In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Cognitive Pragmatics

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews and Edited Books
  • General Theories
  • Modularity
  • Mind-Reading and Communicative Intentions
  • Inferences
  • Consciousness and Executive Functions
  • Semantics/Pragmatics: Literalism versus Contextualism
  • Lexical Meanings and Concepts

Linguistics Cognitive Pragmatics
Marco Mazzone
  • LAST REVIEWED: 21 February 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 21 February 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199772810-0303


If pragmatics is the study of human communication (with a specific focus on verbal language) in context, cognitive pragmatics can be defined as the study of the psychological processes and states involved in that activity. As a matter of fact, however, its focus is almost exclusively on language understanding, while very little attention has been paid to language production. Cognitive pragmatics has grown out of a tradition rooted in philosophy and linguistics. Philosophical pragmatics has especially provided two general frameworks. One is Paul Grice’s theory, according to which comprehension is essentially an inferential process, through which the addressee reconstructs the communicative intention behind the speaker’s use of a certain utterance in context. Grice coins the word “implicature” to refer to this inferential transition from what the utterance conventionally says to what the speaker intends with it in a specific context. The other framework is John Austin’s theory of speech acts, which stays closer to Wittgenstein’s idea that utterances are to be understood as components of linguistic games, that is, they gain their specific contextual meaning against the background of (more or less) conventional activities the speakers are engaged in. Within philosophical pragmatics, a synthesis of the two approaches has been proposed by Strawson and Searle, but while Grice’s framework has deeply influenced the development of psychologically oriented research in pragmatics, Austin’s approach is often preferred by scholars who claim to be interested in normative, rather than psychological, views of language use. Starting from Grice’s framework, cognitive pragmatics has gone beyond him in exploring the idea that there must be some specific psychological mechanism responsible for the contextual, intention-based inferences involved in comprehension, and that this is what ensures a theoretically robust definition of pragmatics as distinct from semantics. This theoretical investigation of the mechanism(s) underlying pragmatic understanding is older than their relatively recent experimental assessment, whether by psycholinguistic methods (experimental pragmatics in a strict sense) or by neuroscientific and clinical ones (neuropragmatics and clinical pragmatics). Here the focus will be on this theoretical level of description—we might describe it as theoretical psychology of (verbal) understanding—in a middle ground between traditional philosophical pragmatics and more recent experimental pragmatics.

General Overviews and Edited Books

Cognitive pragmatics is singularly lacking in introductory presentations of the field. Bara 2010, Bara 2011, Mazzone 2018 (all cited under General Theories) are some papers and books which have “cognitive pragmatics” as their main title but whose focus, in fact, is less on providing a comprehensive and impartial state of the art than on arguing in favor of their own perspectives (although not without extended discussion of others’): which is why they are listed in General Theories. The closest thing to genuine introductions to the field are Domaneschi and Bambini 2020 and Panther 2022, while Mazzone 2021 lies somewhere in the middle. Besides them, Dominiek, et al. 2009, Horn and Ward 2004, and Schmid 2012 are edited volumes, and Carston, et al. 2002 is the introduction to a special issue of the journal Mind & Language dedicated to pragmatics and cognitive science. Two possible explanations for this long-standing gap in the literature are (i) the fact that, until the relatively recent development of experimental pragmatics, cognitive approaches to the subject have scarcely been perceived as clearly distinct from philosophical-linguistic ones, and (ii) the attractive force of Relevance Theory (see General Theories), which has already satisfied the need for a widely shared paradigm on the cognitive side.

  • Carston, R., S. Guttenplan, and D. Wilson. 2002. Introduction: Special issue on pragmatics and cognitive science. Mind & Language 17.1–2: 1–2.

    DOI: 10.1111/1468-0017.00185

    Very short introduction to the special issue on pragmatics and cognitive science, it makes explicit the common commitment toward the claim that pragmatics belongs within cognitive science; it also identifies as key topics (i) the existence of a modular cognitive system for pragmatics and its relation to mind-reading; (ii) the distinctions between semantics and pragmatics, and between explicit and implicit communication. The issue contains some seminal papers on these topics.

  • Domaneschi, F., and V. Bambini. 2020. Pragmatic competence. In The Routledge handbook of philosophy of skill and expertise. Edited by E. Fridland and C. Pavese, 419–430. London: Routledge.

    Useful short introduction to cognitive and experimental pragmatics, with a focus on the Gricean view and the fact that pragmatic processing needs to be supported by mind-reading and other cognitive functions in ways that differ across pragmatic tasks.

  • Dominiek, S., J. O. Östman, and J. Verschueren, eds. 2009. Cognition and pragmatics. Amsterdam: Benjamins.

    One of the ten volumes of Handbook of Pragmatics Highlights published by Benjamins. Essentially an introduction to psycholinguistics, with chapters dedicated to such general topics as language acquisition, cognitive science, experimentation, and developmental psychology.

  • Horn, L., and G. Ward, eds. 2004. The handbook of pragmatics. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.

    The last of its four sections is specifically dedicated to “Pragmatics and Cognition” (it hosts, among other things, updated presentations of Relevance Theory by Wilson and Sperber, and by Carston), but also in the other sections there are significant papers on cognitive pragmatics.

  • Mazzone, M. 2021. Cognitive pragmatics. In The Routledge handbook of cognitive linguistics. Edited by X. Wen and J. R. Taylor, 433–449. London: Routledge.

    Brief overview of the field focusing on which aspects of Grice’s theory are still alive in cognitive pragmatics, especially addressing Grice’s legacy, Relevance Theory, the debate between contextualism and minimalism, the role of consciousness in pragmatics, and recent objections against inferential pragmatics and (communicative) intentions.

  • Panther, H. U. 2022. Introduction to cognitive pragmatics. Amsterdam: Benjamins.

    DOI: 10.1075/clip.4

    Comprehensive textbook, looking at both the pragmatic tradition (Gricean implicature, speech act theory) and cognitive linguistics. Considerable space is dedicated to inferences and pragmatic reasoning, with a basic distinction between analogical reasoning (involved in metaphor) and associative reasoning (involved in metonymy). Inferences are analyzed as a source of meaning construction in entailment and presupposition, and in cases of metonymic inferencing—which has been a major contribution of the author to the field.

  • Schmid, H. J., ed. 2012. Cognitive pragmatics. Berlin and New York: De Gruyter Mouton.

    Edited book with twenty-one contributions from top researchers in their respective fields. Its underlying conception of cognitive pragmatics is in terms of construal of meaning-in-context, with room for key pragmatic theories (Relevance Theory, graded salience hypothesis), intercultural pragmatics and research on pragmatic disorders, but with several contribution also from psycholinguistics (spanning from processing of pragmatic information in discourse to the development of pragmatic competence) and from cognitive linguistics (e.g., the emergence of linguistic structures).

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