Open Journal of Modern Linguistics
2013. Vol.3, No.1, 69-72
Published Online March 2013 in SciRes (
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. 69
A Critical Appraisal of Grice’s Cooperative Principle
Atefeh Hadi
School of Languages, Culture s & Linguistics, Monash University, Melbourne, Australia
Email: atefeh.hadi@monash . ed u
Received November 4th, 2012; revised December 10th, 2012; accepted Decemb e r 17th, 2012
Grice’s most influential contribution to linguistics is his theory of implicatures. He describes communica-
tion as adhering to what he calls the Cooperative Principle (CP) and argues that a basic underlying as-
sumption we make when we speak to one another is that we are trying to cooperate to construct meaning-
ful conversations (1975). Grice’s Cooperative Principle has been a central and controversial theme in
pragmatics. A major source of controversy associated with the CP is that the term “cooperation” is open
to different interpretations. In order to develop a thorough understanding of the concept, the CP and con-
versational implicatures should be studied within the context of Grice’s work. The present article is an at-
tempt to critically examine various representations and interpretations of Grice’s Cooperative Principle.
Keywords: Grice’s Maxims; Cooperative Principle; Pragmatics
In pragmatics, the major aim of communication is considered
the exchange of information. People usually cooperate to con-
vey their intentions and implicit import of their utterances.
Therefore, all things being equal conversations are cooperative
attempts based on a common ground and pursuing a shared
Grice’s work on the Cooperative Principle led to the devel-
opment of “pragmatics” as a separate discipline within linguis-
tics. However, the interpretation of the CP is sometimes prob-
lematic because Grice’s technical term “cooperation” is often
confused with the general meaning of the word cooperation.
It should be stressed here that what is centrally important to
Grice is the concept of rationality and it is for this reason he
discusses cooperation. Most linguists, on the other hand, are in-
terested in the operation of the CP in language use and (flouts,
violations, infringing, and opting out) and only a few of them
introduce the concept of rationality in relation to the CP into
their discussion. Grice considers his maxims as examples of
principles, not rules.
Grice first introduces the Cooperative Principle and expla ined
conversational implicature in his article, “Logic and Conversa-
tion” (1975). He argued the generation and perception of these
implicatures was based on the following principle: “Make your
conversational contribution such as is required, at the stage at
which is occurs, by the accepted purpose or direction of the talk
exchange in which you are engaged” (Grice, 1975: p. 48). Put
more simply, the Cooperative Principle attempts to make ex-
plicit certain rational principles observed by people when they
Grice claims that human beings communicate with each
other in a logical and rational way, and cooperation is embed-
ded into people’s conversations Furthermore he argues, this
habit will never be lost, because it has been learned during their
childhood. Here, the point is that audience listener understands
the implication of a speaker’s remarks by drawing on an as-
sumption of cooperativeness, contextual information and back-
ground knowledge.
In his theory, Grice makes a distinction between saying and
meaning. He argues that speakers can create the implicit mean-
ings and their audiences are able to infer these intended mean-
ing from their conversations. He believes that people follow
certain patterns in their interactions and claims that listeners
generally assume that a speaker’s utterance contains enough
information, and is relevant. When it patently violates this as-
sumption, we understand that meaning. Therefore, violation of
relevance does not mean a lack of cooperation.
Grice considers the coherence or unity of conversations at a
rational level, i.e. the rational structure of a conversation. He is
concerned with the ways in which we connect our sentences
meaningfully in a conversation and the reasons for saying what
we do. Considering people’s interaction, particularly when dif-
ferent speakers try to promote various issues, it can be clearly
seen that their conversation enjoys partial unity (Brown and
Yule, 1983: pp. 88-89), but it seems that Grice have an ideal
king in his mind.
Grice’s Maxims
In order to explain the processes underlying implication,
Grice (1975) developed the following maxims:
Quality: speaker tells the truth or provable by adequate
Quantity: speaker is as informative as required;
Relation: response is relevant to topic of discussion;
Manner: speaker avoids ambiguity or obscurity, is direct
and straightforward.
