Le contexte de situation
Partie de pêche aux Trobriand
décrite en 1923 puis en 1935

4 décembre 2014

«Entre l'utilisation sauvage des mots et l'utilisation abstraite et théorique, il n'y a qu'une différence de degré. En dernier ressort, la signification de tous les mots est tout entière issue de l'expérience du corps.» (Jardins de corail, trad. p.297)

Entre la parole et le discours, il n'y a pas de différence de nature, parole et discours étant l'un et l'autre imprégnés d'indexicalité.

Bronislaw Malinowski, The problem of meaning in primitive languages, Supplement 1 in C.K. Ogden and I.A. Richards (Eds.), The meaning of meaning, London, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1923, pp.296–336. La description de la partie de pêche dans le lagon commence p.310.

Let us now consider what would be the type of talk passing between people thus acting, what would be the manner of its use. To make it quite concrete at first, let us follow up a party of fishermen on a coral lagoon, spying for a shoal of fish, trying to imprison them in an enclosure of large nets, and to drive them into small net-bags — an example which I am choosing also because of my personal familiarity with the procedure. /311/ All the language used during such a pursuit is full of technical terms, short references to surroundings, rapid indications of change — all based on customary types of behaviour, well-known to the participants from personal experience. Each utterance is essentially bound up with the context of situation and with the aim of the pursuit, whether it be the short indications about the movements of the quarry, or references to statements about the surroundings, or the expression of feeling and passion inexorably bound up with behaviour, or words of command, or correlation of action. The structure of all this linguistic material is inextricably mixed up with, and dependent upon, the course of the activity in which the utterances are embedded. The vocabulary, the meaning of the particular words used in their characteristic technicality is no less subordinate to action. For technical language, in matters of practical pursuit, acquires its meaning /312/ only through personal participation in this type of pursuit. It has to be learned, not through reflection but through action.

Had we taken any other example than fishing, we would have reached similar results. The study of any form of speech in connection with vital work would reveal the same grammatical and lexical peculiarities: the dependence of the meaning of each word upon practical experience, and of the structure of each utterance upon the momentary situation in which it is spoken. Thus the consideration of linguistic uses associated with any practical pursuit, leads us to the conclusion that language in its primitive forms ought to be regarded and studied against the background of human activities and as a mode of behaviour in practical matters.

The pragmatic setting of utterances
Le cadre pragmatique des énoncés

Bronislaw Malinowski, Coral Gardens and their Magic. A Study of the Methods of Tilling the Soil and of Agricultural Rites in the Trobriand Islands, Volume 2: The Language of Magic and Gardening, London, Allen & Unwin, 1935. Pp.3–74: An Ethnographic Theory of Language and some Practical Corollaries.

L'exemple canonique de la partie de pêche sera repris en 1935 dans le cadre d'une théorie du contexte d'énonciation, qui est double: contexte de référence et contexte de situation. Un énoncé de type narratif prend sens si l'on se réfère aux expériences vécues où les mots plongent directement dans le contexte de situation. Dans le récit, cependant, les mots sont employés non pas dans leur sens premier, c'est-à-dire leur sens pragmatique, mais dans un sens indirect ou une signification d'emprunt. Le contexte de référence réel doit être reconstruit par les auditeurs. Noter la récurrence de l'expression "verbal acts", «actes de parole».

(46) Thus we see that on the one hand the real meaning of words, the real capacity for visualising the contents of a narrative, are always derived from a personal experience, physiological, intellectual and emotional, while on the other, such experience is invariably connected with verbal acts. A narrative type of utterance is, therefore, comprehensible by the reference of the statements to past personal experiences in which words were directly embedded within the context of situation. The context of situation of words which refer to hunger, scarcity and lean seasons is obviously the time of scarcity, hunger and the lean season the time when eating is an important act achieved with difficulty, when people clamour for food and complain about its absence, when the significance of a sentence or of a single word is driven home and extracted by the powerful pang of bodily pain.

In a narrative words are used with what might be called a borrowed or indirect meaning. The real context of reference has to be reconstructed by the hearers even as it is being evoked by the speaker. But situations in which the same words have been used with all the pragmatic vigour of a request or imperative, with all the emotional content of hope or despair, situations in which the use of a word is fraught with weighty consequences for the speaker and for his hearers, in such situations we have speech used in a /47/ primary, direct manner. It is from such situations that we are most likely to learn the meaning of words, rather than from a study of derived uses of speech. This answers our first question as to the primary experiences from which the meaning of words is derived.

(48) All these texts which we have so far surveyed are either narratives or fixed formulae. Some of the formulae very definitely show an effective or active side. Take utterances such as statements at a kayaku [réunion pour discuter des affaires communes], or requests for a gift, or challenges which might set in motion a long series of tribal activities: each of these is a definite act which produces effects, at times on a large scale, and the function /49/ of which is obviously defined by these effects. But the effective force of such verbal acts lies in directly reproducing their consequences; and it is because there is a tribal tradition, sanctioned by various beliefs, institutions and explicit rules, that a certain challenge cannot be ignored, that a certain request must be fulfilled. The pragmatism of such verbal acts is based on the same complicated mechanism as that on which the pragmatism, i.e. the effective force, of all rules of conduct, customs and tribal laws is founded.

Les deux contextes: référence et situation

Malinowski formule clairement la distinction entre fonction référentielle et fonction indexicale du langage comme actes de parole.

