Conversation and Norms
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Conversing is an activity involving two or more people that consists of a number of component acts.1 These acts, minimally described, are linguistic acts, acts of uttering sentences or semi sentences. There is some dispute about how these acts should be described over and above describing them as utterance acts.2 For the moment I shall call them speech acts. By using this term I do not want to be thought to be committed to any particular view about speech acts, but at this point only that the level of description necessary for giving an adequate account of conversing and other talk exchanges is over and above describing the subacts of these activities as utterance acts. Let us assume that we have a settled idea about what constitutes a speech act. Clearly, a series of speech acts by different speakers is not sufficient to constitute a conversation. If I say something and then Alice says something, but her saying what she says is not linked in the appropriate way to what I have said, she and I would not be said to be having a conversation.3 Contrast this case with one in which I ask Alice what time it is and in answer to my question she tells me what she believes the time to be. In this example we would have a linked talk exchange in which two speech acts have been performed, my asking Alice a question and her answering me. The first speech act is linked to the second in that Alice’s response4 is in answer to my question.5 H.P. Grice has played a leading role in characterizing conversation and thus the difference between these two exchanges. Grice’s views are complicated by the fact that they have changed over time in light of criticisms offered to his theory. I shall take as my starting point the view of conversation that he offers in “Logic and Conversation,” a section of his book, Studies in the Way of Words. Where appropriate, I shall supplement it by his emendations in, “Retrospective Epilogue.” My main concern is not to give an exegesis of Grice’s theory, but to use it as a way of approaching questions relating to normativity and the use of language.
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