Intentions, Suggestions, and Meaning in Grice

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In this paper I will explain and give an account of Grice’s notion of non-natural meaning.  In doing so, I will show how Grice distinguishes between genuine cases of “telling” and cases of merely “deliberately and openly letting someone know” by appealing to the intentions of the speaker.  Finally, I will assess the adequacy of this account by considering an objection that aims to show that on Grice’s picture, a speaker can mean anything by an utterance.

To explain non-natural meaning, we should distinguish it from natural meaning.  Natural meaning involves a notion of entailment.  For instance, the kettle whistling means that the water is boiling.  Or, the low water level in a reservoir means there is a drought.  One state-of-affairs means another state-of-affairs if the presence of the first indicates the presence of the second.  This is to say that one fact means another if that fact entails the other fact (285).  For if the water was not boiling, then the kettle would not be whistling.  Likewise if there was not a drought, then the water level would not be low.  Non-natural meaning is usually found in linguistic acts and, in contrast, does not involve the same notion of entailment (285).  To say, “we are in a drought” does not actually entail the fact that we are in a drought.  When I say “I will go to the store today”, I may mean that I will go to the store today, but I could be stopped (perhaps due to inclement weather).  So with non-natural meaning there is no entailment of the state-of-affairs meant.  In this way, we can think of non-natural meaning as being imported onto some sign, whereas natural meaning is something intrinsic to the relevant states-of-affairs.

Grice’s fundamental notion for his theory of meaning is that meaning must be explained in terms of what a speaker meant by a particular utterance on a particular occasion.  A speaker at a particular place and time determines the meaning of his utterance

This notion puts the focus squarely on the speaker, and so speaker meaning will be primarily a matter of the intentions of a speaker.  The following three intentions will serve as the necessary and sufficient conditions for an utterance to be meaningful (288).  The primary intention is (1) the speaker intends to produce a certain effect in his audience (e.g. to inculcate a belief that p).  For to ask what a person meant is to ask for the specification of the intended effect (289), e.g. to ask what I meant by “hello” yields an answer: to greet the audience, or that the audience be greeted.  (2) The speaker intends for the audience to recognize his intent to produce a certain effect.  (3) The speaker intends to produce the effect in the audience at least partly on the basis of the audience’s recognition of his [the speaker’s] intention.  When I say “Phil 133 is in 30 Wheeler”, I must have three intentions for it to be meaningful.  (a) I intend for you to come to believe that Phil 133 is in 30 Wheeler.  (b) I intend for you to recognize my intention to inculcate this belief.  (c) I intend for you to believe that Phil 133 is in 30 Wheeler on the basis of my telling you so.  If I lacked one of these intentions, then I would not have meant that Phil 133 is in 30 Wheeler by my utterance.  For instance, if I had not intended for you to acquire the belief on the basis of my telling you, then that would suggest that I intended for you to come to the belief by some way other than my utterance, so I couldn’t have genuinely meant anything by my utterance.

The third intention is crucial for distinguishing between cases of “telling” (that is, issuing a meaningful utterance) and “deliberately and openly letting someone know” (where something is communicated, but not by way of a meaningful utterance); it creates a dependency between the first and second intentions.  This dependency is critical, for if the first and second intentions were independent of each other, then cases of “deliberately and openly letting someone know” could qualify as meaningful utterances.  In the following examples, we will show how this is the case.

Consider the following two cases (288).  Case A: I show Tim a photograph of John showing “undue familiarity” with Jane (Tim’s wife).  Case B: I draw a picture of John showing undue familiarity with Jane and show it to Tim.  Case A is a case of deliberately and openly letting someone know, whereas case B is a case of telling.  To see why this is the case, we will need to analyze my intentions in each case.  It is clear in case A that I intend for Tim to acquire the belief that John and Jane are unduly familiar, or else I would not have showed him the picture.  Moreover, I may very well intend for Tim to recognize that I am trying to inculcate that belief.  Note, however, that I do not necessarily intend for him to acquire the belief on the basis of my showing him the photograph, but rather his just seeing the picture.

