Argumenta – Journal of Analytic Philosophy

Pragmatics, modularity and epistemic vigilance [Special Issue]

Topics: Epistemology, Philosophy of mind
Keywords: epistemic vigilance, modularity, pragmatics


The cognitive revolution, which from the early ’60s shaped the domains of linguistics, anthropology, psychology and related disciplines, manifested its effect in the field of pragmatics with the seminal work of Sperber and Wilson (1986/1995). Among many other issues, Sperber and Wilson brought to the attention of the pragmatics community the question of the place of pragmatic abilities in the overall architecture of the mind. At that time, Fodor had already suggested that human cognitive architecture is partly modular (Fodor 1983) by introducing the functional and architectural distinction between modular perceptual and linguistic processors, on the one hand, and non-modular higher level central processes, on the other. This gave rise to the interesting question of whether pragmatics is to be thought of as a domain-specific modular system or as part of a domain-general central system.

This paper addresses the question of the place of pragmatic abilities in the overall architecture of the mind. Until recently, pragmatics was assumed to be part of a non-modular, unencapsulated, central system. Sperber and Wilson (2002) have proposed that pragmatics is to be conceived of as a sub-module of the mindreading module, with its own principles and  mechanisms. This is in line with an increasingly modular view of the mind (Cosmides & Tooby 1992, 1994; Sperber 1994b, 2001, 2005; i.a.), according to which cognition consists of many dedicated domain-specific mechanisms or ‘conceptual  modules’, highly interconnected with each other. This paper focuses on the connection between the pragmatics module and epistemic vigilance mechanisms, that is, mechanisms that assess the quality of the incoming information and the reliability of the individual who dispenses it (Sperber et al. 2010). The latter take as their proprietary input the output of the pragmatics module and assess its believability. This paper makes two original proposals: first, that epistemic vigilance mechanisms may directly affect the comprehension process, and, second, that the emergence of epistemic vigilance mechanisms targeted at assessing the communicator’s competence and benevolence may correlate with different  developmental stages in pragmatics.


  Click here to download full article