Communication partners don’t always attempt to cooperate.  Often, the whole intention of their communication is to deceive.

The work of an important language philosopher has just gained relevance after recent events – a statement that admittedly can’t often be made.  Although this is an excellent example of how philosophy can actually help us better understand the world, evidently either philosophers are dropping the ball in getting this word out, or no one has been passing along their attempts.  Anyway, it all has to do with this sudden “post fact” world we’ve suddenly found ourselves in.  And how there have been so many distortions of the truth lately it’s blurred everyone’s ability to discern truth.  And what exactly even is a lie?

With his work, generally developed from the 1940s to 1960s, the English philosopher, Paul Grice rocked the world of academics with his theories on meaning and ordinary language.  The previous sentence is actually an example of Grice’s implicature.  I didn’t state it, but by adding the words, “of academics” to the phrase “rocked the world,” I implied something beyond the sentence’s literal meaning.  By flouting the maxim of quantity, which basically says that if a person is adding more to a statement than seems necessary, he is probably doing so for a reason.  This reason is the unsaid implicature of the statement.  (My implicature was that only the academic world noticed).

In addition to quantity, Grice also created the maxims of relevance, quality, and manner.  If, when speaking, someone uses language that seems irrelevant, or of false quality, or strangely ambiguous, there must be an alternative reason why.  Another example is of a previous boss being asked about a job applicant’s previous work flouting the maxim of relevance when claiming the former employee to have “perfect handwriting.”  The inference would be that the job applicant is not qualified, since the previous boss failed to follow the maxim of relevance.

The key part in all of this is Grice’s idea of the cooperative principle – the idea that people cooperate when they converse, and if they don’t appear to be doing so we infer, often unconsciously, that there must be a reason why.  Grice thought that the reason for these noncooperations was that there was something extra-linguistic that we must be attempting to communicate.  But Grice missed something big.  Something that can help us all understand exactly what is going on when people lie.

Communication partners don’t always attempt to cooperate.  Often, the whole intention of their communication is to deceive.

Though he didn’t intend to discuss liars, and how to determine what exactly a lie is, a major part of his work can help us in our attempts to do these things.  It has to do with matching a message’s substance with the critical component of intent.  A lie is not only when somebody says something that’s not true.  And not every time that somebody says something that’s not true is it a lie.  People make mistakes, and when these mistakes aren’t meant to deceive they are not lies.  If Joe tells his girlfriend that he gave her a gift on their first anniversary, and his girlfriend pulls out a diary entry that states otherwise, to which he answers, “Oh, I must have been thinking about my previous girlfriend,” he probably just made a mistake.  A big mistake – but not a lie.

Instead, a lie is when someone passes along something he knows to be false.  (It could be argued that passing along something someone wants to be true without verifying it, such as what happens on Facebook so often, is a form of dishonesty, but it would be an argument with more counterarguments than I want to get into at this time.)  A lie would be when Joe vividly remembers not giving a gift, because he forgot, and now he’s just trying to pass along false information in the hopes that in believing him, his girlfriend will not get mad.

Grice’s implicatures can help us hone our personal lie detector systems.  Maybe the girlfriend remembered some sort of gift, but if Joe nervously adds more information than he’d probably actually remember (violating the maxim of quantity), or changes the subject (relevance), or gets unusually emotional (manner), or adds in something else false, such as the gift of a beautiful card that she knows she didn’t get (quality), her possible lie warning system should start going off, and she should start asking more questions.

There’s one additional and related point that hasn’t seemed to have been addressed at all.  It’s trust.  Any lie erodes trust.  We teach this to our kids and then forget it when it comes to politicians and the media.  A lie proves that a source is capable of further lies.  A lie in the absence of a sincere apology followed by a series of subsequent truths means that not only is a source capable of further dishonesty – that dishonesty is almost assured.