This article possibly contains original research. (October 2012)
In social science generally and linguistics specifically, the cooperative principle describes how people interact with one another. 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." Though phrased as a prescriptive command, the principle is intended as a description of how people normally behave in conversation. Jeffries and McIntyre describe Grice's Maxims as "encapsulating the assumptions that we prototypically hold when we engage in conversation".
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.
The cooperative principle can be divided into four maxims, called the Gricean Maxims, describing specific rational principles observed by people who obey the cooperative principle; these principles enable effective communication. Grice proposed four conversational maxims that arise from the pragmatics of natural language. Applying the Gricean Maxims is a way to explain the link between utterances and what is understood from them.
Obeying the cooperative principle
Those 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 Relation.)
Maxim of Quality
- Try to make your contribution one that is true
- Do not say what you believe to be false.
- Do not say that for which you lack adequate evidence.
Maxim of Quantity
- Make your contribution as informative as is required (for the current purposes of the exchange).
- Do not make your contribution more informative than is required.
Maxim of Relevance
- Be Relevant
With respect to this maxim, Grice writes, "Though the maxim itself is terse, its formulation conceals a number of problems that exercise me a good deal: questions about what different kinds and focuses of relevance there may be, how these shift in the course of a talk exchange, how to allow for the fact that subjects of conversations are legitimately changed, and so on. I find the treatment of such questions exceedingly difficult, and I hope to revert to them in later work."
Maxim of Manner
- Be perspicuous
- Avoid obscurity of expression.
- Avoid ambiguity.
- Be brief (avoid unnecessary prolixity).
- Be orderly.
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:
...[W]e need first to get clear on the character of Grice's maxims. They are not sociological generalizations about speech, nor they are 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 that 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").
Grice's theory is often disputed by arguing that cooperative conversation, as with most social behaviour, 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. However, Harnish points out 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 simple yes/no 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.
- Hedge (linguistics)
- Leech's politeness maxims
- Lexical entrainment
- Politeness theory
- Relevance theory
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- The Top 10 Misconceptions about Implicature by Kent Bach (2005)
- Grice's Maxims: "Do the Right Thing" by Robert E. Frederking. Argues that the Gricean maxims are too vague to be useful for natural language processing.
- Logic and Conversation by H.Paul Grice. Where Grice introduces his maxims.
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