Grice's maxims

by Marnanel Thurman

Sometimes you read an idea which changes the way you view the world. For me, one such experience was reading about the work of Paul Grice (1913-1988). Grice studied what people try to achieve when they're having a conversation, and he reduced it to a set of rules of co-operation: rules that the person who's speaking generally tries to follow, and the people listening expect to hear followed. The four rules have become known as the Gricean maxims, and they are:

The maxims become particularly interesting when you consider how they can break down. For example, equivocation— that is, saying carefully-chosen truths in order to deceive people— involves breaking the maxim of relation. And sometimes people assume the maxims are not being followed— for example, people under hostile cross-examination often have no reason to wish to cooperate, and so answer the question asked rather than the question intended.