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Intentionality in a message - Grice's Model of Communication



According to H.P. Grice, a message can be considered intentional if and only if
(a) the speaker intended the message to create an effect (i.e., a belief) in the listener; and
(b) the speaker intended that effect to result from the listeners' recognition of that intention.


The central idea is that words and their intended effects on the listener do not bear a fixed relationship. A phrase like “I love philosophy” used sincerely, will be understood to mean one thing, and the same words, used ironically, will be understood to mean something quite different. The assumption about the relation of words and meanings is reflected in the distinction between sentence-meaning (i.e., the literal meaning of a word or phrase) and speaker-meaning (i.e., the meaning the communicator intends to convey by using that sentence meaning). Although the sentence-meanings of the sincere and ironic utterances in the example were identical, their speaker-meanings are not. Grice's model of communication assumes that speaker meaning is identified by way of sentence meaning. That is, although the two types of meanings are distinct, sentence meaning forms the basis for determining speaker meaning. Sentence meaning is evaluated in light of the context of conversation, and used to draw inferences about the intended meaning.


If speaker meaning is not identical to sentence meaning, how do speakers go about formulating utterances that will be understood correctly, and how do addressees identify an utterance's intended meaning? Grice proposed that we view conversation as a cooperative endeavor. Even when their purpose is to dispute, criticize, or insult, communicators must shape their messages to be meaningful to their addressees. To do so, Grice proposed, they follow a general Cooperative Principle, comprised of four basic rules, which he termed Conversational Maxims.

Grice's Cooperative Principle and its associated Conversational Maxims

The Cooperative Principle:


Make your conversational contributions such as is required, at the stage at which it occurs, by the accepted purpose or direction of the talk exchange in which you are engaged.


Maxims of Conversation:


1. Quantity


i. Make your contribution as informative as is required (for the current purposes of the exchange).
ii. Do not make your contribution more informative than is required.


2. Quality


i. Do not say what you believe to be false.
ii. Do not say that for which you lack adequate evidence.


3. Relation


i. Be relevant.


4. Manner


i. Avoid obscurity of expression.
ii. Avoid ambiguity.
iii. Be brief (avoid unnecessary prolixity).
iv. Be orderly.




Grice, H.P. (1957). Meaning. “Philosophical Review”, 64, 377-388.
Grice, H P. (1969). Utterer's meaning and intentions. “Philosophical Review”, 78, 147-177.
Grice, H.P. (1975). Logic and conversation. In P. Cole & J. L. Morgan (Eds.), Syntax and semantics: Speech acts New York: Academic Press


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