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Language: Gricean Pragmatics

Karen explores the relationship between language and communication, looking at the question of how it is that people regularly use words to communicate more than their literal meanings.  This video introduces us to the most philosophically influential theory on this matter, H.P. Grice’s theory of pragmatics.

Speaker: Dr. Karen Lewis, Barnard College, Columbia University.
Created by Gaurav Vazirani.

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  • male robot hal style avatar for user Wudaifu
    Did anyone else get a little chuckle at when the speaker was saying,"In general, conversations are cooperative. People aim to understand each other an be understood. They want to give and receive information..." while the screen displayed the word "receive" being spelled incorrectly as "recieve"? The fact that we later see this same error at , , & made me wonder whether this wasn't a very subtle attempt to demonstrate that making a video that is later passively watched by viewers does NOT qualify as a "conversation", so the speaker is not obligated to follow the 4th maxim described in the video to "Avoid obscurity or Avoid ambiguity". ;>)
    (6 votes)
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  • mr pink red style avatar for user JoeMcDo
    Thanks for the video!
    I am a little confused why discussing the nature of our language is relative to philosophy, and do the same Maxims apply to the written language? Thank you again.
    (5 votes)
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  • ohnoes default style avatar for user Cyan Wind
    If I understand correctly, this video is trying to explain some maxims in languages to improve conversations between people, right? Do we need to use all maxims when talking, or is it up to the scenario?
    (4 votes)
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    • blobby green style avatar for user admin
      I don't think the claim was about how to improve conversations but rather a description of what rules we use when we engage in rational cooperative activities. So I think (if I understand Grice correctly) his project was rather to discover the rules by which we engage in rational cooperative activities (which of course go beyond just conversations).
      (7 votes)
  • leafers ultimate style avatar for user Justin
    Is it fair to say from her perspective that, observing Gricean Pragmatics in a conversation is sufficient but not necessary for it being a rational conversation, or is rationality necessary for Gricean Pragmatics?
    (1 vote)
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Video transcript

(intro music) My name is Karen Lewis, and I'm an assistant[br]professor of philosophy at Barnard College, Columbia University. And today, I want to talk to[br]you about Gricean pragmatics. Pragmatics is the study of how people use language in real conversations, and in books and emails[br]and other sorts of media of language use. Pragmatics, on the one hand, is distinguished from[br]semantics, on the other hand, which studies the literal[br]meaning of the words or sentences that we use. But very often, we communicate more than the literal meanings[br]of the words we use. And this is one of the main things that pragmatics studies. For example, if I tell you "I'm going to Montreal this week. "My mother lives there," you're gonna understand[br]that I'm going to Montreal in order to visit my mother. but I didn't actually say that. I just stated two facts: one, "I'm going to Montreal this week," and second, "my mother lives in Montreal." But everybody's gonna naturally understand that those facts are connected. That in fact going to see my mother is my reason for going to Montreal. Here's another example. Suppose somebody asks me "Are you coming to the party on Friday?" and I say "I have to work." They're gonna understand that[br]I can't make it to the party because I have to work. But again, I didn't say that. It could be that I have to[br]work earlier in the day. All I said was that I[br]have to work on Friday. I didn't say anything about[br]it conflicting with the party. But you're naturally gonna[br]understand my reply of "I have to work on[br]Friday" as being a reason for me not coming to the party. In some cases, we can even[br]use the very same words in different situations and communicate completely[br]different things. For example, if a teacher[br]writes on a report card for a first grade student[br]"Bob has wonderful penmanship," it's gonna communicate just that: Bob is doing very well[br]at handwriting in class. That's something you wanna[br]master in the first grade. On the other hand, suppose[br]a professor's writing a letter of recommendation for one of her philosophy students applying for a prestigious award in philosophy. And all she writes in the letter is[br]"Bob has wonderful penmanship." Well, in addition to[br]communicating something about Bob's penmanship,[br]that's gonna communicate that the professor doesn't think Bob is a very good philosopher[br]or deserving of the award. Herbert Paul Grice, a philosopher who lived from 1913 to 1988, was the first who tried[br]to explain this phenomenon in his paper "Logic and Conversation." And much of what he[br]said laid the foundation for the study of pragmatics today. Grice invented the term "implicature." An implicature is whatever is meant, but not literally said. Things that are suggested,[br]implied, or hinted at. One very important kind of implicature that he talked about is[br]conversational implicature: implicatures that come about due to general features of conversation. And remember here again,[br]when we're talking about conversations, we're