Grice Grispies

I keep returning to Jean-Jacques Lecercle’s article ‘The Misprision of Pragmatics: Conceptions of Language in Contemporary French Philosophy’. I return to it not because I don’t understand it and have to keep reading it, again and again, as if it was beyond me, but because of the stuff I read, or, rather come across on a daily basis. The media is saturated by politics and it’s only fitting to cite Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari (82) in ‘A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia’ here:

“Pragmatics is a politics of language.”

To be more specific, they (83) note:

“If the objection is leveled that these specific features pertain to politics and not linguistics, it must be observed how thoroughly politics works language from within, causing not only the vocabulary but also the structure and all of the phrasal elements to vary as the order-words change.”

In other words, you can’t neatly separate language from politics. As they (83) continue:

“A type of statement can be evaluated only as a function of its pragmatic implications, in other words, in relation to the implicit presuppositions, immanent acts, or incorporeal transformations it expresses and which introduce new configurations of bodies.”

Now, I’m not going to explain the concepts used here. I’ve done that a number of times already and going into detail here would be just me reiterating what I’ve written in the past. You do have to look up incorporeal transformations though. Also reading parts of ‘The Logic of Sense’ by Deleuze may prove to be helpful in understanding that.

In summary, an incorporeal transformation is something in which a body is transformed as a surface effect, not in itself. So, a bank robber that rolls in with an assault rifle turns people in a bank into hostages and the bank building into a prison by expressing “This is a robbery!”. There are no actual changes to the bodies, the people and the building, unless someone attempts to foil the robbery. If there was, that’d be a corporeal transformation. The point is that while the bodies don’t transform corporeally in such cases, the incorporeal transformation is real and has clear effects on people. That is what language can do. It has that potential. Of course it’s just empty words if the preexisting configuration of bodies does not support it. Take out the assault rifle and the statement “This is a robbery!” is impotent. Hence they (83) state that:

“True intuition is not a judgment of grammaticality but an evaluation of internal variables of enunciation in relation to the aggregate of the circumstances.”

So, the person who rolls in doesn’t have to yell what’s the deal in grammatically perfect English. The person might yell “This a robbery!” or just “Robbery!” and it’d still result in an incorporeal transformation. There’s just that something to a person handling an assault rifle that’ll make you ignore grammar. At that point I reckon you get the gist, regardless of grammar.

Anyway, back to what I was going to start out with, the article written by Lecercle. In the article he provides three (actually four) readings of the same text (but I’ll skip the supposed naive reading of a text). The first reading included here he (24) calls the Anglo-Saxon or pragmatic reading, influenced by the likes of J. L. Austin, J. R. Searle and notably H. P. Grice. The second reading he (24) calls a continental reading, influenced by Jacques Lacan. The third reading is still continental, but that of Deleuze and Guattari, as expressed in ‘A Thousand Plateaus’, as stated by Lecercle (32). This time I’ll be looking at the first one, the pragmatics of Grice.

To those who are not familiar with Grice I recommend looking up his text ‘Logic and Conversation’. It’s fairly short and to the point. It’s included, for example, in his book ‘Studies in the Way of Words’ and in a volume three of ‘Syntax and Semantics’ that focuses on speech acts. I would say it’s fairly accessible and only some sixteen pages, including all the examples. It’s among the more self-explanatory texts that I’ve read, so there’s little extra that you need to know before you read it. In other words, there is no good reason not to read it, even if you are not into linguistics, not to mention pragmatics. The pagination here is from ‘Syntax and Semantics’, just so you can check things if that’s your thing. Grice (43) starts out by explaining what an implicature is, defining it as having to do with, as you might guess from the wording of it, what is implied in a conversation.

To explain this, Grice (43) uses the example of two people talking to one another about a third person, not present to observe the conversation, nor take part in it. Long story short, one of the two asks a question about the person absent, to which the other person answers in a way that is or may be unclear. Why that is? Well, as he (43) goes to explain, whether what is said is clear or unclear depends on the existing circumstances. In Grice’s (43) example, the situation of the absent person is characterized as quite alright, doing good and what not, but then there is this bit that could be understood as a negative characterization of the person, that “he hasn’t been to prison yet.” As Grice (43) clarifies, he might be the kind of person who might end up behind bars in his line of work or that, for example, his colleagues might scheme against him. The point here really is that what is said is not the same thing as what is implied by what is said, as well as that for it to make sense, one way or another, depends on the circumstances, who is saying what and to whom, in the presence or absence of other people, where it is said etc. To distinguish this from what many think of as meaning (horrible word if you ask me), he (44) notes that this is not about what one knows about words in a given language as that would omit the circumstances, the context, in which whatever is expressed.

