In social science generally and linguistics specifically, the cooperative principle describes how people achieve effective conversational communication in common social situations—that is, how listeners and speakers act cooperatively and mutually accept one another to be understood in a particular way. As phrased by Paul Grice, who introduced it in his pragmatic theory,
Make your 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.:45
Though phrased as a prescriptive command, the principle is intended as a description of how people normally behave in conversation. Jeffries and McIntyre describe Grice's maxims as "encapsulating the assumptions that we prototypically hold when we engage in conversation".
The cooperative principle is divided into four maxims of conversation, called the Gricean maxims. These four maxims describe specific rational principles observed by people who follow the cooperative principle in pursuit of effective communication. Applying the Gricean maxims is a way to explain the link between utterances and what is understood from them.
Maxim of quality
- Try to make your contribution one that is true.
Maxim of quantity
- Make your contribution as informative as is required (for the current purposes of the exchange).
- Do not make your contribution more informative than is required.
Maxim of relation (or relevance)
- Be relevant.
With respect to this maxim, Grice writes, "Though the maxim itself is terse, its formulation conceals a number of problems that exercise me a good deal: questions about what different kinds and focuses of relevance there may be, how these shift in the course of a talk exchange, how to allow for the fact that subjects of conversations are legitimately changed, and so on. I find the treatment of such questions exceedingly difficult, and I hope to revert to them in later work."
Maxim of manner
- Be perspicuous.
- Avoid obscurity of expression.
- Avoid ambiguity.
- Be brief (avoid unnecessary prolixity).
- Be orderly.
These maxims are to be understood as describing the assumptions listeners normally make about the way speakers talk, rather than prescriptions for how one ought to talk. Philosopher Kent Bach writes:
...[W]e need first to get clear on the character of Grice's maxims. They are not sociological generalizations about speech, nor they are moral prescriptions or proscriptions on what to say or communicate. Although Grice presented them in the form of guidelines for how to communicate successfully, I think they are better construed as presumptions about utterances, presumptions that we as listeners rely on and as speakers exploit.
Often the addressee of an utterance can add to the overt, surface meaning of a sentence by assuming the speaker has obeyed the maxims. Such additional meanings, if intended by the speaker, are called conversational implicatures. For example, in the exchange
- A (to passer by): I am out of gas.
- B: There is a gas station round the corner.
A will assume that B obeyed the maxim of relation. But B's answer is only relevant to A if the gas station is open; so it has the implicature "The gas station is open."
Grice did not, however, assume that all people should constantly follow these maxims. Instead, he found it interesting when these were not respected, namely either flouted (with the listener being expected to be able to understand the message) or violated (with the listener being expected to not note this). Flouting means that the circumstances lead us to think that the speaker is nonetheless obeying the cooperative principle, and the maxims are followed on some deeper level, again yielding a conversational implicature. The importance is in what was not said. For example, answering "It's raining" to someone who has suggested playing a game of tennis only disrespects the maxim of relation on the surface; the reasoning behind this utterance is normally clear to the interlocutor.
Flouting the maxims
It is possible to flout a maxim and thereby convey a different meaning than what is literally said. Often in conversation, a speaker flouts a maxim to produce a negative pragmatic effect, as with sarcasm or irony. One can flout the maxim of quality to tell a clumsy friend who has just taken a bad fall that her gracefulness is impressive and obviously intend to mean the complete opposite. Likewise, flouting the maxim of quantity may result in ironic understatement, the maxim of relevance in blame by irrelevant praise, and the maxim of manner in ironic ambiguity. The Gricean maxims are therefore often purposefully flouted by comedians and writers, who may hide the complete truth and choose their words for the effect of the story and the sake of the reader's experience.
Speakers who deliberately flout the maxims usually intend for their listener to understand their underlying implicature. In the case of the clumsy friend, she will most likely understand that the speaker is not truly offering a compliment. Therefore, cooperation is still taking place, but no longer on the literal level. When speakers flout a maxim, they still do so with the aim of expressing some thought. Thus, the Gricean maxims serve a purpose both when they are followed and when they are flouted.
