Logic and Conversation

Grice, H. P. 1975. Logic and Conversation. In: Cole, Peter and Jerry L. Morgan (eds.), Syntax and Semantics. Vol. 3: Speech Acts. New York, etc.: Academic Press, 41-58.

I wish, rather, to maintain that the common assumption of the contestants that the divergences do in fact exist is (broadly speaking) a common mistake, and that the mistake arises from an inadequate attention to the nature and importance of the conditions governing conversation. I shall, therefore, proceed at once to inquire into the general conditions that, in one way or another, apply to conversation as such, irrespective of its subject matter. (Grice 1975: 43)

Quite interesting to see what these could be, and how they'd compare to Malinowski's phatic communion.

Suppose that A and B are talking about a mutual friend, C, who is now working in a bank. A asks B how C is getting on in his job, and B replies, Oh quite well, I think; he likes his colleagues, and he hasn't been to prison yet. At this point, A might well inquire what B was implying, what he was suggesting, or even what he meant by saying that C had not yet been to prison. (Grice 1975: 43)

Idle gossip, talking about third persons not present.

In the sense in which I am using the word say, I intend what someone has said to be closely related to the conventional meaning of the words (the sentence) he has uttered. Suppose someone to have uttered the sentence he is in the grip of a vice. Given a knowledge of the English language, but no knowledge of the circumstances of the utterance, one would know something about what the speaker had said, on the assumption that he was speaking standard English, and speaking literally. (Grice 1975: 44)

But is the conventional meaning of the words "symbolically theirs"?

The following may provide a first approximation to a general principle. Our talk exchanges do not normally consist of a succession of disconnected remarks, and would not be rational if they did. (Grice 1975: 45)

Phatic communion is not rational, i.e. not a logical sequence of thoughts, does not build upon successively - anyone can say what comes to mind, whether connected to the foregoing or not, though it's generally best if it is (somehow connected to what has been previously said).

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, or at least a mutually accepted direction. This purpose or direction may be fixed from the start (e.g., by an initial proposal of a question for discussion), or it may evolve during the exchange; it may be fairly definite, or it may be so indefinite as to leave very considerable latitude to the participants (as in a casual conversation). But at each stage, SOME possible conversational moves would be excluded as conversationally unsuitable. We might then formulate a rough general principle which participants will be expected (ceteris paribus) 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. One might label this the COOPERATIVE PRINCIPLE. (Grice 1975: 45)

The cooperative principle, thus, hinders the exchange from turning into a collective monologue, in which each participant is soliloquizing without the least regard for what others are saying. But then again phatic communion should, ideally, be "aimless", so that the only principal purpose is to spend time agreeably.

The category of QUANTITY relates to the quantity of information to be provided, and under it fall the following maxims:
  1. Make your contribution as informative as is required (for the current purposes of the exchange).
  2. Do not make your contribution more informative than is required.
[|] (The second maxim is disputable; it might be said that to be overinformative is not a transgression of the CP but merely a waste of time. However, it might be answered that such overinformativeness may be confusing in that it is liable to raise side issues; and there may also be an indirect effect, in that the hearers may be misled as a result of thinking that there is some particular POINT in the provision of the excess of information. However this may be, there is perhaps a different reason for doubt about the admission of this second maxim, namely, that its effect will be secured by a later maxim, which concerns relevance.) (Grice 1975: 45-46)

While Mahaffy (1892: vii-ix) employed the Kantian categories for the "form" of conversation (the situation), i.e. under quantity, whether "we speak with (a) one, (b) a few [or] (c) many", Grice is treating the "content". On the whole, this is a longer explication of the conception that casual conversations are held "not in order to inform" and "there need not or perhaps even there must not be anything to communicate".

