The Cooperative Principle: Thoughts on its Uses and Flaws

Ferdinand de Saussure was the founding father of the division of language into two components: the signifier and the signified. The signified is pure information, the signifier a matter of conveying it. Herbert Paul Grice developed the Cooperative Principle, which can be divided into four Gricean maxims. These maxims constitute a way of understanding the relationship between the signifier and the signified, or, in other words, the link between utterances and how they are understood.

The Cooperative Principle, in short, is a very influential description of human interaction hat also lends to our understanding of it. The discussion section of this essay explores the explanatory power of the Cooperative Principle, preceded by a brief overview of its key ideas. This essay argues that the Cooperative Principle provides an elegant framework to use when thinking about communication, but only when incentives prompting competition are lacking.

The construction of an ideal language logically constructed without ambiguity is a project that was undertaken by John QuiJada, inventor of lthkuil. The language was never meant to be spoken, and indeed is too complex for even QuiJada himself to use in speech. However, the development of such a language – as well as the relatively numerous proponents of it – hints at the existence of an expectation for language to be precise and unambiguous. According to Grice, this is more or less the stance of linguistic formalists, who posit that language should be able to convey information unambiguously.

Informalists, on the other hand, would argue that that mechanical precision should not be the aim of language or the standard against which language should be compared. Grice claims that the development of his Cooperative Principle (henceforth, CP) does not place him on either side of the ebate. Rather, that discrepancies between utterances and their signifieds are far less common than people assume, so long as Grice’s Principle (and its maxims) is obeyed.

In sum, language is more precise that we commonly give it credit; misunderstandings are most often based on the incorrect use of it. This is not to say that there is an objective yardstick by which we can determine ‘correct’ or ‘incorrect’ use of language; simply, the CP in many ways summarizes the expectations that receptors have from emitters of messages in the way language is used. When these expectations are violated, confusion may ensue.

The rules based on these expectations are called the Gricean maxims, of which there are four (echos of Kant): the maxim of Quality (What you say better be true, and if you do not know if it is, do not say it’), the maxim of Quantity (‘make what you say as intormative as required, no more, no less’), the maxim ot Relation (‘be relevant’) and the maxim of Manner (‘say things in the appropriate fashion; do not be ambiguous, unnecessarily wordy, et cetera’). There are a variety of ways in which the expectations underlying the CP can be broken.

For instance, the person speaking could simply violate a maxim. Alternatively, an individual can simply opt out by saying, perhaps, ‘l will respond to your questions only with the words purple and orange’. On some occasions, the maxims may clash: an individual cannot provide the information expected if he is not aware of it. On others, the individual may intentionally, blatantly flout’ a violation of the maxims: in such instances, Grice refers to a conversational implicature, in which a maxim is being “exploited”.

In general, an implicature denotes simply the hidden meaning and implications behind the way certain things are phrase. A conversational implicature as opposed to a conventional one) is an implicature in which the missing connection can be substantiate with an argument (rather than with mere intuition, which case we would be referring to a conventional implicature). Thus, what is the value of the Cooperative Principle? How far can it be extended, and where does it fail to explain human communication?

It seems almost frightening and somewhat presumptuous that the seemingly immense complexities surrounding language and communication can be boiled down to a set of simple rules. At the same time, however, there is a certain beauty to it. The CP brings out the theme that language’s purpose is about conveying information, but also makes it clear that a lot of factors come into play so as to ensure that the information being conveyed and the information being understand match.

Yet despite this multitude of factors, somehow we as a species seem to communicate well with extraordinary consistency. The CP elegantly sums up the mechanisms through which understanding can be achieved – and also explains occasionally how it can be achieved despite violations of its maxims. The notion of implicatures is powerful in that it explains the conclusions we ump to – or rather, the conclusions we expect to Jump to – given a certain phrasing, even though a link is not explicitly there.

