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

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Language and thought: Introducing representation

2.9 How successful is Grice's theory of the meaning of utterances?

I turn now to difficulties for Grice's account of the meaning of utterances, beginning with a concern over his methodology. By focusing on examples, real or imagined, Grice attempts to draw out our intuitions and so lead us, as he has been led, to Grice 3. But perhaps our intuitions are wildly inaccurate, or wildly irrelevant. We need to check that Grice's notion of meaning, mined out of his and our intuitions, delivers what we were after when we turned to him for a theory of the meaning of utterances.

In fact, the definition Grice arrives at does seem to be well suited to our needs once we consider the model of communication we get when Grice's final statement of what it is for an individual utterance to mean what it does (Grice 3) is plugged into the simple theory of communication. Think of a communicative predicament. A is with B in the jungle, and sees a leopard nearby, hidden from B's view. A wants B to appreciate the leopard's presence but is not able to point it out. A must therefore communicate the leopard's presence to B. By uttering an appropriate sentence, A intends that B will come to believe there is a leopard nearby. Moreover, it is through B's recognition of this intention that A intends this to come about. When B hears A's utterance and recognises it as having been performed with the intention that B believes there is a leopard nearby, B obliges by forming just this belief, exactly as anticipated by A. This elaborated version of the simple theory seems to go a long way towards capturing what is going on in the communication of knowledge. And unlike the unelaborated version, it does not rest on an unanalysed notion of meaning that can be compared unflatteringly to the virtus dormitiva in Molière's satire (see section 1.2). So, Grice's theory is a reasonable candidate for being what we want from a theory of the meaning of utterances. But before celebrating, we need to consider other potential weaknesses.

One is the extreme structural complexity of the intentions we would need to have for Grice 3 to be correct. This structural complexity seems to be at odds with the ease with which we speak. If Grice is right, every time we open our mouths or pick up our pens to communicate, we form a complex triple-parted intention. Is this plausible as a description of our psychology as speakers? Ordinary speakers would be hard pressed to give a verbal statement of the content of the intentions that Grice is saying they form at high speed in everyday conversation. Such complex intentions also seem to be far more than we are capable of recognising in others in the real-life communication of knowledge.

Whether we have these complex intentions is a difficult topic. In his paper Grice does say something in his own defence (pp. 186–7), denying that the intentions he is describing are ‘explicitly formulated linguistic (or quasi-linguistic) intentions’. The fact that these communicative intentions – unlike the intention to, say, hail a taxi – cannot be verbalised does not show that they do not exist, he is suggesting. But the problem seems to go deeper than he realises, even if he is right to insist that there can be unverbalisable intentions. The communicative intentions Grice posits are not only unverbalisable, they are unconscious. When we speak we are aware of an intention to produce a particular sentence or to communicate in some loose way, but we are not aware of ourselves as having complex triple-parted intentions. (Or at least I am not. You are invited to decide for yourself the next time you communicate.) But the idea of an unconscious intention has struck many as an odd one. Grice could reply that intentions can be unconscious. He could draw an analogy with Freud's claim that we have unconscious drives, or with the way in which learning to type or to play a musical instrument is deliberate and conscious at first but gradually becomes unconscious and fluent. But many are left with a nagging doubt that this is an account of utterance meaning that fails to do justice to our actual experience of using and understanding language.

A different worry turns on the adequacy of the content of the intentions rather than on their structural complexity. The development of Grice 3 out of Grice 2 and, before that, Grice 1 involved adding clauses. But there are some reasons to worry that the first clause, (a), demands too much, not too little. There are plenty of meaningful utterances in which there is no intention to get an audience to believe anything, for the simple reason that there is no audience.

Activity 8

Are communicative intentions of the kind set out in Grice 3 (or Grice 2 or Grice 1 for that matter) genuinely necessary for an utterance to be meaningful? Think about this question in relation to:

  • (i) writing a diary;

  • (ii) talking to a dog – not as in ‘Fetch!’ but as in, ‘Oh Rover, how I wish I were just a dog like you, with no worries’;

  • (iii) Hamlet's ‘To be or not to be’ soliloquy.


In each of these cases, Grice would have to demonstrate that, contrary to appearances, there is an intended audience. Perhaps he could reason as follows. (i) The intended audience of a diary is often the wider world, since not all diaries are intended to be secret. For the secret ones, Grice could say that the audience is just a future version of oneself, as it is with shopping lists. For (ii) the audience might be some constructed fantasy, a dog that understands English. (i) and (ii) could each also be thought of as involving an element of soliloquy like (iii). Soliloquy might be understood as an attempt to communicate with a god, or with posterity in the abstract.


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