Herbert Paul Grice (1913-1988) wrote, lectured, and taught at Oxford University, UC-Berkeley, and Harvard, chiefly in the field of Linguistics, more specifically concentrating on Discourse Analysis. Among his better-known ideas is what has come to be known as the "Cooperative Principle" of conversation, which is made up of "Grice's Maxims" (or "Gricean Maxims"). The maxims refer to the way two (or more) people collaborate to build an intelligible conversation among themselves; unless they cooperate, utter chaos will ensue. I would boil them down like this:
  • Be Truthful: do not say that for which you lack adequate evidence.
  • Be Clear: make your contribution as informative as necessary...
  • Be Brief: ...but not more informative than necessary.
  • Be Perspicuous: 'perspicuous' means 'clear.' It is a one-word tautology or an oxymoron.
  • Be Relevant: does this need clarification?

I hope some of this sounds familiar; I am struck by how applicable (the first four of) these principles of discourse are to what goes on here at everything. The fact that everything has thrived for so long without this node could be taken as proof that Grice's Maxims occur naturally, like television or beer. What happens when the rules are flouted has been exhaustively treated in the works of Lewis Carroll. Broken or improperly observed maxims have also enriched countless episodes of Three's Company.

While it all may seem like pure common sense, it is possible to see that Discourse Analysis wishes it were a science. Here is a paraphrase of Grice on Alice's tea party with the Mad Hatter, the March Hare, and the Dormouse:

"By uttering x, U meant that p if and only if for some audience A, U uttered x intending (i) that A should believe that U believes that p, (ii) that A should believe that U intended (i), and (iii) that (i) should be achieved by means of achieving (ii)."

I am indebted to the Dictionary of the the Philosophy of Mind (which supplied the above-quoted nonsense) for refreshing my memory on the details of Grice's contributions to the field of Linguistics and to our collaborative efforts to communicate.

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