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Last week we talked about language and meaning. Today, Hank explores some of the things that complicate meaning and how we get around that. We’ll explain conversational implicature, the cooperative principle, and the four main maxims of successful communication, as laid out by Paul Grice, as well as performative utterances.


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Hank: How often do you actually think about the things you say? Like, what you’re literally saying? That’s a seriously overused word, by the way -- “literally. ” A lot of the time, people use it for emphasis in ways that I consider pretty incorrect. Like, people will say “I’m literally dying of hunger!” because it’s been a few hours since lunch. But obviously they are not literally dying of hunger. They’re just like... hungry.

Unless you’re our old friend Ludwig Wittgenstein, who believed that language had no intrinsic meaning, literal meaning usually refers to the specific, accepted meaning of a word. It’s the intended thing that a word is supposed to stand for. So, unless you’re in the advanced stages of malnutrition and are at Death’s Freaking Door, then, no, you’re not literally dying of hunger.

But we all say stuff that like that all the time! I mean, have you ever thought about how many of the things you say that are figures of speech, things that aren’t literally true? Those figures of speech have other meanings, and most of the time, they mean stuff that we’d rather not put in literal terms. Like, we all know what we’re not saying when we say that someone “has a nice personality.” Or if a lady announces she’s going to “powder her nose.” And of course there’s “Netflix and chill,” which it turns out has very little to do with, like, actually watching Netflix.

We’ve already talked about how slippery the idea of meaning can be, as it changes depending on the time, or region, or linguistic community you’re in. But that’s not even considering the fact that people don’t usually mean what they say, because we also speak in idioms, fragments, slang, and metaphors. Which leads me to the question: how do we manage to understand each other at all?

[Theme Music]

When it comes to how we know that something described as “bad” is actually good, or how we know that a reference to Netflix is really about sex, we can thank 20th century British philosopher Paul Grice. He wanted to explain exactly how we can know what is meant, rather than what is said. And he described our ability to do this, through a theory he called conversational implicature.

Grice said, to really understand what goes on when we process meaning, we need to sort out the difference between what is said, and what is implied. What is said is the actual linguistic content, the words that come out of the speaker’s mouth. What is implied contains a whole lot more than just the words that are spoken.

Implicature combines the actual words we utter, with the context in which we say them. And that context can include anything from past shared experiences, to social conventions, to things like facial expressions, tone of voice, and gestures. Now, in order for anyone to have a successful conversation, Grice observed that a few conditions had to be in place.

First, you have to be actually trying to communicate with someone, and have a successful conversation. If that’s the case, then Grice said that you’re adhering to what’s known as the cooperative principle. This means that, whenever there’s ambiguity in what a speaker is saying, the audience should look for the most likely intended meaning of what’s being said, given the context.

So, even if the literal words don’t fit into the conversation you’re having, you should try to interpret whatever your interlocutor is saying, so that it makes sense. Like, if you’re in your sister’s room having an argument, and she says, “there’s the door,” you can assume she’s not just randomly naming house parts. She’s recommending that you walk through that door and out of her space.

But the burden of understanding doesn’t all fall on the audience. Grice also laid out certain maxims, or communicative rules of thumb, which help speakers keep to the cooperative principle. These maxims fall under four main types – quantity, quality, relation, and manner.

There are two rules relating to quantity. First, you should be adequately informative. When your parents call you up at school, and they ask you how you’ve been, you probably say something along the lines of: “fine.” Now, this might be technically accurate, but you’re not giving them the quantity of information they’re looking for. What they really want to know is, are you going to pass math, and are you remembering to wash your sheets? Stuff like that.

Second, we shouldn’t be more informative than is required. We’ve all met these people. When you’re explaining to your teacher that you missed class because you were sick, you do not need to provide all of the gruesome details about the nature of your diarrhea. I mean, there really is such a thing as too much information, people.

There are also two quality rules of communication. First, we shouldn’t say things that we think are false. This includes people who are running for elected office! No one should just tell lies! The second quality rule cautions us to refrain from making claims for which we we have insufficient evidence. So if you see your significant other talking to someone else in the hallway, don’t go around telling everyone that they’re a cheating scumbag without first checking your facts. Now, this isn’t to say people don’t break these rules all the time; some people lie more than they tell the truth. But Grice’s point was, violating these rules hinders successful communication.