Let us consider, for instance, the blatant violation of a maxim. This is a device used commonly by comedians: disruption of the norm, from the expected, is entertaining, and responding to a heckler saying “you suck” with “l like Thai people” could be seen as such. This isn’t only because a maxim is violated, but because we, as humans, search for patterns and explanations; in such a statement, our minds would start pondering the implicatures that that response provokes. Is the comedian implying that hecklers like do not like Thai people?

And even if the comedian simply wished to sidestep the heckler’s comment, some individuals may still be liable to think that the reason the comedian said he liked Thai people was because the phrase “you suck” sounded somewhat Thai. This illustrates how powerful our assumptions are with respect to the use of the Gricean maxims: when they are violated, we still seek an implicature that attempts to make an answer consistent witn our expectations. An interesting thought revolves around the applicability of the Gricean maxims to ritten language.

Although Grice talks predominantly about spoken language, the written is also mentioned in her influential 1975 paper “Logic and Conversation”, in this case a variation of a famous line by Blake: “l sought to tell my love, love that never told can be” (Grice 1975, pp. 54). This phrase amounts to a violation of the maxim of manner (‘be perspicuous, avoid ambiguity), with various interpretations of that sentence possible. However, this is precisely what makes poetry poetry; it thrives off ambiguity, double-entendres and – some might say – confusion. Poetry is designed o provoke thought as well as to send a message.

Poetry is nevertheless merely one type of written word, and spoken poetry exists as well. Since the CP specifically centers around understanding – in other words, communication that is aimed at providing information rather than reflection – a better comparison may revolve around argumentative essays (as compared to spoken argumentation). In this essay, for instance, each thought led to the next, clearly abiding by the maxim of Relevance. My argumentation traces every step in my thought process based on what I consider to be true, thus following the maxim of Quality.

Some may argue that truth is not necessary in essays, since often a stance must be taken that is contrary to one’s own: essay prompts often demand either agreement or disagreement with a primary source, and many may find themselves arguing against what they believe to be true. However, this is not quite the point of the maxim of Quality: truth must be sought in the foundations for arguments (i. e. the facts), not so much in the arguments themselves (i. e. do I agree with what I am arguing). Of course, this is malleable, and in spoken conversation the expectation often is that what one says, one believes.

However, this enters more the sphere of morals and philosophy than language pragmatics. Through the above (and brief) mention of the arguments of others, I also abide by the maxim of Quantity: I provide the right amount of substantiation expected for the arguments I provide herein (l hope), given a 2500 to 3000 word essay. Finally, the maxim of Manner is reflected in writing style: I have made my points concisely and clearly (l hope). Ultimately, it seems, we have a set of expectations with respect to how others transmit information to us, and the Cooperative Principle appears to encompass hese expectations well.

Another interesting application of the Cooperative Principle can be seen in institutional dialogue. Slembrouck and Sarangi (1992) conduct such an analysis, finding that the Cooperative Principle can indeed be applied to institutional discourse, although a few elements of the CP are complicated when the ‘game of communication’ becomes less cooperative. An element of competition seems to dilute the utility of the CP, since the conveying of information is no longer the primary goal. If transmission of information is not a primary goal, then the rules that govern the ransmission of information can also be bent.

This is more than Just an interesting observation. The extent to which competition (rather than cooperation) is ubiquitous in society shows that in fact, the Cooperative Principle may assume too much by making explicit the rules of a cooperative game. When two co-workers talk about anything work-related, the colleague who has the informational edge (say, about when the next round of promotions is going to be) will aim either at being vague, or simply lie, Just to reduce competition.

In the scene of politics, politicians gain from ack of specificity: catering to the lowest common denominator is how a solid enough support base is built up. The more a politician sticks her head out and positions herself on an issue, the smaller the pool of people that will agree with her. Two friends interested in the same girl may lie to each other about their whereabouts and compete for her attention when the other’s back is turned. Lies and deception are a natural by-product of the competitive society we live in, and to define communication as a strictly cooperative game seems biased.

