Compare Grice S Conversational Maxims With Sperber And Wilson S Theory Of Relevance Essay

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This essay will compare the conversational maxims of Grice with Sperber and Wilson's Relevance theory, concluding that Grice has the more useful approach, and bodes well for the future of Natural Language Processing.

The two theories attempt an analysis of language that goes beyond mere syntax or semantics - to discover the pragmatic meaning conveyed by a sentence, above and beyond the truth-conditional meaning of what is said.

Crudely, pragmatics is the process of relating a sentence to the context in which it occurs, the context being either linguistic or non-linguistic. In the former, the meaning of a sentence may depend upon surrounding sentences - both preceding it and those whose meaning may be influenced by the sentence in question. So we might determine the reference of pronouns:

        Anthony Burgess used to avoid Monday-morning Linguistic lectures.

        His tutors scarcely saw him all term.

        Whereas non-linguistic contexts provide knowledge about the person producing the utterance, and what they wish to achieve from the communication:

        Has anyone seen Anthony Burgess?

        (a) ie, Has anybody visually perceived him?

        (b) A sarcastic comment that Burgess is rarely in his lectures

        And so on. Pragmatics, and semantics, need recourse to knowledge about the world or the domain modelled. There is, then, a distinction to be made between the literal content of a sentence and the context-dependent meaning of the utterance.

        With this background, we can examine Grice's notion of conversational implicatures, which he first formulated in the 1960s but revised much later in Studies In the Ways of Words (1989).

        The first general feature of human conversation is that rational agents engage in conversational implicature via cooperation, on the understanding that this form of co-operative exchange is to their mutual benefit ;or at least that there is a mutually accepted direction to the conversation.

Such an understanding is, according to Grice, achieved by the agents following a co-operative principle:

"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..."

Bound within this are several maxims which combine to guide conversation along the most satisfactory lines. Grice outlined four fundamental maxims:

Maxim of Quality

Try to make your contribution one that is true:

(i) do not say what you believe to be false

(i) do not say that for which you lack adequate evidence

        Maxim of Quantity

(i) make your contribution as informative as is required for the current purposes of the exchange

(ii) do not make your contribution more informative than is required

        Maxim of Relevance

Make your contributions relevant

        Maxim of Manner

Be perspicuous, specifically:

(i) avoid obscurity of expression

(ii) avoid ambiguity

(iii) be brief

(iv) be orderly

        These maxims are, it must be noted, an ideal of conversation. There may be a whole host of reasons why some are not always observed - environment, speaker, participants, motives, and so on. Maxims can clash (eg, the maxim of Quantity versus the maxim of Quality) or openly disregarded. Yet they serve as strong, tangible guidelines for human discourse.

This accounts for poetical metaphors, hyperbole and analogies which give language its richness and beauty, and also explains tautologies such as Moore's Paradox.

These maxims can be used to elaborate the conditions in which conversational implicature is evident. Here, an implicature is an inference of sorts, where the agents in a conversation make an inference which is invariably ambiguous in semantic terms. Consider again the example of Anthony Burgess attending lectures - if X utters -"Is Anthony in today?"

Y may ask "What are you implying by that statement?"

Alternatively, the implication may be clear to X because of something mentioned in an earlier conversation - or because of the concept of mutual knowledge, where X and Y both know something about the situation. Grice is keen to note that the literal meaning of the above if very different to the implicatue which is so apparent - its contextual meaning.

Implicature, then, appears to bridge the gap between what is said and what is actually meant. An implicature is worked out in the following way:

"(i) S has said that p

(ii) there's no reason to think S is not observing the maxims or at least

the co-operative principle

(iii) in order for S to say that p and be indeed observing the maxims or

the co-operative principle, S must think that q

(iv) S must know that it is mutual knowledge that q must be supposed if S

is taken to be co-operating

(v) S has done nothing to stop me , the addressee, thinking that q

(vi) therefore S intends me to think that q, and in saying that p has

implicated q."

(pp. 113/14 in Levinson, 1983)


For Grice, an implicature has several features: it is defeasible (can be cancelled, almost inductively), non-detachable, non-conventional, calculable and indeterminate. One can sarcastically say:

"Anthony is never late for lectures" or

"Anthony is always on time for his lectures" - and the implicature remains despite the re-wording.

Conversational implicatures are also carried out by the utterances themselves, rather than by the sentences. Grice distinguishes between generalized implicature, and a second kind that arises when his maxims are intentionally violated. A generalised implicature might be:

"Anthony likes lectures"

        Which will imply that "I believe that Anthony likes lectures, it is true that he likes lectures, and I have sufficient evidence to show it to be the case."

But a maxim can be flouted, as in a response to the question - "Does anybody know where Anthony is?":

"Yes, he is on a bus which is currently travelling along Oxford Road, situated in Manchester, in the country of England, which forms part of the Western Hemisphere..." An answer which clearly flouts the maxim of Quantity.

        Sperber and Wilson (1986) posit a rival explanation known as Relevance Theory. They argue, from their psychological and linguistic perspectives of human cognition, that communication can be achieved using a code model and an inferential model. In the code model, a process of encoding and decoding takes place, where a signal is taken as an input, and a message is produced accordying to an underlying code. The decoded content of an utterance combines with what is mutually manifest to the agents, ie, their context, which inputs to the inferential model. This conveys the speaker's intentions.

In the latter, a set of premises are taken as input, and a set of conclusion are derived from them as output. Both types of processing are utilised in verbal communication.

The relevance is attained because humans fix their attention towards information that appears to be relevant. Sperber and Wilson insist that the act of communicating is to grab this attention of the other agents. Relevance here is based around human cognitive processes, which, they insist, try to achieve the greatest cognitive effect using the least cognitive effort. In a discourse, participants select the most relevant interpretation according to this definition - andeach utterance possesses just one such interpretation.

Contextual effect is vital here - if an assumption has a contextual effect in a context, then it is relevant in that context, so there is an established link between the assumption and the context. One must also note the processing effort which brings about the contextual effect - they argue that "the mind assesses its own efforts and their effects by monitoring physio-chemical changes in the brain", which has an obvious parallel in connectionism.

They also talk of the cognitive environment which affects the analysis of information. They define it as "a set of facts that are manifest to..." an agent. Here a fact is manifest to an individual at a certain time, but only if the individual can represent it mentally and can accept this representation as being true or probably true. Sperber and Wilson argue that a communicator intends to make certain assumptions manifest to his audience, by modifying his cognitive environment - and not by directly modifying their thoughts.

How different are the two approaches? Grice approaches language from philosophy ;Sperber and Wilson from psycho-linguistics, so there is an obvious contrast from the beginning. Their talk of cognition indicates a move towards a pragmatics with a solid psychological base ;whereas Grice takes up the philosophical challenge to analyse 'ordinary' language. Grice is also

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