Performative Pragmatics

Teacher's Guide

Chapter 7
Flouting Maxims

Grice, Straight

This chapter presents the basic facts about Grice's model of conversational implicature based on the flouting of maxims, staying as close to Grice as possible. This is, of course—the flouting—the main thing most Griceans take from Grice. The other maxim transgressions, violating, infringing, and opting out, aren't much discussed in the literature. I find them quite interesting, though, and devote the whole of Chapter 8 to them. Critiques of Grice based on the "ethnocentricity" (and general narrowness, non-universality) of the maxims I save for Chapter 9. And Chapter 10 suggests one set of radical expansions of Grice, which I call conversational invocature.

Along the way in this chapter, too, I do surreptitiously tweak Grice a little. For example, I highlight his reference to "rationality" in "Our talk exchanges do not normally consist of a succession of disconnected remarks, and would not be rational if they did," and make rationality into a foundation for Grice's model. Grice himself nowhere stresses this, and if any of Grice's followers have pointed out the importance of rationality for his conception of conversation—its function as a foundation for cooperation—I haven't seen it. This seems essential to me, especially since, as I show (and tabulate) in Chapter 8, violating maxims and opting out of maxims are rational but not cooperative and infringing maxims is neither rational nor cooperative. Rationality, in other words, upgraded into a full-fledged level in Grice's conceptual hierarchy, helps us make his distinctions clear.

I also add two slight expansions of Grice at this stage: Charles Altieri's notion of expressive implicature, and my own concepts of illocutionary and perlocutionary implicature.

The section "No Implicature, No Drama" is not intended as a critique of Grice. I know (and discuss the fact, later in these notes) that some bad readings of Grice (Venuti 1998, Campbell 2001) have taken him to be prescribing maxim-governed behavior, requiring people to say exactly what they mean; this is obviously not what Grice is attempting to do. He is much more interested in maxim transgressions than in how they are obeyed. I introduce this notion that drama is based on not saying what you mean in order to emphasize the important shift (which Grice helped engineer) from a constative linguistics where all communication is mechanical, code-driven, rule-governed, to a performative linguistics where people flout, violate, and infringe maxims and listeners have to figure out what's being said.


1. How would anybody know whether there is or there isn't implicature behind Birdie's and Margo's joking? Even speakers themselves don't always know whether they're implicating something; how is a listener, or the reader of a pragmatics textbook, to be sure?

The need to be 100% sure about an implicature (or anything else in conversation) is, in any case, a constative tic. In real life no one is ever sure about these things, and we just soldier on with our guesses and hunches. And the performative pragmatician accepts that state of affairs as natural, as the way things are. Since it is impossible to be sure, the only choices are pretending to be sure (inventing, say, an apparently objective interpretation that is somehow mechanically determined by the text and not by the interpreter) and accepting uncertainty. The former is the constative path; the latter, the performative.

Students often feel that professors read too much into texts, and the bolder ones will demand to know "what if the person is just talking to be talking, doesn't mean anything by it?" (If you never pay much attention to words, it will seem to you like nobody ever really means much by what they say, and that it is unlikely that anyone could ever want or try to convey anything complexly implicit.)

This however is an explicit challenge to the instructor's authority only if the instructor has been claiming to know what some speaker is implicating—an easy kind of claim to make, even unconsciously, because in ordinary conversation we do form interpretive opinions about what other people mean and quite often take our interpretations to be "true." In a performative pragmatics it's important to try and be aware of such claims, both when you make them and when students make them—and either avoid them as much as possible in your own speech (saying instead "as an interpreter I think this is what she's trying to do here") or, when you do make truth claims about some speaker's intentions, admitting it and saying that this is a working assumption we commonly make when we interpret other people's words, but just assuming that you know doesn't make you right. Doesn't make your interpretation true.

So, to the student who says "what if there's nothing there": could be. But this isn't about what's really there, since nobody knows. It's about interpreting. If the student thinks the instructor is interpreting too heavily, reading too much into it, fine: that just means s/he would interpret differently, because s/he's a different person. Nobody has to be right and nobody has to be wrong. What's at stake here is interpretive strategies, but also what you do with your interpretive strategies—in conversation, in scholarship, on an exam. How do you interpret, and how do you let your interpretation guide what you say next? (This is a pragmatic approach in the philosophical sense (see p. 00): it's not about what's true (an ontological question) but the consequences are for action of thinking about it this way or that way.)

2. Informal straw polls lead me to believe that most Americans will say that the more serious a topic is, the less implicature they want; and the lighter a conversation is, the more implicature they want. This is different, though, in different cultures: some cultures become more implicative with increased seriousness.

3. Any speculations will work, here, to get students' thinking going, but my guess is that for Grice as for most linguists and philosophers of language, the constative utterance was still the "default setting": Grice too, like constative thinkers before and after him, assumed that language is for conveying information. Even though he must have known Austin's ideas thoroughly, and agreed with them, it would have been all too easy for him to "forget" Austin temporarily and sink back into the constative default, talk only about implicit information and neglect to notice the absence in his article of implicit performatives or speech acts.