Grice's theory is often disputed by arguing that cooperative conversation, like most social behaviour, is culturally determined, and therefore the Gricean maxims and the cooperative principle do not universally apply because of cultural differences. Keenan claims, for example, that the Malagasy follow a completely opposite cooperative principle to achieve conversational cooperation. In their culture, speakers are reluctant to share information and flout the maxim of quantity by evading direct questions and replying on incomplete answers because of the risk of losing face by committing oneself to the truth of the information, as well as the fact that having information is a form of prestige. However, Harnish points out that Grice only claims his maxims hold in conversations where his cooperative principle is in effect. The Malagasy speakers choose not to be cooperative, valuing the prestige of information ownership more highly. (It could also be said in this case that this is a less cooperative communication system, since less information is shared.)
Another criticism is that the Gricean maxims can easily be misinterpreted to be a guideline for etiquette, instructing speakers on how to be moral, polite conversationalists. However, the Gricean maxims, despite their wording, are only meant to describe the commonly accepted traits of successful cooperative communication. Geoffrey Leech introduced the politeness maxims: tact, generosity, approbation, modesty, agreement, and sympathy.
It has also been noted by relevance theorists that conversational implicatures can arise in uncooperative situations, which cannot be accounted for in Grice's framework. Let's assume that A and B are planning a holiday in France and A suggests they visit their old acquaintance Gérard; and further, that B knows where Gérard lives, and A knows that B knows. The following dialogue ensues:
- A: Where does Gérard live?
- B: Somewhere in the South of France.
This is understood by A as B not wanting to say where exactly Gérard lives, precisely because B is not following the cooperative principle.
- Grice, Paul (1975). "Logic and conversation". In Cole, P.; Morgan, J. (eds.). Syntax and semantics. 3: Speech acts. New York: Academic Press. pp. 41–58.
- Jeffries, Lesley; McIntyre, Daniel (2010). Stylistics. Cambridge University Press. p. 106.
- Kordić, Snježana (1991). "Konverzacijske implikature" [Conversational implicatures] (PDF). Suvremena Lingvistika (in Serbo-Croatian). 17 (31–32): 89. ISSN 0586-0296. OCLC 440780341. SSRN 3442421. . ZDB-ID 429609-6. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2 September 2012. Retrieved 9 February 2019.
- For arguments that Grice's maxim is best understood in terms of knowledge, see Benton, Matthew A. (2016). "Gricean Quality". Nous. 50 (4): 689–703. doi:10.1111/nous.12065.
- Bach, Kent (2005), The Top 10 Misconceptions about Implicature (PDF)
- Kaufer, D. S. (1981). "Understanding ironic communication". Journal of Pragmatics. 5 (6): 495–510. doi:10.1016/0378-2166(81)90015-1.
- McCulloch, Gretchen. ""Look At All These Ducks There Are At Least Ten." Why Is This Funny?". Slate. The Slate Group. Retrieved 20 June 2014.
- Ochs Keenan, Elinor (1976). "On the universality of conversational postulates". Language in Society. 5 (1): 67–80. doi:10.1017/s0047404500006850.
- Shopen, Timothy (1987). Languages and Their Speakers. University of Pennsylvania Press. pp. 112-158. ISBN 0812212509.
- Harnish, R. (1976). "Logical form and implicature". In Bever T G; Katz J J; Langendoen, D T (eds.). An Integrated Theory of Linguistic Ability. New York: Crowel.
- Sperber, Dan; Wilson, Deirdre (1996). Relevance: Communication and Cognition. Wiley-Blackwell. pp. 273f. ISBN 978-0631198789.
- Cameron, D. (2001). Working with Spoken Discourse. London: Sage Publications. ISBN 978-0761957737.
- Mey, Jacob (2001). Pragmatics: An Introduction. Blackwell. pp. 76–77. ISBN 978-0631211327.
- Wardhaugh, Ronald (2006). An Introduction to Sociolinguistics. Blackwell. ISBN 978-1118732298.
- Davis, Wayne. "Implicature". Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Stanford University.
- Frederking, Robert E. "Grice's Maxims: "Do the Right Thing"" (PDF). Argues that the Gricean maxims are too vague to be useful for natural language processing.
- Grice, H. P. (1975). Logic and conversation (PDF). Where Grice introduces his maxims.