Talking with the President: The Pragmatics of Presidential Language. By John Wilson. New York: Oxford University Press, 2015. 274 pp.
For many years, presidential rhetoric has been a significant object of analysis in the fields of political science and communication studies. Political scientists have tracked the changes in the substance of presidential rhetoric over the course of the twentieth century and have commented both on the turn to public rhetoric as a mode of influence and on the different styles of various presidents. Communication studies scholars have considered what presidential rhetoric does, what effects it has, and how it helps frame or constitute American identity. John Wilson's book Talking with the President addresses the concerns of both disciplines, albeit from very different methodological perspectives.
Wilson begins with a brief overview of issues in linguistics and philosophy of language in the twentieth century. The purpose of this overview is twofold: on the one hand, he wants to demonstrate the advantages of pragmatics over other forms of linguistic analysis. On the other hand, he argues that others have rarely, if ever, analyzed presidential rhetoric with the methodologies that he uses. For those not trained in linguistics, this introductory material offers an accessible account of some of the major theoretical issues that have emerged from the philosophy of language in the twentieth century.
Thereafter, Talking with the President tries to show what pragmatics, as a form of linguistic analysis, can reveal about presidential language that other methodologies cannot. Wilson returns repeatedly to his contention that pragmatics offers key insight into presidential language. He analyzes Kennedy, Nixon, Reagan, Bush, Clinton, and Obama to support his position. This is a substantive range of examples from which to draw, and that range certainly bolsters the argument for the utility of pragmatics.
In each of these cases, Wilson shows how context informs meaning. Unlike semantics, which examines how meaning is coded into the propositional forms of sentences, pragmatics concerns the ways in which meaning depends on the context of an utterance, the intention of a speaker, the preexisting knowledge of those involved in communication, and other social factors. This basic perspective then anchors Wilson's reading of each of the presidents that he analyzes. Two important broad claims issue from this analysis. First, the aim of...