Wednesday, September 18, 2013


When I was in grad school, in the mid-1980s, reading lots of “theory,” the Dickensian name Grice was much in the air: the philosopher H. P. Grice, whose initials-only name (Herbert Paul) only added to his mystery. No book then went with that name, but there was a crucial essay, “Logic and Conversation,” which appeared in a collection of essays by various hands, Syntax and Semantics: Speech Acts, edited by Peter Cole and Jerry L. Morgan (New York: Academic Press, 1975).

“Logic and Conversation” presents principles of conversation that have become known as Gricean maxims. Informing them all is a “Cooperative Principle”: “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.” The maxims concern Quantity, Quality, Relation, and Manner:

Quantity: Make your contribution as informative as is required (for the current purposes of the exchange). Do not make your contribution more informative than is required.

Quality: Try to make your contribution one that is true. Do not say what you believe to be false. Do not say that for which you lack adequate evidence.

Relation: Be relevant.

Manner: Avoid obscurity of expression. Avoid ambiguity. Be brief (avoid unnecessary prolixity). Be orderly.

From Paul Grice’s Studies in the Ways of Words (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1989).
Thinking of Grice now, after so many years, I think of the practical applications his work has. Consider how a healthy respect for Gricean maxims would improve the world of online discourse. One might add to these maxims, as Grice suggests, “Be polite,” though the Cooperative Principle seems to cover matters of both courtesy and rudeness. The “accepted purpose or direction” of almost any online discussion would preclude, say, comments whose primary purpose is to cross-examine, hector, raise extraneous issues, snipe, or drive “traffic” in the commenter’s direction. The purpose or direction of a discussion devoted to vulgar banter and insults, however, would require that one not be polite, or at least not too polite. The brief guidelines for Orange Crate Art comments — “Play fair. Keep it clean. And please be relevant” — now suggest to me, all these years later, Grice’s influence.

As I suspected, Gricean maxims have been of interest to those working on autism. Here’s one example.

Further reading
Paul Grice (Wikipedia)
Gricean maxims (Wikipedia)
Lifehacker’s guide to weblog comments (Lifehacker)

[The “avoid unnecessary prolixity” bit has to be a joke, à la “eschew obfuscation.”]