Now, the next maxim is the rule of relation, which tells us to say relevant things. It’s what keeps us from going on a tear in the middle of the Super Bowl about the home worlds of our favorite members of the Legion of Substitute Heroes. I’m look at you, Chlorophyll Kid.

And finally, there are four rules about the manner in which we speak. First, we should avoid obscure turns of phrase. After all, this could come off as supercilious and pedantic, and might cause your interlocutor to be fractious. The whole point of a conversation is successful communication, not showing off how big your vocabulary is.

Second, ambiguity should be avoided. Keep your audience in mind when you use figures of speech and slang. The reason you don’t talk to your grandmother about your bae is because she’s not going to have any idea what you’re talking about. Third, be brief. Don’t give a ten minute explanation when a one minute one will do.

And finally, be orderly. Remember that time your mom recounted the recipe for her famous meatloaf from memory? And then when you tried to make it, you ended up with whole onions and raw meat? Mom assumed you were going to know that you needed to chop the onions and bake the loaf, but she didn't say that. So, the rule of orderliness reminds us not to miss steps when we’re communicating information.

Now, this might sound like a lot of rules, but Grice believed that we already follow these maxims when we engage in conversation. Because, generally, when we communicate, we want to be understood. And – here’s the cool part – since everyone understands these unspoken rules, we can violate them from time to time, knowing that other people will get that we’re breaking the rules on purpose.

Why would we do that? Well, because deliberately violating a maxim is a good way to make a communicative point. This is called flouting a maxim. We flout the maxim of quality, for example, when we use sarcasm. Like, I’m sure that you’ve never experienced sarcasm before! And we flout the maxim of manner when we deliberately use $10 words to confuse or embarrass our interlocutor.

So, now that we know how to say what we mean without saying what we mean, it’s time to do things! Let’s go to the Thought Bubble for some Flash Philosophy.

In the 1950s, British philosopher J.L. Austin wrote a charming little book called How to Do Things with Words. And in it, Austin observed that sometimes, words actually have the ability to change the world. I don’t mean in the way that, like, Martin Luther King’s words changed the world, but in the sense that, in an instant, an act of speech can change a particular fact about the world.

When a wedding officiant says, “I now pronounce you husband and wife,” or “husband and husband,” or “wife and wife,” that speech-act has the power to actually transform two single individuals into a married couple. In that same way, parents have the power to determine their child’s name, simply by announcing it.

A president or head of state can create a state of war, just by declaring it. And by saying, “I promise,” we create moral obligations. We’re verbal animals, and we’ve allowed our reality to be shaped, in a very deep way, by words, and the value that we give them.

This isn’t something we think about a lot, but when you stop to reflect on it, it’s kind of incredible that words can actually create a bond, or dissolve it, or that a speech-act can cause nations to go to war. But some of these examples require certain conditions to be met, in order for the utterance to work, or, in Austin’s words, to be felicitous. Like, if one of the spouses-to-be at a wedding is underage, or already married, or is a dog, then pronouncing them married won’t make it true.

You also need a legally recognized officiant to do the pronouncing, which is also true of declarations of war and in conferring academic degrees. But in other cases, like making a promise, or joining a society, or naming a child, anyone can change the world in this way, simply with their words. Performative utterances are interesting, because we normally think of sentences as simply conveyors of information.

Thanks, Thought Bubble! It turns out, sometimes, these types of sentences actually do things. Today we talked about conversational implicature, the cooperative principle, and the four main maxims of successful communication, as laid out by Paul Grice. We also learned about performative utterances. And I would like to remind you that bananas are chom choms. Next time we’ll look at an area where the philosophy of language and ethics meet, by talking about the ways in which the power of words can cause harm.

This episode is brought to you by Squarespace. Squarespace helps to create websites, blogs or online stores for you and your ideas. Websites look professionally designed regardless of skill level, no coding required. Try Squarespace at for a special offer. Squarespace: share your passion with the world. Crash Course Philosophy is produced in association with PBS Digital Studios.

You can head over to their channel and check out a playlist of the latest episodes from shows like Shanks FX, PBS Space Time, and BBQ with Franklin. This episode of Crash Course was filmed in the Doctor Cheryl C. Kinney Crash Course Studio with the help of these awesome people and our equally fantastic graphics team is Thought Cafe.