More on "telling the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth"

Nov 9, 2011 by

[thanks to Olga Kagan, Martin W. Lewis and Vitaliy Rayz for helpful discussions of various issues covered in this post]

In a series of earlier posts, I discussed the issue of “telling the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth”. As was pointed out in the earlier post, it is an important design feature of human language that it allows us to lie, or at least to conceal the truth. Moreover, it allows us to “read between the lines”, recognizing implicatures based on what is not said explicitly. How exactly we do it has been explored by H. Paul Grice, who described the four maxims we observe in conducting a conversation: the Maxim of Relevance, of Quality, of Quantity and of Manner. The Maxim of Quality, which states that one should not say what one believes to be false or that for which one lacks adequate evidence, is discussed here. Let’s now turn to two additional maxims: the Maxim of Relevance and that of Quantity.

The Maxim of Relevance requires that the speaker says something that is relevant to the conversation. We often violate (or “flout”) this maxim in order to create an implicature that we expect our interlocutor (hearer or reader) to “read between the lines”. Consider the following dialogue:

A: Where is Bill?
B: There’s a yellow VW outside Sue’s house.

On the face of it, speaker B apparently fails to be cooperative by flouting the Maxim of Relevance. But we would normally interpret B’s remark as nonetheless co-operative. We do this by asking ourselves what possible connection can there be between the location of Bill and the location of a yellow VW, and thus arrive at the conclusion — which speaker B effectively if implicitly conveys — that if Bill has a yellow VW, he may be in Sue’s house. (There may be other inferences that speaker B nudges speaker A to draw, such as that Bill is having a secret affair with Sue, but I won’t get into this here.)

The Maxim of Quantity requires that the contribution one makes to the conversation be as informative as possible. For example, this maxim is at work in the following exchange:

A: What did Harry do this weekend?
B: He bought a pet.

Now, if speaker B knows that Harry bought not just any pet but specifically a cat, his response flouts the Maxim of Quantity by being under-informative (especially if speaker A is a cat-allergy sufferer and plans a visit to Harry’s house!).

Or consider the following dialogue:

Parent: Did you finish your homework?
Child: I finished my algebra.
Parent: Well, get busy and finish your English, too!

By referring to algebra rather than the homework in general, the child implies that the homework on other subjects has not yet been completed.

It is important to note here that conversational implicatures such as the ones discussed here are cancellable (or “defeatable”). For example, the child’s response above can be I finished my algebra. In fact, I’ve done all my homework. Similarly, if I say Bill ate most of the pie, I imply that Bill didn’t eat all of the pie. However, this implicature can be defeated, as in Bill ate most of the pie; in fact, he ate all of it. In this, conversational implicatures are crucially different from logical entailments, which cannot be cancelled; hence, the following is logically impossible (which is indicated by #): # John is a man. In fact, John is not human.

To go back to the Maxim of Quantity, my favorite example of flouting it is this: imagine a situation where a husband and a wife are at home; the phone rings and the husband picks up and has a brief conversation. The wife asks who phoned and the husband responds: “Some woman”. But actually it was his mistress, and not just some random woman on the phone. Is the husband lying? Technically no, as he does not provide an answer that’s false: the mistress is a woman after all. Nonetheless, he does not tell the whole truth either, wouldn’t you agree?

Note that in many cases of such under-informative statements, the speaker uses a noun phrase describing a superset Y rather than a subset X (to use terms from the set theory). (Another way of describing it in terms of hyponymy: the speaker uses the superordinate term Y rather than the hyponym X.) For example, the set of cats X is a subset of the set of pets Y; of the set of mistresses X is the subset of the set of women Y.

And these are not purely theoretical examples: we nudge our interlocutors — and are ourselves thus nudged by others — to draw certain conversational implicatures all the time.

Case in point: a sentence in a recent article in The Economist:

“religious Jews recently torched a mosque in Tuba”

This sentence is cleverly crafted in that — without being logically false — it is an example of lying by nudging the reader to make inferences that are false. This is done by violating both the Maxim of Quantity and the Maxim of Relevance. In terms of the Maxim of Quantity, the writer of this article provides a statement that is under-informative (like the above examples with cat/pet or mistress/woman) by making reference to a superset rather than a subset: religious Jews are the superset Y of which a small subset of extremist terrorists X perpetrate the “price-tag attacks” (which I strongly condemn!). In terms of logical truth, the author could as well say that heterosexual men or simply humans did it: such statements would be just as logically true (and flawless in that sense), but also just as under-informative. Thus, using the description “religious Jews” (rather than e.g. a small group of extremist religious Jews) makes it appear as if that is the right level in the subset-superset hierarchy; in other words, that it is the generic property of “religious Jews” that they get involved in such terrorist activities.

But this sentence also flouts the Maxim of Relevance thus forcing the reader to conclude that being a religious Jew is somehow relevant. But this too is simply incorrect: the ideology behind these horrible attacks is political rather than religious (e.g. the same groups injure members of the Israeli police and the Israeli Defense Forces, and deface the homes of Jewish left-wing activists). Moreover, despite some suggestions in the media to the contrary, nothing in the Jewish Law, the Halakha, justifies these acts; quite the opposite, they are in violation of the Jewish law. So unsurprisingly, the overwhelming majority of Israelies (including settlers, their leadership and various rabbis) condemn these attacks.

So, to paraphrase Benjamin Disraeli*, “there are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statements in The Economist.”

*There are some doubts as to whether Benjamin Disraeli was actually the person who coined this phrase.

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