Language and thought: Introducing representation
Language and thought: Introducing representation

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Language and thought: Introducing representation

2.6 Which intentions?

Grice makes three attempts to answer this last question. The second builds on the first; the third, which he proposes to adopt, builds on the second. In the next three activities, you will be asked to extract these attempts in turn, and appreciate the alleged shortcomings of the first two.

Activity 4

Read Part III of ‘Meaning’, in which Grice makes a first attempt to specify which form an intention must have if the resulting act is to be meaningful. He then quickly dismisses the attempt. What is the definition, and why does he find it wanting?

Click to view Part III of ‘Meaning’ by H.P. Grice: ‘A first proposal’ [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)]


According to Grice's first suggestion, an utterance means whatever it is that the utterer is trying to get his or her audience to believe. (He is talking only about assertions, setting aside questions and orders.) Call this first definition ‘Grice 1’.

Grice 1: A specific utterance U means that p if, and only if, in performing U, the utterer intends an audience to come to believe that p.

Grice quickly dismisses this as insufficient. Doing something with the intention merely of getting one's audience to believe that p does not amount to meaning that p. He gives a simple example to show this. The example is a non-linguistic one, which fits with his hunch that the source of an individual utterance's meaning is not, ultimately, the words used.

The example involves someone, call them A, secretly leaving B's handkerchief at a murder scene with the intention of getting the detective to believe that B is the murderer. Intuitively, we would not really say of A's act that it means that B is the murderer. (It certainly doesn't meannn this, anyway, and this is the only kind of meaning Grice is interested in. But in fact it does not really seem to meann this either. At most, the detective may be led to think it meansn that B is the murderer.)

A common reaction to this counter-example is that leaving a handkerchief at a crime scene is not verbal, so is not an utterance, so is irrelevant. But Grice's use of ‘utterance’ is meant to be stipulative and artificial. Using ‘utterance’ in this self-consciously broad way is a reminder of the fact that verbal utterances are not the only kind of meaningful act. (Think of nodding, or miming breaststroke behind a boss's back to mean that a co-worker should not cave in.) But in any case Grice's counter-example could easily have been a verbal one, where by ‘verbal’ is meant something like ‘involving use of the voice’. Suppose that, for some reason, C wants D, a monolingual English-speaker, to believe that D's house is haunted by the ghost of the Russian émigré who used to live in it. At night, from inside a cupboard in D's bedroom, C produces Russian-sounding nonsense using a guide to Russian enunciation. We would not say that C's utterances mean that D's house is haunted as Grice 1 requires. They do not mean anything, not even in Russian.

Grice uses the failings of this first definition to develop a better one.

Activity 5

Read Part IV of ‘Meaning’, in which Grice modifies his earlier definition. He also argues that the modified version still falls short. What is the modified version?

Click to view Part IV of ‘Meaning’ by H.P. Grice: ‘A second proposal’


The new element, required for meaning but missing in the handkerchief scenario, is openness of intent. A placed B's handkerchief secretly, since if the detective was aware that A had put it down, he would not have been led to suspect B. If we add an openness requirement to Grice 1, it should rule out this example and others like it. Grice incorporates this new element into his second attempt at a definition, which we can express as follows:

Grice 2: A specific utterance U means that p if, and only if, in performing it, the utterer intends:

  • (a) that an audience will come to believe that p, and

  • (b) that this audience will recognise intention (a).

The new clause, (b), is not met in the handkerchief case or in the haunted-cupboard case. This lends support to this formulation of the Gricean proposal.

But even Grice 2 is inadequate. In one of several counter-examples, Grice imagines himself supplying Mr X with a photograph of Mr Y ‘showing undue familiarity to Mrs X’. (Note: Grice was writing before the manipulation of photographs became commonplace.) He supplies it with the intention that Mr X will come to believe that ‘there is something between Mr Y and Mrs X’. If we take ‘U’ to be the act of supplying the photo to Mr X, and ‘p’ to be that there is something between Mr Y and Mrs X, clause (a) is satisfied. Suppose moreover that Grice, in this imaginary scenario, wishes his intention to be recognised. Perhaps he wishes this because Mr X is powerful and supportive of those who are loyal to him. So rather than posting the photo anonymously, Grice hands it to Mr X in person. This means that clause (b) is also satisfied. But we would not really want to say that Grice's act means that Mr Y and Mrs X are joined in some illicit union. We might be tempted to say that this is what the photo itself means, but that is at best meaningn, not meaningnn, the kind we are interested in. The photographic image is evidence for the existence of an illicit union, in the same way that red spots on a person's face are evidence of measles; if there were no illicit union then the claim that this is what it meant would have to be withdrawn, and this is the mark of meaningn. (This is where the danger of confusion between the two kinds of meaning is at its greatest, which is why Grice was keen to make the distinction explicit early on.)

Activity 6

Read Part V of ‘Meaning’. In this passage, Grice adds a further clause to get to what we can call Grice 3. What is the new requirement?

Click to view Part V of ‘Meaning’ by H.P. Grice: ‘A third proposal’


The problem with Grice 2, illustrated in the photograph case, is used by Grice to draw a moral. Even though clause (a) and clause (b) are both met in the photo scenario, there is no connection between the intention required by clause (a) and the intention required by clause (b). In particular, the prospects for success of intention (b), i.e. the intention to be recognised as having intention (a), is inessential to the prospects for success of intention (a). Grice (in the photograph scenario) could easily have succeeded in intention (a) without succeeding in intention (b). The photo, so to speak, tells its own story without Grice's (b)-intention playing any essential role. To see this, suppose for contrast that the ‘undue familiarity’ were represented by a drawing by Grice of matchstick figures rather than by a photo. Such a drawing could serve as a warning, or as a strange fantasy, or as a reminder of what is happily not the case, or any number of purposes other than as the recording of a witnessed event. What would settle which of these possible messages was the drawing's actual meaning would turn on Grice's (b)-intention – his intention to be recognised by Mr X as producing the drawing for a particular purpose. That, thinks Grice, is why drawings have meaningnn and photos have mere meaningn. This thought feeds into his final theory of the meaning of individual utterances. What would rule out the photo case, thinks Grice, is the requirement of a connection between intentions (a) and (b).

Grice 3: A specific utterance U means that p if, and only if, in performing it, the utterer intends:

  • (a) that an audience will come to believe that p, and

  • (b) that this audience will recognise intention (a), and

  • (c) that the recognition in (b) will cause the belief in (a).

This final version is complex, but that is unsurprising given the implausibility of the crude version of the approach advanced by Humpty, according to whom what the speaker means is just what the speaker chooses to mean. We will have to decide shortly whether Grice's theory is a genuine improvement over Humpty's or merely hides the same basic misconceptions behind increased complexity.


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