My research focuses on integrating the social with the linguistic aspects of communication and miscommunication. To do this, I use and adapt resources from semantics and pragmatics to understand social linguistic phenomena and explore what norms govern these phenomena. I am particularly interested in exploring how social relations and structures can influence how communication takes place. For instance, what are the communicative effects of power differentials in an exchange? Does systematic racism or sexism influence the communicative processes that take place within those systems? My methodology in answering these questions can be understood as a non-ideal theoretic approach to philosophy of language: I consider whether common tools, assumptions, and conclusions in philosophy of language give us the right results when applied to messy real-world cases. In pursuing this approach, I draw new connections between philosophy of language and social, political, moral, and feminist philosophy.
In my dissertation, I establish a framework for investigating miscommunication. Philosophers of language are often focused on successful communication. As a result, these views are significantly limited in their ability to say much about what happens when communication goes wrong. My dissertation makes two contributions in an effort to fill this gap: first, I defend a new account of communicative context according to which contexts are relativized to individual conversational participants. This account of context can capture both idealized, successful cases of communication, as well as cases of partial or full miscommunication. Second, I argue that there are prescriptive communicative norms that govern the formation of these individualized contexts. These norms distinguish innocent miscommunications–such as the miscommunication that results when someone asks for directions to the store, but I mishear, thinking they asked for directions to the “shore”–and those miscommunications that strike us as legitimately criticizable–such as the miscommunication that occurs when a man interprets a woman’s refusal of his sexual advances as lacking linguistic content, or as expressing sexual interest.
I end my dissertation by considering whether my account is consistent with a widely accepted principle adopted by many theorists–Grice’s Cooperative Principle. I suggest that, if we adjust the principle to be a Coordinative Principle rather than a Cooperative Principle, it is.
Misattributed Consent and Interpretive Context(under review)
In this paper I identify a category of miscommunication I call misattributed consent, in which one party to a conversation takes another party to have consented to something by making an utterance, while the apparent consenter did not intend their utterance to count as consent. I use this as an entry point to consider the role that context plays in miscommunication. I reconceptualize the notion of conversational context, arguing that an agent-relative account of context, which I call interpretive context, makes better sense of cases of misattributed consent than widely accepted views according to which context is shared between all parties to the conversation. In addition to making sense of miscommunications like those involving misattributed consent, an agent-relative notion of conversational context also makes space to identify the normativity of conversational context. I identify one normative principle, The Constraint on Hearer Context. This allows us to distinguish between instances of miscommunication that are mere mistakes and those, like many cases of misattributed consent, that are communicatively criticizable.
Power and Miscommunication (in progress)
In I consider the role that power plays in communication. I argue that power and privilege can influence a person’s effectiveness in communication. I appeal to Nancy Hartsock, Sandra Harding, and Patricia Hill Collins’s work in standpoint epistemology to argue that members of marginalized groups develop the ability to occupy multiple perspectives. In addition to their own experiences, including those related to their social status, they have also been forced to occupy the perspective of those in positions of privilege. As a result, underprivileged individuals by necessity develop the ability to recognize the contexts—including the communicative contexts—of others better than those in positions of privilege. This means that these individuals are in a better position to adjust their own contexts to maximize the possibility of effective communication.