The Grice Club


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Thursday, March 25, 2010

Grice's Letter of Recommendation

--- by JLS
---- for the GC.

----- IN THE WILLIAM JAMES LECTURES, Grice adapted an example from his earlier "Causal Theory of Perception". The Aristotelian Society talk had Grice and Warnock discussing Smith at Collections:

-- W: And so, what about Smith?
--- G: He has beautiful handwriting.

Grice is working on 'strong/weak' implicatures only, and suggests, "Smith is just hopeless at philosophy" as an implicatum, with the caveat of defeasibility, "I do not of course by any means desire to suggest that his philosophical skills are poor, or anything of that sort" -- online at Bayne's website.

Ditto, Jennifer Saul, who studied at Princeton and now teaches at Sheffield, Yorks, has elaborated -- online and elsewhere -- the various letters of recommendations elaborated by Grice and the Griceans -- She, as a neo-Gricean, collects them -- and files them alphabetically. The original letter by Grice WoW: goes


To whom it may concern

---- Mr. Smith's command of English
----- is excellent, and his attendance
----- at tutorials has been regular.
-------- Yours, etc.

H. P. Grice.


Gloss: "I, qua utterer, am wishing to impart information which I'm reluctant to write down. Therefore, I implicate" (WoW:33).

Consider now Kramer in his commentary on Heidegger ('nobody knows the troubles I seen'):

my favorite job recommendation
is "You'll be lucky to get him to work for you."

The utterance violates the cooperative principle in so many levels -- its ten attendant maxims, too -- that Kramer is reluctanct to make this explicit. But I will, for the time being --

i. there's the problem of Moral Luck, that Kramer, vis a vis Williams, has discussed elsewhere.

ii. there's the problem of analogical scope (as in "I don't love you because you are beautiful") and semantic transcategorial barriers ("Seldom do you see honest men like me") rolled into one.

iii. Etc.


  1. I will add that of course Kramer's terse 'job recommendation' by far supersedes Grice's clumsy one (In fairness to Grice, he is writing the thing on 'behalf' of a 'man' -- he is being personal enough in the "beautiful handwriting" remark).

    I was expecting Kramer would comment on the 4 ambiguities of his remark, "You'll be lucky if he works for you" -- or "You'll be lucky to get him to work for you", in his version.

    I will comment on the ambiguities:

    --- Why is 'lucky' such a hateful ambiguity-carrier in this one? I wonder. It seems that the 'fortunate' has different scopes:

    -- (a) You are fortunate 'to get him to work for you', ONCE you have given him the job. This is the 'alternate' (devious, long-circuited) implicature. I.e. you HAVE given him the job, but now the recommendation strikes you back, and you find that you are indeed fortunate ONLY when he (your new employee) is working for you.

    --- (b) the short-circuited implicature is "BEFORE you have giving him the job" scenario. "You WILL be lucky" if you WILL GIVE him the job, i.e. get him to work for you.

    By noting the scope ambiguities, I submit that this trades NOT on the 'semantic' ambiguity of moral luck, but only on some odd parsing.


    This DOES NOT Compare to Grice's rather dreary letter of recommendation. While there IS a point of contact (and it's me who's bringing it, so there --), i.e. 'reluctance' to following 'avoid ambiguity' (in the case of Kramer's example) and notably 'reluctance' to following 'be informative' in the case of Grice. Other variants of his letter of recommendation deal with all different maxims. Grice writes as per next comment, right now.

  2. Grice has the 'letter of recommendation' under heading of

    "Examples [C] that involve exploitation, that is, a procedure by which a maxim is flouted for the purpose of getting in a conversational implicature by means of something of the nature of a figure of speech. In these examples, though some maxim IS violated at the level of what is said, the addressee is entitled to assume that the maxim, or at least the overall Cooperative Principle, is observed at the level of what is implicated."

    And here he proposes the example:

    "(1a) A flouting of the FIRST maxim of quantity. "A is writing a TESTIMONIAL about a PUPIL who is a CANDIDATE for a philosophy JOB."

    "And his letter reads as follows"

    "Dear Sir, Mr. X's command of English is excellent, and his attendance at tutorials has been regular. Yours, etc."

    For this Grice adds his usual 'gloss' which by far exceeds any gloss I would provide:

    "The U cannot be opting out, since if he wished to be uncooperative, why write at all?"

    I disagree there. Surely an U can be most cooperative by refusing to be one (utterer)?

    "He cannot be unable, through ignorance, to say more, since the man is [or HAS BEEN. JLS] his pupil."

