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A Boring History of the Philosophy of Language: Part III

April 3, 2012

In the third and (for the moment) final section of “A Boring History” we cover a few more modern philosophers. Unlike the last two sections, the more modern work here better reflects the was  actual people think about language. It can look a little technical and intimidating at first, but the reality is that these guys talk about language in a way that a lot like the way you probably already think about language. Dig in to this stuff, and it can make you realize how savvy the modern reader (i.e. you) tends to be, without even knowing it.

H.P. Grice – “Logic and Conversation”

In many ways, Grice answers Austin’s call for further investigation of the ways speech acts can function.  In “Logic and Conversation” Grice offers an explanation of how implicature is generated.  Implicature is, as the name suggests, that which is implied by a sentence.  In Grice’s example, two men are discussing a friend, when one of them says that he is doing well at his new job, and that “he likes his colleagues, and he hasn’t been to prison yet” (172). Obviously there is more to this sentence than the literal meaning.  This is the implicature, specifically, the implication that there is reason to think that their friend would be in prison, perhaps due to his new job.

To explain the manner this comes about, Grice establishes a list of conversational maxims (173).  It is by flouting one, or several, of these maxims that implicature is generated (176).  This does assume that those in the conversation are following what Grice calls the Cooperation Principle.  This principle assumes that those in a conversation are making relevant contributions at appropriate times for the conversation at hand (173).

There are four maxims in Grice’s theory, although he does not limit the maxims to this list, and at several point’s he reminds us that “one might need others” (174).  His list contains the following four maxims:

Quantity:  Provide an appropriate amount of information, not too little or too much (173).

Quality:  Don’t say things you know to be false, or have no evidence for (174).

Relation:  “Be relevant” (174).

Manner:  Be coherent.  Avoid ambiguous and obscure language (174).

There are many ways to fail at a maxim, and not all of these generate implicature.  Opting out of the cooperation principle is one such way.  This can happen when an individual informs others that he refuses to answer their questions (quantity), or that he is ignorant of that he attempts to explain (quality).  Of course, one could also do this secretly.  In this case the others in the conversation are mislead or confused, not realizing that the individual is not cooperating.  Finally, two maxims may clash, making it difficult to follow one without violating the other (176).

Implicature is generated by flouting the maxims.  To flout the maxims is to violate them in a blatant manner, such that others in the conversation are aware of the violation.  Unlike opting out, this must be done in a way that indicates you are still adhering to the cooperation principle (176).  In the ‘prison’ example above, the information that their friend “hasn’t been to prison yet” appears to be an obvious violation of the maxim of relation.  Nothing in the conversation at that point raised questions about whether their friend was in prison.  If, for some reason, their friend’s new job entailed concerns of prison, there was still an obvious violation of quantity.  Though perhaps relevant, the response was for a question that was never asked.  It was from these violations that implicature was generated.

Another way to identify implication is through cancelation.  The implicature of a sentence can be canceled without negating the original statement (181).  If, shortly after stating, “he hasn’t been to prison yet”, the speaker had clarified, “and that’s not to say I expect him too”, the seeming implicature would have been cancelled.  However, if the speaker had said, “he likes his new job, which is not to say that he likes his new job,” the result would be self contradictory;  Either failing to communicate to the group, or generating implicature of its own, depending on context.

Searle – “The Structure of Illocutionary Acts”

Searle engages in what he calls an “amended Gricean analysis” (150), which he does by further investigating the types and functions of illocutionary acts.  An illocutionary act is the force of a speech act (146).  For example, if someone were to say “Can you pass me that pencil?” the literal answer would likely be “yes”.  Of course, that would be missing something about the question.  That would be the illocutionary force, specifically the implied request that someone pass the pencil.  There is also perlocutionary force, in this case that would be the act of someone handing them the pencil.  Searle begins this discussion with the act of promising, because it is “fairly formal and well articulated” (146).

