Grice, H. Paul

H. Paul Grice (1913-1988), the English philosopher, is best known for his contributions to the theory of meaning and communication. This work (collected in Grice 1989) has had lasting importance for philosophy and linguistics, with implications for cognitive science generally. His three most influential contributions concern the nature of communication, the distinction between speaker's meaning and linguistic meaning, and the phenomenon of conversational IMPLICATURE.

Grice's concept of speaker's meaning was an ingenious refinement of the crude idea that communication is a matter of intentionally affecting another person's psychological states. He discovered that there is a distinctive, rational means by which the effect is achieved: by way of getting one's audience to recognize one's intention to achieve it. The intention includes, as part of its content, that the audience recognize this very intention by taking into account the fact that they are intended to recognize it. A communicative intention is thus a self-referential, or reflexive, intention. It does not involve a series of nested intentions -- the speaker does not have an intention to convey something and a further intention that the first be recognized, for then this further intention would require a still further intention that it be recognized, and so on ad infinitum. Confusing reflexive with iterated intentions, to which even Grice himself was prone, led to an extensive literature replete with counterexamples to ever more elaborate characterizations of the intentions required for genuine communication (see, e.g., Strawson 1964 and Schiffer 1972), and to the spurious objection that it involves an infinite regress (see Sperber and Wilson 1986, whose own RELEVANCE theory neglects the reflexivity of communicative intentions). Although the idea of reflexive intentions raises subtle issues (see the exchange between Recanati 1987 and Bach 1987), it clearly accounts for the essentially overt character of communicative intentions, namely, that their fulfillment consists of their recognition (by the intended audience). This idea forms the core of a Gricean approach to the theory of speech acts, including nonliteral and indirect speech acts (Bach and Harnish 1979). Different types of speech acts (statements, requests, apologies, etc.) may be distinguished by the type of propositional attitude (belief, desire, regret, etc.) being expressed by the speaker.

Grice's distinction between speaker's and linguistic MEANING reflects the fact that what a speaker means in uttering a sentence often diverges from what the sentence itself means. A speaker can mean something other than what the sentence means, as in "Nature abhors a vacuum," or something more, as in "Is there a doctor in the house?" Grice invoked this distinction for two reasons. First, he thought linguistic meaning could be reduced to (standardized) speaker's meaning. This reductive view has not gained wide acceptance, because of its extreme complexity (see Grice 1989: chaps. 6 and 14, and Schiffer 1972) and because it requires the controversial assumption that language is essentially a vehicle for communicating thoughts rather than a medium of thought itself. Even so, many philosophers would at least concede that mental content is a more fundamental notion than linguistic meaning, and perhaps even that SEMANTICS reduces to the psychology of PROPOSITIONAL ATTITUDES.

Grice's other reason for invoking the distinction between speaker's and linguistic meaning was to combat extravagant claims, made by so-called ordinary language philosophers, about various important philosophical terms, such as believes or looks. For example, it was sometimes suggested that believing implies not knowing, because to say, for example, "I believe that alcohol is dangerous" is to imply that one does not know this, or to say "The sky looks blue" is to imply that the sky might not actually be blue. However, as Grice pointed out, what carries such implications is not what one is saying but that one is saying it (as opposed to the stronger "I know that alcohol is dangerous" or "The sky is blue"). Grice also objected to certain ambiguity claims, for instance that or has an exclusive as well as inclusive sense, as in "I would like an apple or an orange," by pointing out that it is the use of or, not the word itself, that carries the implication of exclusivity. Grice's Modified Occam's Razor ("Senses are not to be multiplied beyond necessity") cut back on a growing conflation of (linguistic) meaning with use, and has since helped linguists appreciate the importance of separating, so far as possible, the domain of PRAGMATICS from semantics.

Conversational implicature is a case in point. What a speaker implicates is distinct from what the speaker says and from what his words imply. Saying of an expensive dinner, "It was edible," implicates that it was mediocre at best. This simple example illustrates a general phenomenon: a speaker can say one thing and manage to mean something else or something more by exploiting the fact that he may be presumed to be cooperative, in particular, to be speaking truthfully, informatively, relevantly, and otherwise appropriately. The listener relies on this presumption to make a contextually driven inference from what the speaker says to what the speaker means. If taking the utterance at face value is incompatible with this presumption, one may suppose that the speaker intends one to figure out what the speaker does mean by searching for an explanation of why the speaker said what he said.

Although Grice's distinction between what is said and what is implicated is not exhaustive (for what it omits, see Bach 1994), the theoretical strategy derived from it aims to reduce the burden on semantics and to explain a wide range of nonsemantic phenomena at an appropriate level of generality. This strategy has had lasting application to a wide range of problems in philosophy of language as well as other areas of philosophy, such as epistemology and ethics, and to various areas of research in linguistics and computer science, such as the LEXICON, ANAPHORA, DISCOURSE, and PLANNING. Economy and plausibility of theory require heeding Grice's distinction between speaker's and linguistic meaning, and the correlative distinction between speaker's and linguistic reference. Rather than overly attribute features to specific linguistic items, one can proceed on the default assumption that uses of language can be explained in terms of a core of linguistic meaning together with general facts about rational communication.

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Additional links

-- Kent Bach


Bach, K. (1987). On communicative intentions: a reply to Recanati. Mind and Language 2:141-154.

Bach, K. (1994). Conversational implicature. Mind and Language 9:124-162.

Bach, K., and R. M. Harnish. (1979). Linguistic Communication and Speech Acts. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Grice, P. (1989). Studies in the Way of Words. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Recanati, F. (1986). On defining communicative intentions. Mind and Language 1:213-242.

Schiffer, S. (1972). Meaning. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Sperber, D., and D. Wilson. (1986). Relevance. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Strawson, P. F. (1964). Intention and convention in speech acts. Philosophical Review 73:439-460.

Further Readings

Carston, R. (1988). Implicature, explicature, and truth-theoretic semantics. In R. Kempson, Ed., Mental Representations: The Interface between Language and Reality. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Reprinted in Davis (1991), pp. 33-51.

Davis, S., Ed. (1991). Pragmatics: A Reader. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Grandy, R., and R. Warner, Eds. (1986). Philosophical Grounds of Rationality: Intentions, Categories, Ends. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Harnish, R. M. (1976). Logical form and implicature. In T. Bever, J. Katz, and T. Langendoen, Eds., An Integrated Theory of Linguistic Ability. New York: Crowell. Reprinted in Davis (1991), pp. 316-364.

Horn, L. (1984). Toward a new taxonomy for pragmatic inference: Q-based and R-based implicature. In D. Schiffrin, Ed., Meaning, Form, and Use in Context. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, pp. 11-42.

Levinson, S. (Forthcoming). Default Meanings: The Theory of Generalized Conversational Implicature.

Lewis, D. (1979). Scorekeeping in a language game. Journal of Philosophical Logic 8:339-359.

Neale, S. (1992). Paul Grice and the philosophy of language. Linguistics and Philosophy 15:509-559.

Recanati, F. (1989). The pragmatics of what is said. Mind and Language 4:295-328. Reprinted in Davis (1991), pp. 97 - 120.