often[br]including things like books, letter-writing and so on. What Grice observed is that, in general, conversations are cooperative efforts. People aim to understand[br]each other and be understood. They wanna give and receive information. They wanna influence each[br]other and be influenced. People in conversation[br]generally don't say just a bunch of disconnected remarks. And even in the most[br]casual of conversations, there's generally some sort of goal or purpose to the conversation. We don't just idly say random things for no reason at all. Grice took all these[br]observations and proposed that what we're doing is sort[br]of tacitly following these rational rules of conversation. Rational rules are[br]rules that people follow because we're rational creatures, as opposed to, say, conventional rules. So for example, some countries drive on the left side of the[br]road and some countries, like ours, drive on the right. That's just a conventional rule. One is not better than the other. But the fact that we[br]follow such rules at all, that we don't just drive[br]in any direction we want, that's a rational rule. That's our way of[br]cooperating with each other. That's how we get to where we're going all in one piece, as opposed[br]to crashing into each other. Grice summarized these observations, this idea that conversations[br]are cooperative activities among rational agents,[br]with his central rule that he called the[br]"Cooperative Principle." The cooperative principle is "Make your conversational contribution such as is required, at the[br]stage at which it occurs, by the accepted purpose or[br]direction of the talk exchange in which you are engaged. Grice further explained[br]the cooperative principle by giving four rules, or maxims, that people generally[br]follow in conversation. Recall that these rules, or maxims, are not supposed to be conventional rules that we happen to follow[br]in conversations, but rules that govern rational[br]cooperative activity in general. The first is the Maxim of Quantity: make your contribution as[br]informative as is required for the current purposes of the exchange, and do not make your contribution more informative than is required. For example, if we're talking about going to see a movie tonight and we're trying to[br]decide what movie to see, and you ask me "Okay, what's playing?", following the first part[br]of the maxim of quantity, I should make my contribution[br]as informative as is required. And this just seems perfectly rational. I'm going to read you,[br]say, all the times of the movies at our[br]local theater tonight, as opposed to just reading you the time of one movie that's playing. But I'm also gonna follow[br]the second maxim of quantity, "do not make your[br]contribution more informative "than is required." I'm not, for example,[br]gonna tell you the times of all the movies playing[br]across the entire country. Even though in some sense it's an answer to your question of "What[br]movies are playing tonight?" it's more informative than is required by the conversational purpose. In the same way, this is[br]the sort of rule we follow in lots of cooperative activities. So for example, if we're[br]fixing a car together and you need four screws[br]to screw in the next piece, I'm not gonna hand you two[br]screws, which is not enough, or six screws, which is too many. The next maxim is the Maxim of Quality, which is simply "Try to[br]make your contribution "one that is true, "do not say what you believe to be false, "and do not say that for which[br]you lack adequate evidence." So, back to the movie example, if we're talking about going[br]to see a movie tonight and we're trying to decide what to see and you ask me what's playing, I shouldn't tell you something[br]that I know is not playing, something I know to be false. Or I shouldn't tell you[br]a certain movie's playing at a certain time if I[br]haven't looked it up yet, if I don't have adequate evidence. Again, this is a rule that we follow in regular cooperative activity[br]outside of conversation. It's just something that rational people, when they're trying to cooperate[br]with each other, will do. For example, if we're trying[br]to bake a cake together and it's time to add the sugar, I shouldn't give you the salt,[br]pretending that it's sugar. The next maxim is the Maxim of Relation, which is simply "Be relevant: "say things that are relevant, "don't say things that are irrelevant." So again, if we're talking about going to see a movie tonight, I[br]shouldn't start telling you about a good book that I read, unless of course I signal[br]a change in conversation. Similarly, if we're trying to bake a cake and it's time to add the sugar, I shouldn't pass you a[br]book, or even an oven mitt, even though the oven mitt may be relevant at a later point in the cake-making. The final maxim has to do not with the content of what we[br]say, but with the way in which you say it, and that's the Maxim of Manner. More specifically, Grice says[br]"We should be perspicuous: "avoid obscurity of[br]expression, avoid ambiguity, "be brief, and be orderly." So, for example, if we're talking again about going to see a movie tonight and a particular movie's[br]playing at the local theater, I should just say so,[br]namely something like "Movie X is playing at our local theater." and not something like "Our local theater will be displaying a[br]series of still images on a reel tonight." If I say something using an[br]odd expression like that, you're gonna start thinking I'm trying to communicate something else, something like "I don't[br]think a real movie's playing at the theater tonight." Similarly, if we're[br]baking a cake together and it's time to add the sugar, I should just directly hand you