One characteristic of a promise is that it has “propositional content” (148).  Simply put, that which the speaker promises to do for someone cannot have happened already, otherwise the promise doesn’t work.  In other words, the promise must imply a proposition; a statement about something that is not the case, which the promiser intends to make the case.  It is also possible to promise the prevention of an event, but this has no dramatic effect on the structure.

It is important to note that a promise is something that is done for someone, not to someone, and that the action promised should not already be expected.  Searle calls these “preparatory conditions” (149).  To promise to do something for someone entails that person would like that which is promised to be the case.  To promise to do something bad to someone is not a promise, but a threat.  To promise that which is already expected causes problems as well.  As Searle illustrates, “A happily married man who promises his wife that he will not cheat on her in the next week is likely to provide more anxiety than comfort” (149).

Much like Grice, Searle believes there is a “sincerity condition” (149).  The promise must intend to fulfill their promise, and have the capacity to do so.  This is perhaps a side effect of what Searle calls the “essential condition” of a promise (149).  By promising to do something, the speaker is placing themselves under an obligation to comply with their promise.  If the speaker made the promise insincerely, they put themselves under no obligation to comply with that promise.  If this obligation is not formed, the speech act has failed to perform any action (149).

In addition to his conditional picture of how promises work, there is another way that Searle builds upon, and deviates from, Austin.  In Austin’s picture, the speech act performed an action.  To state, “I name this ship the Queen Elizabeth” was to perform the act of naming the ship the Queen Elizabeth.  For Searle, a speech act both performs the action, and states the action performed.  To say “I name this ship the Queen Elizabeth” both performs the act of naming, and says that you have done so (152).

 Donald Davidson – “What Metaphors Mean”

Davidson focuses primarily on the manner in which metaphors function.  Previously there was some discussion of metaphors in the work of Grice, who described them as a product of flouting the maxim of quality.  He points out that these claims are often “categorically false”, but that the speaker does not use them ironically.  An ironic use would imply that the opposite of the statement is true, but for metaphors this leads to truisms.  Therefore, in the use of metaphor the speaker is assuming that his audience will be able to see the similarities between two things (178).  To use one of Davidson’s examples as illustration, if a speaker says that “Tolstoy is a Moralizing Baby”, of course he does not mean this literally (474).  It does not mean the inverse either, as “Tolstoy is not a moralizing baby” is too obviously true to be worth saying.  This means that, for Grice, the statements means “Tolstoy possesses features which resemble those of a baby, who is prone to moralizing.”

Davidson flatly rejects this explanation of Metaphor.  The words that compose metaphorical sentences retain their original meaning; to say “Tolstoy was a moralizing baby” means that Tolstoy was a moralizing baby.  Davidson does not believe that some new meaning is generated by metaphors (482).  However, he is not interested in disparaging metaphors, as this view may suggest.  It also does not mean that metaphors are nonsense.  Although they lack meaning in the way a literal sentence might, they do still communicate something (482).

Likewise, Davidson Claims a metaphor is not simply another way to phrase a simile.  Most obviously, a simile can be true or false, and can have explicit meanings (478).  To say that “Tolstoy was like a moralizing Baby” implies that if one were to make a list of the properties of Tolstoy, and then make a list of the properties of a moralizing baby, they would find similarities between the two.  Like Grice, Davidson believes that a metaphor begins with a patent falsity, or perhaps a statement too obviously true (“war is war”, for example).  Either way, this violation of quality clearly indicates to the listener that the sentence bears implicature (480).  This is yet another reason for the picture of metaphors as acts: their dependence on context.

Instead of possessing a hidden meaning, a metaphor instead “makes us see”, causing us to “notice aspects of things we did not notice before” (482).  The metaphor is thus highly dependent on the context of its use.  There can be no hidden message in the metaphor, because this hidden message would be set.  Instead, there is the implicature of the metaphor, which will shift from context to context, and listener to listener.

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