Under the category of QUALITY falls a supermaxim - 'Try to make your contribution one that is true' - and two more specific maxims:
  1. Do not say what you believe to be false.
  2. Do not say that for which you lack adequate evidence.
(Grice 1975: 46)

In contrast, Mahaffy's quantity concerns the social hierarchy, whether "we speak with (a) equals, (b) superiors, [or] (c) inferiors". Taken in the sense of truthfulness, the quality of a conversation is a very trifling thing. This "supermaxim" appears very unpractical when considering casual conversation, in which there is no practical premium on truthfulness; in fact, the keyword "gossip" negates this necessity. Most of what we pass on in casual conversation lacks adequate evidence, and a person who only speaks of things for which he has such evidence would be a dull companion indeed. A more natural "quality" of conversation would pertain to whether or not it is interesting, captivating, or agreeable. In fact, Mahaffy employs the same categories on "the matter of conversation", and there quality pertains to whether it is "serious or trivial". Likewise, Mahaffy's "quantity" pertaining to the matter of conversation is also more natural: whether the topic is "infinite" or, by implied contrast, limited (e.g. open, as something that everyone can chime in on, or closed, as something only very few people can speak about).

Under the category of RELATION I place a single maxim, namely, 'Be relevant.' Though the maxim itself is terse, its formulation conceals a number of problems that exercise me a good deal: questions about what different kinds and focuses of relevance there may be, how these shift in the course of a talk exchange, how to allow for the fact that subjects of conversation are legitimately changed, and so on. I find the treatment of such questions exceedingly difficult, and I hope to revert to them in a later work. (Grice 1975: 46)

Clearly he's thinking of logical relations, or something to that effect. Mahaffy's take echoes my previous comment, whether the matter of conversation is "personal or general", i.e. the relation between the topic and the person speaking, whereas Grice's emphasis appears to be on the relation between what one is saying and what others are talking about, i.e. harkening back to the cooperative principle.

Finally, under the category of MANNER, which I understand as relating not (like the previous categories) to what is said but, rather, to HOW what is said is to be said, I include the supermaxim - 'Be perspicuous' - and various maxims such as:
  1. Avoid obscurity of expression.
  2. Avoid ambiguity.
  3. Be brief (avoid unnecessary prolixity).
  4. Be orderly.
And one might need others. (Grice 1975: 46)

Define:perspicuous - clearly expressed and easily understood; lucid. Ironic, huh? Using an obscure word for being clearly understood. In Mahaffy's system, this point is expressed under the physical subjective conditions of the manner of conversation, "physical" pertaining to the "expression" side of speech, e.g. tone of voice, accent, and "Absence of tricks and catchwords", the last being what Grice is aiming at, i.e. don't try to impress others linguistically over and above cooperation.

There are, of course, all sorts of other maxims (aesthetic, social, or moral in character), such as 'Be polite', that are also normally observed by participants in talk exchanges, and these may also generate nonconventional implicatures. The conversational maxims, however, and the conversational implicatures connected with them, are specially connected (I hope) with the particular purposes that talk (and so, talk exchange) is adapted to serve and is primarily employed to serve. I have stated my maxims as if this purpose were a maximally effective exchange of information; this specification is, of course, too narrow, and the scheme needs to be generalized to allow for such general purposes as influencing or directing the actions of others. (Grice 1975: 47)

Those other, unspecified maxims sound much more interesting (more questionable). Taking the general purpose to be "a maximally effective exchange of information", Grice is committing the central error of many later writers, that is, conflating communication and communion. Communication should, indeed, ideally be maximally effective exchange of information, whereas communion is the sharing or exchanging of intimate thoughts and feelings for intrinsic purposes, whatever information exchanged being almost completely coincidental. Conversation is closer to communion than communication. Take the example given at the beginning: when "talking about a mutual friend", there is no immediate need for exchanging information; instead, the mutual friend happens to be a suitable topic because both speakers are familiar with that person (they could just as well talk about any other mutual friend).

