Communication Skills and Critics on Cooperative Principle

As phrased by Paul Grice, who introduced it, it states, "Make your contribution such as it is required, at the stage at which it occurs, by the accepted purpose or direction of the talk exchange in which you are engaged. "[1] Though phrased as a prescriptive command, the principle is intended as a description of how people normally behave in conversation. Speakers and listeners involved in conversation are generally cooperating with each other.

For reference to be successful, it was proposed that collaboration was a necessary factor.

In accepting speaker’s presuppositions, listeners normally have to assume that a speaker who says his something really does have that which is mentioned and isn’t trying to mislead the listener. This sense of cooperation is simply one in which people having a conversation are not normally assumed to be trying to confuse, trick, or withhold relevant information from each other.

In most circumstances, this kind of cooperation is only the starting point for making sense of what is said.

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Since conversations between people are not always straight forward, the linguistic philosopher H. P. Grice attempted to explain how a hearer gets from what is said to what is meant, from the level of literally expressed meaning to the level of implied meaning and he termed the implied meaning conversational implicature in his theory.

Grice suggests that there is a general principle guiding conversation what he calls the Cooperative Principle (CP for short), and communicators observe the general conversational maxims of truthfulness, informativeness, relevance and clarity within the CP, according to the four main maxims of Quantity, Quality, Relation and Maner.

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When the listener hears the expression, he has to assume that the speaker is being cooperative and intends to communicate something. That something must be more than just what the words mean. It is an additional conveyed meaning, which is an implicature.

People who obey the cooperative principle in their language use will make sure that what they say in a conversation furthers the purpose of that conversation. Obviously, the requirements of different types of conversations will be different. The cooperative principle goes both ways: speakers (generally) observe the cooperative principle, and listeners (generally) assume that speakers are observing it. This allows for the possibility of implicatures, which are meanings that are not explicitly conveyed in what is said, but that can nonetheless be inferred.

For example, if Alice points out that Bill is not present, and Carol replies that Bill has a cold, then there is an implicature that the cold is the reason, or at least a possible reason, for Bill's absence; this is because Carol's comment is not cooperative — does not contribute to the conversation — unless her point is that Bill's cold is or might be the reason for his absence. (This is covered specifically by the Maxim of Relevance). We assume that people are normally going to provide an appropriate amount of information. We assume that they are telling the truth, being relevant, and trying to be as clear as they can.

Listeners and speakers must speak cooperatively and mutually accept one another to be understood in a particular way. The cooperative principle describes how effective communication in conversation is achieved in common social situations. However, there are some circumstances where speakers may not follow the expectation of the cooperative principle. In courtrooms and classrooms, witnesses and students are often called upon to tell people things which are already well known to those people, thereby violating the quantity maxim. Such specialized institutional talk is clearly different from conversation.

However, even in conversation, a speaker may opt out of the maxim expectations by using expressions like ‘No comment’ or of such expressions is that, although they are typically not “as informative as is required” in the context, they are naturally interpreted as communicating more than is said. For example, the speaker knows the answer. It is speakers who communicate meaning via implicatures and it is listeners who recognize those communicated meanings via inference. The inferences selected are those which will preserve assumption of cooperation.

In the theory of conversational implicature, Grice proposes that in an exchange of conversation, there is an underlying principle that determines the way in which language is used maximally effectively and efficiently to achieve rational interaction. He calls this governing dictum the co-operative principle and subdivides it into nine maxims classified into four categories. The co-operative 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.

He suggests that there is an accepted way of speaking which we all accept as standard behaviour. When we produce, or hear, an utterance, we assume that it will generally be true, have the right amount of information, be relevant, and will be couched in understandable terms. If an utterance does not appear to conform to this model (e. g. B’s utterance in (1) above), then we do not assume that the utterance is nonsense; rather, we assume that an appropriate meaning is there to be inferred.

