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Grice, Herbert Paul (1913–1988)


Herbert Paul Grice was born and educated in England. He taught at St. John's College Oxford until 1968, when he moved to the University of CaliforniaBerkeley. He taught there until his death. He published little until near the end of his life, but had a great influence through students and the wide circulation of unpublished manuscripts. His earliest work dealt with perception, but he subsequently moved to problems in language, ethics, and metaphysics. A concern with reason and rationality is a subtle thread which unites these investigations. His historical idols were Aristotle and Kant.

One early topic was a defense of the causal theory of perception. This defense required separating the scientific or specialist's part of the task of analyzing perception from that of the philosopher. This distinction relies on an underlying notion of analysis closely related to the analyticsynthetic distinction for which Grice and Strawson provided a brief spirited defense. Three subsequent papers represent intricate attempts to define meaning using only common sense psychological concepts such as intention, belief, and desire. If this program is successful it would provide a more elaborate defense of the analytic synthetic distinction.

Grice's best known and most influential contribution is the concept of a conversational implicature. A conversational implicature of an assertion is something that is conveyed to a thoughtful listener by the mode of expression rather than by the meanings of the words. These arise from the fact that conversation is normally governed by principles including cooperation, truthfulness, and informativeness, and that both parties are aware of these. The two best known applications of this concept are to perception and logic. Grice was concerned to provide an account of sense data discourse in terms of how things seemed to the perceiver. A common objection to this is that it is odd to say in a normal case of the perception of a table that it seems to the subject that a table is present. Grice's concept of conversational implicature can be invoked to explain the oddity as a result of the fact that a stronger statement can be made, thus leaving room for the seems statement to be true.

The concept of conversational implication has been widely deployed in linguistics and artificial intelligence as well as in philosophy and is a continuing topic of research and debate. One major focus of discussion is the adequacy of the account when applied to quantitative statements, such as "John has two children." It is controversial whether this statement means that John has exactly two children, or whether it means that John has at least two children. In the latter case, interpreting an assertion of the statement as conveying that John has exactly two children is a matter of conversational implication.

Grice also scouts the possibility of defending the claim that the logician's material conditional is an adequate representation of the indicative conditional of English by explaining the apparent divergence as a matter of conversational implicatures. If one knows the truth values of P and Q then one can make a more informative statement than PQ, so the only conversationally appropriate use of PQ is when the speaker does not know the truth of either component, but only that they are so connected that the truth of P guarantees the truth of Q. The appropriate conversational use of PQ requires a connection that is not part of the truth condition of the compound. The main objection to Grice's approach concedes that his account squares fairly well with the assertion of conditionals, but points out that it does nothing to ameliorate the implausible fact that on the material conditional account, to deny "if P then Q" implies both P and Q.

Part of the definition of a conversational implicature requires that the hearer should be able to reason out the intentions of the speaker and in conjunction with the conversational principles to discern the implicit message. This places an important role on reasoning, especially inasmuch as in typical cases the reasoning is not conscious in the hearer.

Grice devotes considerable energy to investigating rationality, reasoning, and reasons. Grice emphasizes that reasoning is typically directed to the goal of producing reasons relevant to some end in view. This intentional activity involves the ability to make reason-preserving transitions. Grice defines "reason preserving" analogous to the concept of "truth preserving" in deductive logic. A transition is reason-preserving just in case, for if one has reasons for the initial set of thoughts, beliefs, actions or intentions, then one does for the subsequent set as well.

Grice uses this general account of reasoning to investigate moral reasoning and moral reasons. He emphasizes the connections between reasons, actions, and freedom. Strong rational evaluationwhich Grice sees as essential to freedominvolves the rational evaluation and selection of ends, including ultimate ends.

How do people choose ultimate ends? Grice answers that people should choose ends that have unrelativized value. Grice grants that the concept of unrelativized value requires defense. Typically, things have value only relative to ends and beneficiaries. A concern for the focus of relativization gives the value-concept a bite on a person; it ensures that the value-concept carries weight for that person. So how are people to understand unrelativized value?

Grice turns to final causation for a special kind of value. A tiger is a good tiger to the degree that it realizes the final end of tigers. Grice defines a good person as one who has, as part of their essential nature, an autonomous finality consisting in the exercise of rationality. Grice's philosophical psychology supports this conception of persons as end-setters. Freedom intimately involves the ability to adopt and eliminate ends. One does not (ideally) arbitrarily select and conform to ends; one does so for reasons. This makes being an end-setter an instance of unrelativized value; for to take a consideration as an ultimate justification of action is to see it as having value. Grice defines unrelativized value "in Aristotelian style [as] whatever would seem to possess such value in the eyes of a duly accredited judge; and a duly accredited judge might be identifiable as a good person operating in conditions of freedom." (Aspects of Reason 2001, p. 119) Of course, we are still talking about what is of value for and to persons. But the point was not to avoid this relativization ; the point was to avoid relativization to this or that kind of person.

See also Aristotle; Conditionals; Kant, Immanuel; Perception; Rationality; Reason.


works by grice

The Conception of Value. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991. A posthumous publication of the John Locke Lectures, delivered 1979.

Studies in the Way of Words. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989. A collection including most of the important works published during his lifetime.

Aspects of Reason, edited by Richard Warner. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001. A posthumously published book exploring the nature of reasons and reasoning.

Grice, H. P., and P. F. Strawson. "In Defense of a Dogma." Philosophical Review Vol. 65 (1956) 14158. A defense of the analytic-synthetic distinction, widely reprinted and discussed.

works about grice

Avramides, Anita. Meaning and Mind: An Examination of a Gricean Account of Language. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1989.

Cosenza, Giovanna, ed. Paul Grice's Heritage. Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols, 2001.

Davis, Wayne A. Implicature: Intention, Convention, and Principle in the Failure of Gricean Theory. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Grandy, Richard E., and Richard Warner. Philosophical Grounds of Rationality: Intentions, Categories, Ends. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986. A festschrift celebrating Grice's work, with a lengthy editorial introduction and a response by Grice.

Richard E. Grandy (1996, 2005)

Richard Warner (1996, 2005)

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