Communication and intention

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

2. Reactions

Grice’s short article spawned a huge literature, and various modifications were suggested. One is that it may not be quite right to identify the speaker’s intention as one of changing the hearer’s belief. I may say that p without caring whether my hearer accepts or indeed already believes that p. A change in belief might be one effect of my utterance, but it is not always one I intend (in the terms introduced by Austin, it is a ‘perlocutionary’ effect), whereas we are looking for a characterization of what a speaker is doing in uttering anything (the ‘illocutionary’ act; see Speech acts §1). It seems rather that the only reliable intention behind an utterance is that the speaker intends the hearer to understand something by it, not necessarily to believe it or react to it in any other way. But already it is a matter of fine judgment whether this is important, and, after all, one can say things with the intention that the hearer not even understand them, for example when showing off one’s grasp of some technical term. Certainly, a defence of Grice would go, once the whole social practice of communication with language is in place, we can say things with the most devious of intentions. Nevertheless, it may be true that the central or paradigm case is that of imparting information, and indeed any account that fails to put this function of language at the centre risks distortions of its own. So Grice may simply be following the proper path by concentrating upon the central or basic case and hoping that deviations will become explicable in the light of what is said about it.

A more elaborate debate queried whether Grice’s conditions are sufficient for meaning. It concentrates on cases where there is an element of deceit. As Bennett puts it, ‘in real communication everything is open and above board’ (1976: 126), but a range of cases suggest that Grice’s conditions could be met while there are hidden and devious intentions around. Grice’s conditions could be satisfied while, further up the hierarchy of intentions, I have the intention that you misunderstand something about the situation. Complex counterexamples of this structure were rapidly concocted. However, what Grice called ‘sneaky intentions’ can be blocked by a number of strategies. One such is to require that all the speaker’s intentions be known to the hearer, and another is that the intentions in question should be ‘mutually known’, where this means that the hearer knows the speaker’s intentions, the speaker knows that the hearer knows, the hearer knows that the speaker knows…and so on.

There is a cost to piling up the reflexive intentions with which speakers are credited, for it is easy to wonder whether there is a psychological reality to these complex layers of intention, or whether they are simply an artefact of the theory. In fact, some unease arises when we realise that Grice’s approach requires that the reflexive intention – the intention that the hearer’s belief be modified by means of their recognition of my intention in speaking – be typically present throughout the field of linguistic communication. It would seem to be to overload the psychology of the young child or not-very-aware adult to credit them with intentions of such complexity: typical speakers, we might say, just do not know or care how their messages get across, so long as they do. Certainly a strategist faced with a hitherto unknown type of problem of communication may do something with the hope that the intention with which they do it is recognized, but this seems to be a sophisticated plan for coping with precisely the kind of situation where normal communication has broken down.

This kind of thought suggests that Grice is too much concerned with one-off cases. At least in typical cases of communication we are not involved in one-off strategies, but can rely upon the conventional meanings of our terms. (For Grice himself, as we have seen, the existence of these conventions would simply be the existence of enough people inclined to use a term to effect communication in enough cases.) While reflexive intentions may be necessary to solve new problems of communication, as when we confront someone with whom we share no language, it may be that they drop out of the picture when a rule-governed or conventional medium of communication is available: it may be that reliance on conventions and rules supplants the mechanism of recognizing the speaker’s intention, rather than supplementing it. Once we have language I do not have to know even whether you intended me to understand you in order to know what you said. Similarly, there may be sentences whose typical use is not to convey the messages that their strict and literal meanings suggest, but nevertheless, when uttering one of them, one can be held to have said whatever it is that its strict and literal meaning identifies. In short, a conventional and deeply normative system (that is, one in which the speaker is liable to be held to have said things, regardless of what was intended) takes on a life of its own, independent of the detailed case-by-case intentions of participants.

Behind this objection there lies the deeper unease that Grice’s approach sets things up so that the speaker has intentions of considerable complexity, and we then try to understand meaning and linguistic communication given so much rich psychology. Whereas a permanent strand in modern philosophy of language has been to try to identify the mastery of language with the ability to have thoughts (or, at least, thoughts of this kind of complexity) at all. From this standpoint it may seem perverse arbitrarily to enrich the psychology of the actors, and on that basis to explain their use of sentences as vehicles of their given, antecedent intentions. You cannot intend, the thought goes, without representing to yourself what you intend, and typically this will be by using the best representative medium known to us, which is our natural language. In forming an intention we typically speak to ourselves, saying that we will do this or that, and if this process is itself seen as a kind of internal communication then intentions are not suitable for giving an analysis of communication in general. So we should be thinking of social communication as one of the activities that makes possible the enriched psychology that we find in participants in conversational exchanges. The problems in this area are, however, deeply intractable. Some philosophers, notably John Searle (1983), insist that the ‘intentionality’ of language (that is, its directedness or power to represent absent or merely possible states of affairs) must be understood as being derived from a more fundamental power of the ‘mind/brain’; in such a scheme there is no problem with Grice’s direction of attack. To others it merely mystifies things to postulate intentional powers in the mind/brain, and our capacity to represent absent states of affairs to ourselves must be seen as essentially linguistic, since language is the only representational system that we actually know anything about.

A final radical criticism is that Gricean proposals try to secure openness in communication by adding to the speaker’s intentions. But, it has been argued (Meijers 1994), openness cannot be secured that way. It is a matter of a relationship between the speaker and hearer, not a one-way matter of the speaker having sufficiently open intentions. A speaker must not only have the intention to be open, but there must also be a commitment to being open (and liability to penalty if they are not). Arguably this takes us into the domain of collective intentions; ones based on an understanding between the different parties about what they, collectively, are trying to do. The relation between speaker and hearer, by such an account, is more like that between us when we together plan that we sing a duet, than when I unilaterally intend that I do something with some effect on you. Again, there are various proposals about the nature of such common intentions, and whether they reduce to a kind of aggregate of individual intentions.

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

Related Searches


Related Articles