Given the prevalence of competition and, subsequently, lies and deceit), much of human communication may define itself by the negation of Grice’s maxims rather than their use. This ‘definition’ of human interaction that the Cooperative Principle provides, then, is rather weak. Little is gained from defining peace as the absence of war, Just as little is gained from defining human exchange by what it is not (cooperative). Of course, there is much room for nuance in the previous statements. Any theory cannot, on its own, explain everything, as falsifiability is necessary for a theory to be deemed viable.

Additionally, Grice’s work does do an exceptional Job at explaining human communication when the exchange of information is sought on both ends of the conversation. However, human life is so plagued by competition and entrenched interests for self-preservation and selfishness (it is arguable whether humans are selfish by nature – I take no stance on the debate in this essay: I merely wish to convey the point that humans often are selfish and self-motivated) that the Cooperative Principle is violated almost as a norm.

Perhaps, through Grice’s work, the need for a ‘Competitive Principle’ is expressed. The CP can and does explain competition to some degree, but only inasfar as ‘breaking the rules’ constitutes an explanation. Perhaps the most interesting concept that Grice uses is the implicature, as, unlike the Cooperative Principle, it can be extended to any form of communication of which words are a part. Just as in communication, there are two sides that can define an implicature: the speaker and the listener.

The speaker may intend a certain implicature, yet it may be one that the listener does not see. Conversely, the speaker may have meant no implicature yet the listener found one. It is possibly around this divergent perception that much of misunderstanding is based on. It could be argued that the Cooperative Principle explains it: if misunderstanding exists, it is because the speaker did not abide by the maxims. However, this perception of communication is one that is detached trom the continuous nature ot lite.

In other words, whether I have had interaction with a person before or not will determine not only how we address each other (which is factored into the Cooperative Principle), but also the implicatures I understand from what the other says (which is not). A person who understands another’s way of thinking will be far more likely to reach the intended implicature than a person who is meeting another for the first time. Conversely, a person who knows the speaker to have an interest in not following the CP will be likelier to assume that the speaker is not doing so, regardless of whether the CP in fact is.

The above may seem to converge to some degree with the previous point made about competitiveness. Individuals who are competitive with each other will also interpret implicatures differently if they are listening and make different (and probably more lliptic) implicatures if they are speaking. Although it is true that situations in which competitiveness is present implicatures on both ends will be susceptible to divergence, the reverse is not necessarily true. In other words, divergent implicatures do not necessarily mean that there is a competitive dynamic between individuals.

The speaker may have misspoken, the listener may have misheard, both individuals may come from different cultural backgrounds and speak different maternal languages such that different implicatures are arrived at in different ways… In sum, the Cooperative Principle and its Gricean maxims is a good way of understanding communication when the game of communication is one in which the primary goal of all participants is the transmission of information. Of course, lies, deceit and body language (and so on) all do constitute a form of information.

It is thus important to note that the information I refer to here is information that is transmitted through signifiers alone when these signifiers are assumed to denote the truth (maxim of Quality). Thus, when communication occurs between individuals who re not primarily interested in receiving information (in the sense that I have defined the term) from the other, then the Cooperative Principle only serves to define this type of exchange as a negation of the CP.

This is the case of intentionally-constructed misunderstanding, a derivative of competition – an element of life that is ubiquitous. However, misunderstanding in general comes from a perception of an implicature by the listener that is different from the intended implicature by the speaker. Although the Cooperative Principle falls short of explaining human communication in any real ay, it rather well encompasses the rules of verbal exchange when the aims of participants in this exchange are convergent.

Given the central role of implicatures in misunderstanding, it would be interesting to further research how divergent implicatures are arrived at in the context of a ‘competitive principle’. Bibliography Gnce, H. P. , 1975. ” Logic and Conversation”. In: Peter Cole and Jerry Morgan, eds. , Speech acts (Syntax and semantics ew or : Academic Press. Sarangi, S. K. , Slembrouck, S. , 1992. “Non-cooperation in communication: a reassessment of Gricean pragmatics”. Journal of Pragmatics, 17(2): 1 17:154.