4. There's an implicit constative assumption behind this series of questions: a linguistic theory isn't just somebody making stuff up; it is (must be!) an objective representation of reality. If we are to learn properly from that representation, then, we must let ourselves be passively guided or "operated" by it (as by a machine). A performative approach to theories is, again, pragmatic in the philosophical sense: theories are largely of heuristic value. They get us thinking more complexly about something we might have oversimplified. They are hypotheses, rough attempts to work things out. And, once we've had our thinking complicated by some theory, we may find that our theoretical imaginations are stimulated by that complication process to the point where we begin finding the theory simplistic, and need to add complications. This is a conversational approach to the pragmatics of theorizing: I push you to think more complexly; you push me to think more complexly. And we keep learning.


1. a. Answering the wrong part of a question is not being relevant: in saying "‘Cause when I take it from strangers, they get angry," Paul is flouting the maxim of relation, at least. The obvious implicature in his joke, the part she can work out from his "irrelevant" reference to strangers getting angry, is something like: "you're my wife, we have joint finances, of course it's okay for me to take money from your wallet!" She can be imagined as thinking: "I'm not a stranger, I'm his wife; he's taking the money because I'm his wife." If her "Why?" means "Why are you taking it," though, as in "What do you need it for?" the implicature in his flouting of the maxim of relation is much harder to work out—presumably because Paul doesn't want her to be able to work it out. He doesn't want to tell her what he needs it for. If this is true, he might also be imagined as flouting the maxim of manner: "avoid obscurity of expression," "avoid ambiguity." The business about strangers getting angry is almost certainly a red herring, designed to lead her away from his real reasons for taking the money. This is just guessing, based on the experience of being married, of course: I can't get in Paul's head. But this is a good topic to get students to speculate on: what is he implying about why he needs the money? Why is he using a misleading or evasive form of implicature here?

b. Jamie, obviously, isn't willing to tell Paul why she needs the money either: since she only might go to the dry cleaners, that probably isn't the real reason. In order to imply something like "I don't want to tell you," she is flouting at least the maxim of quantity ("Make your contribution as informative as is required") and the maxim of quality ("Do not say what you believe to be false"). If she had simply lied, said that she definitely was going to the dry cleaners, she would have been breaking those same maxims, but violating them rather than flouting them: breaking them uncooperatively. Saying "I might" makes her line about going to the dry cleaners (at least potentially) an implicature: saying she needs money for something she might do possibly signals to Paul that she just doesn't want to give him the money and isn't saying why. (Of course she might mean it straightforwardly: she may have to go to the dry cleaners, and if she does, she'll need the money. But the structure of humor throughout this passage is based on evasive "I might"s: Paul too says he'll move the car (and so can't walk Murray), but maybe not today.

c. If it's true that dogs don't understand promises of the complexity of "she'll take you, I won't," and if it's true that Jamie would agree (this has to be an assumption that both of them share for implicature to work), then in using his promise to the dog as a reason not to be the one who walks him Paul is flouting the maxim of quality: "Do not say what you believe to be false." His implicature is probably pretty straightforward "I don't feel like walking the dog," and it shouldn't be too difficult for Jamie to work that out: "he's saying he can't walk the dog for a bogus reason; therefore he just doesn't want to walk the dog."

d. We can imagine Paul flouting the maxim of quantity, which we could modify to read "Do not ask for information that you already have."

e. Get the students to have fun with this one.

f. In (a), Paul could have said "Because you're my wife and we have joint finances" or "I don't want to tell you"; in (b), Jamie could have said "I don't want to tell you"; in (c), Paul could have said "I just don't feel like walking him"; and in (d), Paul could have said "You don't really have a meeting, do you?" But in each case, the drama would have fallen flat. In real life, too, people who always say exactly what they mean are usually considered boring. But don't state this as a general principle; get the students to work out the complexity of their attitudes on this.

g. Throughout this passage Paul seems to be implying "I'm a funny guy." He even wants the dog to think he's funny: "Mommy's gonna take you out. Mommy'll take you out" and "I would do it, but you see what's goin' on here, Mur ..." (Actually, of course, he's playing to the audience, wanting the audience to think he's funny; but funny people like Paul do often play to dogs, cats, traffic lights, people in other cars who can't hear them, etc.) "‘Cause when I take it from strangers, they get angry" seems sarcastic, but Paul doesn't say it sarcastically; he says it too to be funny. A big part of his implicature in that line is expressive: look how funny I am. And his line about his promise to the dog, "I just told him you'd take him and he has his heart set on that," is obviously expressively implicative. Jamie is calmer, less comically manic, and doesn't implicate "I'm funny" as obviously as Paul; but in her calm and mildly sardonic way she too is implicating expressive values related to humor (this is, after all, a sitcom), especially in "I might" and "What, am I making it up?"