the sugar. I shouldn't, for example,[br]draw you a treasure map to the sugar. These maxims, together with[br]the cooperative principle, explain how people communicate more than the literal meanings of[br]their words in conversation. People assume tacitly[br]that the speaker's obeying all the maxims she can and[br]the cooperative principle. These facts, plus facts about the purpose of the conversation, the[br]context of the conversation, and the general things[br]we know about the world, our world knowledge, allow us to calculate these implicatures, these[br]things that are hinted at, suggested, or otherwise communicated over and above the literal[br]meanings of our words. So let's return to the[br]examples from the beginning and see how Grice will[br]explain how those things get communicated. Recall that I said that if I tell you "I'm going to Montreal this week. "My mother lives there," you're gonna understand[br]that I'm going to Montreal in order to visit my mother. And now we can understand why. You assume I'm being a cooperative conversational participant,[br]and only saying things that, for example, are[br]relevant to each other. I'm not giving you a bunch[br]of disconnected remarks that are facts about the world. Well, the only way that the fact that my mother lives in Montreal is relevant to my going to Montreal is that I'm going to[br]Montreal to visit my mother. There's a similar explanation[br]for the next example. So again, suppose somebody asks me "Are you coming to the party on Friday?" and I answer "I have to work," and you understand that[br]I'm not going to the party because I have to work. Well again, you're gonna assume that I'm observing the[br]cooperative principle and all the maxims. And again, I'd be infringing[br]on the maxim "Be relevant" if my statement "I have to work" wasn't somehow an answer to the question "Are you going to the party on Friday?" I would also be infringing[br]on the maxim of quantity, "Be as informative as required," since I wouldn't have provided[br]an answer to the question if "I have to work" wasn't[br]an answer to the question "Are you going to the party on Friday?" And finally, we can employ a little bit of our world knowledge[br]there because we know that if someone's at work,[br]they can't also be at a party. Similarly, if we go back to the letter of recommendation case,[br]recall that a professor's writing a letter of recommendation for a student who wants to apply for a prestigious award in philosophy, and the professor writes nothing but "Bob has wonderful penmanship." This communicates that the professor has nothing great to say about[br]Bob's ability in philosophy, because he violates the[br]first maxim of quantity, "Say as much as is required." Clearly in a letter of recommendation for a prestigious philosophy award, much more is required[br]than information about the student's penmanship. And again, he also infringes[br]on the maxim of relevance, because a student's penmanship is not very relevant to[br]their philosophical ability. Let's look at one more example that we haven't touched on yet. Suppose we had received[br]a package a few days ago and I put it away somewhere, and now you're looking for it and you ask me "Where's the package?" I can't remember where I put it, so I say "I can't remember where[br]I put it, but I remember that it's either in the[br]attic or the bedroom," and so I say "It's in[br]the attic or the bedroom." You're gonna understand from that that I'm not sure where the package is. Why is that? Well, if I knew where the package is, by the first maxim of quantity,[br]I should have told you so. I could have said[br]something more informative. If I knew for sure it was in the attic, saying "It's in the[br]attic" would have been the appropriate response. But in this case, giving[br]the most informative answer, obeying the first maxim of quantity, clashes with maxim of[br]quality which tells me "Don't say things that I know to be false," or "Don't say things for[br]which I lack evidence." Since I don't remember[br]where I put the package, I don't have enough evidence to assert "It's in the attic," and so I tell you "It's in the attic or the bedroom," and you understand, again,[br]that I don't know which one. On the other hand, imagine a situation in which we're playing[br]a game of treasure hunt, and you're looking for a[br]package that I've hidden. You're having a very, very hard[br]time succeeding at this game, and so I give you a hint to help you out. I say "The package is in[br]the attic or the bedroom." These are the same words I[br]used in the last scenario, the same words that, in the last scenario, communicated that I didn't[br]know where the package was. But in this case, given that our conversational purpose is different (we're on a treasure[br]hunt and I have a reason for telling you something[br]less informative), it doesn't communicate that I don't know where the package is. So again, in this case, the[br]maxim of quantity tells me to tell you something less informative, because for our conversational purpose, the amount of information that's required is something that's less[br]than maximally informative, something that gives you a[br]hint at where the package is, but doesn't tell you exactly where it is. So again, I've used exactly the same words, but this time, by saying "The package is in the[br]attic or the bedroom," I haven't communicated to you[br]that I don't know where it is. So in all, we can see that[br]by appealing to the fact that conversations are[br]cooperative activites among rational agents, we can explain how so much gets[br]communicated, without thinking that our words themselves[br]actually mean different things in different contexts. Subtitles by the Amara.org community