He (43-44) uses the terms implicate (verb, to implicate), implicature (noun, implying) and implicatum (noun, what is implied). He (44-45) further distinguishes between conventional implicatures and non-conventional implicatures, which include what he calls conversational implicatures. The conventional implicatures include words, such as, ‘therefore’ and ‘but’. Either they are, conventionally, the way we take them to be understood or they aren’t. For example, the word ‘but’ is used to create contrast and ‘therefore’ is used to indicate a conclusion based on a certain premise or premises. If one were to explain in the terms used by Deleuze (13) in ‘The Logic of Sense’, conventional implicatures are about denotation or indication (indexing), in the sense that they either are or aren’t, true or false. For example, this is this (true) and if it isn’t, then it’s not this but, for example, that (false). The conversational implicatures are at the core of Grice’s text, which this essay will mainly focus from here on out. Anyway, now that those terms have been clarified, I can move on to what’s actually interesting in the text. He (45) states:

“Our talk exchanges do not normally consist of a succession of disconnected remarks, and would not be rational if they did.”

Here it’s worth adding that later on in the text, he further addresses in what sense he uses the word rational. He (48) notes that not everyone acts this way, but rather that people, by and large, are in the habit of doing so and it is reasonable to expect to do so. Anyway, back to the opening remarks. He (45) continues:

“They are characteristically, to some degree at least, cooperative efforts; and each participant recognizes in them, to some extent, a common purpose or set of purposes, at least a mutually accepted direction.”

In other words, at least the way I read Grice (48), people are not inherently cooperative, but, nonetheless, it is characteristic of people to behave that way, because it has become habitual to them. This makes me think of Pierre Bourdieu here, but let’s not go on a tangent. In summary, it’s an expectation, one that tends to hold, even if it isn’t an inherent feature of people. Right, he (45) then goes on to propose that:

“We might then formulate a rough general principle which participants will be expected … to observe, namely: Make your conversational contribution such as is required, at the stage at which it occurs, by the accepted purpose or direction of the talk exchange in which you are engaged.”

He (45) calls this the Cooperative Principle, in short the CP. He (45-46) introduces four maxims, marked by relevant categories. The first category, Quantity, consists of two maxims. Firstly (45):

“Make your contribution as informative as is required (for the current purposes of the exchange).”

Secondly (45):

“Do not make your contribution more informative than is required.”

In short, the category of Quantity has to do with being as informative as is necessary. Provide enough information, not too little, not too much. In the light of the CP, it’s not very cooperative to say little. It’ll just leave people puzzled. It’s the same the other way around. It can be hard grasp what someone is saying when they say too much, when they keep going on and on and on.

The second category, Quality, builds on what he (46) calls the supermaxim of “[t]ry to make your contribution one that is true’, further elaborated by subdividing it to two maxims. Firstly (46):

“Do not say what you believe to be false.”

Note, not what is false, but what you believe to be false. Secondly (46):

“Do not say that for which you lack adequate evidence.”

Again, not what is false or untrue, but what you are unsure of because you simply can’t really be sure of it. If we are to simplify this category, this is the category about lying to people. In the light of the CP, it’s rather uncooperative to state something you reckon is false or you can’t be sure of. That said, it’s worth emphasizing this is not about knowing something to be false. So, you are being cooperative if you believe something to be true, even if, in fact, it is actually false. People are not actually expected to be oracles.

The third category, Relation, Grice (46) links to only one maxim, “[b]e relevant.” This is about focus and retaining it throughout a conversation. In light of the CP, it’s not exactly cooperative to go off topic. You might mix this up with Quantity, but in my view Relation is not about how much or how little one speaks or writes. Sure, by being too informative you may risk ending up expressing all kinds of things that are not relevant. There’s that. Then again, you might well be aptly informative, yet what is expressed is irrelevant.

The fourth category, Manner, has to do with what Grice (46) calls the supermaxim of “[b]e perspicuous”, further elaborated by subdividing it to four maxims. Firstly (46):

“Avoid obscurity of expression.”

Secondly (46):

“Avoid ambiguity.”

Thirdly (46):

“Be brief (avoid unnecessary prolixity).”

Fourthly (46):

“Be orderly.”

He (46-47) then concedes that there might be more maxims pertaining to Manner, such as being polite, but, for him, such are not conversational maxims. In contrast to the other categories, Manner, is, arguably, the least clear of the four categories. In summary, it’s the thing in conversation that doesn’t have to do with how much or little is said (Quantity), whether the one expressing it believes it holds or not (Quality) nor whether what is expressed is relevant or not (Relation). It’s not about what is expressed, the content of it, but about how it is expressed.

I think it’s worth noting that in general the categories are also often referred to as the maxims, albeit Grice refers to them as categories that have to do with this and/or that maxim. That said, I don’t think it’s wrong to refer to them as the maxims, considering that each category is, in a nutshell, what the maxims are all about. I’m a bit willy-nilly about this, sloppy, but this just as a clarification that, yes, there is a further distinction made so I went with it, how it is presented by Grice.

