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Book review

Context as Other Minds

Givón, T. 2005. Context as Other Minds. The Pragmatics of Sociality, Cognition and Communication. Amsterdam: John Benjamins

Reviewed by Antoine Gautier, Paris-Sorbonne University

According to its author, Mind, Code and Context (Givón 1989) failed to reach one of its objectives: It did not succeed in generalizing pragmatics so as to study individual and collective framing of reality from a similar perspective. That is what Context as Other Minds (Givón 2005) aims to make up for, relying on Theories of Mind and recent data from neuroscience. Thus, the book intends to set the basis for a vast program of re-positioning "pragmatics, and most conspicuously the pragmatics of culture, sociality and communication in a neuro-cognitive, bio-adaptive, evolutionary context."

Context as Other Minds consists of ten chapters organized into four parts. The first part reminds the reader of the main historical steps and concepts of pragmatics. The second part (Chapters 2 and 3) studies how generic mental categories are acquired in order to build the mental lexicon. The third part (Chapters 4 through 7) describes context as the "on-line construction of the interlocutor's belief and intention states" and considers grammar as a set of cues activating predefined states of belief in the mind of the addressee. The last part extends pragmatics to the philosophy of science (Chapter 8) and cognitive psychology (Chapter 9), mainly by using the cases of schizophrenia and autism. Lastly, the tenth chapter brings martial arts and pragmatics together in accordance with their common strategic feature.

In the first chapter, the author reviews the major problems of pragmatics and then sketches a brief history of the discipline. At first, he attempts to clarify the concept of "context". For that, he has to cope with the objectivism/relativism alternative, because certain distrust of pragmatics is founded upon its presumed "unbridled relativism" and consecutively leads to the opposite position of extreme objectivism. The author manages to resolve this dilemma by establishing that "context is a subjective construct" and that its relevance is finally determined by evolution. But the real object of Givón's work is to study context explicitly as "the construal of other minds", and not only as the objective setting of a communication. Afterwards, the chapter outlines the history of pragmatics. Before Kant, whose work may be seen as the "opening to modern pragmatics", pragmatics chiefly consisted of a struggle between Rationalists and Empiricists. Once the middle course was revealed by Kant, C. S. Peirce established the real bases of the discipline, bases which enabled the development of pragmatics, which kept developing onwards - though sometimes lacking coherence. Nevertheless, according to Givón, pragmatics "holds the key to an integrated understanding of life, behavior, cognition and communication."

The second part deals with the organization of mental categories from a bio-adaptive point of view. Chapter 2 begins with a critical approach to 'mental categories' through philosophy, psychology, and linguistics. Compared to Aristotelian categories which are built on necessary-and-sufficient conditions, and to Wittgensteinian 'family resemblance', the hybrid system of prototype-like categories turns out to best match one of the main activities of biological organisms: "sorting tokens of experience into separate categories" in order to be ready to respond to their "physical, biological, mental and social environment." Subsequently, the prototype-like nature of categories is not a mere theoretical posture but a cognitive fact induced by information processing. Relying on Posner's works (among others), the author demonstrates that there is no need for the mind to process the bulk of the empirical data in the same way as unusual phenomena: In the former case, processing is fast, automated, and context-free, in the latter case, it is attended, conscious, and context-scanning, and thus slower. As one would expect, this organization of mental categories impacts one's reasoning (possibly in a harmful manner, e.g. with clichés). On the other hand, particular adaptive contexts may influence categorizing, as Givón demonstrates. Surprisingly enough, he also shows that social organization tends to mimic mental categorization, producing a result which may have grievous consequences. Obviously, the natural tendency to predict what others think and intend to do induces over-stereotyping, while the need for stability leads to both favoritism toward peers and discrimination against strangers.

In Chapter 3, Givón studies the layout of mental categories, i.e. the structure of the generic lexicon. After a short presentation of the human communication system, he takes up the theory of "the lexicon as a network of nodes and connections". In this network, each word corresponds to a core of prototype nodes. The actual use of the word may activate these prototype nodes (literal sense) or on the contrary more distant ones. In the latter case, the shift from core nodes will be described in the way of polysemy, idiom, or metaphor according to the distance from the core, to the frequency of usages and the dependency to context. For example, "live metaphor" is "highly sensitive to its serendipitous pragmatic context." Lastly, Givón focuses on the actual function of metaphor from a bio-adaptive point of view and shows its raison d'être is about "reorganizing the generic-cultural conceptual map." In other words, metaphor makes the "system truly live" by making use of "its potential () for exception and variation."

