed. 1969).
6. Games People Play.
Communication is a co-ordination problem, in
the David Lewis (1969 : 8ff) sense. There are in fact two fundamental types of
games: (a) games of pure co-ordination (e.g. the relations existing
between the member of one and the same soccer team, or any other team for that
matter, the relations existing between ideal husband and ideal wife, etc); (b)
games of pure conflict (say, the relations existing between two chess
players or two boxers pitched hard against each other; more remotely, the
relations between two soldiers belonging to opposite camps in a proper war
between specified countries). This distinction is of paramount importance, as
Communication is not exclusively a co-ordination game, but rather, in order to
be more accurate, one must say it is a complex combination of both game types:
communicational conflict may easily emerge under the cordial garb of
co-ordination (i.e. smooth and polite rules of behaviour, even among bitter
enemies…). In support of this statement cf EXAMPLE 8: acceptance
/ rejection / disqualification of communication; confirmation / rejection / disconfirmation of communication.
The theory of games is indeed a useful
scaffolding for the analysis of some of the conventional aspects of
communication. But a theory of communication, however far from it we are at the
moment, can be restated without much reference to game theory. However, no
consistent theory of communication could be explicitly stated without reference
to Gricean maxims and principles.
Between pure conflict and pure cooperation,
there is a whole range of possibilities
on the continuum (or cline), as there is also between complete agreement
(i.e. dogma ?) and complete disagreement (i.e. chaos ?). Roman Jakobson
expressed this communicational dichotomy about 50 years ago as follows—
(Jakobson 1960 :
350) The success of a political
convention depends on the general agreement of the majority or totality of its
participants. In a scholarly discussion, however, disagreement generally proves
to be more productive than agreement.
Upon a close analysis of conversational
discourse we indeed detect complicated games of disagreement, carefully disguised
as games of agreement.
Digital and Analogic Communication.
Human beings communicate both digitally and
analogically. Digital language has a
highly complex and powerful syntax, but lacks adequate semantics in the field
of ‘relationship’, while analogic language possesses the semantics, but has no
adequate syntax for the unambiguous definition of the nature of relationships.
What is analogic communication ? The answer is
relatively simple according to Watzlawick (1968 : 62), in that it virtually
covers all non-verbal communication, comprising posture, gesture, facial
expression, voice inflection, the sequence, rhythm, and cadence of the words
themselves, and any other nonverbal manifestation the agent may be capable of;
it may also include all the communicational clues unfailingly present in any
context in which an interaction takes place. As such, animal communication is
to an overwhelming extent analogic communication. Man is the only organism
known to use both the analogic and the digital modes of communication (the
evidence for whales and dolphins is not wholly convincing). All analogic
messages are invocation of ‘relationship’, and as such can carry indications of
love, hate, combat etc, but not truth values.
In digital communication, on the other hand, the level of ‘relationship’ between the agents involved
in the interaction may remain to a large extent undefined (cf EXAMPLE 9). The
bringing of a gift to somebody is undoubtedly a piece of analogic
The actual correlation between the two
modes has been very plainly and simply explained by the very fact that, from
the strict linguistic point of view, speech is made up of discrete and fairly
stable entities—such as phonemes, words, and phrases—whereas in physics
it is seen as a continuum, with entities linearised on the time dimension. It goes without saying that the
distinction Digital vs Analogic is drawn from computer science (and has of late
evolved more than considerably), whereas linguists are more familiar with the binary
opposition Discreteness vs Continuity, as discussed by Stankiewicz
(1957) in his article “On Discreteness and Continuity in Structural
The consistent correlation of Discreteness with
Continuity is still one of the weak points of the Philosophy of Science.
Theoretical vs Applied.
Starting from Husserl’s bipartite division of
sciences into (a) nomological, i.e. abstract, i.e. explanatory, such as
Logic, and Mathematics, and (b) ontological, i.e. concrete, i.e.
descriptive, such as geography, history, astronomy, natural history, anatomy
etc the question is worth elucidating whether communication research belongs to
the former or the latter group (cf Logische Untersuchungen, par.
64). The interesting thing is that Husserl completely disregards today’s ever
so popular division into humanistic and exact sciences, and
introduces instead an ultimately tripartite classification: (a) abstract, (b)
concrete, and (c) normative sciences. The problem is further complicated by the
fact that both communication and linguistics claim that they have features
belonging to all three categories of sciences. Then there is the question of
(a) explanatory power, (b) descriptive power, and (c) normative capacity.
The fundamental proposition of any normative
science is that ‘A should be B’ (cf Husserl’s example ‘A soldier should be
brave’); this is in effect the standard proposition in lexicography—a
branch of linguistics—and of code preservation (i.e. conventionalisation and
standardization) in the field of communication as such. One thing is clear:
Linguistics is a branch of communication in much the same way in which grammar
and lexicography are branches of linguistics; though Chomsky claims that
linguistics is a branch of theoretical psychology (1964 : 112), and
Montague retorts that “the syntax, semantics, and pragmatics of natural
languages are branches of mathematics, not of psychology” (1974 :
Ripping across all the above distinctions, and
thus complicating the picture considerably, is the dichotomy theoretical vs
applied. Symptomatic of the topicality
of this issue is the way is the way it is presented in the very Foreword to The
Encyclopaedia of Linguistics, Information, and Control (1969), which is
indeed the most ambitious attempt to date with a view to presenting a
consistent survey of communication research and integrate linguistics into it.
Here is what it says about application in linguistics:
(Meetham 1969 : XII)
‘Applied linguistics’ covers all aspects of the application of the theory and
techniques of linguistics to specific practical purposes, e.g. modern language
teaching, speech therapy, information retrieval, communication technology, and
machine translation […] A frequent mistake is the identification of applied
linguistics with general linguistics.
After all this discussion we are still left
with an open question as regards the exact status of communication
research. Is it ontological and applied alongside with anatomy, mineralogy, or
meteorology ? Or does it share more than a touch of normativity together with
ethics and education ? Finally, is it endowed with any explanatory power at
all, or is it for the time being restricted to description only ? Explicit answers to these questions are
relevant not only for the philosophy of science, but also for the future of
each and everyone of our disciplines—be it psychology or linguistics, ethology
and education, child language or Scandinavian studies. Further genuine progress
in the field of communication directly depends upon the further clarification
of fundamental theoretical constructs, the theoretical status of the
discipline, and the hierarchical relations with all the other branches of
science. The status of communication as it emerges from the latest discussions
and studies should unfortunately be described as merely ontological and
applied, and endowed with less than minimal explanatory power.
means “exchange of information”. This shifts the definitional load to exchange
and information—both of them fundamental pragmatic categories. Regarding
exchange one must emphasize reciprocation (“There is no communication in
absolute solitude”), and regarding information one must emphasize relativity
(“What is information to you is not necessarily information to me”).
is a transactional system” is a very important conclusion, particularly in the
light of systems theory. Hence, the significance of Birdwhistell’s “An individual does not communicate” (q.v.).
The transitive use of the verb communicate is, in Austin’s terms, tantamount to
a dirty tool.
is a wide meaning of communication, and there is a narrow meaning of
greatest problem still to be solved by the philosophy of science in order to
promote a genuine advance in communication research is the establishment of a
consistent correlation between Discreteness and Continuity as two
complementary modes of carrying information. This open question is theoretical,
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