In case B, I intend for Tim to acquire the belief that John and Jane are unduly familiar, or else I would not have drawn the picture.  It is reasonable that I also intend for Tim to recognize that I am trying to inculcate that belief.  So far, this is consistent with case A.  Here is the crucial difference between the two cases.  In case B, I intend for Tim to acquire that belief on the basis of my drawing the picture; this does not happen in case A.  In case A, I do not intend for Tim to acquire the belief on the basis of my presenting to him the photograph – or, at least, the act of my presenting him the photograph is irrelevant to his acquisition of the belief (288).  For if I had merely left the photograph where Tim would find it, instead of actually showing it to him, Tim would still have acquired the belief.  In this way, my act of presenting the photograph is immaterial to the case.  Thus, I have not told Tim anything, but rather openly let him know something.  But in case B, when I draw the picture for Tim, he sees that I am actually trying to inform him of something – that is, tell him.  It is through my act of drawing that Tim is supposed to believe that John and Jane are unduly familiar (satisfying the necessary third intention for a meaningful utterance).  In case A, regardless of whether I present the photograph or Tim stumbles across it, Tim will come to believe that John and Jane are unduly familiar – his reaction is the same, it seems like they mean the same thing.  But in case B, whether I draw the picture or Tim stumbles across it affects Tim’s response.  If I draw it, then he takes me to be informing him about John and Jane.  If he stumbles across it, he might mistake it for some uninformative bit of artwork (288) – and the drawing would not seem meaningful.  In this way, we see the importance of the third intention, that the audience recognize the intention to produce an effect by way of the actual utterance.  In case A, this was not so; in case B, it was.

So Grice has reduced a meaningful utterance to a matter of having three specific intentions.  We may be suspicious because, prima facie, it seems that a person could utter anything and have it be meaningful, provided that they had the right intentions in place.  It is conceivable that someone could intend to greet someone, have the right intentions in place, but end up uttering some nonsense like “rurruh”.  But because they had the right intentions in place, on Grice’s account this utterance counts as meaningful.  No audience could hope to come to know what he was trying to communicate, so it seems intuitive to say that the utterance was not meaningful.  In this way, it seems that Grice does not provide an adequate model of why utterances of linguistic expressions are meaningful.

A Gricean might respond to this by noting that while such a scenario is conceivable, it is not possible.  One couldn’t just utter nonsense and have it be meaningful.  I couldn’t possibly utter “rurruh” expecting you to realize that it was supposed to be a greeting or to understand what I was saying.  As such, I couldn’t form the intention to get you to believe that I was greeting you.  Because if I intend to get you to understand my greeting, then I am going to utter something that could be construed as a greeting (or at least not nonsense) – something that you could hope to understand.  “Rurruh” does not qualify.  So I could not intend to greet you with such a word.  In this way, it is not the case that one could utter anything and have it be meaningful.

But then consider the following case.  Ralph is suffering from a severe psychiatric illness, experiencing delusions and speaking in word salad.  A man asks how Ralph’s day is, and Ralph begins to reply with “‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves…”.  He intends to inculcate the belief in the man that his day is going well.  Because he is delusional and speaking in word salad, he thinks that what he utters will inculcate this belief, despite the fact that it is really nonsense.  So here is a case where someone really can have the intentions in place but nevertheless seems to utter nonsense.  On Grice’s account, this is meaningful.

And it is difficult to see how he has the resources to reply.  For Grice can only appeal to the realistic intentions of the speaker, and has no means by which he can appeal to something like linguistic convention in order to respond to Ralph’s case.  Grice may just have to bite the bullet, and admit that such utterances do turn out to be meaningful on his account.  But this is not a devastating problem.  In some important sense, one can see how Ralph’s utterance could have been meaningful.  After all, Ralph clearly means something by it.  A failure to communicate does not necessarily constitute an absence of meaning.  There are many times, via misspeaking or otherwise, that we fail to communicate.  But it does not seem that in such instances there is always an absence of meaning, or, at least, it doesn’t seem there is reason to suppose there is.  Should the fact that Grice’s account admits such utterances mean that his theory is inadequate?  In some sense, yes it does.  Grice admits some expressions contrary to our intuitions, and this is problematic for any account of meaning.  But this does not mean the end for intention-based accounts of meaning.  Grice’s theory has served as a basis for more promising accounts of intentional meaning, so there must be something adequate about it.


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