Performative Pragmatics

Teacher's Guide

Chapter 9
Divergent Maxims

Are Grice's Maxims Culture-Bound?

On the culture-bound or ethnocentric nature of Grice's maxims, it should be noted that not all pragmaticians agree that they are culture-bound. Levinson (1983) was an early defender of the universality of the maxims, and continues to defend it in Levinson (2000: 423n96). More recently still, Horn (2004) has offered a spirited attack on the accusation of ethnocentrism and defended Grice's project, on the grounds that many linguists continue to misunderstand what Grice was trying to do. What he calls "Exhibit A" in this misunderstanding is in fact a humorous passing critique of Grice in Jeremy Campbell's The Liar's Tale (Norton, 2001):

Communication is a cooperative effort, and as such should conform to certain definite rules, or maxims of conversation, which Grice enumerates. The maxims presuppose an almost Utopian level of gentlemanly conduct on the part of a speaker and an old-fashioned standard of truthfulness that George Washington might have found irksome. They remind one of the early Puritanism of the Royal Society. A speaker should give not too much but just enough information, hold his tongue about what he believes to be false, or for which he has insufficient evidence, be relevant, be brief and orderly, avoid obscurity of expressions and ambiguity—Would we want to have dinner with such a person, such an impeccably polite maxim observer? (Campbell 2001: 256)

As Horn rightly points out, this is way off-base: Grice doesn't lay down the maxims as laws governing conversation; he certainly doesn't expect people to be "impeccably polite maxim observers." He expects people to flout, violate, infringe, and opt out of the maxims—and, more important, to use the maxims as a foundation for the interpretation of implicit messages. Horn argues correctly that "conversational implicature operates through the mechanism of exploitation. Unlike syntactic and semantic rules, pragmatic principles and conventions do as much work when they are apparently violated—when speaker S counts on hearer H to recognize the apparent violation and to perform the appropriate contextual adjustment—as when they are observed or ostentatiously violated."

But then he insists: "But it is not just the laity who are at fault; professional linguists and ethnographers, following Keenan (1976), have at times concluded that Grice's maxims are trivial, na ve to the point of simple-mindedness, and/or culture-dependent (if not downright ethnocentric), and that they fail to apply to phatic and other non-information-based exchanges." Here he seems to skate out onto thinner ice. Is he really arguing that Grice's maxims do apply to phatic and other non-information-based exchanges? There is absolutely no sign in "Logic and Conversation" that Grice has given the most passing consideration to anything but information-based exchanges. Every case of implicature he considers bears implicit information; nowhere does he raise the possibility that language might be used to do anything other than convey information, explicitly or implicitly. Altieri's concept of expressive implicature and my concepts of illocutionary, perlocutionary, and metalocutionary implicature have had to be added to Grice.

As for the maxims not being culture-bound, I confess that I can't quite figure out how Horn's reasoning works here:

But neither the Cooperative Principle nor the attendant maxims are designed as prescriptions for ethical actions or as ethnographic observations. A more accurate approximation is to view them as default settings (or presumptions, la Bach & Harnish 1979), the mutual awareness of which, shared by speech participants, generates the implicatures that lie at the heart of the pragmatic enterprise. It is only if the speaker is operating, and presumes the hearer is operating, with such principles as defaults that she can expect the hearer to recognize the apparent violation of the maxims as a source of contextual inference (see Grice 1989, Green 1996, Levinson 2000 for elaboration).

"Default settings," "mutual awareness," "shared by speech participants"—how, exactly, do these definitions of the maxims exempt them from ethnocentrism? The argument against the universality of Grice's maxims is precisely that they aren't default settings in all cultures; that speech participants in all cultures do not share mutual awareness of these precise four maxims. And that makes Horn's "if only" proviso a major assault on the functionality of Grice's maxims: if there is even one culture where speakers and hearers do not operate with Grice's maxims of quality, quantity, manner, and relation, then no speaker can ever expect any hearer to recognize the apparent violation of those particular maxims as a source of contextual inference.

