Cognition, Conduct & Communication


On the 6-8 October 2011, an international conference, “Cognition, Conduct & Communication”, took place in the University of Łódż, Poland. This was a conference in Pragmatics and a very solid and impressive event. My personal interest lay in getting to know the fundamental conception in pragmatics well enough and to test my own readiness in this field. I had also had an invitation to it from the Organising Committee and my expectations were well rewarded.

Determined to learn of the essentials of Pragmatics, I have had a full view of how the fundamental concept of context in pragmatics has developed since its Firthian inceptions, through socio- and functional linguistics and what its present-day status is. Context was conceived as situational constituents or the circumstances attending speech acts. Many researches saw this concept as a very concrete set of constituents. Professor M.A.K.Halliday argued that context should rather be viewed in more abstract categories and has shown how context determines speech and facilitates understanding.  At the present Conference, Professor Raymond W. Gibbs, Jr., USA, gave a landmark plenary presentation, “A dynamical, self-organized view of context for human action”, in which he argued that the concept of context should move away from its current stringent definition treating it “as the very specific information provided by the surrounding speech, people and their actions, and the local physical/cultural environment”. He also noted that the quest in psycholinguistics “when those different kinds of information influence” the production and understanding of speech are circular or fixed: some of this knowledge is recorded somewhere, while some of the questions can never be resolved by traditional approaches. Professor Gibbs showed that context can best be interpreted by analogy with natural phenomena that build up continuously and without a stringent design but which are elaborate and indicate the intricacy of their interior structure. Therefore a contemporary concept of context should be comprehensive, “one that acknowledges the wide range of simultaneous constraints on how we act and what we say, ranging from evolutionary and historical forces, down to fast-acting cognitive and neural processes”. This concept should envisage continually emerging properties in sophisticated self-organised systems. Taking up with this thought, a listener is encouraged to assume that context should not be seen as a fixed net or pattern laid over speech events in order to interpret them. It should rather allow for flexibility in the perception and interpretation of speech, while simultaneously incorporating multiple factors that combine in historical-cultural and cognitive-psychological processes.

One other paper contributing to the theory of pragmatics was the presentation by Professor Piotr Cap, “Genre (problems) in (political/public) discourse”. Professor Cap took a very straightforward view. He stated that communicative genres have been viewed uncritically as “abstractions, “flexible macrostructures”, activators and realisers of context and assigners of stable interpersonal roles”. A drawback of this concept of genre is that it leads to commonsensical assumptions of discourse involving “conventional use of stable utterance groups which follow recognizable patterns that suit the accomplishment of certain social goals”. Another drawback is that this concept leaves out modern, dynamic, rapidly changing, hybridized and multimodal discourses. Professor Cap proposed to neglect most of the current “generalizations” on discourses. His key idea was to focus the defining generalizations of contemporary political/public discourse on “the theme/function (as opposed to medium/setting)” in their identification.

The essential methodological principle in Pragmatics was drawn in the presentation of Professor  Gabriele Kasper, USA, “From individual difference variables to discursive construction: Talking emotion in a second language”, in which she informed on advancements in conversation analysis and discursive psychology while focusing on the study of “emotion in interaction (seen) as discursive accomplishments”. In this speaker’s view, emotions are not only intrapsychological and neurophysiological. They can rather be viewed as “interactional and rhetorical constructions” because it is always obvious, in a talk, how participants “complain, blame, celebrate success, claim and attribute identities or defend their moral character” while engaging emotion in the process. Apart from the findings in conversation analysis, this presentation has drawn a line on a rigorous requirement to use authentic material in research in Pragmatics. The necessity of this same principle emerged when Professor Gabriele Kasper reacted to the presentation of Rieko Matsuoka,  Japan, whose presentation was entitled “Socio-linguistic analysis of gender and power in the discourse of Japanese healthcare manga”. Rieko Matsuoka spoke of how conventional images of a female nurse or doctor are confirmed and amplified on in a series of Japanese comic strips called manga. She said that the fictional episodes analysed reflected well realistic verbal communication in Japan and confirmed the conventional images of females.  Professor Gabriele Kasper rejected the truth value of Rieko Matsuoka’s findings while demanding that such a study required authentic verbal communication or interviews to render authentic testimony of the language, social relations and respective images. (These statements have fixed for me the condition of the necessity to use only authentic recorded English speech for research purposes in Pragmatics).

The correction and alteration of my own experience continued with the reaction of the audience to the material of the presentation, “The Limits of Implicature in the Phatic Use of English” given by Marija Liudvika Drazdauskiene. The Americans present in the audience questioned the authenticity of my material illustrating spoken English, which was old and which they identified as purely British – “We don’t speak so”, was their final judgment.  I have also noticed myself that most of my observations on the transferred sense of the phatic use of English and on the meaning of irony in speech was not new in Pragmatics – I confirmed something known on the new material. Another part of my material which included minor quotations from informal communication and correspondence was not criticized, but the unrelenting  principles of Pragmatics have been prescribed to me for good.

Numbers of minor papers presented at this conference cannot be reviewed comprehensively here; they included papers on humour, gender and power in language, child language, pragmatics in language teaching and others. Most of them were based on empirical particulars of concrete research.

The reception at the University of Łódż was excellent, my room in the Conference Centre of the University was very fine – a modern, nicely furnished comfortable suite with conveniences. A tour round the city of Łódż familiarized the Conference participants with the historical cotton industry of the place, the unique Manufaktura, with the Factory Museum and the old houses which exhibit the printing press that produced for the Solidarnośc, with its modern enterprises and centres, and with its film industry, the “HolyŁódż”, as we were encouraged to believe. The participants also learned the story of Artur Rubinstein, saw Herbst’s place and the Park. Back at the Conference Centre, my impressions of the academic life and research at the University of Łodż have remained related to the finesse and friendliness of the Conference Organisers and participants.