Chapter 8: Pragmatics
8.8 More about the Cooperative Principle
Paul Grice was a philosopher of language. He developed the Cooperative Principle in the 1960s partially in response to philosophers at the time who claimed that natural, ordinary language is too ambiguous and too illogical to rigorously analyse. He developed a system that allowed for researchers to analyse everyday human discourse logically. He called this system conversational logic, and the Cooperative Principle is a basic part of it. His work has been foundational in the subfield of pragmatics.
One misconception about the Cooperative Principle is that a conversation in which discourse participants follow Quantity, Quality, Relation, and Manner perfectly are somehow “ideal” conversations. This is not necessarily true! Strict adherence to the maxims might produce a conversation that is logical and maybe even efficient, but whether that is “ideal” or even natural or comprehendible, is a different matter. In fact, many linguists (including Grice himself) have observed that in natural conversations, there are other factors that go into the interpretations of utterances, including linguistic and non-linguistic contexts of utterances (Grice 1975, p.50). This may include things like the genre of discourse, mutual trust between the interlocutors, psychological distance between the interlocutors, and much more (Lakoff 2009). Depending on the context, some maxims may get prioritised while others may be deprioritised.
As a language philosopher, Grice’s objective in developing the Cooperative Principle was not to give extensive empirical observations about human discourse. Rather, his goal was to give a more general sketch of how conversational logic might work. There are places in his writing where things are intentionally vague, as many of his thoughts were meant to be introspections rather than a fully developed system. His musings were based largely on English, and unsurprisingly, he was never really clear about whether his maxims were meant to apply to non-English conversations. In this textbook we have taken the interpretation that there is cross-linguistic and cross-cultural variability in the Cooperative Principle. However, we also do not deny the fact that Gricean theories of pragmatics have contributed to the perception that (educated, white) English is somehow the “norm” and somehow culturally “neutral” (Ameka & Terkourafi 2019). We echo Ameka & Terkourafi (2019)’s call for more inclusive research practices in pragmatics.
As with any theory, it is important to not look at Grice’s original work (which is roughly the version that was presented in this chapter) as something that is flawless. In fact, many newer theories of pragmatics reduce Grice’s maxims to just one or two principles (e.g., “Relevance” and “Informativeness”)! If you’d like to learn more, Kearns (2011) has a short summary of post-Gricean approaches to pragmatics in her Chapter 1. For the more comprehensive learner, Huang (2007) is a more advanced but accessible overview of the history of pragmatics, from past to present.
Check your understanding
This is a reflection question with no right answer. In what kind of conversations might Grice’s maxims (as described in the chapter) operate vastly differently? What about that type of discourse makes it different from an everyday conversation?
Ameka, F. K., & Terkourafi, M. (2019). What if…? Imagining non-Western perspectives on pragmatic theory and practice. Journal of Pragmatics, 145, 72-82.
Grice, H. P. (1975). Logic and conversation. In Speech Acts (pp. 41-58). Brill.
Huang, Y. (2007). Pragmatics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Kearns, K. (2011). Semantics. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
Lakoff, R. T. (2009). Conversational logic. Key Notions for Pragmatics,(1), 102-114.