2. a. When Fred sighs and says "They sure work hard, don't they Barney?", we take him to mean something positive by it: he's admiring the women for their hard work. Grice doesn't exactly have a maxim to cover this assumption, but it might be thought of as a new maxim of manner: "Be nice," or "Say nice things about others, especially loved ones." Barney's reply, "Yeah. I hate to see them work so hard," seems to be covered by the same maxim; but another maxim also seems to become relevant here, a maxim Grice doesn't seem to anticipate at all, along the lines of "Project guilty feelings when someone else is working harder than you," and, more complexly, the patriarchal undercurrent of that maxim: "Project guilty feelings if you are a man and a woman (especially your wife) is doing heavy physical labor that you should be doing." Grice doesn't imagine maxims for appropriate or expected verbal references to or enactments of mental and emotional states; but obviously we do have a huge number of such assumptions, or maxims.

Fred's reply to Barney, "Yeah. Let's go around back, where we can't see ‘em," flagrantly flouts both maxims, the one about saying nice things about loved ones and the one about a man expressing guilty feelings if his wife is working and he's doing nothing. If we have taken Barney to be implying "I hate it that they have to work so hard," and expecting Fred to feel the same way, Fred tramples that expectation by making it clear that he agrees with only the seeing part: he doesn't mind that the women are working hard; he just minds having to watch it. He is implicating something like "Watching them work so hard makes me tired," and possibly also, expressively, something like "I'm lazy and I don't care who knows it, I'm not going to pretend to be feeling guilty when my wife's mowing the lawn."

b. Barney's uneasy remark, "Gee, we oughta do something, Fred," suggests that he does feel guilty about the women working so hard, and thinks that the best response to that guilty feeling would be to join in the work. By now he has, of course, followed Fred around back and sat down out of sight of the women. But Fred is the leader and Barney is the follower, so just following Fred around back doesn't necessarily mean that Barney is flouting those maxims of niceness and projected guilt along with Fred (although Barney's words could be interpreted that way). It could just mean that Barney is going along with Fred partly against his better judgment, and wants to keep working on Fred to change his mind and help out with the work—since he doesn't have enough backbone to act on his better judgment directly, he has to try and convince Fred to make the decision.

The maxim Barney is invoking here might be something like "Defer to a leader's wishes," and his tentative suggestion that they "do something" might itself be read as a form of implicature: if he really is implicating "Maybe we should help the women," the deference maxim requires that he only hint at a brash suggestion like this, so he flouts the maxim of relation ("be relevant") and talks vaguely of "doing something." If Fred were inclined to work out Barney's implicature here, he might reason: I've just suggested that we come back here and relax; now Barney's talking about "doing something," which is clearly irrelevant to relaxing. Maybe he's deliberately flouting the maxim of relation so that I'll figure out what he's really hinting at? Maybe the doing he's hinting at is actually—work?

But Fred is either oblivious to all this (which would be a failure to cooperate conversationally and a violation of maxims) or else once again he flouts the maxims of niceness and projected guilt, and suggests that they take a nap: that the "something" they "do" is sleep. If we take this to be implicature (and of course there's no way of knowing whether it is or isn't, since we can't get inside Fred's cartoon mind), he is probably (expressively) implicating very much the same thing as in question (a): "I'm lazy and I don't care who knows it, I'm not going to pretend to be feeling guilty when my wife's mowing the lawn."

c. The drama of flouting (or perhaps violating) maxims that has carried the commercial so far dissipates completely once the Winston scriptwriter gets started with the official commercial spiel: Barney suggests that they take a Winston break, and instead of making wisecracks, Fred says seriously, with no implicature whatsoever, "That's it! Winston is the one filter cigarette that delivers flavor 20 times a pack! Winston's got that filter blend!" And Barney launches into a long non-implicative speech containing way too many facts about and pitches for Winston to be something Barney would ever say.

d. Our assumptions about Fred and Barney—that Fred is the leader and Barney is the follower, that Fred is blithely and unself-consciously lazy and Barney is more anxious and insecure in his desire to please—do form a kind of conversational "pact" of cooperation with the makers of the cartoon. We expect them to give us the Fred and Barney we know, the Fred and Barney they have always given us before. There might be a maxim here, even: "Project a consistent character in your dealings with a group." In everyday life, this would mean always being intellectual with a group that expects you to be intellectual, or always being funny with a group that expects you to be funny—not "dropping out of character" and acting in an unexpected way. In entertainment, the equivalent of that maxim is that the characters a production team create for us need to remain consistent as well. Once they've created those characters, they need to go on making them act in character.

This maxim is flagrantly violated by the makers of this commercial. Fred and Barney fall out of character with a thud. Both of them start lecturing—each other? the audience? it's hard to tell who their audience is—in strange alien ways that we've never seen from either character before. Thus, ironically enough, in the drama of the show itself, our assumptions are that they will flout our assumptions (Fred will be blithely lazy, Barney will be ineffectually anxious, neither will act as we expect good people to act); when they start obeying maxims in the Winston speeches, acting as people (Grice claims) are supposed to act, cooperatively, saying what they mean, they violate the maxims of our tacit agreement with the makers of the show.

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