Anyway, after explaining the categories and the maxims, he (49) lists four ways of how to not fulfill maxims. Firstly, one may simply violate a maxim. Secondly, one may opt out from fulfilling the maxims and the CP by pointing out that one is not playing ball. Oh no, too bad! This also includes cases where one simply cannot fulfill the maxim, for example, when one is not in the position to do so. Think of agreements on confidentiality. It’s not up to you to give out the information, so you point out that you are not in the position to do so. In contrast to violating, this is evident whereas with violations it is not. Thirdly, one may face clash of maxims. He uses the example of failing to fulfill the first maxim of quantity, providing enough information, because one doesn’t have enough evidence, thus opting to cover up the lack of evidence, the second maxim of quality, by not saying much. In other words, when you don’t have the evidence, i.e. you fail at the Quality category, it may be preferential to opt to fail at the Quantity category instead by saying as little as you can. One could also go the other route and say too much about something, in a sort of generic way, in order to hide the fact that you are presenting false as true. In this case you’d be failing the second maxim in the category of Quantity in order to cover up that you also fail the first maxim in the Quality category. One could also point out that it might not be about Quantity but also or instead about Relation. By saying too much, you may be going off topic, thus also failing the maxim pertaining to relation. In some cases it’s not about quantity but relation alone, so going on a tangent can help you to avoid making it evident that you are have insufficient knowledge about something in order to address it. These clashes may prove to be useful in certain situations, albeit they are in violation of the CP. This leads us to the fourth way of not fulfilling a maxim, flouting, which is done blatantly in order to exploit it. He (53) lists a number of cases where this applies: irony, metaphor, meiosis and hyperbole. In simple terms, you may flout or exploit a maxim not because you wish to be uncooperative, but rather the opposite. A lot of comedy wouldn’t work if we simply said things on an as is basis. He (54-55) offers a couple of mundane examples, how one can, for instance, exploit the maxims of manner. He (55) notes that when it comes to obscurity, one may wish to be purposely somewhat obscure, just so that the other person in the conversation can grasp what’s what but any nosy third parties are unable to comprehend the conversation. In addition, as he (55) points out, the obscurity, in itself, may be a clue to the other person as to keep things quiet, hinting towards distrust of the third party. This just so that when the other person replies or asks for clarification, it’s not done in less obscure terms, in order to prevent the third party from getting in on the conversation.

In the final segments, Grice (57-58) returns to address conversational implicature. Firstly, taking the CP into account, he notes that conversational implicature assumes its presence, yet it is, indeed, possible to opt out from the principle, thus canceling the conversational implicature. This is the bit about opting out reiterated. Secondly, he notes that they are marked by what he calls nondetachability, how what is implied cannot be detached from what is said. I find this part, perhaps, the fuzziest point in Grice’s text. Anyway, to make sense of this, this reminds of how in ‘The Logic of Sense’ Deleuze (14) notes that you can only imply this or that and conclude something on its basis if you retain the premise(s). If you remove or detach those premises, then what is said no longer carries the same implication. That said, you can, of course, replace those premises with other premises that make it work again. Therefore, to be clear, you can actually remove or detach the premises of a proposition but only insofar that you replace the premises with other premises that make it work. Simply put, you cannot fully detach them. The result is that, in Deleuze’s (14-15) terms, implication is not a matter of true vs. false, but true vs. absurd. If the premises don’t hold, what is said is still, I reckon, fine but just absurd. Thirdly, Grice (58) states that conversation implicature must contain the feature that one speaks approximately, because it presupposes prior knowledge. This sort of goes without saying, really, and ties with the second feature. You need something before the utterance, as he points out, as does Deleuze, otherwise it’s just absurdity. You can’t imply something without that being the condition for it. This is also what differentiates the conversational implicatures from the conventional implicatures. Grice (58) does note that it is possible for them to become conventionalized, under certain circumstances, but that’s a bit beside the point here. Fourthly, he (58) returns to point out that what is implied is not a matter of true vs. false, unlike with what is said. This may seem a bit convoluted, but, as he (58) puts it, “the implicature is not carried by what is said, but only by the saying of what is said, or by ‘putting it that way.’” This bit reminds me of how Deleuze and Guattari discuss the role of the subject, who speaks, who writes, in ‘A Thousand Plateaus’, noting that it’s always the ‘I’ that writes the ‘I’. Even text on a page or on a screen, having become detached, severed from the writer, in this case me, as you read this, has this feature. It is no longer the writer, me (as opposed to you), who is writing (saying) what it is that I’ve written here as the text lives a life of its own, in relation to you, the reader, but, there’s always someone, in this case you, who says, to yourself (unless you speak out loud while reading), what it is written (said) here. The way you say it, the way you put it, makes a world of difference, and, linking this to the third feature, it’s, in part, based on the presupposition of prior knowledge, whatever that happens to be in your case. Fifthly, he (58) notes that there’s a disjunction of certain specific explanations as the list of various explanations, for this and/or that, is open, as opposed to closed. I take this bit as emphasizing what he (58) calls indeterminacy, hence the point made about implication being open, rather than closed. In Deleuzean terms, as explained in ‘The Logic of Sense’, the thing with meaning is that for something to hold, you need the premises that support your proposition. The problem with this is that even the premises are, in fact, propositions, which themselves rely on other premises that need to be in place for them to hold and so on, and so on, ad infinitum. This is known as infinite regress. This is the issue of an open system. Meaning isn’t fixed as the system isn’t closed.

