Comprehending Speech
Longworth (Guy)
Source: Philosophical Perspectives, Vol. 22, Philosophy of Language (2008), pp. 339-373
Paper - Abstract

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Author’s Introduction

  1. Consider attempting to make out the words of an interlocutor in a noisy bar. By carefully attending to the sounds that they are producing and perhaps also to the accompanying movements of their mouths, faces, and hands you are able to make out what they are saying – to comprehend their speech. You thereby come to entertain a thought that your interlocutor has expressed, for example, the thought that they would prefer a pint of Adnams. And you may also come to associate that thought with their production of words that express it and with their having so expressed it. (Indeed, if the thought that your interlocutor expressed involved some forms of indexicality – for instance, if it was the thought that they (the speaker) would now (the time of speaking) prefer Adnams – then your comprehending the thought would appear to be dependent upon your taking a view as to its provenance in a particular production of speech.)
  2. Typically, you are able to achieve this even though the bar is noisy and even though the background noise is partly constituted by other productions of English words that overlap with your interlocutor's. In fact, it would be possible for you to achieve as much even if another speaker had produced simultaneously a matching sound – if they had asked for a pint of Adnams in a voice that would in the same context be indiscriminable from your interlocutor's – just as long as you were in a position to discriminate in your perceptual context amongst the different sources of those sounds and so to direct your attention to your interlocutor's production rather than the interloper's.
  3. Proper exercise of these abilities can play an important part in shaping the success of consequent thought and action, not only in determining that you buy the right drink for the right person, but more widely in determining that you respond correctly to the thoughts and wants that are expressed in your presence.
  4. Although we are typically in a position correctly to identify the distal sources of our acts of comprehension, through perception of productions of speech, it appears that we need not always be in that position. …

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