In Grice’s terms, a maxim has been flouted, and an implicature generated. Without such an assumption, it would not be worth a co-interactant investing the effort needed to interpret an indirect speech act. This is the standard basic explication of the CP, maxims and implicatures1. At this point, many descriptions immediately turn to detailed explanations of the many ways in which the operation of the CP can be tracked in language use: flouts, violations, infringing and opting out. However, in this mass of detail, Grice’s underlying ideas are too often lost.

Taylor & Cameron (1987:83) stand alone in making this point: “Few commentators pause to consider Grice’s avowed motive for introducing the CP. Instead they rush on to consider the various maxims which are subordinate to it. ” All the examples of flouts, violations and opting out are there to further illustrate the distinction between saying and meaning: an interest which has been evident in the Gricean program since Grice (1957), and to show that there is a pattern in the way we interact.

There is a relationship between the conventional meaning of an utterance and any implicit meaning it might have, and it is calculable. What Grice (1975) does not say is that interaction is ‘cooperative’ in the sense which is found in the dictionary. In fact, as we have suggested in Davies (1997), it could be argued that the existence of this pattern of behaviour enables the speaker to make the task of the hearer more difficult. Speakers can convey their intentions by a limitless number of utterances, it is up to the hearer to calculate the utterer’s intention.

It would seem from this that the CP is not about making the task of the Hearer straightforward; potentially, it is quite the reverse. It allows the speaker to make their utterance harder, rather than easier, to interpret: we can omit information or present a non-literal utterance, and expect the Hearer to do the extra work necessary to interpret it. We would suggest that there is a conflict between the way we interpret the CP’s position in the Gricean program, and the way it is often represented in the linguistic literature.

Grice suggests that conversational implicatures- roughly, a set of non-logical inferences that contains conveyed messages which are meant without being said in the strict sense – can arise from either strictly and directly observing or deliberately and ostentatiously flouting the maxims. Furthermore, he distinguishes between those conversational implicatures which arise without requiring any particular contextual conditions and those which do require such conditions. He calls the first kind generalised conversational implicatures and the second kind particularised conversational implicatures.

Grice also points out that conversational implicatures are characterised by a number of distinctive properties, notably (i) cancellability, or defeasibility (conversational implicatures can simply evaporate in certain linguistic or non-linguistic contexts), (ii) non-detachability (any linguistic expression with the same semantic content tends to carry the same conversational implicature (a principled exception is those conversational implicatures that arise via the maxim of Manner)), (iii) calculability (conversational implicatures are calculable via the co-operative principle and its attendant axims), (iv) non-conventionality (conversational implicatures, though dependent on what is coded, are non-coded in nature), (v) reinforceability (conversational implicatures can be made explicit without producing too much redundancy) (Sadock 1978), and (vi) universality (conversational implicatures tend to be universal, being motivated rather than arbitrary) (see Sadock 1978 for a critique and Nunburg 1981 for a defense).

Recent advances on the classic Gricean theory of conversational implicature include Atlas & Levinson (1981), Leech (1981, 1983), Sperber & Wilson (1982, 1986), Levinson (1983, 1987a, b, 1991), Horn (1984, 1988, 1989, 1992) and Atlas (1989). 2 In these new developments, the original Gricean programme has been revised in somewhat different ways. Sperber and Wilson, for example, in an attempt to make a paradigm change' (Kuhn 1970) in pragmatics, propose that the entire Gricean apparatus be subsumed within a single cognitive principle, namely the principle of Relevance.

On this Relevance theory, which is essentially a modification of the Fodorian theory of cognitive modularity (Fodor 1983),3 it is assumed that the human central cognitive mechanism works in such a way as to maximise Relevance with respect to communication, that is, 'communicated information comes with a guarantee of [R]elevance' (Sperber & Wilson 1986: vii). Thus, the principle of Relevance is claimed to be responsible for the recovery of both the explicit and implicit content of an utterance.

In other words, on Sperber and Wilson's view, in interpreting an utterance, one is always maximizing the informational value of contextual stimuli to interpret the utterance in a way which is most consistent with the principle of Relevance. Horn suggests a less reductionist, bipartite model. In Horn's view, all of Grice's maxims (except the maxim of Quality) can be replaced with two fundamental and antithetical principles: the Quantity principle and the Relation principle.

