We tie Grice’s initial project about meaning into this apparently new project in “Logic and Conversation”: What are the rules that people tend to follow in conversation to actually be engaged in the cooperative enterprise of exchanging meanings? Grice identifies this general framework that we follow as the “Cooperative Principle” and identifies several maxims within that: Providing the right amount of information in an utterance (not too much, not too little) for the context, providing high-quality conversational input (meaning not false, unsupported, or irrelevant), and speaking clearly. When a speaker appears to violate one of these principles, then there are systematic ways in which we as listeners try to interpret the speaker so as to still think of them as acting according to the Cooperative Principle. For instance, if someone says something blatantly false, we might look at it as irony or metaphor or some other non-literal speech. If someone provides too little information to be helpful, we might charitably think that the maxim to provide enough information was in conflict with the maxim to only provide high-quality information, which includes only information that the speaker has good evidence for, or perhaps the speaker has been sworn to secrecy or is otherwise trying to maintain decorum by not revealing private business.
We attempt to relate Grice’s project to various activities in cognitive science (e.g. computer language modeling) and continental philosophy (e.g. the critique of writing from Plato through Barthes). Some of these connections relate to whether Grice can unproblematically restrict himself to talking about what a speaker intentionally means as opposed to what meanings (natural meanings!) may be exhibited by a statement, whether this means the literary meanings that may be extracted from it beyond what the speaker meant, or the unconscious motives of the speaker who thus betrays certain meanings unintentionally through the utterance. Wes and Mark will delve into this issue further in the subsequent Closereads treatment of “Logic and Conversation” (a three-part conversation to be released over the next weeks. Subscribe now at patreon.com/closereadsphilosophy).
Next episode: We’re interviewing Michael Tomasello about his new book, The Evolution of Agency.