Communication and intention

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-U006-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved April 22, 2021, from

1. Grice’s theory

The classic attempt to understand communication in terms of the intentions of a person making an utterance was put forward by Paul Grice in his 1957 article. Grice takes as his subject what he calls ‘non-natural meaning’ (meaningNN), which he contrasts with the wider class of cases of natural meaning in which we say, for instance, that ‘those spots mean measles’ or ‘those clouds mean rain’. It cannot be true that those spots mean measles but the patient has not got measles; meaning is simply a correlation or signalling. Whereas Grice is concerned with actions in which a speaker (or, in general, an agent) means something by what they do and what is meant might just as well be false as true. Here too he makes a distinction: between a wider class of actions that predictably cause a recipient to believe something, and a narrower class of actions that not only may cause the belief that p, but also themselves mean that p. The wider class would include such actions as leaving photographs around, expecting the recipient to believe that the events shown had happened. The narrower class should take us somewhere near the domain of linguistic communication.

Grice looks for the essence of such cases in actions intended to effect a change in the recipient. He eventually located the difference in the manner in which the change in belief is expected to come about. In the wider class, the action may simply be a natural sign of the state of affairs, but in the narrower class of non-natural meaning there is an element of reflexivity involved, since the intended mechanism, through which the recipient is expected to come to the belief, is that the agent is recognized as acting with the intention that the recipient come to believe it: it is only if the agent’s intention is recognized that the change in belief will ensue. So, for example, deliberately ignoring someone in the street might be said to meanNN that the agent is angry with the recipient, because getting the recipient to believe this depends upon their recognizing the intention with which the action was performed. Grice proposes that ‘A meantNN something by x’ is roughly equivalent to ‘A uttered x with the intention of inducing a belief by means of the recognition of this intention’. He sees successful communication as requiring recognition of the speaker’s intention in communicating. Of course, the account could be extended to speech acts other than assertion: for example, intentions to get people to perform actions or supply information can be used to fix what is meant by imperatives and questions.

Armed with an account of the speaker’s meaning on an occasion, Grice goes on to propose that ‘the utterance x meant something’ is roughly equivalent to ‘someone meant something by x‘. For a sentence to mean something ‘timelessly’ is for people in general to use it to mean that thing. We can thus progress from an account of communication in a ‘one-off’ case to a more general account of the kind of meaning possessed by the sentences of a public language.

Citing this article:
Blackburn, Simon. Grice’s theory. Communication and intention, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-U006-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2021 Routledge.

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