The Nature of Consciousness

Piero Scaruffi

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These are excerpts and elaborations from my book "The Nature of Consciousness"

Language as Cooperation

In 1967 the British philosopher Paul Grice had a key intuition: that language is based on a form of cooperation among the speakers. For language to be meaningful, both the speaker and the hearer must cooperate in the way they speak and in the way they listen.  The way they do it, is actually very simple: people always choose the speech acts that achieve the goal with minimum cost and highest efficiency. 

Language has meaning to the extent that some conventions hold within the linguistic community. Those conventions help the speaker achieve her goal. The participants of a conversation cooperate in saying only what makes sense in that circumstance. 

Grice focused on the linguistic interplay between the speaker, who wants to be understood and cause an action, and the listener.  This goes beyond syntax and semantics. A sentence has a timeless meaning, but also an occasional meaning: what the speaker meant to achieve when she uttered it.

Grice's four maxims summarize those conventions: provide as much information as needed in the context, but no more than needed (quantity), tell true information (quality), say only things that are relevant to the context (relation), avoid ambiguity as much as possible (manner).

The significance of an utterance includes both what is said (the explicit) and what is implicated (the implicit). Grice therefore distinguished between the "proposition expressed" from the "proposition implied", or the "implicature".  Implicatures exhibit properties of cancellability (the implicature can be removed without creating a contradiction) and calculability (an implicature can always be derived by reasoning under the assumption that the speaker is observing pragmatic principles).

Grice’s maxims help the speaker say more than what she is actually saying. They do so through implicatures that are implied by the utterance. Grice distinguishes two types of implicatures, depending on how they arise. Conventional implicatures are determined by linguistic constructions in the utterance. Conversational implicatures follow from maxims of “truthfulness”, “informativeness”, “relevance” and “clarity” that speakers are assumed to observe. Conversational implicatures can be discovered through an inferential process: the hearer can deduce that the speaker meant something besides what he said by the fact that what he said led the hearer to believe in something and the speaker did not do anything to stop him from believing it. 

The fundamental intuition was that there is more to a sentence than its meaning. A sentence is "used" for a purpose.

The US linguist Jerrold Sadock even distinguishes semantic sense from interpreted sense, i.e. meaning from use, as two different aspects of language. Arguing that humans employ a number of different skills during their linguistic acts, Sadock believes that one needs not just one grammar but a set of autonomous pseudo-grammars, each devoted to one dimension of language.


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