I was going to keep on writing on this one, but I reckon it’s better to split this text into two (or more) essays. At least to me, there are certain somewhat obvious limitations to Grice’s pragmatics. They have to do with the positioning of the subject and its autonomy, as well as the same with the other speakers or interlocutors but I’ll hope to address that in the following essay. In short, the issue is that this assumes quite a bit from people and sees deviating from it as … well …. deviant. That said, ignoring the limitations for now (to be discussed in the following essay), I find Gricean pragmatics handy because it is easy to follow and, as pointed out by Lecercle (26), “[a] Gricean reading is hard to kill[.]”

To exemplify the pros of a Gricean reading of whatever it is that happens to be at stake, the discussion or conversation at hand, it’s not about what something means, but about what is implied. It offers a handy toolkit that allows people to examine what people say and what they mean by it. To put it bluntly, it works quite well as a BS detector. I think it’s worth emphasizing here that it’s not about truth vs. false, but about a truth claim, whether the person honestly believes to be right and can back it up.

So, if we assume that people want to cooperate, to make things work, it’s only reasonable to assume that when they say something, they are as informative as necessary, not more, not less, (Quantity), they only utter something that they believe to be true and also backed up by evidence (Quality), they say what’s relevant to what’s at stake (Relation) and they are brief, orderly and avoid being obscure and ambiguous (Manner). Of course, as Grice does concede, there is nothing that makes people adhere to the Cooperative Principle. Sure, it’s probably reasonable to expect people, others but also you included, to cooperate just so that we get somewhere, together, yet, as he does concede, it’s evident that there is nothing that makes it so that people must pull together, nor that they actually do. Fair game. The good thing is that regardless of whether people are or aren’t cooperative by nature (ah, shiver me timbers, to even use that word), you can still use this as a foil. So instead of omitting that you assume that people seek to cooperate, let’s explicitly suppose that they do, I mean, what would be the reason in a society for people to, for example, lie or exaggerate?

I used the principle for this purpose in my Master’s Thesis, examining presidential candidate debates where it is, or at least should be, rather obvious that it is in the interest of the candidates to maximize their support. Now, okay, fair enough, we could assume that politicians never lie, omit information or exaggerate. In other words, let’s assume that they’ll do their best to cooperate with other candidates and the audience, the voters, and the most suitable candidate is chosen this way. I acknowledge that this is already a bit messed up, a pipe dream. That said let’s go with it, for the sake of argument. Isn’t it great? That we get the best people, doing their best? By people. For people. Then again, what happens when one person doesn’t go with this? What if one person plays dirty? Everyone will play dirty, obviously. All the time? Well, maybe not all the time. You have to pick your battles. I reckon you want to appear that you are the one for the task, the person who is cooperative, not belligerent. My point is that for me it’s sort of given that people are not going to be cooperative at all times. That said, that doesn’t mean that people are simply uncooperative either. So, if Grice is off when he calls it the Cooperative Principle, I wouldn’t say that just because people don’t follow the principle that it should be called the Un-Cooperative Principle. What happens to be in your best interest is not necessarily mutually exclusive to the interest of others, a common good, even if that may well be the case. Also, what may be interest to everyone, in general, the common good, doesn’t simply entail that it will be against your best interest. It’s not for or against, either, or. It depends.


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  • Deleuze, G. ([1969] 1990). The Logic of Sense (C. V. Boundas, Ed., M. Lester and C. J. Stivale, Trans.). London, United Kingdom: Athlone Press.
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  • Grice, H. P. (1975). Logic and Conversation. In P. Cole and J. L. Morgan (Eds.), Syntax and Semantics, Vol. 3: Speech Acts (pp. 41–58). New York, NY: Academic Press.
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  • Lecercle, J-J. (1987). The Misprision of Pragmatics: Conceptions of Language in Contemporary French Philosophy. Royal Institute of Philosophy Lectures, 21, 21–40.
  • Searle, J. R. (1969). Speech Acts: An Essay in the Philosophy of Language. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press.