These maxims may be better understood as describing the assumptions listeners normally make about the way speakers will talk, rather than prescriptions for how one ought to talk. Philosopher Kent Bach writes: We need first to get clear on the character of Grice’s maxims. They are not sociological generalizations about speech, nor are they 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 hat we as listeners rely on and as speakers exploit. (Bach 2005). Gricean Maxims generate implicatures. If the overt, surface meaning of a sentence does not seem to be consistent with the Gricean maxims, and yet the circumstances lead us to think that the speaker is nonetheless obeying the cooperative principle, we tend to look for other meanings that could be implied by the sentence. Grice did not, however, assume that all people should constantly follow these maxims.

Instead, he found it interesting when these were not respected, namely either "flouted" (with the listener being expected to be able to understand the message) or "violated" (with the listener being expected to not note this). Flouting would imply some other, hidden meaning. The importance was in what was not said. For example: Answering It's raining to someone who has suggested playing a game of tennis only disrespects the maxim of relation on the surface, the reasoning behind this 'fragment' sentence is normally clear to the interlocutor (the maxim is just "flouted").

Criticism Grice’s theory is often disputed by arguing that cooperative conversation, as with most social behavior, is culturally determined, and therefore the Gricean Maxims and the Cooperative Principle cannot be universally applied due to intercultural differences. Keenan claims that the Malagasy, for example, follow a completely opposite Cooperative Principle in order to achieve conversational cooperation.

In their culture, speakers are reluctant to share information and flout the Maxim of Quantity by evading direct questions and replying on incomplete answers because of the risk of losing face by committing oneself to the truth of the information, as well as the fact that having information is a form of prestige. [3] However, Harnish points out[4] that Grice only claims his maxims hold in conversations where his Cooperative Principle is in effect. The Malagasy speakers choose not to be cooperative, valuing the prestige of information ownership more highly. It could also be said in this case that this is a less cooperative communication system, since less information is shared) Another criticism is that the Gricean Maxims can easily be misinterpreted to be a guideline for etiquette, instructing speakers on how to be moral, polite conversationalists. However, the Gricean Maxims, despite their wording, are only meant to describe the commonly accepted traits of successful cooperative communication. Geoffrey Leech created the Politeness maxims: tact, generosity, approbation, modesty, agreement, and sympathy. Flouting the Maxims

Without cooperation, human interaction would be far more difficult and counterproductive. Therefore, the Cooperative Principle and the Gricean Maxims are not specific to conversation but to verbal interactions in general. For example, it would not make sense to reply to a question about the weather with an answer about groceries because it would violate the Maxim of Relevance. Likewise, responding to a question with a long monologue would violate the Maxim of Quantity. However, it is possible to flout a maxim intentionally or unconsciously and thereby convey a different meaning than what is literally spoken.

Many times in conversation, this flouting is manipulated by a speaker to produce a negative pragmatic effect, as with sarcasm or irony. One can flout the Maxim of Quality to tell a clumsy friend who has just taken a bad fall that her gracefulness is impressive and obviously intend to mean the complete opposite. The Gricean Maxims are therefore often purposefully flouted by comedians and writers, who may hide the complete truth and manipulate their words for the effect of the story and the sake of the reader’s experience.

Speakers who deliberately flout the maxims usually intend for their listener to understand their underlying implication. In the case of the clumsy friend, she will most likely understand that the speaker is not truly offering a compliment. Therefore, cooperation is still taking place, but no longer on the literal level. Conversationalists can assume that when speakers intentionally flout a maxim, they still do so with the aim of expressing some thought. Thus, the Gricean Maxims serve a purpose both when they are followed and when they are flouted.

Updated: Feb 23, 2021
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Communication Skills and Critics on Cooperative Principle. (2016, Dec 16). Retrieved from

Communication Skills and Critics on Cooperative Principle essay
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