(51 [trad. Clinquart, p.290]) In the course of our analysis it has become increasingly clear that the contextual definition of each utterance is of the greatest importance for the understanding of it, and that this contextual reference must be two-fold. In the first place, an utterance belongs to a special context of culture, i.e. it refers to a definite subject-matter. Each of the sayings, phrases and narratives which I have here adduced belongs definitely to a certain division of our Supplement and each such division corresponds to an aspect of Trobriand gardening.

But side by side with this context of culture or context of reference, as it might also be called, we have another context: the situation in which the words have been uttered. A phrase, a saying or a few sentences concerning famine may be found in a narrative, or in a /52/ magical formula, or in a proverbial saying. But they also may occur during a famine, forming an integral part of some of those essential transactions wherein human beings co-operate in order to help one another. The whole character of such words is different when they are uttered in earnest, or as a joke, or in a narrative of the distant past. The words need not be idle in any of the cases. We have shown the function of narrative. Even a joke about a serious subject may do its part in begetting a traditional attitude an attitude which in the long run might prove of considerable significance in tribal life, and this is the most important result of an utterance from the point of view of a scientific theory of meaning.

The pragmatic relevance of words is greatest when these words are uttered actually within the situation to which they belong and uttered so that they achieve an immediate, practical effect. For it is in such situations that words acquire their meaning. Since it is the function, the active and effective influence of a word within a given context which constitutes its meaning, let us examine such pragmatic utterances.

The full pragmatic effectiveness of speech in action

(trad. p.294) Toute la force d'effet pragmatique du discours dans l'action

(56) If we wanted to present our point more dramatically, not to say sensationally, and emphasise the opposition between words when they are "idle" and words when they are a matter of life and death, we could take as a prototype any situation where words mean life or death to a human being. Whether it be a Trobriand canoe rapidly sailing at night over deep and stormy waves and one of the crew suddenly swept into the sea, or a solitary climber in the Alps overtaken by fog and threatened by death from hunger and exposure, the reaction to the situation is the same […] What is the function of words here? Each of them modifies and directs human behaviour in a situation of urgency. One person acts on the organism of another and, indirectly through this organism, on the surrounding environment. The word is as powerful an act as any manual grip. An imperative, a noun, an adjective, even an adverb, screamed from a distance in the dark might reorientate completely the movements of the rescuers or those in danger. Now what is the meaning of the word here? It is above all a stimulus to action. It is a stimulus to a very specific and determined action, a stimulus correlated to the situation, i.e. to the environment, the people and the objects they handle, and based on past experience.

(57) This pragmatic speech, words which do infinitely more than impart information or tell a story, words which are meant directly /58/ to effect action and influence it, occurs to a far wider extent in our own civilisation than might at first appear.

And it seems to me that, even in the most abstract and theoretical aspects of human thought and verbal usage, the real understanding of words is always ultimately derived from active experience of those aspects of reality to which the words belong. The chemist or the physicist understands the meaning of his most abstract concepts ultimately on the basis of his acquaintance with chemical and physical processes in the laboratory. Even the pure mathematician, dealing with that most useless and arrogant branch of his learning, the theory of numbers, has probably had some experience of counting his pennies and shillings or his boots and buns. In short, there is no science whose conceptual, hence verbal, outfit is not ultimately derived from the practical handling of matter. I am laying considerable stress on this because, in one of my previous writings, [dans le texte de 1923] I opposed civilised and scientific to primitive speech, and argued as if the theoretical uses of words in modern philosophic and scientific writing were completely detached from their pragmatic sources. This was an error, and a serious error at that. Between the savage use of words and the most abstract and theoretical one there is only a difference of degree. Ultimately all the meaning of all words is derived from bodily experience.

I have purposely considered the pragmatic use of words on general evidence taken mainly from our own culture. If we turn to primitive speech we can easily exemplify its pragmatic function: words have to be uttered with impeccable correctness and understood in an absolutely adequate manner in those situations where speech is an indispensable adjunct to action. In my earlier article on this subject I used the example of a fishing expedition. A small fleet of canoes moving in concerted action is constantly directed and its movements co-ordinated by verbal utterance. Success or failure depends on correct speech. Not only must the observation of the scouts be correct, but they must give the correct cry. The meaning of the cry announcing a shoal of fish consists in the complete resetting of all the movements of the fleet. As a result of that verbal symbol the canoes rearrange themselves so that the nets can be cast properly and the shoal of fish driven into them, and constant verbal instructions pass from one canoe to another in the process. Each utterance is bound up with the technicalities of the pursuit and is based on the lifelong experience of all the members of a fishing team who from childhood have been trained into the craft.

Perhaps the first time that I was struck by this mysterious power of /59/ speech, which, as by an invisible force, moves human beings, moves even bulky objects, and forms the connecting medium for coordinating action, was when in complete darkness I approached one of the lagoon villages in the Trobriands with a large fleet of canoes. There was no real danger in a wrong movement, except that, with the rapidly outgoing tide, a canoe might get stuck in the mud and have to remain there the whole night. We were being directed by the local natives from the shore and the effectiveness of the instructions given, the smooth and rapid way in which they were carried out led to our fleet getting quickly into the tidal creek through the intricate channels of approach. This had a most impressive effect on me. I knew how easy it was to miss the deep punting channel which forms the only fairway and how unpleasant it may become to be caught in the deep sticky mud of the shallow lagoon. […]

Cette description canonique du langage comme action, plus qu'une simple Pragmatique, est une approche situationnelle de la cognition qui restera momentanément sans suite et que Edwin Hutchins reprendra, un demi-siècle plus tard, en 1995 sous le titre de Cognition in the Wild (comme l'a rappelé Michel de Fornel au séminaire).