I must also remark that this is a very patchy employment of the classical model. Consider Dewey on this point: "The primary motive for language is to influence (through the expression of desire, emotion, and thought) the activity of others; its secondary use is to enter into more intimate sociable relations with them; its employment as a conscious vehicle of thought and knowledge is a tertiary, and relatively late, formation." (Dewey 1910: 178–179). Grice has addressed conversation "as a conscious vehicle of thought and knowledge" (maximally effective exchange of information), which Dewey regards as the latest development; he completely neglects conversation for the sake of conversation ("to enter into more intimate sociable relations" with others, i.e. phatic communion); and when it comes to the primary motive of language use, to influence others, he limits such influence to actions only, neglecting desires (feelings) and thoughts. Though, here it turns out that in Dewey's scheme there is a significant difference between influencing the thoughts of others and passing on knowledge (exchanging information). This sounds like something interesting that should be addressed with more refined tools (perhaps with those of Baldwin).

As one of my avowed aims is to see talking as a special case or variety of purposive, indeed rational, behavior, it may be worth noting that the specific expectations or presumptions connected with at least some of the foregoing maxims have their analogues in the sphere of transactions that are not talk exchanges. (Grice 1975: 47)

Malinowski's aim was the exact opposite: to show that talking is very seldom a purposive or rational behaviour, and that the exchange of information is almost a boundary case, a fairly rare variety, of talking. Grice's general assumption is that talking is like a practical activity, as the succeeding parallels make clear.

Quantity. If you are assisting me to mend a car, I expect your contribution to be neither more nor less than is required; if, for example, at a particular stage I need four screws, I expect you to hand me four, rather than two or six. (Grice 1975: 47)

On this point Malinowski wrote explicitly: "For in this use of speech the bonds created between hearer and speaker are not quite symmetrical, the man linguistically active receiving the greater share of social pleasure and self-enhancement." Unlike the ideal model of maximaly effective exchange of information, actual conversation, especially "social conversation", i.e. casual conversation undertaken for the pleasure of doing so, involves social motives that touch upon human psychology. This analogy with changing a tire, for example, wouldn't exactly work out if there was "social pleasure and self-enhancement" in doing so; the cardinal difference lies in the qualification of "requirement": in "free, aimless, social intercourse" there is no explicit requirement beyond the minimum of saying something ("to say something even when there is hardly anything to say"). Since there is no practical or expected outcome to set the standard, the quantity (in the sense given here) is not very important: if you were installing screws in a plank for an art project it wouldn't exactly matter how many screws your companion handed you at once.

Quality. I expect your contributions to be genuine and not spurious. If I need sugar as an ingredient in the cake you are assisting me to make, I do not expect you to hand me salt; if I need a spoon, I do not expect a trick spoon made of rubber. (Grice 1975: 47)

Noted primarily for the opposition between spurious and genuine. The problem here remains the same: conversation is very much unlike changing car tires or baking a cake. These examples rather evoke parallels with communication situations that are restricted by some frame other than mere companionship. The premium on truth-value is very germane to a logician but almost wholly unnecessary in the study of casual conversation. A: "Have you been to the theatre lately? We were at "Bitter Sweet" a few nights ago. Rather good, isn't it?" - B: "Is there adequate evidence for the goodness of that particular performance?" - A: *mumbles something and clears out*.

Relation. I expect a partner's contribution to be appropriate to immediate needs at each stage of the transaction; if I am mixing ingredients for a cake, I do not expect to be handed a good book, or even an oven cloth (though this might be an appropriate contribution at a later stage). (Grice 1975: 47)

It feels like Grice conflates "relation" and "relevance". His whole take on Relation comes off as "iffy". I'm no logician but Kant's category of relation seems to have very little to do with what's going on here. The subcategories of Relation are "Inherence and Subsistence", "Causality and Dependence", and "Community". E.g. "Community is the Causality of a Substance, reciprocally determining, and determined by other substances" (Kant 1855: 67-68). I believe this can be translated into communication theory but it would take some mental gymnastics to do so. My gut feeling says that "Relation" here should be taken rather in the sense of "Reciprocity" ("Community" having a very obscure meaning in Kantian register). That is, whether you are "speaking to" the other person and actually cooperating in your respective turns of speak; we expect the other person to respond to something we have said, even if what s/he's saying now is only tangentially related to what we said. Malinowski's take on this subject (of turn-taking) is awfully mechanical: "the reciprocity is established by the change of rôles" (between speaking and listening); yeah, but that's on the "physical" side of things - the real crux is in whether or not what we're all talking about amounts to something, whether or not there is, to borrow once again from Dewey, some consummation.

