When we communicate with another human being using natural language, either verbally or in written form, the words that we use convey explicitly only a portion of the meaning behind our communication.
In other words only part of our communication is direct (which presupposes that there are parts of our communication which are something other than direct).
Our linguistic communications also convey meaning which is not expressly stated in the words that we use.
In other words parts of our communication are not included in the words we use, but are implied in the way those words are put together.
The portions of our communication which are implied rather than expressly stated are known linguistically as presuppositions.
Presupposition is the name given to an implied fact that must be assumed before a given sentence can be accepted as true.
All sentences contain or imply presuppositions as we could not communicate effectively if we had to prove everything we say all of the time.
Presuppositions are powerful elements of communication in three main ways:-
- When we are on the receiving end of the communication the implied meaning available to us in the presuppositions (assuming we are practising sensory acuity and are thus able to detect them) often provides us with far more information and insight than the meaning expressed by the words themselves. In other words, what people don't say often reveals more about their model of the world than what they do say.
- When we are on the transmitting end of the communication we can actively utilise presuppositions with volition to convey information and meaning which, simply in order to process our communication, the receiver is likely to accept with less resistance than might be the case had we communicated them overtly.
- We can use presuppositions in our language to lead the person we are communicating with to create particular internal representations that will usefully suit our purposes.
Consider the following phrase:-
I can't decide which shoes to wear
At face value this simple utterance is entirely unremarkable and if someone said it to us we would be unlikely to even raise an eyebrow. It's about as interesting as watching paint dry (unless watching paint dry is your idea of an incredibly interesting pastime in which case you go girl!)
If we probe a little deeper we realise that this simple phrase contains a number of presuppositions including:-
- I exist
- Shoes exist
- More than one shoe(s) exist(s)
- Shoes can be worn
- I have the potential to wear shoes
- I have the potential to make a decision
- I have access to a range of shoes
- I have the option to make a choice from the range
Suddenly this simple phrase becomes far more interesting (well, maybe not, but you need to learn to think this way if you want to be able to detect and utilise presuppositions effectively).
Just think about this for a second - you read the above natural language phrase and probably found it entirely unremarkable. What you were probably unaware of was the fact that unconsciously you accepted all of the presuppositions listed above, and possibly some of your own, simply in order to make sense of the sentence.
Now, when you learn to utilise presuppositions with volition in your own communication, you have a very powerful tool for influencing the way others think without their being consciously aware of it.