These maxims do not prescribe how one should talk, but ex-
plain the listeners’ assumptions regarding the way speakers do
talk. Bach (2005) believes that Grice introduced these maxims
as instructions for successful communication. He thinks that
they are better understood as presumptions about utterances,
presumptions that listeners count on and speakers use.
Davies (2008) says that when the surface meaning of an ut-
terance does not follow the Gricean maxims (but the circum-
stances show that the speaker is complying with the Coopera-
tive Principle) we should go beyond the surface to find the
implied meaning of the utterance.
Grice points out examples of implicatures or three categories
of cases in which a maxim is flouted, clashed or violated. In the
first case, the speaker cannot accomplish the maxim due to
certain effect. In a clash of maxims, the speaker is not able to
complete the maxim in order to respect the listeners, and in the
last case, there is hidden non-cooperation and the speaker can
be misled (Grice, 1989: p. 30). In all of these cases, Grice be-
lieves that the audience assumes the speaker is cooperating,
following and respecting the maxims.
Some authors have questioned Grice’s conversational max-
ims. For example, Horn (1984) identified only three maxims,
and Sperber and Wilson (1986) ignored the structure of maxims
and focused on the notion of relevance.
Logic and Conversation
Grice (1975) is interested in the concept of logic and the re-
lationship between conversation and logic. He considers logic a
basic philosophical tool, but claims that the formal devices that
indicate the logical functions of and, or, and so forth, have dif-
ferent meaning from their natural language equivalents. Then,
he summarizes the formalists and non-formalists positions re-
garding this issue as follows. Formalists believe that the addi-
tional meanings within natural language are flaws of that sys-
tem, and we should make an ideal language, including the for-
mal devices, and clear and explicit sentences without any meta-
physical implications. By contrast, the non-formalists state that
failing to grasp the meaning of words lacking logical equiva-
lence should not be regarded as a problem in the system: lan-
guage plays other functions rather than serving science.
Grice argues that the formalists cannot explain the logic of
conversation. He adds that they acknowledge existence of these
divergences, but claims they are mistakes which stem from an
insufficient attention given to the nature and importance of the
conditions that govern conversation.
To challenge this viewpoint, Grice (1975) tries to prove the
operation of logic in the performance of these aspects of con-
versations. To him, implicatures are used as an instrument to
investigate and signal the philosophical usefulness of implica-
tures, and to indicate that it is possible for us to systematically
explain structures that ignore the understanding of formal logic.
Kinds of Cooperation
Many scholars make distinctions between different kinds of
cooperation in order to limit the scope of Grice’s Cooperative
Principle. For example, Pavlidou (1991: p. 12) differentiate be-
tween formal cooperation and substantial cooperation. In her
words, formal cooperation is just like “cooperation in the
Gricean tradition, i.e. acting according to the conversational
maxims (or against them).” however, substantial cooperation
refers to “sharing common goals among communication part-
ners, goals that go beyond maximal exchange of information.”
This distinction sounds similar to the distinction between lin-
guistic and extra-linguistic goals.
Others used different terminologies to distinguish between a
broader and a narrower notion of cooperation and their associ-
ated goals. Gu (1999) makes a distinction between “communi-
cative and extra-communicative goals”. Thomas (1986) distin-
guishes between the “social goal sharing interpretation of co-
operation” and the arguably meaningless concept of “linguistic
cooperation”. Sarangi and Slembrouck (1992) argue that we
should be cautious when distinguishing between linguistic and
social goal sharing cooperation.
Lumsden (2008) claims that there are two kinds of coopera-
tion: “social” and “linguistic or formal” cooperation. He pro-
vides a narrower definition for the notion of cooperation (lin-
guistic cooperation), and tries to apply Grice’s principle only to
that. But there seems to be a problem with this broader goal,
because when we have cooperation with a broader goal, this
goal sounds to specify relevance in the conversation.