    My mother uses 'pupil' all the time, and I keep correcting her, "Student". Similarly Grice calls Strawson his 'pupil' in footnote to "WoW:17". I thought pupil was a public school -- in fact boarding -- thing?

    "Moreover, U knows that more information than this is wanted. He must, therefore, be wishing to IMPART the information"

    -- in a cancellable way, and thus not 'imparting' it at all.

    --- "that he is RELUCTANT to write down. This supposition is TENABLE ONLY if U thinks that Mr. Smith is no good at philosophy".

    Cfr. his earlier:

    "he has beautiful handwriting" --> "He is hopeless at philosophy".

    "This, then, is what he is implicating."

    But then, what _is_ a 'philosophy' "job"? I have seen some where the command of English IS AND SHOULD BEST be seen as the main (and indeed unique, as Foucault would have it) 'priority'. "His attendance at tutorials" is surely a good indication that his presentism will not know no boundaries.

    Philosophers should NEVER on principle write recommendation letters. But more of this in next. Now.

  3. Philosophers, I was saying, should NEVER, on principle, write recommendation letters. It is UNethical. Consider,

    "Dear Sir,

    Speranza has been a good pupil. Of course he refuted me constantly. And he never understood Hegel. He kept quoting from Schopenhauer, even in the quizes meant to elicit his understanding of Hegel. His attendance to tutorials has been more regular than mine, for what it is worth".

    Indeed, as an undergraduate, I was often PRETTY disappointed when [add name of tutor] not always turn up -- and at 8 am on a Wednesday, too -- and with my Greek copy of "Euthyphro" by Plato under my arm. Ah well.

  4. Letters of recommendation are as otiose as letters of introduction. These were all the rage back in the day when the English were travelling to, say, Rome,

    "Dear Sr. Morini,
    This gentleman carrying this letter is a honest chap."


    The SYSTEM of the letter of recommendation is OBSCENE. It should be delegated for criminals! If someone is even ALLUDING to it -- it is a good offense on the part of the 'victim'.

    O. T. O. H., my mother would never asked for a letter of recommendation. I recall we had a nanny once, and she was crazy. It turned out that indeed she was. She had been recommended to my mother via the "Nanny Placement, Ltd." The woman, who slept in our estate, would wonder the streets of the village, and hardly care for me. Sarah, her name was. God bless her soul.

  5. "Beautiful handwriting" is one of the best things your pupil can show it. I had a student who had such beautiful handwriting! (I keep some of his things somewhere). I myself have a most beautiful handwriting meself, but I try hard at it. O. T. O. H., Chapman calls Grice's handwriting an unreadable one. Grice jokes on it (his hand): 'few have been fortunate to see, and even fewer to read'.


    Job recommendations in philo are a trick. Recall that chairs of department are NOT philosophers: it's an administrative thing. So, a letter of recommendation is NOT a philosophical piece of work. It is an administrative thing. I think they should find ways to find out, without having the 'victim' carrying their own condemnation 'under his sleeve', like that.

    What irritates is that the department is usually looking for a filler of a 'job opening': and the letter of recommendation thus has to read 'general' enough, and point at 'moral virtues' and strength of character. Hardly philosophical notions. Consider Althusser.

    If you read his recommendation letters (he kept none) you would not think he would kill his wife.


    Any philosophical content of a recommendation letter is OTIOSE and unwelcome. It's only methodological things, having to do with 'good character' for the institution that is wanted. Since a good philo dept. chair IS a philosopher deep DOWN, she KNOWS this, but she, poor thing, is playing the 'administrator', not the philosopher.

    Oxford IS different, and it's the only thing that counts. Grice was tutor at St. John's, and uni lecturer for the uni, but I'll be d-mned if he had a letter of recommendation. Matter of fact, Richardson notes that he (Grice) was almost NOT given a fellowship at St. John's because rumour had it that "he did not return library books".

    As the swimming-pool librarian, I can agree!

    (Some of the books at the swimming-pool library are NOT to be returned, so there -- but I think in the case of Grice, it was Bodley).

    I found that disclosing by Richardson unwanted -- but then it was Grice's obit. And it was only a rumour.


    But again, there is this unwanted implicature in the proceedings: "He does not return library books" can HARDLY occur in a "recommendation" letter. Or 'testimonial' as Grice has it. "Testimonial" is more ambiguous, but in the Grice scenario it is a 'recommendation' alright. So, the addressee is already EXPECTING all hyperboles and falsities.

    The GOOD thing is that while it IS some requirement in jobs to hand "TWO" letters of recommendation, they never can FORCE YOU to choose which two. And in any case, not in Oxford, so -- who cares?