Manner. I expect a partner to make it clear what contribution he is making, and to execute his performance with reasonable dispatch. (Grice 1975: 47)

Once again this insight feels wholly improper to the study of conversation and simultaneously to have missed the mark on Kant's category of Modality. Consult the subcategories: "Necessity is nothing but Existence, which is given through the Possibility itself" (Kant 1855: 67-68). If we're dealing with the matter of conversation then it would be reasonable to assume that this category has to do with that very truth-value which Grice ascrubibed to Quality: whether we're talking about things that could be, are, and must be. Grice would limit conversation only to the latter, whereas in everyday life a conversation partner who talks only of things that must be (more so, as s/he thinks they must be) is tedious and off-putting.

A dull but, no doubt at a certain level, adequate answer is that it is just a well-recognized empirical fact that people DO behave in these ways; they have learned to do so in childhood and not lost the habit of doing so; and, indeed, it would involve a good deal of effort to make a radical departure from the habit. It is much easier, for example, to tell the truth than to invent lies. (Grice 1975: 48)

Empirical, you say? Does decades of research in discourse analysis back this up? Is there "adequate evidence" for this claim? Anecdotally, and from fragments of modern psychological research, one could just as well say that it is easier to invent lies if you've formed the habit of inventing lies (pathological liars do exist, and they can even become presidents). On the whole it seems very unlikely that even most people only talk as much as is necessary to make a point, always tell the truth, say only what is relevant, and do so in the clearest language available. What Grice takes to be the baseline appears to me as a boundary case, a rare occasion.

I am, however, enough of a rationalist to want to find a basis that underlies these facts, undeniable though they may be; I would like to be able to think of the standard type of conversational practice not merely as something that all or most do IN FACT follow but as something that it is REASONABLE for us to follow, that we SHOULD NOT abandon. (Grice 1975: 48)

This has a pleasant fragrance of Rational Action Theory about it, and we all know that all human behaviour is reasonable and people always act in their own best interest.

For a time, I was attracted by the idea that observance of the CP and the maxims, in a talk exchange, could be thought of as a quasi-contractual matter, with parallels outside the realm of discourse. If you pass by when I am struggling with my stranded car, I no doubt have some degree of expectation that you will offer help, but once you join me in tinkering under the hood, my expectations become stronger and take more specific forms (in the absence of indications that you are merely an incompetent meddler); and talk exchanges seemed to me to exhibit, characteristically, certain features that jointly distinguish cooperative transactions: (Grice 1975: 48)

"This no doubt varies greatly with the national character but remains true as a general rule", wrote Malinowski. What he was indicating in the register of "national characteristics" is pretty much self-evident in modern research on intercultural communication and politeness behaviour: different culturel exhibit varied expectations for interpersonal communication, particularly in something as free-floating as conversation. Grice appears to hold a very restricted sense of conversation, perhaps overemphasized by the parallels with practical activites. I believe most people would much rather attest to being "incompetent meddlers" in small talk. To quote just one of my favourite anecdotal examples: "We have all experienced these situations and know that a great deal of anxiety is associated with them." (Alonso 2002: 1137) - In that particular anecdote, Alonso is having a conversation with an aquaintance and, due to his inattention, momentarily forgets what they were talking about, and "in the intervening seconds of the interruption the world may have changed forever, that the original context we are trying desperately to recover may be lost for good, that the "where" in "where were we?" may have become a non-place, and... "Who is this person in front of me, anyway?" (ibid, 1137). In other words, there is no limit to human incompetence, even in matters as seemingly simple as having a conversation.