However, the broad strategy can be beneficial in describing
Grice’s Cooperative Principle. Such a distinction is useful and
acceptable, because it represents that when we do not have
extra-linguistic cooperation, we can rely on merely linguistic
cooperation (Lum s de n, 2008).
Critical Challenges to Grice’s Theory
Grice’s Cooperative Principle has played a historically im-
portant role in pragmatics, because this theory separated prag-
matics from linguistics. However, the interpretation of his the-
ory is problematic. There seems to be a misinterpretation be-
tween everyday notion of “cooperation”, and Grice’s technical
Thomas (1998b: p. 176) argues that proponents of Grice’s
theory have neglected to explore the ambiguous term “coopera-
tion” and have not explained how they interpreted and used this
concept in their own works. She adds many authors have criti-
cized Grice’s theory due to misunderstanding about the mis-
leading term “cooperation”. Ladegaard (2008) explains that be-
cause of the ambiguity of and inconsistency within Grice’s own
definition of “cooperation” those adopting this theory often
define this term to suit their own purposes.
Davies (2007) argues that opposing interpretations of the
“cooperation” notion originate fro m the conflict between Gri ce’ s
use of this term with a technical meaning, and the more general
meaning of the word. It is not a term that is repeated in Grice’s
thought, and is not the central force in his analysis of the work-
ings of language. Applying these two interpretations to the
same field creates confusions among linguists. It seems that the
Cooperative Principle deals with a meaning closer to the gen-
eral meaning of “cooperation” (Davies, 2007).
Some researchers claim that Grice’s Cooperative Principle
and its maxims are universal. For example, Green (1996) ar-
gues that rationality and cooperativeness are characteristics
common to all the speakers in the world; therefore, non-coop-
erative conversations should be regarded as cooperative con-
sidering more global themes including listener and speaker (p.
98). Cappella (1995) also mentions that rejecting the coopera-
tive principle as a norm may lead to inefficient and unfinished
interactions. But in fact Grice never explicitly stated that his
theory had universal application; so, it is a wrong assumption
among these scholars.
Thomas (1998a) criticizes Grice’s theory for three misinter-
pretations which are as follows: viewing human nature optimis-
tically, proposing a series of rules for effective conversation
and believing that his suggested maxims would always be taken
into consideration. Thomas (1998a, 1998b) claims that although
Grice’s theory is not satisfactory and suffers from a lot of holes,
nothing better has been found to replace it.
Taillard (2004: p. 247) attacks Grice’s claim that people nor-
mally cooperate and follow the maxims, and mentions that
Copyright © 2013 SciRes.
“Human communication rests on a tension between the goals of
communicators and audiences”. In fact, he believes that we, as
communicators, interact to fulfill our benefit and interest, but it
does not mean that we always tell the truth.
Sarangi and Slembrouck (1992) also criticized the Gricean
claim for the normality of cooperation. They applied a Gricean
pragmatic approach to institutional discourse and suggested that
Grice’s framework should be extended to include societal fac-
tors such as the social position of the communicators. They said,
“If we are to follow the Gricean notion of cooperation, the in-
stitution, in such circumstances, would be expected to adopt, at
least from the client’s point of view the client’s goal as its own,
or act towards negotiating a ‘mutually accepted goal’.”
Thus many researchers have questioned or rejected the uni-
versality as well as the feasibility of Grice’s cooperative princi-
ple. Grice’s theory is too biased towards the notion of coopera-
tion in human conversation. But he cannot answer questions
about what would happen in situations where human beings
prefer employing non-cooperative strategies; or how the coop-
erative principle accounts for miscommunication.
Comments on Grice’s Theory
In his article, Ladegaard (2008) suggests that both the se-
mantic and the pragmatic sides of human interaction as well as
all the linguistic awareness necessary for the perception and
interpretation of meaning in any communicative behavior should
be covered in any theor y of con versational coopera tio n.
