The Cooperative Principle:
Thoughts on its Uses and Flaws
Ferdinand de Saussure was the founding father of the division of language into two components: the signifier and the signified. The signified is pure information, the signifier a matter of conveying it. Herbert Paul Grice developed the Cooperative Principle, which can be divided into four Gricean maxims. These maxims constitute a way of understanding the relationship between the signifier and the signified, or, in other words, the link between utterances and how they are understood. The Cooperative Principle, in short, is a very influential description of human interaction that also lends to our understanding of it. The discussion section of this essay explores the explanatory power of the Cooperative Principle, preceded by a brief overview of its key ideas. This essay argues that the Cooperative Principle provides an elegant framework to use when thinking about communication, but only when incentives prompting competition are lacking.
The construction of an ideal language logically constructed without ambiguity is a project that was undertaken by John Quijada, inventor of Ithkuil. The language was never meant to be spoken, and indeed is too complex for even Quijada himself to use in speech. However, the development of such a language - as well as the relatively numerous proponents of it - hints at the existence of an expectation for language to be precise and unambiguous. According to Grice, this is more or less the stance of linguistic formalists, who posit that language should be able to
convey information unambiguously. Informalists, on the other hand, would argue that that mechanical precision should not be the aim of language or the standard against which language should be compared. Grice claims that the development of his Cooperative Principle (henceforth, CP) does not place him on either side of the debate. Rather, that discrepancies between utterances and their signifieds are far less common than people assume, so long as Grice’s Principle (and its maxims) is obeyed. In sum, language is more precise that we commonly give it credit; misunderstandings are most often based on the incorrect use of it. This is not to say that there is an objective yardstick by which we can determine ‘correct’ or ‘incorrect’ use of language; simply, the CP in many ways summarizes the expectations that receptors have from emitters of messages in the way language is used. When these expectations are violated, confusion may ensue.
The rules based on these expectations are called the Gricean maxims, of which there are four (echos of Kant): the maxim of Quality (‘what you say better be true, and if you do not know if it is, do not say it’), the maxim of Quantity (‘make what you say as informative as required, no more, no less’), the maxim of Relation (‘be relevant’) and the maxim of Manner (‘say things in the appropriate fashion; do not be ambiguous, unnecessarily wordy, et cetera’). There are a variety of ways in which the expectations underlying the CP can be broken. For instance, the person speaking could simply violate a maxim. Alternatively, an individual can simply opt out by saying, perhaps, ‘I will respond to your questions only with the words purple and orange’. On some occasions, the maxims may clash: an individual cannot provide the information expected if he is not aware of it. On others, the individual may intentionally, blatantly ‘flout’ a violation of the maxims: in such instances, Grice refers to a conversational implicature, in which a maxim is being “exploited”. In general, an implicature denotes simply the hidden meaning and
implications behind the way certain things are phrase. A conversational implicature (as opposed to a conventional one) is an implicature in which the missing connection can be substantiate with an argument (rather than with mere intuition, which case we would be referring to a conventional implicature).
Thus, what is the...
Bibliography: Grice, H.P., 1975. "Logic and Conversation". In: Peter Cole and Jerry Morgan, eds., Speech acts
(Syntax and semantics 3), 41-58. New York: Academic Press.
Sarangi, S.K., Slembrouck, S., 1992. "Non-cooperation in communication: a reassessment of
Gricean pragmatics". Journal of Pragmatics, 17(2): 117:154.
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