The third part deals with the core subject of the book: how mental representations of others' beliefs and intentions are constructed. The first three chapters described the generic lexicon we assume a priori our interlocutor shares with us. Chapter 4 builds upon these founding ideas and moves from an "investigation from the generic to the specific." At the start, Givón sets out the ternary cognitive model of mind he has adopted (Atkinson & Schifrin 1968) and then incorporates the question of grammar. Its functional study differs considerably from the structuralist approach, for it aims at interpreting "the discourse coherence functions coded by grammar" as "systematic manipulations [] of the interlocutor's current state of belief and intention." But first, the speaker must assume that both he and his addressee share the same code. So, broadly speaking, grammar is an "input/output translation code." According to the author, its development in human phylogeny is destined to liberate language "from the tyranny of paying constantly attention to context." Since there are in general three different types of context during ongoing communication (shared generic network, shared speech situation, shared current text), grammar has to operate on these different levels. That is what Givón supports with examples from then on in the following three chapters. Among other facts, he considers the functioning of "definite grammatical cues": He shows how they work with every type of context and how they may indicate a discourse referent is accessible through lexicon and/or situation and/or text. In Chapter 5, the author continues to examine grammar as a set of cues to "establish well-grounded episodic structure" and thus guarantee the hearer's comprehension. Givón studies in detail anaphoric and cataphoric grounding and then produces a general view of the mental operations involved with referential coherence. Finally, he concludes questioning the 'Theories of Mind' assumptions that mental models of other minds need to be explicit. He relies on the fact that the fast and continuous shift of these mental models seems incompatible with conscious attention. This statement also applies to the grammar-coded propositional modalities, which Givón considers in Chapter 6. Here he stresses the interaction of the two "mega-modalities": Epistemic and deontic. In Chapter 7, the author widens the scope of his investigation. He examines how clauses are grounded into chains and chains into paragraphs. He also notes that grammatical cues become more scarce at high levels of hierarchic structure. Lastly, he concludes that grammar of discourse coherence can be defined as a "system of cues that speakers give hearers about highly-specific mental structures and operations."

The fourth and last part extends pragmatics to philosophy of science, psychology and martial arts. In Chapter 8, Givón starts by claiming that "organized science toils in the same vineyard and under similar handicaps as the cognizing biological organisms." By way of analogy, the "other minds" of the speaker become the "community of scientists" theorized by Kuhn. Pragmatics of science will thus deal with the relationship between this abstract being and hypothesis formation, testing and falsification, in brief scientific inquiry. By Givón account, "the scientist () is always engaged in a dialog with one or more putative interlocutors in his/her relevant community of science." Going from social entity to individual, the author devotes Chapter 9 to the study of the "impaired self." From a cognitive point of view, schizophrenia and autism in general may be seen like impairments affecting mind framing. By this way, Givón distinguishes the framing of one's own mind (2nd order) and of the minds of others (3rd order) and sketches how both interact, in unimpaired minds, to create a 4th order socially-sensitive self-representation. This 4th order representation emerges from the "repeated, long-term interactions with intimates" which characterize social beings. Lastly, the book finishes with a tenth chapter about the pragmatics of martial arts. The pairing is justified by the fact that "in both communication and warfare, one's moves depend. . . .on the ever present-explicit or implicit-mind of the other ." Except that the opponent, in martial arts, is not compliant with Grice's maxims but rather hostile. From the teachings of his Tai Chi master, from fragments of the Tao Teh Ching and excerpts of Castaneda's works, Givón brings together the praxis of oriental warfare, the pragmatics of discourse and mysticism, and then concludes by comparing the paradox of Yin and Yang ("unity in diversity") with the middle course between reductionisms he described at the beginning of the book.


Context as Other Minds is an extremely ambitious cross-disciplinary work. It succeeds in connecting paradigms one could have thought incommensurable and proceeds easily across crucial issues without over-simplifying. The first part outlines a useful reminder of both facts and concepts of pragmatics. The second part offers an updated model of the lexicon and stresses an interesting parallel between inner generic structure and outer social organization. The third part sets the main pieces of an adaptive and functional description of grammar, while simultaneously drawing upon epistemology and the cognitive models of the mind. The fourth part daringly extends pragmatics to other territories, though one wonders if it does not run the risk of being spread too thin by diversifying to such an extent. Having said this, Context as Other Minds remains an impressive synthesis of the best and most recent cognitive works, in addition to promulgating a powerful and stimulating theory. Some of the point discussed in the book may be profitably compared with references suggested below


Forest, Robert. 1999. Empathie et linguistique . Paris: Presses universitaires de France.

Givón, T. 1989. Mind, Code and Context: Essays in Pragmatics. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Guillaume, Gustave. 1964. Langage et science du langage. Paris: Nizet.

Kuno, Susumu, and Etsuko Kaburaki. 1977. Empathy and syntax. Linguistic Inquiry 8 (4), 627-672.

Kuno, Susumu. 1987. Functional syntax. Anaphora, discourse and empathy. Chicago/London: The University of Chicago Press.

  • T. Givón's home page

  • Context as other minds at John Benjamins

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