He argues that Grice only considers the semantic aspect of an
utterance and then makes it clear based on pragmatics, or ac-
cording to the context which help us to interpret the speaker’s
Gumperz (1982) argues that it is necessary for the speakers
to take into account all the contextual clues which exist in va-
rious discourse types. These include turn-taking strategies, spe-
ech accommodation, and voice alterations. Ladegaard (2008)
also adds that in order to understand the intention of speaker
accurately in an interaction, and interpret the underlying mean-
ing of an utterance, the use of these cues is really essential.
Ladegaard (2008) states that instead of applying the tradi-
tional view to language and communication offered in Prag-
matics, in which human interaction is viewed as naturally defi-
cient and problematic, a broader view should be considered. He
mentions that Grice is extremely biased towards cooperation.
Grice’s assumption is that people communicate logically, and
all of them attempt to be “good” communicators.
However, Ladegaard’s (2008) analysis conflicts with Grice’s
position. He claims “human interaction may be irrational and
illogical, and that resistance and non cooperation may be adop-
ted as the preferred discursive strategy, and that interactants
seem to try their best to be ‘bad’ communicators.”
In his study Ladegaard (2008), considered the two types of
cooperation related to a Gricean theory: “social goal-sharing
and linguistic goal-sharing”. In this analysis, teachers interview
students regarding their future career. The aim is investigating
attitude-behaviour relationships in language.
Ladegaard’s results show that students’ dialogues are non-
cooperative and non-accommodative, and that these are the
preferred discourse strategies used by students. In other words,
in their interviews students, try to miscommunicate rather than
to communicate successfully. Ladegaard’s believes social and
psychological conditions determine people’s intensions as to
whether or not to cooperate in a conversation.
In summary, Grice’s theory is flawed. First, it is too biased
towards cooperation. Grice believes that people aims at com-
municating successfully and effectively and in trying to solve
their problems. Actually, he neglected the fact that there are
times when the purpose is to intentionally miscommunicate.
Second, his theory is fundamentally asocial. We can say that
he follows Chomsky’s idea (1965: p. 4), of positing an “ideal
speaker-listener in a completely homogeneous speech commu-
nity.” Therefore, he fails to explain how people actually com-
municate concerning sophisticated social contexts, for instance
if speakers aim to be accepted in all social settings in which
they find themselves.
Since Grice’s theory does not take the social contexts into
account, and only considers the speaker-listener interaction in
an ideal context, and applies universally (regardless of social
elements such as sex, power relationships, social class, and age)
it has little explanatory power.
Based on the Cooperative Principle, people are naturally di-
rected towards cooperation. In other words, they often want
their interactions to succeed, they want to solve problems and
discuss solutions. But, sometimes the purpose is to fail and
undermine the conversation, and to be sure that one does not
achieve his goal, i.e. to prefer to miscommunicate. As Mey
(2001) claims, in flouting a maxim, people are trying to be
non-cooperative to indicate their resistance, so the effects they
are aiming for should be considered cautiously.
As stated above, Grice is interested in finding the logic of
conversation and how we can explain the gap between saying
and meaning, saying and implicating, conventional and non-
conventional meaning. This logic, in his view, is considered as
a manifestation of rational acts.
His theory is inflexible, because it does not consider the fact
that human communication like his nature is a complicated,
diverse and rich phenomenon. Moreover, it disregards the
situations where the interactants’s goal is to miscommunicate.
As Sarangi and Slemb r o u c h (1992: p. 142) assert:
“A sufficient theory should illustrate how people get the
speakers’ intention by pointing out the social positioning
of the language users and the societal bearings on the
situational context.”
In conclusion, although being based on introspection rather
than data, and does not consider interpersonal factors, Grice’s
work faces major limitations, it is still at the centre of the disci-
plines of pragmatics and the important role it plays in this field
cannot be denied. However we should be careful interpreting
what is meant by “cooperation” in Grice’s CP. His notion is
different from the everyday notion of cooperation. Some au-
thors make this difference clear to readers. To have a fair un-
derstanding of the Grice’ CP, it would be better to study it in
the context of Grice’s works as a whole rather than in isolation.
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tionality. Journal of Pragmatics, 39, 2308-2331.
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. 71
Copyright © 2013 SciRes.
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