The Grice Club


The Grice Club

The club for all those whose members have no (other) club.

Is Grice the greatest philosopher that ever lived?

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Sunday, April 13, 2014

The Implicatures of Cleopatra's Nose


Grice wisely entitled the fourth William James lecture, "Indicative conditionals", for although J. L. Mackie was not, Grice was pessimistic that a truth-functional approach to subjunctive 'if' would be welcomed at Harvard!

O. T. O. H., there's Cleopatra's nose, which someone should symbolise---.

Conditionals and causation

The source for the Cleopatra's Nose famous dictum is Pascal. But he does NOT elaborate.

The Irish historian Bury does, in a Rationalist Press Association essay of 1916, "Cleopatra's Nose".

This "Cleopatra's Nose" is quoted sympathetically by Collingwood in "The idea of history", and unsympathetically by Carr in "What is history?"

Trevor-Rope discusses it in "Fly in the Fly Bottle".

And so on.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Grice's Implicature in the New York Times


J. McWhorter writes, in "Like, Degrading the Language? No Way" -- The New York Times --: "If there is one thing that unites Americans of all stripes, it is the belief that, whatever progress [America] might be making, [Americans] are moving *backward* on language."

 Of course we don't agree!
McWhorter continues:
"Just look at the crusty discourse level of comments sections and the recreational choppiness of text messages and hit pop songs."

But they are written by Canadians! Justin Bieber, etc.

McWhorter continues:

"However, amid what often seems like the slack-jawed devolution of a once-mighty language [American English], we can find evidence for, of all things, a growing sophistication."

"Yes, sophistication — even in the likes of, well, “like,” used so prolifically by people under a certain age."

Where Wittgenstein would not be certain (in "On Certainty") what McWhorter means by 'certain'.

McWhorter goes on:

"We associate 'like' with ingrained hesitation, a fear of venturing a definite statement."

Cfr. Grice, "Do not say what you lack adequate evidence for."


"Yet the hesitation can be seen less as a matter of confidence than one of consideration."

"“Like” often functions to acknowledge objection while underlining one’s own point."

"To say:

(i) This is, like, the only way to make it work.

is to recognize implicitly that this news may be unwelcome to the Griceian addressee, and to soften the blow by offering the utterer’s suggestion discreetly swathed in a garb of hypotheticality.

Or consider:

(ii) Like, the only way to do it.

operates on the same principle as other expressions, such as making a request with the phrasing:

(iii) “If you could open the door ...”

Hypothetical, when what you intend is quite concrete.

“Like” can seem somehow sloppier, but only because novelty always has a way of *seeming* sloppy.

What’s actually happening is that casual American English speech is, in its “like” fetish, more polite than it was before.

Cfr. Robin Tolmach Lakoff on re-interpreting Grice's maxims and expanding on Grice's idea that we may (or might) add (but we won't) a maxim,

"be polite".

(They don't generate conversational implicatures for Grice, which, as an Oxford philosopher working on the tradition of the G. E. Moore pragmatic implications, was all that he cared for).

Sooner than we know it, the people using “like” this way will be on walkers, and all will be right with the world.

The use of “totally” mines the same vein.

(iv) He is totally going to call you.

does NOT mean:

(v) He is going to call you in a total fashion.

It has a more specific meaning or implicature, although only handled subconsciously by utterers, as so much of language is.

(iv) contains or carries or triggers an implicature, to wit:

(vi) Someone has said otherwise.

Or, since as Grice notes, implicatures are indeterminate and disjunctional in nature:

(vii) The chances of it may seem slim at first glance but in fact aren’t.

As with “like,” “totally” tracks and nods to the opinions of others.

It’s totally civilized.

And totally Griceian.

Linguistically, underneath the distractions of incivility, America is taking a page from Dale Carnegie’s classic

“How to Win Friends and Influence People.”

And also from Grice's classic, even if not American, "Logic and Conversation" (Oxford lectures, 1965, reprinted as William James Lectures, yes, American, at Harvard).

There is, overall, an awareness of the states of minds of your Griceian addressee in much of what is typically regarded as Clearasil-scented grammatical sloth.

Texting’s famous

(viii) lol

for instance, started as literally meaning “laugh out loud".

But (viii) now serves the same function as the quiet chuckles and giggles that decorate most casual conversations.

(vii) creates a comfort zone by calling attention to sentiments held in common.


(viii) I just studied for three hours lol.

No one would say that guffawing.

It is a graphic titter, channeling the very particular drudgery the utterer and the addresee both associate with studying.

It warms texting up into a graphic kind of spoken conversation.

In this vein, the

(ix) Because love.

expression celebrated by the American Dialect Society as the word of the year is just more of the same.

(x) Five second rule’ may be real, because science.

 -- a blogger noted recently.

The usage has a specific meaning, implying (or as Grice prefers, implicating -- he could be slightly pedantic) a wariness toward claims of scientific backing that all readers presumably understand when, in this case, it comes to whether we can actually always feel safe eating food off the floor.

The utterer is considering the views of others, and he is stepping outside of his own heads.

“Because X” is another new way to say “we’re all in this together.”

The increase in public profanity may seem to speak against such a sunny perspective.

But what qualifies as profanity?

Today, the “four letter” words traditionally termed profanity in American English are more properly just salty.

As late as 1920, the lowlier word for excrement rarely appeared in print.

Its use has increased a hundredfold since.

The uses of “damn” and “hell” in print are higher than ever in written history.

No anthropologist observing our society would recognize words used so freely in public language as profanity.

At the same time, consider the words we now consider truly taboo, that we enshroud with a near-religious air of sinfulness.

They are, overwhelmingly, epithets aimed at groups.

Gone are the days when our main lexical taboos concerned religion — with “egad” as a way to evade saying “Ye Gods!” — or sex and the body, as when Americans started saying "white meat" and "dark meat" to avoid (euphemisms) mentioning "breasts" and "limbs" (dysphemisms) -- and vide Allan for a Gricean view of them.

Instead, today the abusive use of the N-word, the word beginning with F that refers to homosexual men and a four-letter word for a body part that can be used to refer to women are considered beyond the pale even in casual discourse, to an extent that would baffle a time traveler from as recently as 50 years ago.

A keystone of education is to foster awareness of, and respect for, diversities of opinion.

Changes in language suggest that the general populace has become much more attuned to this kind of diversity.

The increasingly wide and diverse circles of acquaintance Americans are likely to have may increase attention to a certain conversational civility.

Texting cries out for substitutes for facial expressions and intonations that cushion and nuance spoken conversation.

 The civil rights revolution hardly created a paradise, but its impact on what we consider appropriate language is revolutionary.

We may not speak with the butter-toned exchanges of the characters on “Downton Abbey,” but in substance our speech is in many ways more civilised.

We are taught to celebrate the idea that Inuit languages reveal a unique relationship to snow, or that the Russian language’s separate words for dark and light blue mean that a Russian sees blueberries and robin’s eggs as more vibrantly different in color than the rest of us do.

 Isn’t it welcome, then, that good old-fashioned American is saying something cool about us for once?

VERY cool.