The way out of this quandary, I suggest, is that we assume that some maxims act as default settings in every culture—the culture of any group, even one as small as a single person (as I show in the chapter with the On Golden Pond example)—but that those maxims can never be spelled out analytically in advance. Maxims are interpretive fictions constructed ex post implicatura by speech participants as rough formulations of what assumptions and expectations are functioning as default settings in the current conversation. This leaves Grice's basic claim intact—that we interpret implicit communication by reference to some shared assumption or another that the implicature is apparently violating—without forcing us to assume that every culture has the exact same expectations governing conversational rationality.

All we lose by this strategy is formal elegance: there is something theoretically satisfying about just four maxims, based on Kant's categories, and just as universal as Kant's categories, intended to work precisely in the same way as Kant's categories, as a built-in template for the understanding, a default operating system for the analysis of the world (in this case, of implicature). And Griceans who feel a strong attachment to that formal elegance will no doubt continue to protest the proliferation of culture-specific maxims in the work of Grice's critics. Grice's original model is far tidier than the ungainly messes more realistic theorists (including me) keep offering.


1. Here the main thing is to get the students to think through their own experiences of men's and women's conversational behavior as fully and complexly as possible—even, if they come up with lots of good suggestions for different maxims, to write them on the board and sort through them, figure out a whole set of Gricean maxims for men and for women.

2. Constative pragmaticians have tried to insist on a firm foundation for understanding because that's what their intellectual paradigm requires. There is obviously a long scholarly history behind this requirement, a long intellectual tradition behind the assumption that perfect rule-governed understanding is "normal" and misunderstanding is "deviant." It goes back to Plato, and to Christian adaptations of Plato, and scientistic adaptations of Christian theology, as explained in Chapter 2. In a Platonic/Christian/scientistic conceptual framework, in fact, the foundational assumption is not that rule-governed understanding is normal in ordinary conversation, but that rule-governed understanding is normal period. Rule-governed understanding in the abstract is normal; and when natural conversation leads to misunderstanding, or when understanding in natural conversation seems not to be based on a firm foundation of rules, that's just evidence of the "fallenness" of ordinary human beings and a good reason to ignore actual conversation altogether. Hence the very late development of constative pragmatics, the last of all "branches" of linguistic study to be theorized: it is the part of the constative study of language that is the "most human" and thus (in Christian terms) the most "fallen," and thus hardest to reduce to a machine. From a constative point of view, it makes much more sense to ignore pragmatics, because that is the realm of the human, and thus the realm that is least likely to succumb to constative abstractions. A constative pragmatics, as I have said elsewhere in the book, faces the enormous task of analyzing what people do with words without either people or doing—with only the words.

3. Special maxims probably don't exist for verbal and physical context; it's difficult to imagine what a "physical maxim" would be, and all maxims in some sense apply to verbal context. The difference between the levels on which we construct maxims and contexts is that in constructing maxims the main thing is the size of the group and in constructing contexts it is the channels through which contextual cues come to us. "Verbal" and "physical" are channels, but they are not groups; they are irrelevant to the construction of maxims.

It's interesting to speculate, though, on imaginary maxims. These would have to be hypothetical maxims for possible conversations with imaginary beings, or perhaps with people who are quite real but whom the imaginer is unlikely to meet, like the Queen of England or Tom Cruise. "If you talk to a major movie star, don't gush about how much you loved their last picture; don't suck up; be as casual as you can, like you've known them for a long time, like they're just ordinary people." That would be an imaginary maxim of manner.


1. a.

