Communication and intention

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-U006-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved April 21, 2021, from

3. Prospects and alliances

Sir Peter Strawson (1971) detected a ‘Homeric opposition’ between followers of Grice and philosophers of language, such as Davidson, who put the notion of a truth-condition at the centre of their picture. It is fair to say that this opposition has softened in the intervening years. Clearly there is no formal contradiction between supposing that a remark in the mouths of members of some community means that p if and only if there exists a practice of using it with the intention of communicating that p, and saying that the same remark means that p if and only if it represents the state of affairs that p, or has the truth-condition that p, or would be interpreted by an ideal interpreter as saying that p. The opposition is a question of whether we give priority to representation over communication, or vice versa. If we think of sentences possessing meaning by way of some kind of accord with things and facts, then their role in communication will seem a kind of bonus; if we think of the seamless way in which linguistic behaviour is woven into communication (and other activities involving the world) then we will reject any appeal to basic representative powers of elements of the ‘mind/brain’, in favour of a clearer understanding of the representative powers of the whole person, here meaning the linguistically active, socially embodied person communicating with others of the same nature.

The perennial importance of Grice’s work is that intention and communication cannot be separated for long. If I intend to tell you that the cat is sick, we have not communicated unless this is how you take my utterance. If I intend a remark ironically or condescendingly, then we have not communicated unless you understand the irony or the condescension. And there is a limit to the possibility of unintended meaning: although on an occasion someone may mean something by an utterance that they did not intend, or fail to mean something that they did intend, such occasions are essentially parasitic. If they occur too often, then the conventions shift, and the meaning of the remark in the language realigns itself with the way the speakers intend it. There is no separating semantics and psychology, but there is the perennial question of priority. The strange and intriguing interdependency of intention and language seems to be two-way: our words can convey no more than we intend by them, but we ourselves can intend only what our words will carry.

Further work on these topics clearly requires a better understanding of whether meaning is essentially social. Work on rule-following has sometimes issued in the view that it must be so, and that determinate meaning only emerges in a fully social, normative practice in which the applications of words are routinely subject to criticism and correction. If this kind of thought can finally be defended, then Grice’s programme will have been thoroughly vindicated, in its direction if not in every detail.

Citing this article:
Blackburn, Simon. Prospects and alliances. 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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