Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Why Can't We All Just Play Grice?

The title of this post is supposed to invoke the sense of mild whining that a teacher or parent uses when talking to their charges. So much of the communication via conversation on today's web (email, tweets, blogs, comments, YouTube videos, etc.) is whiny, mean, silly, untruthful, half-baked, aggressive, ignorant, petty, illogical, narcissistic, political, etc., etc, .... ad infinitum

I can see why my friend Tom described the problem with the web as there is too much communication. It sometimes helps to remember:

  • a channel is not communication
  • communication is not information
  • information is not knowledge
  • knowledge is not wisdom

As a plea for more effective conversations, I present a tidbit of the ideas of philospher Paul Grice. Maybe with a little more discipline in the early stages, we can come to more fruitful places together. You can find out more about Grice here (the short version) or here (the long version.)

In his extremely influential essay Logic and Conversation (collected in Studies in the Way of Words), Grice outlined a communication strategy for conversations. This was not an attempt to dictate how we should communicate; rather, it was an attempt to capture what seemed to be important about successful conversations. As Kent Bach puts it in The Top 10 Misconceptions about Implicature:

... [We] need first to get clear on the character of Grice’s maxims. They are not sociological generalizations about speech, nor they are moral prescriptions or proscriptions on what to say or communicate. Although Grice presented them in the form of guidelines for how to communicate successfully, I think they are better construed as presumptions about utterances, presumptions that we as listeners rely on and as speakers exploit. As listeners, we presume that the speaker is being cooperative (at least insofar as he is trying to make his communicative intention evident) and is speaking truthfully, informatively, relevantly, and otherwise appropriately. If an utterance superficially appears not to conform to any of these presumptions, the listener looks for a way of taking it so that it does conform. He does so partly on the supposition that he is intended to. As speakers, in trying to choose words to make our communicative intentions evident, we exploit the fact that our listeners presume these things.
Assuming that a conversation is a joint effort, Grice gives an overall strategy for successful communication as follows:

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 then presents four categories of maxims that will be useful in support of this principle. The following is an abridged version of the original in an attempt to be brief and orderly (see below).

  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.

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

Be relevant.

Be perspicuous. 

  1. Avoid obscurity of expression.
  2. Avoid ambiguity.
  3. Be brief (avoid unnecessary prolixity).
  4. Be orderly.

I have no illusions that following these simple rules will always be easy but I think that it would be a good beginning to a more charitable way of living together on this tiny blue dot.



  1. Steven Pinker talks about these, too... and points out the many ways that people communicate volumes by *not* following these guidelines, even though people expect them to be followed. Example: If someone asks you how your date went, and you reply, "He was very punctual"... the fact that your answer isn't relevant says a great deal, without coming out and saying it.

  2. What an excellent commentary on Grice. Thank you!

    J. L. Speranza
    The Grice Club.blogspot


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