The participants have some common immediate aim, like getting a car mended; their ultimate aims may, of course, be independent and even in conflict - each may want to get the car mended in order to drive off, leaving the other stranded. In characteristic talk exchanges, there is a common aim even if, as in an over-the-wall chat, it is a second-order one, namely, that each party should, for the time being, identify himself with the transitory conversational interests of the other. (Grice 1975: 48)

In phatic communion, the common immediate aim should be time spent agreeably in each other's company. If there is an "ultimate aim" (ulterior aim) on any side, it is, strictly speaking, a "pseudo-phatic communion" (cf. Haverkate 1988). On the subject of identifying with "the transitory conversational interests of the other" I have no quibble - this is spot on, and I attempted to formulate it myself somewhere above. An "over-the-wall chat" is such a surprising phrase that I had to look up examples in literature:

  • "The highlight of the day will be an over-the-wall chat with Mrs. Bucket next door." (Irish Girls About Town)
  • "Be friendly and firm. Chat over the wall, chat in the street, wave and smile, occasionally have her in: but no more responsibility." (Seduction of Mrs. Pendlebury)
  • "[...] and Mary engage in over-the-wall chat about housewarming with never so much as a sniff of a pun or a dig in the ribs between the lot of them." (Advertisers Weekly)

The contributions of the participants should be dovetailed, mutually dependent. (Grice 1975: 48)

Define:dovetailed - join together by means of a dovetail; join together by means of a dovetail. Goes at the heart of "reciprocity" discussed above.

There is some sort of understanding (which may be explicit but which is often tacit) that, other things being equal, the transaction should continue in appropriate style unless both parties are agreeable that it should terminate. You do not just shove off or start doing something else. (Grice 1975: 48)

This was originally published in 1967, so after Jakobson, but I'm not sure how much an influence he could have had on Grice. With Jakobson's phatic function, the emphasis is on establishing that mutual understanding, i.e. giving the signal to terminate, "a sign of parting". This talk of tacit understanding assumes that the terminal phase of the interaction is "mutually manifest", as the later Relevance Theorists would put it.

But while some such quasi-contractual basis as this may apply to some cases, there are too many types of exchange, like quarreling and letter writing, that it fails to fit comfortably. In any case, one feels that the talker who is irrelevant or obscure has primarily let [|] down not his audience but himself. So I would like to be able to show that observance of the CP and maxims is reasonable (rational) along the following lines: that any one who cares about the goals that are central to conversation/communication (e.g., giving and receiving information, influencing and being influenced by others) must be expected to have an interest, given suitable circumstances, in participation in talk exchanges that will be profitable only on the assumption that they are conducted in general accordance with the CP and the maxims. (Grice 1975: 48-49)

Kant's categories, too, have a dubious universality but at least in that case you have the benefit of doubt that they are rigorously thought through. With these maxims I am less certain, seeing as they are a rather poor application of Kant's categories on an ambiguous conflation of communication with conversation. What are "the goals that are central to conversation/communication"? Exchanging information and mutual influence are pretty darn vague - bad manner that!

It is possible to combine metaphor and irony by imposing on the hearer two stages of interpretation. I say You are the cream in my coffee, intending the hearer to reach first the metaphor interpretant 'You are my pride and joy' and then the irony interpretant 'You are my bane.' (Grice 1975: 53)

An interesting verb case of "interpretant".

Examples in which an implicature is achieved by real, as distinct from apparent, violation of the maxim of Relation are perhaps rare, but the following seems to be a good candidate. At a genteel tea party, A says Mrs. X is an old bag. There is a moment of appalled silence, and then B says The weather has been quite delightful this summer, hasn't it? B has blatantly refused to make what HE says relevant to A's preceding remark. He thereby implicates that A's remark should not be discussed and, perhaps more specifically, that A has committed a social gaffe. (Grice 1975: 54)

An interesting take on "talking about weather", that it is a go-to when someone says something improper.

Information, like money, is often given without the giver's knowing to just what use the recipient will want to put it. If someone to whom the transaction is mentioned gives it further consideration, he is likely to find himself wanting the answer to further questions that the speaker may not be able to identify in advance; if the appropriate specification will be likely to enable the hearer to answer a considerable variety of such questions for himself, then there is a presumption that the speaker should include it in his remark; if not, then there is no such presumption. (Grice 1975: 57)



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