The philosopher Paul Grice proposed four conversational maxims that arise from the pragmatics of natural language. The Gricean Maxims are a way to explain the link between utterances and what is understood from them. The Maxims are based on his cooperative principle, which states, ‘Make your conversational contribution such as is required, at the stage at which it occurs, by the accepted purpose or direction of the talk exchange in which you are engaged,’ and is so called because listeners and speakers must speak cooperatively and mutually accept one another to be understood in a particular way. The principle describes how effective communication in conversation is achieved in common social situations and is further broken down into the four Maxims of Quality, Quantity, Relevance and Manner.
These maxims may be better understood as describing the assumptions listeners normally make about the way speakers will talk, rather than prescriptions for how one ought to talk. Philosopher Kent Bach writes:
...[W]e need first to get clear on the character of Grice’s maxims. They are not sociological generalizations about speech, nor they are moral prescriptions or proscriptions on what to say or communicate. Although Grice presented them in the form of guidelines for how to communicate successfully, I think they are better construed as presumptions about utterances, presumptions that we as listeners rely on and as speakers exploit. (Bach 2005).
Gricean Maxims generate implicatures. If the overt, surface meaning of a sentence does not seem to be consistent with the Gricean maxims, and yet the circumstances lead us to think that the speaker is nonetheless obeying the cooperative principle, we tend to look for other meanings that could be implicated by the sentence.
Grice did not, however, assume that all people should constantly follow these maxims. Instead, he found it interesting when these were not respected, namely either "flouted" (with the listener being expected to be able to understand the message) or "violated" (with the listener being expected to not note this). Flouting would imply some other, hidden meaning. The importance was in what was not said. For example: Answering It's raining to someone who has suggested a game of tennis only disrepects the maxim of relation on the surface, the reasoning behind this 'fragment' sentence is normally clear to the interlocutor (the maxim is just "flouted").
Criticism of the Gricean Maxims and the Cooperative Principle
Grice’s theory is often disputed with the argument that cooperative conversation, as with most social behavior, is culturally determined. Therefore, the Gricean Maxims and the Cooperative Principle cannot be universally applied due to intercultural differences. The Malagasy, for example, follow a completely opposite Cooperative Principle in order to achieve conversational cooperation. In their culture, speakers are reluctant to share information and flout the Maxim of Quantity by evading direct questions and replying on incomplete answers because of the risk of losing face by committing oneself to the truth of the information, as well as the fact that having information is a form of prestige.
Another criticism is that the Gricean Maxims can easily be misinterpreted to be a guideline for etiquette, instructing speakers on how to be moral, polite conversationalists. However, the Gricean Maxims, despite their wording, are only meant to describe the commonly accepted traits of successful cooperative communication. Geoffrey Leech created the Politeness maxims: tact, generosity, approbation, modesty, agreement, and sympathy.
Flouting the Maxims
Without cooperation, human interaction would be far more difficult and counterproductive. Therefore, the Cooperative Principle and the Gricean Maxims are not specific to conversation but to interaction as a whole. For example, it would not make sense to reply to a question about the weather with an answer about groceries because it would violate the Maxim of Relation. Likewise, responding to a request for some milk with an entire gallon instead of a glass would violate the Maxim of Quantity.
However, it is possible to flout a maxim intentionally or unconsciously and thereby convey a different meaning than what is literally spoken. Many times in conversation, this flouting is manipulated by a speaker to produce a negative pragmatic effect, as with sarcasm or irony. One can flout the Maxim of Quality to tell a clumsy friend who has just taken a bad fall that her nimble gracefulness is impressive and obviously intend to mean the complete opposite. The Gricean Maxims are therefore often purposefully flouted by comedians and writers, who may hide the complete truth and manipulate their words for the effect of the story and the sake of the reader’s experience.
Speakers who deliberately flout the maxims usually intend for their listener to understand their underlying implication. In the case of the clumsy friend, she will most likely understand that the speaker is truly not offering a compliment. Therefore, cooperation is still taking place, but no longer on the literal level. Conversationalists can assume that when speakers intentionally flout a maxim, they still do so with the aim of expressing some thought. Thus, the Gricean Maxims serve a purpose both when they are followed and when they are flouted.
- Cooperative principle
- Paul Grice
- Leech's politeness maxims
- Relevance theory
- Politeness theory
- Mey, Jacob. 2001. Pragmatics: An Introduction, page 76-77. Blackwell.
- Wardhaugh, Ronald. 2006. An Introduction to Sociolinguistics. Blackwell.