  • "I don't have one. I don't believe in them": The cop would naturally assume that anyone driving a car would know and accept the validity of the traffic laws—so that Maude, as the driver, should know that she is required by law to have a valid driver's license and that in not having one she is in violation of the law. The cop's maxim there might be something like "know and obey the traffic laws." Maude's maxim seems to be something like "Obey whichever traffic laws you believe in"—a shockingly eccentric attitude that endears Maude to the iconoclastic Harold from the start.
  • "About forty-five minutes, wouldn't you say, Harold? We were hoping to start sooner but, you see, it's rather hard to find a truck": Grice would refer both understandings of "how long have you been driving?" (how many years and how long today) to relevance (manner), but it seems the cop and Maude construct relevance differently. For the cop, how long Maude has been driving is relevant to her lack of a driver's license: it is shocking enough that she is driving now, today, without a license; what if she's been driving illegally for decades? Since Maude doesn't think her attitude shocking, doesn't seem to see that the police officer is trying to give her a ticket for speeding and various other infractions, apparently thinks he stopped her to chat pleasantly about her drive today, she takes his question to be relevant to today's experiences.
  • "Well, it's not mine, really. But we would like to get it into soil as soon as possible": here the cop obviously wants to establish the legality of the situation, who owns the tree, who authorized its transport, and so on; for Maude all that is largely irrelevant, of mere passing interest ("it's not mine, really" is the sort of correction a more legalistic citizen might make after misspeaking: "then I went left, no, sorry, I mean right"). She's more interested in the tree's viability as a plant, its need for water and soil.
  • "All right, then, and we'll be off": for the cop, "let me get this straight" is prologue to clarification. It means something like "let me summarize all that and you tell me whether I have it right." It also contains a sarcastic note that Maude entirely misses, like "you have got to be kidding me!" For Maude it is prologue to parting. It means something like "let me say goodbye so I can go work that all out in my mind without interruption."

b. She's fascinating because she's unpredictable, volatile, full of surprises; she's frustrating because she's unpredictable, erratic, unreliable. With someone who doesn't share the maxims of "ordinary people" (whatever those maxims are for your particular group of ordinary people) you never know how to construct a meaningful utterance, or how to figure out what she means. This lends a certain freshness to interaction with her; but it also thwarts easy understanding, and sometimes even hard-working understanding. It's not just that she has different maxims; she does everything differently, brings an entirely unique pragmatics to conversation: performs different speech acts, constructs context differently, structures conversations differently, and so on.

2. a. The interesting thing about "pretending" is that it tends to have the performative power to transform our actual beliefs, and that that transformation is often insidious, in the sense of being hard to detect in yourself (let alone in others). If Sunny herself pretends that her mother is not a dope—obeys the maxim—it's still clear that she believes her mother is a dope, so for her the maxim about pretending would mean "Don't speak of your mother as a dope (but think of her that way privately)." But she can't tell about her father and sister. Do they really believe their own pretense? If so, then the family maxim has downshifted for them into a much deeper mode: "Don't even think about her as a dope."

But for obvious psychological reasons, this sort of speculative distinction would be extremely difficult (perhaps impossible) for Sunny to verify. Not only would the maxim itself tend to make Sunny's father and sister deny thinking about their wife and mother as a dope, should Sunny ask them (and the maxim would tend to make her reluctant to ask); they might not even know. The maxim of pretending might have soaked down so deeply and thoroughly into their thinking that they have no idea whether they think of her as a dope. Not only that: the maxim itself (if in fact they do share it, especially if they take it to mean "don't think about her as a dope") would tend to make them deny its very existence—either outwardly, making it impossible for Sunny to verify its existence or its import, or inwardly, making it possible that the maxim is just Sunny's fantasy.

This casts a fascinating sidelight on Grice's idea of the maxims: if it's impossible to determine whether a certain group does share a certain maxim, and if so just what it would mean to obey it (would obeying the maxim mean being cynical about your wife's or mother's intelligence or actually believing it yourself?), and thus what would constitute flouting or violating it, in what sense can any maxim serve as a foundation for interpretation? In the ongoing arguments among Griceans over whether the maxims as Grice formulated them are universal or ethnocentric, how could you ever know? What would constitute hard-and-fast evidence for either side? How could the universalists, like Levinson and Horn, ever hope to prove that every human being who has ever lived has shared exactly the four maxims that Grice formulated—or, well, since that is a reductio ad absurdum, how could they even hope to prove that a single other human being (excluding themselves) shared them? And how could the anti-universalists, from Elinor Ochs (Keenan) in 1976 to me right this instant, ever hope to prove that Grice's maxims are ethnocentric, believed and obeyed/flouted/violated/etc. only by traditional white middle-class well-educated males of European descent in the twentieth century? How could we even hope to prove that Grice believed and obeyed or flouted or violated them?

