Today's Pragmatic Wastebasket

In my rapid-rise quest to study linguistics, I've been reading a thesis on the elements of humor in written language. It references a quote by Yehoshhua Bar-Hillel, which urges an individual to "be more careful with forcing bits and pieces [found] in the pragmatic wastebasket into [one's] favorite syntactico-semantic theory (1971: 405)." The phrase struck me. A pragmatic wastebasket?

For those unfamiliarpragmatics defines the part of language that's harder to grasp than the concept of words, sentences, grammar and syntax alone. Pragmatics deals with the meaning of what is written or said, given the larger context of the individual, her society, and the world at large. While true, this definition is also a gross simplification. In fact, despite its status as an eloquently-bounded field with a fifty-year history of polish and growth, pragmatics still appears to be something of a dumping ground for linguistic concepts that aren't perfectly well understood. This practice is less prominent than in the past, when pragmatics took on the burden in linguistics for all of those nuances of meaning that didn't fit neatly into other, more distinguished classifications, but it hasn't been entirely bucked. Phonology, Morpheme Reproduction, and Lexical Variation might be willing to shake Pragmatics' hand, but they're not yet ready to rub shoulders. 

The pragmatics wastebasket, then, can be considered, in our time as in the past, the end-cut of dumping grounds among serious linguistics scholars. Yet here as always, one man's discards fill the pockets of others. Scholars with a point to prove have no trouble sorting through the refuse to find any slim evidence that, from a certain angle, looks like it supports their current theory. When Bar-Hillel spoke of this practice, he urged linguistics to consider pragmatic principles in their own right. Though we've taken great leaps in this direction, it's hard to force the gentry to wade about in, what seems to them, little more than trash.

Thus, the warning stands. Moreover, since we can see by historical precedent that every linguistic school of thought carried some kind of pragmatic wastebasket, we know that so too must our current school of thought. I wonder, in twenty years, what will we realize we've thrown in with the grinds and scraps? And, too: what will tomorrow's trash be?