Pragmatics and Emotion

Tim Wharton, Louis de Saussure

Research output: Book/ReportBook - authoredpeer-review


Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions...
(David Hume, T, SBN, p. 414-415)

In this quote Hume famously articulated a view of the relationship between rationality or reasoning on the one hand and emotions or ‘passions’ on the other. According to Hume, rationality alone does not suffice to motivate an individual to engage in an act of reasoning. That motivation comes only from the passions: cognition and affect, thinking and feeling, reason and passion – often analysed as two opposing forces – work together in complex ways.

Given this, and the fact that among humans the communication of information about emotional states is ubiquitous, one could be forgiven for assuming that pragmatic accounts of linguistic communication include quite well-developed views of how such information is communicated. However, for a range of reasons, scholars working on meaning have tended to persist with the view that the mental processes behind reason and passions exist in separate domains. As a consequence, the emotional dimension to linguistic communication has tended to play a secondary role to the rational or cognitive one. Indeed, in most accounts it plays no role at all.

It would be an oversimplification to suggest that this reflects some kind of lazy, anti-affect bias. In fact, the view that emotion is antithetical to cognition has its roots in ancient rationalist philosophy, in which emotion was assumed to be of minor importance, a property of the ‘soul’ rather than body. For Socrates the mind was limited by emotions; Plato believed that they were not to be trusted. While this is a tradition modern-day pragmatics has arguably inherited, it was not always the case. Foolen (1997, p. 17) notes that in the early 1900s, linguists such as Erdman (1900), Bally (1905, 1910), van Ginneken (1907) and Sperber (1914) criticised the ‘strongly ideational orientation’ of semantics that dominated at the time, suggesting instead that the study of the expressive, emotional side of semantics might be at least as important a field of study as the cognitive, rational one. In fact, van Ginneken went further, proposing that rational meaning had its very roots in emotional meaning (an idea already suggested in the eighteenth-century by Rousseau). The idea, however, never really caught on; indeed, as Foolen also notes, Edward Sapir took severe exception to this view: ‘[I]deation reigns supreme in language […] volition and emotion come in as distinctly secondary factors’ (1921, p. 40).

The principal motivation for writing this book is that we believe that emotional or expressive meaning, along with other affect-related, ineffable dimensions of communication play such a huge role in human interaction that any pragmatic theory worth its salt must account for them. And we have personal, as well as professional reasons for believing this: one of us is also a songwriter and musician; the other a published poet.

The expression and communication of emotions needs to be put right back at the centre of research into pragmatics.
Original languageEnglish
Place of PublicationCambridge
PublisherCambridge University Press
Number of pages250
ISBN (Print)9781108835961
Publication statusPublished - 21 Dec 2023


  • Pragmatics
  • Emotion
  • Relevance Theory
  • Philosophy


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