b. If he means the praise sincerely, he is either violating Sunny's cynical version of the maxim, refusing to maintain the duplicitous split between speaking of his wife as intelligent but thinking of her as a dope, or obeying his own more propagandistic version of it. If he means his praise ironically, he is in one sense obeying Sunny's cynical version of the maxim; but in another, more complex sense, he is also simultaneously flouting it. If he is praising his wife ironically, he is aiming his pretense one way at his wifely audience, making sure that she doesn't know he thinks she's a dope, and another way at his daughterly audience, making sure that Elizabeth and Sunny do know he thinks she's a dope. If he really is directing an ironic implicature at his daughters, then in an important sense he is speaking of his wife as a dope, just implicitly, and therefore flouting the maxim of pretending in order to implicate his true feelings.

But this gets very complex: if the maxim is about implicature—how to implicate to those in the know that you actually think of your wife/mother as a dope without letting her know that you think that way—then how do you flout it? Perhaps flouting it would involve violating it ironically—ridiculing your wife's dopiness openly but campily in order to implicate to her that you really think she's smart while at the same time still signalling to your daughters that you know she's an idiot?

c. If we take Elizabeth to be implicating something like "Stop bragging, any fool can make two no-trump," then our interpretation assigns to the mother the illocutionary implicature of bragging and to Elizabeth herself the illocutionary implicature of unmasking a boast. If this reading of Elizabeth's remark is right, she is violating the family maxim requiring the pretense that their mother is a dope—but doing it implicitly, something that Grice insists can only be done through flouting. Violating blocks understanding; flouting ensures it. Elizabeth's remark seems somehow stranded between flouting and violating, not quite sure whether it wants to unmask the boast or not.

Note for example that the mother insists that it's difficult to make two no-trump "especially if you are playing with the partner I had"—but in bridge if you win the bridge, your partner lays down her cards and becomes the dummy, and you play both her cards and your own. Insisting that "playing with the partner I had" made it difficult for her to make two no-trump is another obvious sign of her idiocy—to anyone who has ever played bridge, that is, which Sunny hasn't. Apparently Elizabeth (like Parker) has, but she doesn't follow up on her original remark and point out that any intelligent bridge-player would know that her partner becomes the dummy when she wins the bid—more maxim straddling.

3. a. "Being defensive" typically means "not being utterly and repentantly submissive to the authority of the person doing the accusing," and Dr. Fletcher seems to be applying something like that conception of defensiveness to Kathryn as well. Anything she says in her own defense is performed by Dr. Fletcher as "defensive." Any attempt she makes to converse with Dr. Fletcher on an equal basis is branded "defensive." Even fairly submissive protests like "I didn't think I was being defensive" are "defensive," because she isn't submitting 100% to her superior.

b. In "This isn't an inquisition" Dr. Fletcher seems to be implicating that Kathryn should just relax and not worry about the power differentials between accuser and accused, because no punishment will be meted out for her "bad judgment." In fact, he may even be trying to implicate that there are no power differentials between accuser and accused: that he isn't accusing her and she shouldn't feel accused. These would be the "strong" and "weak" interpretations of his implicature: "We aren't accusing you of anything, we're just having a discussion among equals, so relax and stop being so defensive" (strong) and "These accusations don't carry any punitive weight, all we want to do is establish what you did wrong so it won't happen again, so relax and stop being so defensive" (weak). But whichever of these implicatures Dr. Fletcher intends, it's pretty clear that they are intended to conceal the extent to which this is an inquisition and nothing short of Kathryn's full-scale submission—recantation and repentance—will be tolerated. Kathryn, in short, would be a fool to trust Dr. Fletcher's idealized implicature.

c. It should be pretty obvious that Dr. Fletcher reserves for himself the right to choose topics of conversation and expects Kathryn to give the topics he chooses her full attention, and does not consider himself obliged to give any topics she should choose any attention at all. "The boss decides what everyone will talk about; the underlings talk about the boss's topics and do not attempt to change the subject. If an underling is so foolhardy as to try, the boss simply ignores what the underling is trying to say."

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